Monday, 30 April 2018

Film Review - Avengers: Infinity War (12A)

No resurrections this time.
It might all have gone so badly wrong. Ten years and nineteen films into the 'Marvel Cinematic Universe' project, the studio went for broke, creating a movie that weaves threads from numerous individual MCU franchises - The Avengers, Thor, Guardians of the Galaxy among them - into one vast cosmic tapestry. It's a cinematic venture of almost preposterous ambition and there are so many ways in which it might (in creative terms if not financial) have crashed and burned. The wonder is that it succeeds remotely, let alone to the extent it does. Yes there are a couple of caveats I need to add, but I'll save those till the end.
The Avengers, 'Earth's Greatest Heroes', are geographically scattered and at odds with each other following the events of Captain America: Civil War. Thus when their greatest challenge to date - a great purple destroyer-of-worlds named Thanos - shows up to wreak galaxy-wide destruction, they are in no place to challenge him. Thanos is seeking the Infinity Stones, six gems from the dawn of creation, possession of which will enable him to wipe out half of what he deems an over-populated cosmos. He's got a big metal glove too, into which said gems will fit snugly, enabling him to wield their power. And with each jewel discovered, his power grows. Basically, the Avengers need to get their **** together fast and make some good alliances into the bargain (the Guardians and the cast of Black Panther for instance), otherwise everyone is doomed. You and me included. 
Infinity War is a huge proposition on every level, not just that of its epically large cast. Its scope is immense, its vistas operatic and its action both complex and stunning. The story frame is reminiscent of The Lord of the Rings' latter stages, only on a galaxy-wide canvas - with this fractured fellowship of Avengers fighting the same staggeringly bad odds in multiple locations, none with any clue how their friends are faring. Because the stakes are high, something established beyond all doubt in a gutsy (and gut-punching) opening sequence. The same creative team who brought us Winter Soldier and Civil War, i.e. some of the best stuff in the MCU canon, know exactly how they want to play this.
As the villain, Thanos (a motion-captured Josh Brolin) is utterly compelling. His gem quest provides the sprawling movie with a clear narrative through-line, while his motives prove surprising. This conqueror is contemplative as well as brutal, a reservoir of emotional depth even as he destroys. He commands a clutch of fearsome generals too, any one of which is a dangerous proposition for our heroes. And the fact that he catches everyone off-guard throws a brooding shadow over the proceedings, as the disassembled team scramble to muster a response.
Given that backdrop of foreboding, this still manages to be a hugely funny and entertaining film. Personalities are thrown together in combinations we haven't seen before, sparking new and often hilarious dynamics. Situations expand and then converge, delivering explosive, crowd-pleasing moments of heroism. Events take mighty twists that subvert even the most die-hard fan's expectations. True the band of world-defenders has little time to stop and breathe, but there's still a good scattering of poignant character moments among the finely crafted mayhem. Peter Quill and co get their comedy mojo back after the semi-disappointment of Guardians 2, and Thor combines all that made him loveable in Ragnarok with genuine gravitas. Both sharp, snarky humour and meaningful connections abound.
It's inevitable with the sheer logistics of this multi-stranded story, that some scenarios lose momentum, which certain characters lose out. But ultimately the plots converge in what is - and I say this with some understatement - a memorable conclusion. Everyone has their moment, and Marvel studio's most heroic achievement to date ends in a way that will have fans debating and theorising for the next twelve months.   
Which brings me to those two caveats regarding the movie's success. One: if you haven't already guessed, this is a film for fans rather than casual viewers, and will impact much less on those who don't already care about Ironman and Star Lord and the rest of them. In fact it will be two totally different experiences (transcendent or just plain frustrating), depending on your level of connection to these characters and their overarching story. Two: my rating below feels curiously dependent on the follow-up film due out same time next year. That story has the capacity either to undergird Infinity War's drama, or to undermine it. I will say no more.
For now, Avengers: Infinity War is a trans-global, pan-galactic triumph. And I can't wait to watch it all over again.
Gut Reaction: I didn't realise how just how MCU-invested I was until around five minutes into this film. A lot of laughter and a lot of thrills, all in the context of strangely mounting dread.

