Thursday, 31 May 2018

DVD/Blu-ray Mini-Review - Call Me By Your Name (15)

Grow up. See you at midnight.
The Gist: Timothee Chalamet (Lady Bird) plays Elio, a sharp and precocious teenage lad spending the long, hot summer of 1983 in an Northern Italian villa with his mother and archaeologist father. At least one local girl has an eye for him, but Elio is much more interested in his dad's research assistant Oliver (Armie Hammer). As temperatures soar and sweat trickles (and they all pore over exquisite Greco-Roman statues), it can only be a matter of time till borderline-taboo passions reach boiling.
The Juice: This story is all about the heat - the entire film bakes in the Italian summer, the whole look of it is hazy and sun-bleached. There's an intoxicating sense of time and place in every frame (you'll want to book your flight ten minutes in) and it's all redolent of youthful desire. The adolescent longing - its pining, its irritation, its sublimated sense of need - is tangible. Elio's flirtation with Marzia, the girl his own age, is innocent; his fascination with Oliver promises a turbulent leap into adulthood, which will change him forever. The leads' chemistry spikes like the temperature - their interactions are tender, fearless, vulnerable and profoundly convincing. This is a passion as compelling as the film's plangent piano score, one complimented perfectly by Sufjan Stevens' original songs. 'Tis a wintry heart indeed that won't fall for Elio and Oliver's love.
The Judgement: 9/10. It's a long, slow burn - but when it truly catches fire, Call Me By Your Name has an emotionally incendiary quality that's sure to stay with you. If you've ever known summertime love, whoever you've known it with, you'll feel its transitory, transformative beauty all over again - never more so than in the film's final riveting moments. A blissful, heady, sensual, poignant, heartbreaking peach of a film. And one that actually involves peaches in a scene that... But no more of that. Spoilers. 

Monday, 28 May 2018

Film Review - Solo: A Star Wars Story (12A)

I don't think I'm ever gonna learn.
I approach every new Star Wars film as a kind of fan. My appreciation of the franchise really only began with The Force Awakens, and I've been on board with the movies released since then - including the divisive, risk-taking The Last Jedi. But with Solo following so hard on the heels of Rey and Finn's most recent escapade, I did wonder if the producers weren't risking Wars-fatigue. Rumours of production troubles didn't inspire confidence either, with Ron Howard replacing the original directing team late in the day and reshooting a high percentage of the material. So it's a relief to report that this Han Solo origin story is never less than fun, even if it doesn't achieve what you might call Star Wars greatness.
We first meet young Han (the fresh-faced Alden Ehrenreich) as a slum-rat on his native planet Corellia. He's running dangerous errands for one of that world's dominating crime syndicates, while plotting a planet-hopping way out along with girlfriend Qi'ra (Game of Thrones' Emilia Clarke). The film's swift-moving early stages flip him through flight-school and military service, until he talks his way into a group of big-league thieves led by Woody Harrelson and Thandie Newton. But that's only the start of an adventure involving high-stakes robberies, giant inter-stellar beasties and spaceship manoeuvres so reckless they make his passengers' heads spin. 
Despite its bumpy journey to the screen Solo has a coherent feel, director Howard having reworked it with his mature storytelling touch. Numerous traditional Star Wars elements (multi-planet locations, inter-species menagerie of characters, comedy androids) are present, but this time in the context of a fast-paced heist movie crammed with criminals-u-like. And with all hand-guns/no light-sabres, the Han Solo space-western aspects are played up to entertaining effect. Yes the whole thing could be dismissed as inconsequential, but on a level of pure escapism the film really works.
That's not least because it's populated with great characters. Harrelson is morally enigmatic as career criminal Beckett, and Donald Glover is almost ridiculously suave as the young Lando Calrissian (classic Star Wars anti-hero if you're not a fan). Meanwhile Paul Bettany steals his limited screen-time as mercurial chief villain Dryden Vos, and Fleabag's Phoebe Waller-Bridge nearly steals the whole damn movie as robot-with-a-cause L3-37. 
As for Han himself, Ehrenreich plays him with youthful arrogance and verve, steering clear of any ill-advised Harrison Ford impersonations. And if he doesn't quite nail the cocky charm that made Ford's roguish-pilot such a hit with audiences (a tall order let's face it), at least the movie gets the Han/Chewie relationship right. The manner of their initial meeting is an unexpected delight, and the heart of the film - romantic subplots notwithstanding - is the beginning of this inter-species bromance. Our hero may be advised by his criminal mentor to trust no one, but in Chewbacca he clearly has a cast-iron BFF.
Solo suffers at times from prequel-itus (its nods and winks to the broader franchise can irritate at times), but it tells enough of its own story in a sufficiently distinctive way to warrant its existence. And while we know for sure who's going to make it through, due to certain characters' presence in the classic trilogy, there's enough plot novelty to sustain interest and a sense of mortality in keeping with the franchise as a whole. It's a touch of darkness in a big escapist romp - two perfectly entertaining hours in the company of some Star Wars favourites.
Gut Reaction: Sustained enjoyment, with a few grins of recognition (and one or two eye-rolls).

