Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Film Review - The Girl in the Spider's Web (15)

Are you not Lisbeth Salander, the righter of wrongs?
Full disclosure here - I've not seen any of the original Girl films starring Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander. Nor have I seen David Fincher's remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo with Rooney Mara in the role. I haven't even got much knowledge of the late Stieg Larsson's original novels - hell, every reviewer has a few blind-spots, okay? Point is, I can't write as a fan here. I'm only talking about the movie in context of itself. And in those terms at least, it works passably well.
Claire Foy straps on Lisbeth's boots in The Girl in the Spider's Web, a film adapted from David Lagercrantz's continuation of Larsson's stories. The tatted Goth antiheroine is working as a computer hacker for hire, while carrying out acts of nighttime vigilantism on abusive men. (It's good to have a stimulating hobby.) Through her day job she meets Frans Balder (Stephen Merchant), a computer programmer who - Oppenheimer-style - has come to regret the weapons-related tech he created. He employs her to steal it back so that no government can put it to use, but Lisbeth's are not the only eyes on this potentially deadly prize. And the other party may have a link right back to a dark secret from her childhood.
Directed by Fede Alvarez this new Girl is a handsomely made and tightly plotted espionage thriller with action overtones. Its colour palette is blue-grey, emphasising both the grimmer aspects of human nature examined in the story and Sweden's chilly beauty. (Lisbeth's main antagonist stands out on the bleak and sweeping landscapes in primary red.) The deliberate pace builds - accompanied by a rich, electronically-spiked orchestral score - to its sufficiently nail-biting crescendo. And all plot points - Swedish governmental manoeuvring, a US National Security agent's snooping, the investigations of Lisbeth's old journalist friend Mikael Blomqvist (Sverrir Gudnason) - knit together by the end. It's a point seriously in the movie's favour, following the catastrophe that was last year's The Snowman; solid storytelling, never less than engaging.
Foy has a good old stab at the lead character too, immersing herself in a role far flung from Elizabeth II (Brit TV's royal phenomenon The Crown) or stoic astronaut's wife Janet Armstrong (First Man). This woman has range. Her physicality and demeanour are both transformed as she commits to the taciturn complexities of Salander, not least in an early sequence where she proves her vigilante credentials beyond all doubt. It's not ultimately as visceral a performance as say that of Charlize Theron in Atomic Blonde - something betrayed in a few irritatingly choppy hand-to-hand combat sequences - but this is still an impressive transformation, helping sell the story's more outlandish aspects.
Still, as confessed, I'm not a Salander aficionado, which no doubt explains the more lukewarm reaction to the film by Larssen enthusiasts. This sleek film doesn't, they assure me, match up to the original Swedish-language trilogy, nor does it plumb those movies' pitch darkness, despite the underlying theme of abuse and its terrible consequences. This much I will question - the wisdom of creating all-new backstory for a well-established protagonist. It's always problematic tinkering with the continuity of a long-running franchise - just look at Jason Bourne. Or the new Fantastic Beasts. Don't mess too much with the earlier films' legacy, that seems to be the lesson.
Spider's Web is full of comfortably familiar spy tropes and political double-cross, while the attempts of Lisbeth and her nemesis to out-manoeuvre each other play like a deadly chess match. As to its worth in terms of the Larsson legacy, others must be the judge of that. For me it was a smart and well-executed ride, and a perfectly engrossing stand-alone adventure that didn't seem to compromise its enigmatic lead. Maybe I'll reevaluate once I've seen the originals... 
Gut Reaction: A sufficiently high level of enjoyment for me to think 'I'm really enjoying this'. Although some of the more twisted elements did chill me.

Where Are the Women?: Female protagonist and antagonist playing that scary game of metaphorical chess. Very 2018.

Ed's Verdict: 7/10. Whether or not this is classic Girl, it's a solid genre pic and a decent night out. And that's all I have to say.

Friday, 23 November 2018

Theatre Review - Table (Tower Theatre Company)

Go on then, table, you were there, you've always been there, you speak.
One table - worn, scuffed, scratched and stained over six generations. This hand-crafted heirloom of the Best family has seen and borne it all - conception, death and every raw life experience in between. It's a lot for any piece of furniture to bear, let alone a theatrical production, but Tower Theatre carry the ambition of Tanya Ronder's play with apparent ease. I say apparent because this polished product is clearly the result of hard and detailed graft.
Table begins in the late 19th and early 21st centuries, as the table's maker - carpenter David Best - applies loving final touches to his creation, while over a century later his descendent Gideon pores over the wood's many blemishes. But the scars in the wood are nothing to those inflicted, however inadvertently, by Best family members on each other. Starting and ending in England, Ronder's saga takes us halfway around the world and back with the eponymous table in tow. It braves some emotionally dark territory in charting one line of the family tree and how pain can be paid forward down the branches, but there's humour too - along with love and regret and a yearning to make amends.
Tower's production takes the same loving approach to the play as David to one of his newly crafted furnishings. At the beginning the component parts of this non-linear narrative are disjointed, but by the end they dovetail into something genuinely beautiful. The table as focal point has inspired the production's theatre-in-the-round setting along with its minimalism, both lighting and sound subtly enhancing the action. Multi-stranded acapella singing by the actors, of songs passed down through the family, is particularly effective in joining things together - and at points the music is spine-tinglingly gorgeous. 
As for the ensemble, their talents have been shaped into something truly impressive. A cast of nine take on twenty-three roles and while immaculate costume choices help them out, the transformations are largely achieved through physicality (likewise the massive age-range from newborn to grandparent). When an actor walks off returning moments later as his own dad, and the audience instantly makes the adjustment, you know how much this production is getting right. Nor does it seem wise to pick out individual performances from so tight-knit a piece of storytelling. Everyone has their moment, so that even one of the more subdued characters can suddenly deliver an emotional belter of a scene out of nowhere.
Table's first act engages through painstakingly observed character work and the intrigue of all those family connections, before ending on a strikingly surreal, amusing and poignant set-piece. But it's only been warming its audience up. Act two will knock you into submission with a series of powerfully delivered emotional punches - some tender, some devastating. To the show's credit it also succeeds in being hugely funny. I laughed louder than at most film comedies this year and - yes - I cried your actual tears. The rest of the time I just sat mesmerised. 
I'm being vague, I know, because one of the joys of this experience was being surprised. Table is a play of quite staggering ambition, but Simona Hughes' production for Tower wrangles it into a coherent whole - a story that's as moving as it is intermittently hilarious... as it is thought-provoking. 
You can still see it at Tower Theatre, Northwold Road, Stoke Newington on 23 & 24 November (7.30pm, Sat. matinee 3.00pm) and 27 Nov - 1 Dec (7.30pm, Sat. matinee 3.00pm). Click here to access the Tower online Box Office. I strenuously recommend that you do. A seat at this Table is something to cherish.

