Friday, 29 June 2018

DVD/Blu-ray Mini-Review - Journey's End (12A)

They all feel like we do... But they stick at it. It's the only thing a decent man can do.
The Gist: It's September 1918, and a company of soldiers arrives at the front-line trenches near St Quentin on the Western Front, days before an expected German offensive. They are led by Captain Stanhope, a respected officer reduced to a whiskey-sodden husk of the man he once was by years of gruelling combat. Tension within the officers' dugout increases with the arrival of Raleigh, a young lad who hero-worshipped Stanhope when they attended the same school, and who has used family connections to get himself posted alongside his boyhood idol. With the enemy attack imminent and orders not to retreat under any circumstance, both officers and men must find ways of dealing with their dreadful likely fate.
The Juice: Journey's End is adapted from the classic 1928 play by R. C. Sherriff along with its later novelisation. Screenwriter Simon Reade pares down the dialogue of the play, while retaining the essence of the characters along with the most powerful and tender dramatic moments. Under Saul Dibb's well-judged direction, it creates a truly cinematic retelling. The interiors are rendered claustrophobic through the use of natural light (candle-flame flickering on characters' taut faces); then the camera emerges to go winding around the sludge of the trenches, peering occasionally via periscope over the top to the devastation of No Man's Land. The day-to-day grimness of trench life is memorably captured.
A magnificent ensemble cast portrays the soldiers' fear, boredom and camaraderie. Sam Claflin (My Cousin Rachel, Their Finest) is terrific as Stanhope - glimpses of compassion and a sense of natural leadership still discernible within his sardonic, traumatised soul. Asa Butterfield is perfectly cast as Raleigh, the wide-eyed schoolboy idealism being gradually leeched from his face. Stephen Graham and Toby Jones bring humour and humanity as Scouse career soldier Trotter and resourceful chef Mason respectively. But it's Paul Bettany who proves most moving, as second-in-command Osborne - father-figure to all and the definition of grace under pressure. Pipe clenched between his teeth, he's the embodiment of English stoicism and kindness (and even more courageous than he was in the recent Avengers movie). Very quietly he'll break you heart.
The Judgement: 8/10. Journey's End combines the Sherriff play's poetry with the murk and mire of the trenches, embedding us there with its mostly reluctant heroes. This is less a tale of active combat than of waiting for the inevitable - and of clinging to your humanity in the face of it. It's about nobility and decency (and rage and cowardice too) right in the mouth of madness. Impeccably crafted and beautifully played, this will go down as one of the year's most poignant films.  

Saturday, 23 June 2018

DVD/Blu-ray Mini-Review - Wind River (15)

This isn't the land of waiting for back-up. This is the land of you're on your own.

The Gist: The story begins with the tragic death of a young Native American woman on Wind River, a snowbound Wyoming reservation. Jeremy Renner is Cory Lambert, the hunter-tracker who discovers her body. Then when rookie FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is sent to investigate, she enlists his skills to help her track down whoever is responsible. Relations are initially tense between local law enforcement and the novice agent, but that changes when both Lambert and Banner turn out to have an emotional stake in discovering the truth.
The Juice: Writer-director Taylor Sheridan has made his name through taut, spare screenplays for movies such as Sicario and Hell or High Water. He creates a similarly tough and focused thriller here, adding in only whatever backstory is directly applicable to the central investigation. As with Hell, the action plays out on a starkly beautiful and unforgiving landscape, accompanied by an elegiac score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis. Renner and Olsen are an established team from their Marvel Avengers outings and connect instantly. He's stoically bearing the weight of his own tragedy, while she's a resourceful and empathetic young woman, scrabbling for her bearings in a thankless new environment. Graham Greene (Dances With Wolves) is scene-stealing as the police chief giving Olsen her rudimentary orientation, while Menominee Indian actor Apesanahkwat gives an emotionally unsparing performance as the dead girl's devastated father.
The Judgement: 7.5/10. Emotions are raw and so is one traumatic flashback scene, in this streamlined thriller. And your heart will hammer during more than one sequence, as the investigation sparks sudden violence. Like Sheridan's other recent work, however, Wind River shows real depth of social subtext. Interesting that a movie with sparse dialogue can still manage to say so much. 