Where Are the Women?: The new Star Wars continues to populate its stories with strong female characters - Clarke, Newton, Waller-Bridge and big-screen newcomer Erin Kellyman all have room to shine.

Ed's Verdict: 7/10. It deals in themes of loyalty, friendship and moral conflict, but chiefly this exists to be fun. And perfectly decent fun it is. Enough said.  

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

Film Review - Deadpool 2 (15)

Kiss me like you miss me, Red.
Despite evidence on this blog to the contrary, I'm not a massive salivating comic-book fanboy. The first Deadpool film, whatever its manifest strengths, irritated me a bit with its relentlessly smart-ass humour and how pleased it seemed with its own irreverence (although that might be a Ryan Reynolds-related issue on my part.) Consequently I was none too enthused about taking in this sequel. Find me pleasantly surprised then that Deadpool 2 is sufficiently entertaining to make me rethink my attitude to the original. Nice work there, all involved.
To recap the story so far... Deadpool is the made-up name of Wade Wilson, a one-time mercenary, whose submission to life-saving genetic experimentation has proved a mixed blessing. On the plus side the treatment worked, providing his body with self-healing properties that render him virtually immortal; the trade-off is that every inch of him is horrifically mutated. He's likewise undergone a career transformation, acting now as a ruthless vigilante with a mordant sense of humour. 
In Deadpool 2 his vigilantism is in danger of catching up with him, while the X-Men (yes, that's Professor Xavier's mutant heroes from the Marvel comics) persist in attempts to enlist him to their cause. Deadpool is resolutely not a team player - but the plight of a mutant teenage boy named Russell aka Firefist (and under threat from a murderous time-traveller) may serve to change his sardonic heart. 
The Deadpool comic-book character started life as an X-Men antagonist, before involving into a violent wise-cracking antihero (as opposed to the super variety). The films have run with the bloody and humorous aspects, leaning heavily on his directly addressing the audience to comic effect. As the eponymous vigilante Reynolds doesn't so much break the fourth wall as tear down the whole comic-book edifice, lampooning every superhero movie convention without mercy and deconstructing the whole film-making process into the bargain. These movies stand or fall on how funny they are and to its credit this new adventure wrung significantly more laughs from me than its predecessor, as it gleefully ripped into comic-book tropes, threatening to undermine its own storytelling foundation in the process.
DP2 stands apart from Marvel's 'cinematic universe' movies in multiple regards. As gruesomely violent as dark X-Men adventure Logan, it also revels in adult humour and outlandish bad taste. The combination might easily have sunk it in a mess of juvenilia and heartless action, but the film is buoyed up by punchy direction and a strikingly high good-joke quotient. Add to that some neatly wrong-footing plot twists and the rather touching use of A-ha's Take On Me, and you've got yourself an entertainment. And despite my Reynolds reservations, he is Deadpool - embodying the character as indisputably as Robert Downey Jr does Ironman, and carrying the story with similar aplomb. 
Reynolds inevitably hogs much of the glory, but the plot developments do create more of an ensemble feel. Josh Brolin, as time-hopping assassin Cable, is an impressive distance from his other Marvel antagonist of 2018 - Infinity War's Thanos. Ascending star Zadie Beetz fully rocks the role of mutant action-heroine Domino. And Julian Dennison (from much-loved Kiwi comedy Hunt for the Wilderpeople) proves a winning surrogate son for our antihero. 
It all makes for two hours' crass but undeniably riotous entertainment, and a contender for the 2018 Filmic Forays Low Expectations Award. Mine were low indeed, but this sequel trounced them with its full-on satirical zest. The franchise should possibly quit while it's ahead, but with its serious box-office ka-ching and the sequel's move towards a Deadpool-led team of mutant heroes (go and google X-Force if you want to know more), there's not a chance that's going to happen. Now that they've got me, here's hoping Wade and his motley associates can keep me happily on board.  
Gut Reaction: Pummelled out of a cynical Friday-night stupor by sheer force of comic conviction. I seriously wasn't expecting to laugh that much, let alone get the feels.

Where Are the Women?: They're around and they kick ass, but it chiefly falls to Domino to keep this out of boys-club territory. 

Ed's Verdict: 8/10. Deadpool 2 contains the same ingredients, but cooks them up in a way that's unexpectedly fresh and spicy (if thoroughly bad for you). Dark, utterly reprehensible, self-assured fun, with a few moments of surprising poignancy. 