Where Are the Women?: Several of the Cinematic Universe's growing roster of women feature prominently, even if this episode is a bit hijacked by the dudes.

Ed's Verdict: 8.5/10. Like I said - that score might change either direction. But a film that could have stuffed up on so many levels, gets a formidable amount right. And that makes Infinity War one hell of an achievement.

Thursday, 26 April 2018

Film Review - The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (12A)

Crikey, that's quite a mouthful.
Mary Ann Shaffer, author of the lengthily-titled novel on which this film is based, didn't live to see her book's publication, let alone the movie's release. I'm guessing (without having read the novel) that she'd have approved - it's a handsomely made romantic period drama and more than passably entertaining. If you have an aversion to what's become labelled as 'heritage drama' here in the UK, however, this may not be your slice of pie. Even Channel Island memories of Nazi occupation can't make this anything less than really pretty, in a narrative that emphasises warmth and reassurance over grit.
Lily James (Darkest Hour, Baby Driver) plays Juliet Ashton, a London-based writer, struggling with trauma in the aftermath of WW2. She finds inspiration in correspondence with a member of the eponymous society, a literary group that took solace in books, while their native Guernsey was under Nazi rule. Drawn by the society's eccentric form of rebellion and sensing she has discovered kindred spirits, she takes a break from her engagements (both professional and otherwise) and travels to the island to meet the society's members and take part in one of their meetings. But painful wartime secrets haunt the group and Juliet senses a story that begs telling, if she can persuade them to share its details.
The Guernsey ... Society is a beautiful-looking film for sure; helmed by veteran director Mike Newell and shot by The Death of Stalin's Zac Nicholson, there was no way it was going to be anything short of gorgeous. And the period is realised in fine detail - it's what the Brit movie industry does best after all. The wartime story-within-the-story is stitched seamlessly into the wider narrative, Juliet piecing the past together as she moves from one society member to another. Don't expect too many surprises in the heroine's romantic choices, though - it's clear from the opening act which way her heart is going to be swayed. 
Cliche is an issue all round, with secondary cast-members suffering the most. The always welcome Bronagh Gallagher is wasted, for example, as Juliet's puritanical landlady - a Scripture-spouting stereotype and little more. The literary group are thankfully given more scope to form entertaining characters. Michael Huisman (the Khaleesi's man-toy in Game of Thrones) is a handsome pig-farmer with added empathy, Tom Courtney is everyone's favourite uncle and The IT Crowd's Katherine Parkinson brings pathos to the romantically yearning Isola. Stealing it, though, is Penelope Wilton. Single-handedly she brings a tragic depth absent elsewhere. The film's sheer niceness is almost its undoing, but Wilton supplies it (much as she did to Shaun of the Dead) with a much-needed broken heart.
James, it should be said, anchors the film with an appealingly strong and open-hearted performance, proving herself once again a hugely capable lead. And she plays a no-nonsense girl of whom her literary hero Anne Bronte would be proud.
The Guernsey is a life-affirming massage of a film, which hints at past horrors of war, without ever succumbing to them. It's concocted chiefly from romance and mystery and is certainly more tasty than the pie of the title. But seriously - leave your cynicism at the door, or it'll ruin your appetite.
Gut Reaction: My world wasn't rocked, but I enjoyed it nonetheless. Enough to be concerned whether Lily would choose the right man.

Where Are the Women?: It's a female-strong ensemble with a good handful of sterling performances.

Ed's Verdict: 7/10. An unashamedly quaint view of post-war Guernsey, buoyed up by great production values and tight-knit quality cast.

