Saturday, 25 November 2017

Film Review - Battle of the Sexes (12A)

Times change. You know that. You've just changed them.
I was not quite six when the so-called 'Battle of the Sexes' took place. That's the tennis match between ex-World Number One Bobby Riggs and rising star Billie Jean King, which acted as a bizarre test-case for how female athletes should be regarded and paid. This carnival show-tournament, initiated by Riggs, cut to the heart of US gender politics - the wider 'battle' between 1970s women's libbers and chauvinistic male attitudes. Already the subject of a 2015 documentary, the King-Riggs showdown has now been dramatised, with Emma Stone and Steve Carell squaring up to each other on court and off.
Stone and Carell are a proven pairing, having shared screen time in Stupid Crazy Love, and here they both shine. The La La Land Oscar winner plays Billie Jean at a point when she's leading America's female tennis players in revolt against the US Lawn Tennis Association over a vast gender pay-gap. She's also wrestling with her own sexuality and the potential unravelling of her marriage. All in all a stressful time.
Carell's ex-champ Riggs has issues of his own. A gambling addict whose habit is effectively funded by his wife, he offers $100,000 prize money to any female tennis player who will take him on, branding himself a 'male chauvinist pig' who can beat any of them. It's a lure that King cannot resist.
Sticking closely to these remarkable real-life events, Battle of the Sexes has a grainy documentary feel at times. Even its tennis sequences are shot like '70s sports footage. The directorial team who brought us Little Miss Sunshine (and God bless them for doing so), linger on the character moments with the deliberately easy pace of a movie from that era. Meanwhile the screenplay by Simon Beaufoy (The Full Monty, Slumdog Millionaire) refuses to paint characters simply, aside perhaps from Bill Pullman's commentator and boys-club reactionary Jack Kramer.
The result is an absorbing drama, where we spend equal time with equally appealing leads. Stone is authentic as ever - vulnerable but determined, with a canny sense of humour when dealing with the patronising media. Carell meanwhile makes Riggs hilarious - a consummate hustler and showman, whose sexist credentials ('I'm going to put the 'show' back in chauvinism') are maybe more comedic bluster than heartfelt ideology. The bantering between him and King for the cameras is pure pantomime, in keeping with the 'Battle of the Sexes' circus.

The match itself, though, is in dead earnest.
This film never loses its sense of the stakes - for King, for women's sports or for equality in general. Stone plays the weight of expectation perfectly, while we're constantly reminded of all those old-boys willing her to fail. Her burgeoning relationship with a young hairdresser (Andrea Riseborough, commendably unrecognisable from The Death of Stalin) only increases the pressure, however tenderly those moments are portrayed. 
Battle of the Sexes captures a significant moment in gender politics with humour and power. As with the best retelling of true stories, it invests set-in-stone events with genuine tension. You'll be entertained by Bobby's ludicrous antics, but it's Billie Jean you'll be rooting for.
Gut Reaction: Engrossed throughout. Carell made me laugh, Stone moved me. And the final confrontation really gripped.

Ed's Verdict: A solidly-made, splendidly-acted reminder - those male dinosaurs may still be clinging on, but forty-four years ago they'd already met their match. It's time we all accepted the fact.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Film Review - Justice League (12A)