Thursday, 21 June 2018

Film Review - Hereditary (15)

My mother was a very secretive and private woman.
Welcome, all, to Hereditary - this year's Mother! of a movie. By that I mean an arthouse horror unleashed on multiplex audiences to predictable WTF reactions. The screening I attended had walk-outs, gasps of shock and squawks of laughter - enough to distract from what I was experiencing myself. This is an intense film that will test the patience of some, before taking them to places both credulity-stretching and emotionally intense. It courts (make that flat-out 'demands') a love-it-or-hate-it response, hence the five-star reviews adorning its more recent posters and the scathing internet rants in response. Me - I'm still wrestling with it as I write. Bear with me here...
Hereditary is the feature debut of Ari Aster as both writer and director, and it's strikingly ambitious. The story begins on the day of a funeral, the aged matriarch of the Graham family having passed. She had, according to a eulogy by daughter Annie (Toni Collette), a shadowy private life full of secret 'friends', all of whom are in attendance at the wake. The sense of mystery is enhanced by the spiritualist books the old woman left behind in the family home. Grandma may be gone physically, but for Annie, her husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and son and daughter Peter and Charlie, her weird legacy starts revealing itself in disturbing ways. It will take a heavy toll on every one of them.
Everything in this film has a fine-tuned sense of wrongness from the start. The funeral, its aftermath, the inter-familial relationships - it's all simply off, a notion conveyed via a dozen sweet directorial touches any one of which it'd be a shame to pre-empt. No jump-scares here, this movie never shouts 'Boo!' It's too focused on creating a steady, incrementally building sense of dread through each precisely-judged camera shot and unsettling half-glimpsed image. When the first real shock lands, its does so with real value; rather than propelling you momentarily out of your seat, it sinks right into your bones and settles there.
The cast approach the screenplay's weirdness with a sense of attack. Collette is particularly memorable as Annie. She's muted to begin with, an artist absorbed in creating graphically detailed models of scenes from her life. (These dioramas become a disconcerting motif throughout the film, as the camera glides around them.) Then as her mother's creepy legacy starts to assert itself, she devolves into mania - her grief raw and her fury molten. Byrne is heavy with quiet despair as her husband, and as for the children... Milly Shapiro is pure strangeness in her feature debut as 13-year-old Charlie, while Alex Wolff's disaffected senior high-schooler Peter is dragged through one hellishly scary journey, all of it playing out in his dull eyes. Dysfunction doesn't begin to describe this bunch.
Oh, and Ann Dowd (the formidable Aunt Lydia in The Handmaid's Tale) is terrific as Annie's folksy friend Joan from her support group. On a performance level this has a sense of utter commitment from all concerned, right to the unhinged final act.
Which brings me to the problematic stuff - the bizarre parental choices, the rug-ripping twists, the descent into Utterly Freaking Crazy. Plot-wise you'll leave reeling with questions, many of which might just be answered in online forums or interviews with the director - but should it take that much work? One comparable story of maladjusted family relationships, grief and the supernatural is The Babadook, a film that coheres psychologically in a tighter, neater way, without the viewer struggling to tie it all together. Hereditary is so stuffed with ideas, grandiose in its ambition and titanic in its emotional content, that it's being regarded with either terror or ridicule, dependant on the viewer. Ultimately I felt elements of both.
Horror, like comedy, is a hugely divisive cinema genre. What scares us or makes us laugh is subjective like little else. Hereditary has moments of riveting psycho-drama and creepy genius that are genuinely haunting. But it also threatens to buckle under pressure of its outlandish plot developments and hysteria. As to whether or not it all holds together - that might require a second viewing to decide. But frankly, I'm not sure I want to put myself through it.