Sunday, 22 April 2018

Film Review - The Leisure Seeker (15)

We're just taking a little trip, Jane.
Now here's a film that's likely to be dismissed by younger cinema-goers as a retiree's road-movie, fuzzy and undemanding like the title suggests. But The Leisure Seeker, an adaptation of Michael Zadoorian's 2009 novel, is more than a whimsical piece of 'Silver Cinema'. Marketed as a sentimental comedy-drama, its take on life, love and mortality turns out to be memorably stark and unflinching. 
Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland are Ella and John Spencer, an ageing couple who take their battered old Winnebago - 'The Leisure Seeker' - on the road one more time. Setting out from Massachusetts, they head south with the Earnest Hemingway House in Florida Keys as their goal. Trouble is, retired college professor John is wrestling with dementia, while his wife/carer Ella harbours health issues of her own. Their adult children are frantic at the development, but Ella is on a mission. And it's about more than a tourist trip to her home of her husband's literary hero.
This film is devoid of both Hollywood gloss and false sentiment. An Italian production company and director are in charge, making it a grainy outsider's view of an America-based story. It opens with Carole King playing over a Donald Trump presidential campaign speech; the year is 2016, and the USA is vastly different from when Ella and John first met. They're a couple out of step with the present, each one the other's world, as all else changes around them. Their tour is as much down memory lane as the East Coast, a fact made more poignant by John's memory-related issues. 
The narrative locks into the couple's progress from the beginning; they've already hit the road when first we meet them. Mirren and Sutherland turn these characters into a wonderfully engaging pair. Ella is a driving force (even if her dementia-suffering husband does the actual driving); she's vivacious and life-embracing and tough as old leather, yet beneath all the chatter her loneliness is tangible. John alternates between the charm and dignity of his younger days and a childlike petulance, venting frustration at his own fragmenting mind. The genius of the performances is conveying the couple's history and the bond between them, even as Ella struggles to keep their connection alive.      
If all of that sounds weighty (and it is), there is also genuine hilarity - bizarre on-the-road adventures sometimes sparked by John's condition, sometimes by Ella's forthright approach to the obstacles they encounter. There's humour too, and poignancy, in the children's panicked response to their parents' apparent recklessness. Christian McKay and Janel Maloney make the most of limited screen time as son and daughter Will and Jane to convey the complexity of these inter-generational relationships. It's all beautifully observed - painful, and often painfully funny.
The Leisure Seeker has suffered some tough reviews along with the good ones, accused of being either predictable or syrupy. I'll grant the road-trip structure and nature of the Spencers' plight make the former inevitable, but there's too much pyjama-pissing reality and character grit for the latter to be remotely true. Emotionally this film is often too real for comfort. But while it doesn't blink in the face of harsher truth, it's ultimately a story of life-long love. And that will always be a story worth telling.
Gut Reaction: I laughed with hilarity at points and felt deeply discomfited at others, often in close succession. 

Where Are the Women?: Helen Mirren is at the height of her powers. And being Helen Mirren, those powers are considerable.

Ed's Verdict: 8/10. The Leisure Seeker is funny and touching. And maybe it's just too damn truthful for some critics to handle.

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Film Review - Rampage (12A)

Is it me, or is he considerably bigger?
Rampage is this year's Kong: Skull Island - which means that its primary raison d'ĂȘtre is to show giant monsters slugging it out, while tiny humans scurry about beneath them, trying to avoid becoming collateral damage. It's also a showcase for Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson to look brawny and in control, even with an entire city collapsing around his imposing shaven head. In other words, the film stands or falls on whether or not it's a good time. 
It's certainly not smart, based as it is on the 'Rampage' video game, where humans transform into monstrous versions of themselves. In the movie adaptation it's animals that do the transforming, an amoral corporation having cooked up the requisite technology based on genetic editing. This gets accidentally unleashed outside the lab, so that affected creatures turn into gigantic mutated versions of themselves, complete with advanced anger issues. One such creature is George, an albino silverback gorilla trained in sign language by primatologist Davis Okoye (Johnson). Soon George, along with the other really nasty beasties, is achieving Kong-like proportions and going on the expected rampage all across Wyoming, while Chicago braces itself for impact.
This really is as daft as it sounds, with a screenplay full of tired disaster-movie tropes, under-developed characters and lame exposition. Expectations remain pretty low during the first half, despite some nicely played scenes between Johnson and a very convincing motion-capture George the gorilla. Then the critters go super-sized to the point where they can snack on military aircraft, and stupidity no longer matters. Entertainment has been achieved in grand style.
Why I found the carnage on display here so entertaining when that in the recent Pacific Rim: Uprising bored me to near-oblivion is a tricky one. Maybe it's because the beasts are relatively few and the action rendered superbly, so that it all stays easy to follow. It's also gloriously tongue-in-cheek; whatever its deficiencies elsewhere, this film is healthily aware of its own ridiculousness. Plus the climactic sequences are based around a mere handful of central characters, everyone else having been either splatted or sidelined. Whatever the reasons, the final third of the film is a highly satisfying monster smackdown, 'The Rock' proving his star credentials simply by not being overshadowed.
Naomie Harris (Oscar-nominated for her role in Moonlight) also makes the best of her dual role as Scientist-Who-Explains-Stuff and Feisty-Romantic-Interest, sparring gamely with Johnson and overcoming some truly dire expository dialogue with panache. Meanwhile Malin Akerman and Jake Lacy play cardboard-cutout corporate villains, whose chief purpose is to get squished nastily in the final act. (That's not a spoiler - in this kind of movie you know they're going to buy it, just not how.) And Jeffrey Dean Morgan, The Walking Dead's uber-villain Negan, shows up as a swaggering government agent and basically ripping off his own performance from the TV show. When your co-stars are mutant mega-beasts, subtlety is not an option.
Rampage is a film where a city gets cheerfully demolished and where countless anonymous extras die screaming, while the heroes deliver wise-cracks and care more (along with us) about poor gorilla George. It's full of ridiculous science and ludicrous plotting from beginning to end. But it also boasts great-looking, beautifully sustained action - a 1950s-style creature-feature with 2018 production values. Daft, totally. Throwaway, that too. But it's daft, throwaway fun. And in the end that's what matters.