Don't engage alone. We'll do this together.
I made it to see Justice League a few days after its international release, by which time numerous critics had pummeled it and DC Comics fans had counterpunched in its defence. This, it seemed, was a film playing gratuitously to its base, while alienating everyone else. A Donald Trump of a film, if you will. Well I devoted two hours of my life to it... and it turns out I lean more to the fans than the critics. Call me the glass-half-full reviewer.
Justice League follows on directly from Batman Versus Superman (another DC adaptation that got beaten like a bat-shaped pinata by critics). It also follows up on Wonder Woman from earlier this year, Gal Gadot reprising her role as the arse-kicking Amazon. As the film begins, Earth has lost its mightiest protector and with it all hope. Gotham's own caped crusader (Ben Affleck all scowl and cowl as Batman) feels compelled to round up a team in order to combat a huge new global threat, enlisting Diana Prince/Wonder Woman to help him. The recruits they have in mind are a a DC fanboy dream - The Flash (he's fast), Aquaman (he may or may not be able to talk to fish) and Cyborg (half-human, half high-tech machine). Together they will inevitably form the Justice League.
Something to bear in mind here. Warner Brothers gave the film-makers the brief of making a two-hour film, during which limited time they had to set up one villain, three new heroes and still have time to tell a story. Considering that, it's a small miracle that the movie succeeds in being entertaining at all. 
Because entertain it certainly does, playing to its strengths from the start (though not always sticking to them). The urban locations are stern and imposing, the sense of doom tangible. Gal Gadot, who owned the Wonder Woman title role, capitalises here. Hair flailing in slo-mo, she combines grace and ferocity with every stunning move she makes. And that's before the team has come together. 
If Affleck is a tad grim as Bruce Wayne, the mood is lifted by the newcomers. Jason Mamoa (Game of Thrones' still-lamented Khal Drogo) has a gruff charisma as reluctant league-member Aquaman, while Ezra Miller comes close to stealing the whole show as the Flash. Consigned to the dark side in films like Fantastic Beasts and We Need to Talk about Kevin, here he is all geeky enthusiasm and tentative heroics, deftly delivering most of the movie's funniest lines. (Was it just me, or was he channelling Flash-fan Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang Theory?) His bond with Ray Fisher's Cyborg as the two 'mistakes' of the group is touching, even if both back-stories are no more than sketched due to time constraints. 
And the twist - the one for which DC fans will no doubt have been salivating in anticipation, but that I won't of course spoil - is dealt with in one particularly satisfying sequence.

Yes there are super-flaws to address. When the villain shows up he's a big ranting CGI creation, all noise and no personality; he and his cohorts are solely there so the League will have someone to fight. His masterplan is pseudo-mythic nonsense, explained in dafter-than-usual chunks of exposition. And some of the big effects sequences have an uncomfortable video-game feel to them, at odds with the enjoyably solid feel of our heroes' interactions. 
For ultimately it's the group dynamic that sells this. The Justice League members knit quickly, providing all the wit and verve absent from past DC titles. (Get a sense of humour, Man of Steel!) These characters are a likeable combo, who at their best rival Marvel's Avengers for a sense of fun. Their most heroic feat of all is to overcome the film's ropier aspects to provide an enjoyable night out.
Gut Reaction: Fun, quite a few laughs and a surprising degree of investment in this League.

Ed's Verdict: Worth it for the poise and punch of Wonder Woman alone, this is much better than most critics would have you believe. And give the Flash a movie of his own.

Saturday, 18 November 2017

Film Review - A Bad Moms Christmas (15)