Gut Reaction: Intrigued, spooked, shocked, bewildered, irritated, frustrated. All of the above.

Where Are the Women?: Collette is 100% invested in an astonishing role. Shapiro is weirdly mesmerising. And Dowd is an unsung screen treasure. 

Ed's Verdict: 7/10. With its mix of haunted-house malevolence and familial meltdown, it will resonate horribly with some, while alienating others. Call me a fence-sitter. I can't love it, but neither has it left my mind. That's got to count for something.

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Film Review - Ocean's 8 (12A)

What do you think we are, a bunch of pussies?
It's become a Filmic Forays 2018 mission statement to monitor how proportionately (and interestingly) women are represented in modern cinema, something sparked by my Women and Hollywood post. So a comedy heist thriller with all-female leads - good news. That said, taking a male-led franchise and gender-swapping it hasn't proved the wisest way to go about affecting change in a fundamentally blokey industry. 2016's Ghostbusters reboot was not a good advert for the strategy. I approached Ocean's 8 skeptical, but happy to be convinced. And - at least in part - I was.
Sandra Bullock is the Ocean of the title, sister Debbie of George Clooney's Danny from the earlier films. She's been serving prison time for reasons at first unspecified, and on release has no intention of behaving herself. Soon she's working minor scams and hooking up with old partner-in-crime Lou (the always welcome Cate Blanchett) to pull off something a bit more ostentatious - a crime that's been brewing during all those hours and days in lock-up. A perfect crime of course, but one that will require help of a very specific kind - the fence, the forger, the IT whizz, etc. Hence the assemblage of said '8' - enter the likes of Sarah Paulson, Mindy Kaling and Rihanna. 
It's a movie that benefits from a number of canny choices, starting with the use of its talented core ensemble. As with the other Ocean's chapters this is all about the heist, personal subplots be damned (aside from one, which is duly incorporated into the crime plot to crowd-pleasing effect). The girls are characterised only as much as necessary - each has her own perfectly-tailored look and idiosyncrasies - and work together with the same clockwork efficiency as the guys did. The Vegas-style glitz of the original trilogy is replaced with the classier feel of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the film's main sequence centring on its annual Gala. A more exquisitely tasteful brand of bling, if you like, one that's matched by attractive but restrained cinematography. This Ocean's instalment achieves its own visual stamp.
As for the performances, they're all on point. Bullock is at her coolest as the band's criminal master-brain, Blanchett supplying a complimentary toughness as her suited-and-booted right hand woman. Helena Bonham-Carter's patented brand of quirkiness is much lower-key than expected, rapper-turned-actress Awkwafina supplying greater quirk-factor as the light-fingered skateboarding Constance. Rihanna puts in a commendable turn as streetwise computer hacker Nine Ball, but for my money Anne Hathaway stole it. Every scene she's in as purring actress Daphne Kluger (at the plum centre of the heist) is a subtle delight. 
If I have one negative, it's that the movie is too damn understated for its own good. Yes it's sharply edited and zips along aided by a nifty soundtrack, but  - whether from script of performances - it could actually do with a bit more pizazz. A few more zingy one-liners and moments of clammy-palmed jeopardy, some extra adrenaline. The whole thing is beautifully crafted down to each totally styling lead - now pump a few hundred volts of additional electricity through it and we'd have us a movie that really works. 
Still, it's great to see the girls working it like a team with no irritating love-interests to get in the way (proving that women can succeed in criminality just as well as men - an inspiring lesson). And unlike the Ghostbusters remake, it does enough to justify its existence in broader terms than the gender difference. With the film's US box office success, we can completely expect Ocean's 9. So more of the same please, but with the added oomph that'll make this franchise reinvention really special.
Gut Reaction: Liked at all points rather than loved, with a few genuinely satisfying moments late in the game.

Where Are the Women?: For once it's a case of Where Are the Men? They're mostly peripheral, though Richard Armitage and (oddly) James Cordon show up in significant roles.