Gut Reaction: Cliched screen-writing got me down at first. Then halfway through I started laughing at the craziness, and pretty well didn't stop till the end.

Where Are the Women?: Naomie Harris is given smarts and agency as geneticist Dr Kate, and is clearly having a ball in the role. We like that.

Ed's Verdict: 6/10. Really dopey. But gamely played by the leads (including the guy who did the motion-capture for George) and packing a spectacular final-act monster mash-up. Could be classed as a guilty pleasure - only I don't even feel guilty. 

Friday, 13 April 2018

Film Review - Isle of Dogs (PG)

To the north - a long rickety causeway over a noxious sludge-marsh leading to a radioactive landfill polluted by toxic chemical garbage. That's our destination.
The films of Wes Anderson are a taste worth acquiring - and his new stop-motion animation Isle of Dogs might well be the best way to start. Anderson has used stop-motion once before in his 2009 adaptation of Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr Fox. Well whatever he got right there, he and his team have taken to a whole new level of amazing this time around. Isle of Dogs is a multi-dimensional work of art and an absolute joy from start to finish.
It's the near future and the dictatorial Mayor of Megasaki (fictional Japanese city) has banished all dogs on the pretext of canine flu and other assorted diseases, despite insistence by a top scientist that the creation of a vaccine is imminent. The entire dog population is quarantined on 'Trash Island', a one-time nuclear facility turned into a vast dump, where these ex-pets scavenge for scraps of food. The situation is complicated when the Mayor's ward, a young lad called Akira, travels to the island in search of his beloved dog Spots, the first creature ever to be exiled. There he meets a pack of dogs led by lifelong stray Chief (splendidly voiced by Brian Cranston), who agree to aid him in his quest.
Where to start? Probably with the movie's dazzling visual style. The stop-motion here achieves similar levels of detail to computer animation, but with that added three-dimensional, tactile quality. It brings everything to teeming life - both the cityscapes, laboratories and halls of Megasaki and the island's filthy trash-mountains. The dogs' disgusting habitat is epic in its scope and not without its own surreal beauty. Anderson frames everything with the precision he brings to his live-action movies - including lots of beautifully symmetrical doggie tableaux.
The writer/director draws gorgeously on aspects of Japanese culture too, something reflected in the taiko drum-fuelled soundtrack by Alexandre Desplat (The Shape of Water). There's been some heated internet debate regarding the wisdom of using Japan and its language as window-dressing to a story that might have played out anywhere, but Anderson is so clearly in love with the country's animation and cinema that the whole thing comes across as a fan tribute. The country's art, music and language (both written and spoken) pervade the film; translation for non-speakers is provided in a variety of ways - ingenious, quirky, and subtitles not among them. 
The dogs are all English-speakers - rich voice-work by the likes of Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton and Bill Murray. These aren't cute Gromit-type puppets either. The Trash Island dogs are mangey, flea-bitten and starved, prone to scrapping and reduced to eating maggoty left-overs. They're also entirely loveable, brimming with pathos and very funny indeed - brilliantly realised by the animators before they utter a words of Anderson's hilariously dry dialogue. (As with Gromit, a minute change in expression can transform a moment into absolute gold.) It's a remarkable combination of carefully observed canine behaviour and wry human wit. 
And though it will strike a resonant chord with every dog-lover in the audience - you'll seriously want these critters to be rescued - Isle of Dogs is about more than animal cruelty. If I've wondered in the past what the actual point is in Anderson's weird and beautiful-looking tales, here it's all about authoritarianism, marginalisation, even ethnic cleansing. It's pointedly political stuff, and a far cry from the children's film some might be expecting. This is classic storytelling with ideas so big they could only be expressed through animation. Don't be fooled by its charm, humour or innocence - Isle of Dogs is film-making (and I've resisted the impulse to say it) with a pretty sharp bite.
Gut Reaction: Any take-it-or-leave-it feelings I had on entering the theatre were banished within five minutes by the animated miracle unfolding before me. Complete unabashed wonder.