You're a mom. Moms don't enjoy. They give joy.
I'm at a disadvantage on this one, as I didn't see Bad Moms. I got the gist from the trailer though - three modern young mums/moms bonded over the fact that they were perceived as inadequate parents by the fascistic supermoms at their local PTA group. They duly misbehaved, asserting that they weren't solely defined by the fact that they'd given birth. They're not bad moms really, you see, just harassed parents in need of some steam-venting. The critical consensus seems to be that the film was more fun than you might have expected, with spirited performances from the leads. 
A Bad Moms Christmas is a festive rehash in the style of National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation, only without Chevy Chase and the Griswolds to enliven it. As such my expectations for it were low, which is probably the reason I enjoyed it as much as I did. Yes its basic existence could be dismissed as cynically commercial and it's substantially more sugar-coated than say BBC2's edgy parental sitcom Motherland, but there's cheerfully low-grade fun to be had here nonetheless.
Much of this is probably due to the fact that the writers (the guys who gave us the original plus three Hangovers) find a way to avoid a straight retread-plus-tinsel. Yes it's still Mila Kunis, Kristen Bell and Kathryn Hahn at the centre as our three occasionally errant moms (the regular one, the ditzy one and the raunchy life-of-the-party respectively). For this Yuletide outing, however, the girls are joined by their own mothers, each of whom threatens in her own way to dampen the festivities and turn the already problem-fraught Christmas season into hell. Kunis' mom is overbearing and judgmental, Bell's insufferably clingy and Hahn's a good-time flake who's likely to break her daughter's heart for the umpteenth time. Meet the Bad Moms' bad moms.
If this all sounds massively contrived, of course it is, and pretty shmaltzy to boot. But the older generation of women grab the comedy material along with their 30-something counterparts and damn well shake it until the laughs come out. And what gals they are.
Christine Baranski is probably my favourite, playing a variant on the monster she created in The Big Bang Theory. She rocks her appalling character, letting slip glimmers of the vulnerability beneath and winning over the audience with sheer comic bravura. Cheryl Hines (Larry David's longsuffering wife in Curb Your Enthusiasm) demonstrates similar comedy chops, making the insufferably needy mom funny rather than unbearable. And Susan Sarandon - well she continues her life's work of redefining 'sassy', embracing the grandmom-behaving-badly role with open loving arms. 
With the men sidelined to eye-candy duties (Peter Gallagher shows up as a lovably cardigan-ed grandad!), this proves a fine comedy ensemble of women; the younger crew portray the warm, sanity-rescuing friendship that presumably made the first film a hit and the more mature crowd gamely matches them. While this don't reach the heights of the magnificently funny Bridesmaids, I did find it a much more enjoyable ride than this year's Girls Trip, the mawkish elements never being allowed to take over and the cruder moments genuinely delivering. 

I said it regarding Happy Death Day and I'll restate it here - low expectations can really prove your friend. This isn't great cinema by a stretch (and necking about a litre of mulled wine pre-viewing would no doubt enhance the experience), but these two generations of bad moms are undeniably good company.
Gut Reaction: I laughed, and then I laughed again, and quite remarkably I laughed some more. And never once did I wish it would end.

Ed's Verdict: Yes it's a big old Christmas cash-grab. Yes it's as predictable as it is implausible. But the gals sell the comedy like the pros they are, making this a surprisingly fun evening out. 

Friday, 17 November 2017

Film Review - Murder on the Orient Express (12A)

And you are innocent?
There's a reason why Murder on the Orient Express is such a perennial Agatha Christie favourite. The train, with its trans-continental trek between Istanbul and Paris, offers a unique combination of glamour and claustrophobia that pretty much demands an accompanying murder mystery to be solved. Way too exotic a mode of transport for Miss Marple, it naturally falls to the cultured and well-travelled Hercule Poirot to carry out on-board investigations when one of the passengers shows up dead in their compartment.
Kenneth Branagh brings Poirot to the screen this time, both taking the helm and waxing up an insanely huge moustache so he can play the brilliant Belgian detective himself. With a screenplay full of wit and playfulness by Michael Green (Logan, Blade Runner 2049) he does a creditable job too, including an unexpected opening sequence that introduces us to Poirot and his eccentricities in a whole new way. 
This is a bigger version of the story than we've seen before, with 1930s Middle Eastern cityscapes giving way to CGI Alpine vistas. It all offsets the confined dimensions of the train, though even inside the camera does lots of intricate work to open up the drama. The Orient Express is decked out almost obscenely in Art Deco luxury, a perfect backdrop for the starry ensemble Branagh has pulled together to play the suspects. Because this is truly a big festive chocolate-box of a movie, with Michelle Pfeiffer and Judi Dench and Johnny Depp, and look - there's your woman from the new Star Wars in period costume! What a gang...
But truth be told this is Poirot's show and Branagh has a ball in the part. Albert Finney will always be my favourite big-screen version of the detective, but Belfast's Shakespearian son does a more than creditable job. He pitches his efforts somewhere between Peter Ustinov's grand-standing and David Suchet's more cerebral TV performance, but makes the role his own. This Poirot is more than a touch obsessive, by his own admission unable to ignore life's imperfections - least of all the moral ones. His flamboyance is anchored by a driving need to see justice done. Psychologically it makes total sense.
If the film has a fault it's that the focus on spectacle and 'tec leaves insufficient room for everyone else. Yes each of our suspects gets their moment (Josh Gad and Derek Jacobi were the genuine star turns for me), but there's simply not enough time given to developing their characters and therefore investing us in their lives. The denouement is one of Christie's most ingenious and delivers a certain dramatic satisfaction, but it might have been more powerful had we hung out for longer with the key players. 
Nonetheless this adaptation is a treat - glossy and snowbound with one or two neat extra touches to magnify the tension. It's an old-fashioned story told with 21st century flair, tailor-made to help audiences through the grimness of November. And that moustache is an architectural miracle.
Gut Reaction: Entertained throughout, if somewhat frustrated that I wasn't getting the know all the passengers better.

