Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Film Review - Downsizing (15)

Something very big is happening.
Downsizing is suffering from what might be called the Mother! effect. It's nothing like that crazy film in content, but both have marketing campaigns that lead audiences to expect one type of experience, before delivering something radically different. On first glance Downsizing looks like a high-concept science-fiction comedy - The Incredible Shrinking Man done as a suburban sitcom. But this is written and directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways, The Descendants), and gets into some heavy existential wrangles before the story is done. It's much more than a Friday night diversion.
Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig play Paul and Audrey Safranek, a financially struggling couple who consider a medical procedure of literal downsizing. A Scandinavian scientist has perfected human cellular reduction, whereby anyone can be shrunk to a size of around five inches in height. 'Small' communities are being encouraged globally, since tiny people produce a fraction of the waste produce, thus helping salvage the environment. But it's also sold as a shrewd financial move, modest savings stretching much further when you start life in a model-sized town. So Paul and Audrey agree to take the plunge, securing themselves a place within a plush downsized community called Leisureland. The consequences are instant and extraordinary. 
Downsizing is a story told in distinct acts, each one moving somewhere utterly unexpected. There's the journey into the miniaturised world, the adapting to the norms of this apparent Utopia and then a whole other journey of discovery (one that puts the 'odd' into odyssey). The opening sections have all the quirky visual humour and sharp wit you'd expect from a Payne movie; the actual downsizing sequence is a comically surreal tour de force, accompanied by Rolfe Kent's beautifully-judged score. (Overall the music is as tonally varied as the movie.) Leisureland is cleverly realised in its feel and texture, so that it looks miniature even when there's nothing big in the frame to remind you of its scale.
Payne's sense of the satirical is in place from early on and only sharpens as the plot unfolds and the small communities' utopian ideals are put - as it were - under the microscope. The broad comedy of the big/little premise gradually gives way to something much more weighty, as the movie strives to support some ironically huge ideas. It's here that you'll either be captivated as a viewer, or do as several audience members did at Chatham Odeon and hit the exit.
Damon is a great everyman, one who you truly root for if you stick around, and Wiig is nicely understated, but in truth the most surprising performances come from elsewhere. Christoph Waltz plays a louche and connected neighbour in the downsized community to great comic effect, while Thai actress Hong Chau (TV's Big Little Lies) is a big-screen revelation as a house cleaner with a turbulent past. Both help steer the drama in those unpredictable, arguably frustrating directions. 
Downsizing is a film with ambitions as grand as its central characters are miniature. What begins as an off-kilter comedy, with a concept that's gleefully bananas, turns into something with real gravity, raising issues of environmental responsibility and how we struggle to create meaning in our lives. It also proves that in terms of human behaviour, whether good and bad, size simply doesn't matter.  
Gut Reaction: Regular chuckling for the first two thirds, then growing fascination in the final one. It didn't occur to me until the end that those guys had walked out!

Where Are the Women?: Wiig is good, but Hong Chau is the movie's surprising emotional core. (She didn't get a Best Supporting Actress Nom for the Oscars. This is a shame.)

Ed's Verdict: 8/10. I loved its comic weirdness, its ambition, even its perpetually evolving tone. This one will polarise opinion, but I'm fighting its corner. Go see it and then we'll talk. 

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Film Review - Coco (PG)