Ed's Verdict: 6.5/10. It looks great, it's got nice attitude, its formidable leads combine swagger with poise. Ocean's 8 is a solidly enjoyable two hours, even if it never sizzles like it truly should. 

Tuesday, 12 June 2018

Film Review - Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (12A)

A rescue op, save the dinosaurs from an island that's about to explode. What could go wrong?
Let's state it up front - 1993's Jurassic Park was a milestone in popular cinema, the excitement of which can never be recaptured by any sequel. Remember how you felt, watching it that first time... 'Look, there are actual freaking dinosaurs on the screen! Massive, lumbering, rampaging beasts from sixty-five million years ago - chasing down a jeep, stalking kids through a kitchen, eating that guy on the toilet! Aaaaargh!' No - never can that sense of wonder be replicated. That said, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is probably as entertaining as any subsequent film in the dino-franchise is going to get. And that's still pretty damn entertaining.
Our latest chapter follows on from the 2015 Jurassic World reboot, in which all of the original island had been successfully turned into the massive theme park of John Hammond's dreams. (Successful that is, until all visitor-chomping hell was unleashed once more.) Chris Pratt returns in Fallen Kingdom as raptor-whisperer Owen Grady, as does Bryce Dallas Howard, her control-freak park manager having been transformed into a fervent dinosaur-rights activist. 
This time around the island's dormant volcano has turned implacably active, so that all its prehistoric inhabitants face annihilation. Let nature take its course, advises Jeff Goldblum in a welcome cameo reappearance as Dr Ian Malcolm. But will all the right people listen? Of course they won't. Both Claire and Owen are enlisted by a team intent on dinosaur rescue/relocation and off they head once more for the deadly Costa Rica location. Problem is, some of those connected with the project - and you never saw this coming because you haven't seen any films before - are harbouring dark ulterior motives that will threaten everyone's safety. 
The thing to accept from the opening is that everyone, whether out of altruism or greed, is basing their actions on some arguably ludicrous choices. Once you swallow that, it's fun all the way. A rainswept opening sequence reestablishes the primeval critters as an satisfyingly scary threat. Then ten minutes' plot exposition later our leads are desperately trying to survive a monster/disaster-movie mash-up, as humans and dinos get threatened alike by the self-destructing Isla Nublar. It makes for a literally and figuratively explosive first half, before the movie undergoes a radical transformation into Gothic horror. Bombast gives way to creepiness - a delicious turnaround that gives the movie its second wind.
That everything looks so beautiful and flows so smoothly is much to do with director J. A. Bayona, who brought us environmental mayhem in tsunami drama The Impossible and dark children's fantasy with A Monster Calls. His artist's eye provides the island's final moments with an awesome beauty, then later he conjures memories of silent-era vampire Nosferatu with a scene involving a particularly nasty taloned beastie. He handles the action well too, the typically splendid Jurassic effects enhanced by sharp visual storytelling. It makes for one exhilarating sequence after another. 
The central couple have sparkier chemistry second time around, partly due to a wittier script that balances their relationship. Pratt is at his most likeably self-deprecating, whether reconnecting with his raptor-pal Blue or having a lava-related close shave. Howard meanwhile is out of high-heels and emotionally beefed up, a transformation from the irritating corporate cliche she played last time around. Together they're clearly having a blast. Plus they're ably supported by new cinema faces Daniella Pineda and Justice Smith - respectively a dinosaur vet with no actual hands-on experience and a terrified tech genius. Oh, and there's lots of scene-chewing villainy by the likes of Toby Jones. (Any film improves the instant he appears on screen.) 
With its evolving eco subtext Fallen Kingdom is a significantly smarter film than its monster competitor Rampage - but it's still not going to snag any Nobel science awards. It exists to elicit some of the rush we felt watching its Nineties predecessor, while establishing enough personality of its own to make the experience worthwhile. Well, consider the job done.    
Gut Reaction: Low expectations work their magic again. T's that old familiar sense of awe, with quite a lot of laughter for good measure.