Ed's Verdict: A worthwhile trip (interrupted), with a memorable central turn from Branagh - one that tends to eclipse almost everyone else!

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Film Review - Paddington 2 (U)

This is perfect.
Remember that feeling you had going into Toy Story 2, hoping that it wouldn't spoil what you loved about the original, and then discovering that it was significantly better? Well, welcome to the Paddington sequel. Because this film's achievement is making the first movie, for all its wit and charm, seem like a mere prologue to the main event. 
I'm of a generation that grew up with both the Michael Bond Paddington novels and the beloved BBC animated series narrated by Michael Horden. The 2014 Paddington film successfully married the episodic nature of those stories (good-natured but accident-prone bear gets into multiple hilarious scrapes) with a feature-length story arc, while losing none of what made book-readers love the characters to begin with. Paddington 2 achieves the same, plus it builds on every aspect that made the first film so enjoyable.
The plot this time around concerns Paddington's search for a birthday present to send to his Aunt Lucy back in his native Peru. An antique pop-up book of London seems the perfect gift, but it's out of our bear's price range, so he sets out to earn it through various kinds of employment - the types that result in beautifully choreographed comic disaster. Paddington has competition for the book as well, from a villainous washed-up actor called Phoenix Buchanan (Hugh Grant). When their paths collide, the shenanigans get real.
What to say? Where to start? I think it's with the screenplay - a marvel of ingenuity, where every scrap of detail plays a part further down the line and a broad cast of characters is utilised splendidly. The storytelling is as intricate as the miraculous pop-up book itself, which leads me right to the...
Artwork. This is without a doubt one of the most breathtakingly beautiful films of the year. Every frame is saturated with colour in a way that brings London to vivid life, so that you fall in love with the city (all over again or for the first time, depending on your standpoint). Steam fairgrounds, suburban streets and national monuments are all recreated in gorgeous detail. It's set-dressing that gets noticed. And the film does more than just pine over London's iconic past. It presents the city as...
A modern, multi-cultural wonderland, where community and diversity exist together and Peter Capaldi's narrow-minded curmudgeon (Mr Curry from the novels) is dismissed as a laughing-stock. A city that at its best is forward-looking and welcoming, not least to a big-hearted immigrant bear from South America. Which takes me on to...
Paddington himself, a CGI character who merges seamlessly with the heightened real-world setting. Unwittingly funny and irresistible in his warmth and pathos, he's a marmalade-fixated source of joy, voiced once again to perfection by Ben Whishaw. Paddington is generous to a fault, yet has an unimpeachable sense of right and wrong and a weaponised 'hard stare'. And he's not a one-bear band either. The film's hairy protagonist is backed up by...
An absurdly talented supporting cast. Led by Hugh Bonnevill and Sally Hawkins, the Browns (Paddington's adoptive family) are tighter-knit and even funnier than before. They're surrounded this time by a vibrant and expanding community of characters too damn numerous to name. But two earn a special mention. Brendan Gleeson brings his own (grizzly) bear-like presence as thug-with-a-heart Knuckles McGinty, while - well - what can be said about...
Hugh Grant? His multi-faceted turn as the film's bad-guy is just possibly the highlight of his career. I mean, I loved him in Florence Foster Jenkins, but with this performance seeing is believing. Part self-parody, part unique creation, he turns the preening Buchanan into one of the great comedy-villains of cinema. And it doesn't hurt that everything going on around him is equally inventive and hilarious. Which I think covers it all, aside from...
The exquisite comic timing, the slapstick, the precision-framing of scene after scene, the sheer creative beauty of the whole thing... Hey, the undiluted sense of joy.