I'm proud we're family.
Pixar is the animation company that made it okay for grown-ups to enjoy films made ostensibly for children. I mean really enjoy them. It isn't just the craft that goes into their work. It's the sophistication and thematic depth of their storytelling (and the way they make you plain weep). These computer-generated features work beautifully on dual levels, often creating fully-realised new worlds. Finding Nemo. Wall-E. Inside-Out. And now... Coco. Their new title is up there with the best of them.
Set in a vibrant Mexican village, Coco centres on Miguel Rivera, a young lad whose dream is to play guitar like his movie-star hero Ernesto de la Cruz. The rest of his shoe-making family, however, are resolutely set against him doing anything even vaguely musical. The boy's great-grandmother Mama Coco was abandoned by her no-good musician father, and Miguel's secret guitar-strumming is viewed as an act of shame. The dispute comes to a climax on Mexico's Dia de los Muertos, its celebration of familial ancestors, when a rash action on Miguel's part crosses him over into the actual Land of the Dead. Here, surrounded by its cheerful skeletal occupants, he must try to find his way back to the living with the help of his own dead relatives. 
Those are the (advanced apology) bare bones of the story, for this is a satisfyingly complex and ingenious tale, tying together themes of childhood ambition, family loyalty and the emotional links between living and departed into a deeply satisfying whole. And if any of the subject-matter sounds sombre, the absolute opposite is true. The film's primary emotion is joy - in music, in family and in life. It's also frequently very funny, right from the moment the Universal Studios theme is blasted out by a mariachi band. 
To call the visuals stunning doesn't even capture the eye-popping colour on display here. The relatively restrained Mexican village scenes still buzz with life and movement in every frame. (The view of the candle-lit village cemetery is a gorgeous high-point.) But the Land of the Dead is almost overpowering, beginning with its entrance bridge - a great arch of cascading orange marigold blossom, over which the dazzled Miguel can walk. The entire after-world is a fluorescent marvel, constructed with near-ridiculous attention to detail, and bustling with an ironical degree of life.
Coco's numerous characters, living and dead, are realised superbly on every level, starting with its earnest Spanish-guitar-picking hero. (Take a look at Andy in 1995's original Toy Story and see how far Pixar has come in its depiction of humans over two decades.) Miguel's family is chaotic, infuriating and endearing all at once, his shoe-wielding Mama Elena a stand-out. And his colourfully-clad but rattling ancestors have as much individual personality as their living counterparts. Hector, the ramshackle scoundrel befriended by Miguel, is a series of bone-related gags, each as visually inventive as the last. Oh, and there's a dog called Dante (well of course there is), who can cross over to the other side, but keeps tripping himself with his own tongue.
The largely Hispanic voice cast is impressive too, with young Antonio Gonzales a terrific lead and Gael Garcia Bernal both touching and hilarious as Hector. They provide a whole lot of music, vibrant and celebratory, a perfect fit with the movie's magnificent sense of spectacle.
Ultimately Coco is just that - a celebration, particularly of Mexican culture, folklore and family life. What starts off as a well-worn tale of a misunderstood boy trying to follow his dream turns into something much more imaginative. It's a Day of the Dead miracle - and Pixar at its storytelling best.
Gut Reaction: Amused, entranced, entertained. And yes - the ending properly got me. It was the opening twenty minutes of Up all over again.

Where Are the Women? The matriarchs of the Rivera family are a force - none more so than Miguel's deceased great-great-grandmother Mama Imelda (the sublime-voiced Alanna Ubach).

Ed's Verdict: 8.5/10. It deals with art, passion, inter-generational conflict, life, love, loss, mortality, remembrance, even dementia - all of it with sensitivity, humour and warmth. And buckets of creativity. Just wonderful.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Film Review - The Post (12A)