Where Are the Women?: Howard is a heroine to root for properly this time, and Pineda is gutsy from the get-go. Young Isabella Sermon is feisty (and only occasionally annoying) as the inevitable kid-in-peril.

Ed's Verdict: 7.5/10. Fallen Kingdom is smartly structured and made with verve plus a bit of visual flair. It's the Jurassic movie fans deserved - and in my book the best since the original. Have fun.

Monday, 11 June 2018

Film Review - On Chesil Beach (15)

Actually I'm a little bit scared.
'Sexual intercourse was invented in nineteen-sixty-three,' said Philip Larkin in his poem Annus Mirabilis, a lament about being born too early to enjoy the benefits of Britain's sexual revolution. It's not for nothing that Ian McEwan set On Chesil Beach, his story of love, frustration and the fear of intimacy, one year earlier. Florence and Edward, the story's fumbling protagonists, bring all the repression of the pre-Beatles era to their marriage bed with painfully funny but potentially disastrous consequences. 
McEwan adapted the screenplay from his own bestselling novella, and retains the book's structure. The couple are at their honeymoon hotel overlooking the spectacular Dorset beach of the film's title, treading a tentative path towards their first night together as husband and wife. Edward (Billy Howle) is gauche and clumsy, clearly less experienced than he might want to admit. Florence (Saoirse Ronan) meanwhile exhibits barely disguised terror at the prospect of their physical union. They both clearly love each other, but struggle to connect on this new level. As their evening progresses, the story flashes back repeatedly to their pasts, hinting at the people and events that have shaped who they are, bringing them to this place where neither can communicate with the other when it is so essential.
Allowing McEwan to do the screen-writing here proves a fine choice. Like his earlier novel Atonement, this is a story about a pivotal moment in people's lives - the influences feeding into it and the consequences spiralling outwards. The movie version of Atonement was ambitious in its scope and splendidly acted, but it's the modestly-scaled On Chesil Beach that better captures the inner lives of its main characters, mining their pasts for the reasons they act as they do. It's all expertly sketched by the author. While these newlyweds are each other's intellectual equal (she's a concert violinist, he an aspiring historian), it's issues of class and religion as well as the expectations of family and society that threaten to wreck their marriage before it has begun. 
Ronan, (so precocious in Lady Bird and in Atonement itself), brings a sympathy and warmth to Florence that nicely undercuts the brittle panic of her wedding-night. Howle (a petty-officer in last year's magnificent Dunkirk) is a strong match for her, his academic intelligence hampered by clumsiness both social and physical; neither type helps ease the situation's pressure. Together these two have the audience willing their happiness, even as the cringe-inducing mini-disasters accumulate.
There's a peppering of great support performances too (all four vastly differing parents are nailed by top-rate British character actors) and Anton Lesser puts in a neat cameo as a less-than-helpful vicar. The direction and cinematography provide a restrained feel, overcast skies and pebbled strand serving as a perfectly subdued background to the unfolding relationship crisis. The music works perfectly too, evocative classical tracks complimenting an original score (the deft and melancholy touch of Lady Macbeth's Dan Jones). It all serves to blend the film's present with its flashback past into a compelling psychological whole.
With the writer of the original novel so intimately (and intuitively) involved, On Chesil Beach comes as close as any film could to transferring McEwan's sublime writing to the screen. The movie is leisurely in the telling for sure, but this is all about the painful minutiae of human interactions and no awkward nuance is missed. Florence and Edward's love story is far from conventional, and for that reason you won't easily (if ever) forget it.    
Gut Reaction: A kind of excruciating amusement/sympathy to begin with, along with a whole other kind of sexual tension. And then moved, in a pretty profound way.

Where Are the Women?: Saoirse (Seer-sha) is excellent again. Add Anne-Marie Duff and Emily Watson as the mums, plus up-and-comer Bebe Cave as Florence's giddy sister. Top representation.