I may have seen better films this year. (I may not.) But I haven't seen one that's made me feel that good about being alive.
Gut Reaction: Laughter and happy-sadness and genuine awe.

Ed's Verdict: A work of exquisite comedy, artistic brilliance and sheer wonder. And it's all about a talking bear in a squashy hat. Don't believe me? Remedy the situation immediately.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Film Review - The Death of Stalin (15)

Nobody's going to get killed, I promise you.
Anyone expecting The Death of Stalin to be a sombre history lesson should revise their expectations right away. Written and directed by Armando Ianucci (creator of TV political satires The Thick of It and Veep), this story of the Russian dictator's final day and its turbulent aftermath is first and last a farcical comedy, albeit a very dark one. It's also a reminder that power, regardless of time and place, corrupts in the same insidious fashion.
The year is 1953, and Josef Stalin's brutally violent reign is about to reach an abrupt conclusion. His closest political allies are a bunch of cronies and suck-ups, laughing uproariously at his jokes and competing to see who can achieve the highest hit-rate with their own. When mortality catches up with the mustachioed Russian Premier, these comrades' response is less than dignified - a barely-concealed scramble for control of the Party and the country itself. The arrival of Stalin's daughter and son in Moscow only complicates their efforts to manoeuvre into position for seizing power.
Ianucci's film is shot as beautifully as any period drama, but a number of shrewd moves make it instantly accessible. There's not a Russian inflection to be heard, every outrageous line being delivered in an entertaining variety of English and American accents. The dialogue is vintage Ianucci too, as pithy and scabrous as anything he wrote for his various hit TV series. The comedy here is both in the deliciously vivid language and in the characters' willingness to sacrifice all dignity in pursuit of their political goals. This may be Fifties Russia and the protagonists steeped in blood from their association with Stalin, but their bickering conversations and petty actions aren't that far from The Thick of It's Westminster crowd. 
The cast is magnificent across the board. Steve Buscemi is fevered and funny as Nikita Kruschev and Jeffrey Tambor comically ineffectual as Acting Premier Malenkov. Stalin's children, played by Andrea Riseborough and Rupert Friend, are a spite-drenched daddy's girl and a boozy loose cannon respectively. And Jason Isaacs is nothing less than hilarious as war hero General Zhukov, a puffed-up man's man, and possibly the key to power. It's also a joy to see Michael Palin back on screen as bumbling and morally compromised yes-man Molotov.
The stand-out, however, is Simon Russell Beale as the loathsome head of Stalin's secret police, Lavrentiy Beria. Fiercely intelligent and dryly humorous, he's also the most openly monstrous of the nasty bunch. Whether casually handing out death warrants or spitting venom on being challenged, Beale owns every scene - a compelling portrait of a deeply unpleasant human being with no brakes on what he will do to achieve power.
Perhaps the movie's greatest achievement is to be genuinely, consistently funny, while never flinching from the climate of murder and fear that Stalin has created. The cowardice, pettiness and raw ambition of those in his administration are lampooned without mercy, and the result is very possibly the best comedy of the year.
Gut Reaction: Total fascination and and regular laughter of the out-loud variety.

Ed's Verdict: A smart and timely reminder of what happens when the morally weak suck up to power, delivered with comic genius.