It's just government secrets.
The Post is the fastest-made film of director's Steven Spielberg's career. By his own account he first read the script in early 2017. It struck him as so relevant, despite its 1970s setting, that he suspended work on another project and made the thing in nine months flat. The urgency has transferred to the screen, but not the rush. With Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks on board, this is A-listers bringing their A-game; the result is as gripping as it is timely.
The Washington Post of the movie's title is a poor competitor in 1971 to the mighty New York Times. That could all change when military analyst Daniel Ellsberg starts leaking Vietnam War-related documents to the Times. The government, it transpires, has been less than truthful regarding the progress of American troops, and the whole thing points to a decades-long foreign policy cover-up. Nor is the Richard Nixon's administration going to abandon its secrets easily, slapping an injunction on the Times to shut it up. Soon Post editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) is chasing the so-called Pentagon Papers, while the newspaper's owner Kay Graham (Streep) frets over the legalities of releasing their details. War with the White House could damage the Post irrevocably...
Spielberg's film works and succeeds on a number of levels. It's a rattling good journalistic tale, once the plot truly kicks in, of a paper working against a crucial deadline. It's also a strikingly contemporary story of news media taking on a mendacious US government, who would brush aside the constitution if it could to protect itself. And in Meryl Streep it's the tale of a woman struggling to find her voice in a male environment that views her as irrelevant. Small wonder the director scrambled for a release date almost exactly one year on from the Trump inauguration. This is a movie on a mission.
Not that it comes off too preachy. (One or two of the directorial touches are a little obvious and John Williams' score wells a little too loud to underscore one meaningful moment.) After a necessarily slow-burn set-up, this is a pacy and involving story full of news-hounds rattling small change at pay phones and printers setting type at cumbersome old-style presses. It's realised so well you can almost smell the ink. The hustle of the news office is a vivid contrast to the cocktail parties where politicians curry favour with the publishers. This is a journo-thriller, with bundles of papers hitting driveways as the payoff. 
The performances are quality like you'd expect, Spielberg maximising their potential with his trademark lingering close-ups. Hanks is every inch the seasoned editor and Better Call Saul's Bob Odenkirk is great as dogged hack Ben Bagdikian. But Streep steals it, not least because her character has the greatest distance to go. As Kay Graham she is the society hostess who never expected to inherit a family newspaper business, and who must now learn to run it on her own terms. Whereas I'd expected the steely newspaper boss from her opening scene, I got the slow transformation into that role. It's compelling to watch, one '70s-style conference call providing a beautifully-played highlight. For an 'overrated' actress Meryl's really rather good. 
This pre-Watergate story holds importance all its own. The Post 
is a movie for the moment, celebrating hard-nosed fact-checked journalism and its role in challenging political corruption. It may lay on its messages a little too thick at times, but that's a small price for a fine piece of storytelling, one that espouses freedom of speech as a core American virtue. No wonder Steve wanted to get it out fast.
Gut Reaction: Relish as the stakes rose and the drama gained momentum. And a few fist-clenches at the characters' fighting spirit.

Where Are the Women? Meryl gives the stand-out performance, but kudos too to writer Liz Hannah, whose original screenplay grabbed Spielberg's attention.

Ed's Verdict: 8/10. Comes damn close to All the President's Men. I can pay it no higher compliment than that. 

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Film Review - Darkest Hour (PG)