Friday, 18 May 2018

Film Review - Tully (15)

You need a rest, mommy.
Writer Diablo Cody and director Jason Reitman first teamed up to create 2007's Juno, an acerbically witty tale of teen pregnancy starring Ellen Page. Tully is an even stronger, more thoughtful piece of work, those individual talents having matured a whole decade's worth. Revisiting the fertile theme of motherhood, the film is darker than Juno but no less funny - a resonant and deeply comical cry of near-despair.
Charlize Theron plays Marlo, a suburban mother of two, with child number three imminent. Already ragged from the demands of the kids she has (particularly those of her difficult, hyperactive son), the prospect of an additional newborn is daunting. Then her annoyingly wealthy brother offers to fund the services of a 'night-nanny', a care worker who will facilitate what Marlo will soon need most - proper sleep. Initially resistant to the idea, she eventually succumbs, and one phone-call later there at her door is a young woman named Tully, the answer to all her desperate prayers. Except there's an air of mystery around Tully from the start...
Okay, that immediately makes the film out to be what Marlo herself jokes about - a Hand That Rocks the Cradle psycho-nanny horror. It's not. It's vastly more subtle than that. But the story does hinge on who the Tully character really is at heart and on what her arrival means for the frazzled mum. Their relationship sits right at the heart of this terrifically-observed story and it fairly crackles with chemistry.
Kudos first to Theron. In last year's Atomic Blonde she was a ripped and formidably fit secret agent (then a super-svelte businesswoman in Gringo); here she very literally carries the weight of later-life pregnancy, conveying exhaustion to match. It's another impressive performance that starts with the physicality and goes right to the core. Marlo's weariness is all-consuming, her descent into mental chaos steady and relentless, though allowing for mordantly funny outbursts. The tone, pre Tully's arrival, is less the demented hilarity of TV sitcom Motherland and more Babadook-style depression-anxiety, only played for grim laughs. (And never more so than in one tour de force sequence of maternal meltdown.) 
As for Tully herself, it feels like a kind of arrival for actress Mackenzie Davis. Her night-nanny is a sweetly eccentric free spirit - weirdly disarming from the start and with an indefinable spookiness underlying it all. Her arrival brings calm, but also kicks the story into a whole other gear, one where you really won't see what's coming. There's room for the guys - Ron Livingston has enough rumpled likability as husband Drew to make sure we don't get too pissed off with him, and Mark Duplass nails the smugness of brother Craig - but this is Marlo and Tully's show through and through, and their evolving relationship makes for intriguing viewing.
So filter Cody's wry and pithy dialogue through two splendid central performers and then get Reitman, with his shrewd eye for everyday detail, to lens the whole project. The result is something instantly recognisable, while utterly unique.
Gut Reaction: Engaged, amused, fascinated and unnerved. But my reactions were nothing to those of the mums in the audience. Their appreciation got seriously vocal.

Where Are the Women?: The girls own this one of course.

Ed's Verdict: 8/10. I liked Juno and I really liked this. A great convergence of talents, with Theron more impressively immersed in her role than ever before. And that's saying a lot.

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Film Review - Life of the Party (12A)

Turn off your vagoogle.
Life of the Party is my second female-led broader-than-broad comedy to review in the same number of weeks, so I can't help but compare it to I Feel Pretty. This time it's Melissa McCarthy doing the comic heavy-lifting, taking a slight premise and wringing from it every last drop of comedic potential; that I laughed as much as I did is largely down to her. She (much like Amy Schumer in the Pretty movie) dragged the whole enterprise back from the brink of doom.
The film's premise has been mined for laughs before - a middle-aged protagonist enrols in college and starts whooping it up with the youngsters on campus. McCarthy plays Deanna, a woman whose education was derailed by unplanned pregnancy years before, and whose bolt-from-the-blue midlife crisis provides her with impetus to return to her studies. This life-change coincides with her now grown-up daughter Maddie's freshman year; mother and daughter end up in the same peer group, to Maddie's initial chagrin. Soon, however, Mom is down with the Millennials, her little girl included, sharing in all (and I do mean all) that college life has to offer.
Directed by McCarthy's husband Ben Falcone and co-written by the pair of them, Life of the Party is a strange and intermittently entertaining creation. It provides no particular dramatic arc for its central character, something that simultaneously avoids cliche and makes the whole story a bit ramshackle. Deanna bounces back from disaster early on and blends swiftly into her daughter's academic world, becoming a cheery mentor for the whole group while catching up on a life she missed. Yes an additional crisis is manufactured late on, but it fails to give the drama any shape. The movie ends up as a string of semi-improvised comedy sketches of variable success, Maddie's friends serving as a bunch of quirky sidekicks for the main player. None of them is sketched as fully as you'd like (although Molly Gordon gamely plays straight-woman as the daughter). 
Having said all that, the irrepressible McCarthy can't help but be funny. She brings a mumsy, folksy charm to Deanna at all times, and there's undeniable enjoyment in watching the character cut loose as her inner college-girl reveals itself. Plus when it comes to comedy set-pieces, she's remarkable. Put her in a '80s party dance-off, or a clinch with a younger guy, or a public speaking-related panic attack and Bridesmaids-level comedy gold is assured. (Amy Schumer is cut from similar cloth - give either actress even a half-baked premise and they'll forge it into something properly funny through sheer ferocity of talent.)
Speaking of which, Bridesmaids alumnus Maya Rudolph (she played the actual bride) is also satisfyingly funny as Deanna's best pal Christine. Put it down to Saturday Night Live training, but these girls work comedic alchemy. Case in point - their combined forces turn one really contrived scene of payback into something genuinely hilarious.
Life of the Party a college football field's distance from being a classic, but it's not without its charms. The raucous female-centric college antics actually allow some room for study, and there are a some touching/empowering life-lessons along the way, mostly imparted by the older, wiser Deanna to her fresh-faced sorority pals. True the storytelling is messy and the younger bunch tend to get short-changed by the script, but enough of the comedy lands to make it worth its time on the screen. 
Gut Reaction: It made me laugh. Sporadically, but out loud.