Ed's Verdict: 7.5/10. With its stark beauty this is as good an adaptation of McEwan's novella as its creators could have managed, anchored splendidly by the hapless honeymooners. Sexual repression could scarcely be more poignantly conveyed.

Wednesday, 6 June 2018

Film Review - Book Club (12A)

We are NOT reading this book.
Diane Keaton. Jane Fonda. Candice Bergen. Mary Steenburgen. Four magnificent actresses, whose combined careers span just shy of two hundred years (I went to and did the mathematics). Any one of these women should be a delight to watch on screen and from the ensemble you'd expect a scintillating comedy-drama experience. It saddens me then to report that their efforts have resulted in a film as drab and pedestrian as Book Club. And considering that the movie is all about revving up your life, that's just a tad ironic. 
The quartet play longterm friends and members of the eponymous club, whose love-lives are shaken up when Vivian (Fonda) introduces the others to Fifty Shades of Grey (the entire damn trilogy) as their new read. Each of these professionally successful women is allotted a swiftly defined role by the screenplay. Keaton is recently widowed and not planning on any immediate romantic entanglements. Bergen is divorced and focusing on her work to the exclusion of all else. Steenburgen, while happily married, longs for the spark of passion to return. And Fonda herself is the eternally, enthusiastically single gal, eschewing commitment in favour of casual flings. All four find themselves shaken up by the venture into erotic literature, with varied and - um - hilarious consequences. 
Look - here at Filmic Forays it's all about keeping an open mind. I made an effort to sideline any instinctive prejudice regarding the movie's glaring product placement of the Grey novels. The Fifty Shades series is a bona fide cultural phenomenon after all, and it's perfectly legitimate to explore the books' effect on modern women through screen drama. Plus with vintage Hollywood guys resuscitating their flagging libidos in movies like Last Vegas and The Bucket List, it's only fair that their female counterparts get to do the same. But it would be good to see them do so with real daring and comedic bite, rather than in something as insipid as this.
The film is resolutely mainstream from its start to its pat and overtly soppy end, with broad characterisations and plot-development-by-numbers. What promised to be an audacious exploration of older female sexuality is in actual fact a bog-standard romcom with a lot of lame innuendo strewn along the way. These four supposedly literate and fiercely intelligent protagonists are given nothing to prove their credentials in dialogue that seldom rises above the bland, forcing the question 'What the hell were they reading, before they discovered E. L. James?' Oh, and 'Why do they scarcely allude to any of these other books?'
Let me stress - the movie's deficiencies owe precisely nothing to its leads, all of whom strive valiantly to shape smart, entertaining personalities out of the drab source material. Their believability as lifelong companions almost acts as a saving grace, while as individuals they produce some hard-earned character moments. (Bergen is droll, Keaton even achieves 'touching' at one point.) The guys put in nice work too; Andy Garcia is suave as Keaton's love-interest, Craig T. Nelson a likeable curmudgeon as Steenburgen's husband. But if a mediocre actor can be buoyed up by good writing, here it's the reverse - a formidable cast breathing all the life they can into a dying script. 
I know, I know - I'm not part of the target audience, but I do have the capacity to look past genre and acknowledge a job well done, when it's well done. Tully wasn't made with me in mind, nor was A Bad Moms Christmas, but to varying extents I enjoyed both. By the same token, Book Club falls short - not because of the subject-matter, but due to the lameness with which its dealt. And that, with the riches of talent on board, is a true shame. 
Gut Reaction: A few smirks (I'm as vulnerable to a 'pussy' pun as anyone) and a few cringes. But mostly a sense of time passing really slowly.

Where Are the Women?: They're here and they're great, but they're all terribly ill-served.

Ed's Verdict: 4/10. I truly hoped to be nicer, but honesty overrules. Dull and predictable, and a wasted opportunity to give great actresses something truly subversive and fun.