You have the weight of the world on your shoulders. 
There's a tangible sense in Joe Wright's Darkest Hour of encroaching darkness. The greatest success of this noteworthy (if flawed) film is nailing just how high the stakes were in May of 1940, as the British War Cabinet wrestled with how they should respond to the threat from Adolf Hitler's approaching forces. It's a story  - Britain bracing itself as Nazism relentlessly advanced towards its borders - that's been told before in multiple ways, but never with a heavier feeling of of dread. Twenty minutes in I leaned to my cinema-going partner and muttered 'My parents lived through this.' In all my life I don't think it's hit me quite so powerfully.
The film centres on Winston Churchill's first twenty-five days in office as Prime Minister, following the resignation of Neville Chamberlain. Selected as a compromise to appease the opposition parties, he finds his instinctive resistance to Nazism at odds with those who would strike a deal with Hitler in order to prevent invasion. As European nations fall in rapid succession, the War Cabinet is locked in an impasse, Foreign Secretary Viscount Halifax insisting with Chamberlain that negotiation with Germany is the only reasonable option. Will the country appease a monster to survive, or risk incalculable loss in taking a stand?
To the film's credit you see Halifax's viewpoint as clearly as Churchill's. Wright's stunningly imaginative direction provides a sense of the the shrinking odds - gliding aerial views staring down on the ravaged surfaces of mainland Europe and fraught faces poring over pin-studded maps of the Cabinet War Rooms. Not a single shot is wasted. The enemy is closing, with Britain's soldiers hemmed on the French coast, and the claustrophobia is palpable. Dario Marianelli's score piles on the tension and you grasp what these men were wrestling with. Without benefit of hindsight, the implications of their decision-making are truly terrifying.
Much praise has been heaped on Gary Oldman for his performance as Churchill, all of it deserved. It's not simply that his appearance and voice are transformed, it's that he channels so many aspects of the wartime PM's personality - the bullying and bluster, the sharp humour, the humanity. But aided by the screenplay he also makes Churchill vulnerable, as friends run short and even the US President cannot much help him. 
His scenes with wife Clemmie (Kristen Scott Thomas in loving no-nonsense mode) brim with tenderness, and those with Lily James as secretary Elizabeth Layton portray a touching connection with the young woman who comes to believe in him utterly. Meanwhile his altercations with Halifax are explosive, Game of Thrones' Stephen Dillane providing the other half of an epic political match. And with Ben Mendelsohn as George VI (remember how evil Mendelsohn was in Star Wars tale Rogue One?) he is part of a comically awkward and ultimately quite affecting double-act.
The major issue I have with the film stems ironically from its honesty in portraying the inordinate pressure on Churchill. By showing the PM's resolve nearly buckle (Oldman is particularly brilliant in these moments), the screenplay then searches for a way of shoring up his spirits. The dramatic device to which it resorts seems both trite and at odds with the rest of the film. I know what writer Anthony McCarten is aiming for, but it's infinitely more convincing when we're sweating away with the Cabinet members in a fog of moral uncertainty. The drama is way too convincing in its gravity to then resort to a sequence that seems like a cheap trick, one that jars with the film's overall tone.
That (admittedly major) misstep aside, this is an impressive and powerful movie - filtered steely-grey and rich in detail that plants you firmly in London, May 1940. More specifically it thrusts you in the rooms of power at a moment when, due to one horrendous threat, power seemed to be running out. And that's a very scary place indeed to find yourself.
Gut Reaction: Utterly locked in - for 90% of the running time.

Where are the Women? 1940s Whitehall was a solidly male environment, but Scott Thomas and James invest significant roles with spirit and steel. 

Ed's Verdict: 7/10. Sadly I can't reconcile myself to one aspect, or the score would be higher. But this is still a must-see - for Wright's imagination behind the camera and Oldman's genius in front of it. 

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Film Review - Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (15)