Where Are the Women?: The pack-dogs have a fun blokey dynamic I wouldn't change. Greta Gerwig is a firebrand exchange-student on a hunt for the truth, however, Frances McDormand does top translation and Scarlett Johansson gives dependably sultry voice to a canine hottie called Nutmeg.

Ed's Verdict: 9.5/10. Four years it took to make this film and it shows in every exquisitely crafted frame. My favourite Wes Anderson movie and one of the year's best so far. (I loved Coco, but I love this even more.)

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

Film Review - A Quiet Place (15)

Now here's a modern cinematic success story. John Krasinski, best known to many as lovelorn Jim in the The Office (US version), reworked the screenplay for A Quiet Place, before directing and starring in it alongside his wife Emily Blunt. A Quiet Place is now being hailed as one of the most innovative horror-thrillers in years, and a damn fine piece of film-making to boot. Having seen it, I'm doing some of the hailing. (Only really, really quietly.)
This movie's genius is in the simplicity of its central idea. The Abbotts are a family fighting to survive in the rural US, Earth having been invaded/infested by alien predators attracted purely by sound. Maintaining a state of utter quiet is now the only way to remain alive; the family's routines are based around minimising noise in every way they can. The fact that the daughter is hearing-impaired means that they already have a useful communicative skill set, one that has helped sustain them so far. From moment to moment, however, any sharp noise could result in the end for them all.
Any film concept as pure as this one stands or falls on how convincingly it's developed. The Abbotts have rigorously sound-proofed their lives; how cleverly is conveyed throughout the near wordless screenplay. The rules by which they live out their fraught lives are deftly captured in every shot. The opening sequence neatly establishes both the care they take and the stakes, so that everything from that point on is an incremental accumulation of tension. It's a perfect illustration of Alfred Hitchcock's distinction between surprise and suspense. We don't simply jump in our seats at the unexpected - we're primed along with the characters for what might happen any second. Frankly it's exhausting.
Appropriately, the film's soundscape is remarkable. Incidental music is used sparingly, while silence is almost a character in itself. The result is that all ambient sound, whether natural or threatening, becomes significant; a movie where quiet is essential becomes all about noise. Its one use of an existing music track is uniquely, achingly moving. Visually it's also magnificent. Shot in upstate New York, the rustic setting provides an idyllic counterpoint to the unfolding terror. (It's quite an experience to appreciate all those fall colours while your guts are knotted.)
The tiny, tight cast is uniformly superb - a convincing family unit bonded by love and need. Blunt is already proven in conveying toughness and emotional extremes (check out Sicario or The Girl on the Train), but Krasinski matches her in sweaty panic and the fight-or-flight response to jeopardy. The kids are terrific too. Noah Jupe exhibits the same (often painful) sincerity as in Wonder and Suburbicon, while Millicent Simmonds, deaf herself since infancy, conveys great depths of internalised emotion. That's the thing about this world. The most intense human feelings and experiences have to be expressed by everyone in total silence. But some experiences - you'll know what I mean and the apprehension will curl your toes - simply can't.
The plot incorporates recognisable science-fiction and horror tropes as it goes on, inevitably so. But by then what has been established is so potent and so compelling that everything works. These are characters about whom you care and for whom you fear, in a situation you have never before imagined. It's one you really should experience, though, preferably in a packed screening.
Gut Reaction: A heightened state of awareness, where so much as a leaf-crunch made me start. (I have never experienced such avid silence in a cinema, nor been more reluctant to eat my crisps.) 