Where Are the Women?: See above. They're all over this.

Ed's Verdict: 6.5/10. Like last week's I Feel Pretty, it's got a whole bunch of problems in the writing. But it made me crack up more, so it gets the extra point-five. No-brainer.

Tuesday, 8 May 2018

Film Review - I Feel Pretty (12A)

I've always wondered what it feels like to be - just - undeniably pretty.
It says much about Amy Schumer's credit within film comedy that she features solo on the I Feel Pretty poster. No, she hasn't reached Melissa McCarthy status just yet, but she's still trusted enough to feature as a movie's key selling point. Even a pre-release media backlash in America, based on the film's (fundamentally misunderstood) trailer, didn't manage to dampen US box office receipts too much. This girl is good, even when the movie in which she stars doesn't match her for quality. 
The intentions of I Feel Pretty are worthy ones, but the premise is as flimsy as premises get. Schumer plays Renee Bennett, a website designer for massive cosmetics company Lily LeClaire. She's capable at her job and popular among her friends, but deeply insecure about her appearance, longing for the kind of look that would land her a receptionist job in the big LeClair building downtown. Then some desperate wishing and a whack on the head during a SoulCycle class (I looked it up and it's a proper thing in 2018 gym circles - what do I know?) alter her perception, so that she sees herself as fashion-industry beautiful. Soon she's taking on the world with supermodel confidence, despite still looking like the same old girl-next-door Renee. 
This paper-thin concept is stretched out to feature-length, with no regard to its sheer psychological implausibility and the plot holes that threaten to open up at any given moment. Thank heaven then for Schumer's sheer comic zest and everywoman charm. Her timing is spot-on, her physical comedy fearless - gloriously so. The transformation from downtrodden backroom-girl to life-embracing goddess is undeniably infectious as a result. She manages what the script is striving in a severely faltering way to do, namely prove that confidence and self-belief have an attractiveness more potent than anything sold by the beauty industry. 
She has good support in Rory Scovel as Ethan, the regular guy who falls for her. Their scenes are played with genuine heart, and there's enjoyment to be found in the two of them falling for each other, his interest fuelled by her new devil-may-care mojo. And the whole thing is directed nimbly enough too, a highlight being when Renee struts into the LeClair building to Meghan Trainor's Who's That Sexy Thing? in slo-mo. Then the music cuts out, regular-mo is resumed and there she is still dancing apropos of nothing but joy. 
See? At its best it's fun. But it's also fundamentally nonsense. The plot is packaged, naturally, so that Renee will come through her dream state, have a quick wrestle with reality on the other side and achieve her victory on behalf of women (and men for that matter) with body-image issues everywhere. But the journey is so broadly comic that it can't do more in the end than deliver a bunch of well-meaning platitudes. And while there are a few sideswipes at the cosmetic industry along the way, they don't show real claws. 
The knee-jerk critics who condemned the film as 'fat-shaming' on evidence of that trailer got it totally wrong. I Feel Pretty is an honest shot at promoting healthy-minded body-image, with Schumer owning every scene to raucous (and sometimes touching) effect. But ultimately it's all a bit too fluffy and unfocused to land its ideological punch.
Gut Reaction: It did make me laugh, and both leads moved me with funny, emotionally authentic performances, even if the ending was something of a shrug.

Where Are the Women?: Aside from Amy, Michelle Williams does some good comedy stuff with limited scope as the LeClair heiress with confidence issues of her own. Renee's likeable gal-pals are even less developed, sadly.

Ed's Verdict: 6/10. It's raised to 'disposable fun' level by Schumer's comedy instincts and the chemistry with her guy. Now get this woman a sharper script.