Looks like we got us a war.
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri arrives in the UK with a quartet of Golden Globes, a clutch of BAFTA nominations and a hatful of Oscar hopes. The poster is already more star-strewn than an Icelandic night-sky, so you don't need me adding to the hype. I'll say only this. When the writer/director is someone as defiantly rule-trashing as Martin McDonagh, and when Frances McDormand is his lead, you should go see a film regardless of prizes. In the case of Three Billboards the less you know the more you'll enjoy, so by all means stop reading and and come back later. I'll still be here.
The derelict billboards of the movie's title are commandeered by Mildred Hayes (McDormand), a longterm resident of rural Ebbing, who has lost her daughter to a particularly appalling crime. Feeling that the local police have failed in their responsibility to investigate, she uses the advertising hoardings to call their Chief (Woody Harrelson) to account. Her actions provoke an indignant reaction from the community, not least from the Chief's dim and bigoted Deputy, Dixon (Sam Rockwell). 
Such is the set-up - and while the story trades off the increasing friction between Mildred and her neighbours, most of them fiercely loyal to Chief Willoughby and scandalised by Mildred's gesture, it does precisely nothing else you might expect. Pick any of the story's three central characters and try to predict the journey they'll go on before the end credits. You'll get it completely, refreshingly wrong. 
This is all due to writing that, as McDonagh poined out during a recent interview, is rooted in character rather than deliberately manipulative plot twists. Mildred and her police nemeses behave throughout in ways that ring excruciatingly or comically true. The resulting events are messy and unpredictable - laced with as much dark humour as they are with poignancy, peppered with moments of shocking violence and unexpected humanity. It's as ragged as real life, all the way to the film's divisive ending. The one violent act that remains unseen, thankfully, is that which sets the story in motion. The terrible fate of Mildred's daughter we can only imagine, along with the poor girl's mother and brother (up-and-comer Lucas Hedges). 
Frances McDormand is the tough, broken heart of the movie - reminding us, if we needed it, of what an astonishing screen presence she is. As Mildred she's moving without being sentimental and funny without being cute, holding the audience's sympathy however questionable her actions become. This is a portrait of grief hardened into anger, of a woman relentlessly seeking closure and raising hell in the process. Indications of the person she was prior to the tragedy glint with a subtlety only a truly accomplished actor can convey.
She's not alone in delivering greatness. Woody Harrelson has never been more convincing as the decent, beleaguered police chief who butts heads with Mildred. Sam Rockwell, meanwhile, gives a stand-out performance in his quietly brilliant career. As bumbling racist Dixon he's appalling and hilarious, and yet somehow still enlists our sympathy. Add to that a wealth of quality support performances (the always wonderful Peter Dinklage and Get Out's Caleb Landry Jones jump to mind) and you've got as well-acted a movie as we can hope to see in 2018. 
The broader storytelling is terrific too. McDonagh's screenplay is pithy, profane and real, with small-town shades of Manchester by the Sea (and that film's sense of a community that's been around forever). Ben Davis' cinematography is edgy at times, starkly beautiful at others, and the whole thing is edited down to a sharp focus on the main character-arcs. Meanwhile Carter Burwell's original score provides a moody compliment to the dark subject-matter, while the borrowed tunes are as varied as the movie's frequent shifts in tone.
Three Billboards is ultimately a story of one woman's quest for justice, along with its results and repercussions. Its refusal to offer easy resolutions is frustrating, deliberately so. What is does provide, however, is empathy, grim laughter and a whole lot to think about. It's also one of the most innovative dramas you're likely to see this year - or most others. 

Gut Reaction: Laughter, cruelty and compassion, all of them when least expected.

Where are the Women?: McDonagh gives Frances McDormand room to shine, in what is arguably the role of her film career. And that's having seen Fargo.

Ed's Verdict: 9/10. Another true original from the man who brought us In Bruges. Character-driven storytelling, which entertains, challenges and delves deep into our messed-up humanity. Shelve the awards buzz. Just go and enjoy it.

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Feature - 'Am I Still Allowed To Like It?': The Kevin Spacey Factor

And like that, he's gone.  - 'Verbal' - The Usual Suspects
I saw The Usual Suspects on its 1995 release and was bowled over by it, not least because of Kevin Spacey's performance. As talkative criminal Roger 'Verbal' Kint he was the connective tissue that held the film's complex plot together. His conversations with Detective Dave Kujan (Chazz Palminteri), in which he spun the story of a near-satanic crime-boss named Keyser Soze, were compulsively watchable. You hung on this actor's every word, even if like me you'd no idea who he was, and knew instinctively he was a special kind of talent. Long before that explosive conclusion. 
Within months he showed up uncredited in Se7en, and the audience's response was Oh crap, look! It's the guy from The Usual Suspects! And in that moment an already thrilling movie upped itself a couple more gears. A latter-day screen great had arrived, and we were witness to it.
So it was gutting for me along with many others to read reports that this unassuming giant of modern cinema (and of TV, and of London theatre) may have behaved in a less-than-magnificent Weinsteinian way in his off-screen life. We always want our heroes, be they political or sporting or cultural, to live private lives that match what we admire about them professionally. When they fall far short of that, we feel a peculiar sense of betrayal. Their achievements, all that we have admired about them, seem permanently tarnished. More than that we may feel that it's some form of moral compromise to actively enjoying their work anymore, or that they don't deserve us to do so. 

'I'll never be able to watch that film again.'

'I don't think I can finish House of Cards now.'

'Baby Driver's a great movie. Even though... You know.'