Where Are the Women?: Blunt and young Simmonds ace it as mother and daughter.

Ed's Verdict: 8.5/10. A brilliant horror-thriller idea, economically conveyed and sustained to the end for maximum effect. Thumbs up (hand-clapping is way too loud) for all involved.

Monday, 9 April 2018

Film Review - You Were Never Really Here (15)

They said you were brutal.
Director Lynne Ramsay tends not to deal in easy subject-matter. Her 1999 feature debut Ratcatcher observed the grimy experiences of a young boy in a poverty-stricken part of her native Glasgow. We Need To Talk About Kevin adapted the terrifying story of a psychopathic teenager and his mother's attempts to understand where her son went wrong. Now in You Were Never Really Here Ramsay puts her vivid stamp on another literary work - a dark crime novella concerning a vigilante-for-hire. The result is brutal at points, disturbing frequently and never less than fascinating.
Joaquin Phoenix plays Joe, a man working outside the law to rescue underage girls from sex rings. This he does with extreme prejudice; Joe is hired not only for retrieval, but for his ability to administer swift justice on the kidnappers. Living with his dementia-suffering mother, he is isolated from all other meaningful human contact, mentally wrestling with the life experiences that have turned him into this blunt instrument. He is unnervingly efficient at what he does, until one job turns out more complicated than anticipated, and his stripped-down life begins to implode.

This film is a tight collaboration between director and lead actor, Ramsay focusing at all points on Joe - his squalid present and the past that tortures him. As the hitman/rescuer Phoenix is a convincingly seedy mess - heavy-set with a beard even more tangled than his recent Jesus portrayal in Mary Magdalene. This is a shambling wreck of a human being, repellent and disturbing, yet still sympathetic in his quiet despair and moments of compassion. The objects of his violence may be more vile than he is, but Joe is a free-falling soul in need of salvation. His mumbling performance I'm ready to forgive more quickly than in Magdalene - Joe is no Jesus after all, and the degree to which Phoenix internalises and then embodies the character is formidable, not least in an unforgettable closing scene.
Ramsay's direction and screenplay are as key as the lead performance. Jarring and impressionistic, the movie provides glimpses of what has shaped and twisted Joe, as well as the mental storm through which he wades in order just to function. The storytelling is deliberately fractured and dialogue-light, with just enough hints sometimes to provide events with coherence. The violence is oblique rather than salaciously direct, with a result that is still chilling. And the whole thing is fuelled by Jonny Greenwood's score... So gorgeously lush in Phantom Thread, here his music is jangling and discordant, like all going on in Joe's life and mind. It fits perfectly with Ramsay's visuals, offering odd glimpses of compassion and hope amid the mayhem.
Fact is, you do ultimately care for Joe and hope that there is something redeemable in his damaged humanity. That's the big achievement here. Ramsay takes what could have been a generic crime tale and transforms it into a fragmented and disorienting character study - that ultimately resolves into something strangely moving.
Gut Reaction: Keen from the opening to fit together the jigsaw pieces of Joe's life, however unsettling the experience. Moved - and at one point angry enough to swear out loud.

Where Are the Women?: Judith Roberts is touching as Joe's mum, as is Ekaterina Samsonov as the girl he seeks to rescue. But the main female presence here is behind the camera. Lynne Ramsay knows how to create dark art.

Ed's Verdict: 7.5/10. Not an easy experience, nor is it meant to be. This is gritty, almost guerilla film-making, where you can see the craft in every scene. Real, and all the more powerful for it.