And so on. 
I understand the emotion, truly I do. Something is inevitably lost when we associate the person on-screen with reprehensible behaviour, particularly when it's of a sexually predatory nature. However there's an additional impulse on the part of some people (and TV networks) to erase all traces of the accused actor's professional output. And that I can't be dealing with.
Don't misunderstand me. When an actor's illegal sexual predilections are brought to light, it's a just consequence that they never work within that industry again. If they happen to head up a project that will fall apart without their input (as seems to be happening with House of Cards) then that will be an unfortunate but unavoidable loss. And if, as happened in All the Money in the World, the offending contributor's role can be replaced by a different actor's performance to avoid commercial disaster, call it a valid business decision made in difficult circumstances. 
However, I'm talking about something rather different than any of those scenarios.

What I'm referring to is the actor's body of work already out there in the public domain - the DVDs nestling in people's personal collections and the movies doing the rounds of network TV. Can LA Confidential and American Beauty and (to a much lesser extent) Horrible Bosses 2 never be enjoyed again? Well of course they can. In fact they should be, for a number of reasons.
Art is very seldom created in a vacuum. Take The Usual Suspects. That film is a highly regarded ensemble piece with a clutch of fine performances. It's arguably the best work of director Bryan Singer (who, I have sighed at being reminded, is also enmeshed in allegations of abuse) and a memorable piece of screen-writing by Christopher McQuarrie. Add to that the hundreds of others who were employed in the movie's creation - the production designers and lighting crew and foley artists. Are the results of their Herculean labours (and any motion picture is a huge feat of combined strength) no longer to be appreciated, because one member of the team, however high-profile, behaved in some unconscionable way? If the Best Boy turned out have the Worst off-set proclivities, would that invalidate the work everyone else had done? (Can too many rhetorical questions be used in one blog post?)
That kind of thinking, logically pursued, would result in any film produced by Harney Weinstein being off-limits. Goodbye Shakespeare in Love, The King's Speech and Paddington. We might feel similarly reluctant to watch Roman Polanski movies again, including greats such as Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown and The Pianist. Those two names alone establish one potentially lengthy cinematic hit-list. 
Of course it's easier to set aside our reservations if the offending party is not slam-bang in front of the camera. My own response to certain actors has been coloured, for example, by reports of their diva-esque on-set behaviour. (You were great in Hostiles, Christian Bale, but that tantrum of yours recorded on the set of Terminator: Salvation lives long in the memory. Longer, it turns out, than the film itself.) Yes - you may feel uncomfortable watching Spacey as 'Verbal' these days, but that brings up a whole other question. To what extent are we able to view someone's creation as a separate entity?
If you were to discover that the artist of your favourite National Gallery painting had been a serial spouse-murderer, would that make it any less beautiful, objectively speaking? Look - there's their signature on it, and removing that signature won't make it any less theirs. So the options are to stop visiting the Gallery or to deal with the mental conundrum. Take it a step further and imagine that the electrician who wired your house turns out to have a huge walk-in closet's worth of skeletons (real or metaphorical) rattling around. Are you going to rip out all the wiring, because every time you flick a switch you benefit from his workmanship? Not unless your reservations have evolved into fully-fledged psychosis.
None of which deals with the discomfort factor of watching an actor credibly suspected of having done something horrible. Perhaps there's a trick to it - some kind of 1984-style double-think. To throw your mind back to when you first watched the film/TV show, ignorant of that actor's off-set behaviour, and enjoy it as you did then. Or to imagine a parallel reality, where the individual was as decent in their private life as you'd hoped. 
I've yet to experiment with The Usual Suspects in this regard, so I can't say for sure. But I'm reminded of a recent comment made by a friend - that she can't imagine never watching American Beauty again. I hope she finds herself able to do so, and to take pleasure in what she loved about the movie first time around, including Kevin Spacey's performance as Lester Burnham. I hope I can do the same for 'Verbal' Kint in The Usual Suspects. May we all somehow keep loving those performances, even if sadly we no longer feel able to love the guy who performed them.