Thursday, 22 November 2018

Film Review - Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (12A)

You're too good, Newt. You never met a monster you couldn't love.
I'm going to cut right to the chase here. Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is a big, beautiful... mess. There is much to enjoy in J K Rowling's second foray into the 1920s Wizarding World, so many individual moments to love. However there's simply no bypassing the film's basic flaws. 2016's Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them told a story with a coherent narrative that tied its up threads in satisfying fashion, while teasing out a few tantalising strands for the sequel. This new movie is a whole different beast - undeniably fantastic, but equally frustrating.

The central problem is the plotting, of which there is so, so much.
The story picks up in 1927 a year on from the previous film, with the dark wizard Gellart Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) breaking out from enchanted custody and resuming his search for the powerfully magic young Credence (Ezra Miller), who he wants to groom for his own nefarious purposes. Reticent hero Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) discovers that the British Ministry of Magic wants to hunt down Credence too - and destroy him. Then Newt is sent on a mission of his own by none other than a young(er) Albus Dumbledore, to save the young man's life. 
That little lot we could deal with along with the saga's romantic complications, but several additional plot lines are woven in, resulting in a narrative too splintered to cohere properly. Only in the film's latter stages does it all come together (and that's by way of several hefty exposition dumps). The result is that you're unable to focus properly on any one thread. It's not helped by a narrative choppiness - possibly due to editors hacking Rowling's labyrinthine narrative into a manageable running time - so that certain popular characters' story arcs get disappointingly short-changed.  
It's a massive shame, because this movie is crammed with delights deserving of a tighter showcase. David Yates and his team share a decade of experience on these movies, so the world-building is staggeringly good ('20s London and Paris both look magnificent and the return to Hogwarts is triumphant). James Newton Howard's score will make souls soar. The beasts themselves are creations of wonder and the humans are even better. 
Chief among these is Redmayne, who inhabits the awkward and endearing Newt completely - a wholly unexpected and refreshing kind of leading man. But Jude Law is also a terrific Dumbledore, Dan Folger heartbreakingly sincere as Newt's muggle-pal Jacob, Zoe Kravitz poignant as his old schoolfriend Leta Lestrange... And Depp exudes slurry menace as the elegantly wasted antagonist. Everyone is on point here, they just need more room to breathe and expand, particularly the smashing Goldstein sisters.
As ever there's no shortage of ingenuity in Rowling's screenplay; she clearly loves developing her own creation (even if the story appears to chuck a few bombs into her own literary canon). There are great ideas about insidious politics and how good people can be duped by evil, along with the clever integration of fantasy with actual 20th century events. But oh it needs proper space and clarity.   
The film's ending sweeps away much of the clutter, so that Fantastic Beasts 3 will have a chance to shape itself into something more focused. But for this episode the problems are already built in. If you're a Potter-head - and it seems I am - then you'll probably have a fun and absorbing experience in spite of the deficiencies. For Wizarding World agnostics, however, The Crimes of Grindelwald will prove the wrong kind of overwhelming. 
Gut Reaction: Real enjoyment with moments of wonder, humour and emotion. But a sadness feeling too as it all failed to gel.

Where Are the Women?: J K is a genius, but her sheer ambition got the better of her this time around. And some of her fascinating female characters (along with the male!) suffered as consequence.

Ed's Verdict: 6.5/10. Fantastic Beasts 2 is a constant source of delights and at points has a genuine awe-factor. I just wish it had come together into a satisfyingly unified story.

Monday, 19 November 2018

DVD/Blu-ray Mini-Review - First Reformed (15)

Even Jesus wasn't always in the Garden.
The Gist: Ethan Hawke plays Reverend Ernst Toller, pastor of First Reformed Church in upstate New York. He's a man bearing a weight of personal tragedy, while searching for his place in the modern world as a man of God - documenting his tortured thoughts in a hand-written journal. His congregation is dwindling; First Reformed is more museum than active place of worship, in contrast to the nearby, thriving Abundant Life. Then he is asked by his pregnant congregant Mary (Amanda Seyfried) to speak to her husband Michael, a deeply troubled environmental activist. The encounter has a catalytic effect in the mind of the already troubled priest, sending him down an unexpected and obsessive path.
The Juice: Written and directed by veteran Paul Schrader (the pen behind challenging stories like Taxi Driver and Raging Bull), First Reformed is as tough-minded a film as you'll see this year, while also starkly beautiful. It's a lean and sharp-etched piece of storytelling, boxed in by the aspect ratio of its frames (call it 'narrowscreen') and presented largely with static camera shots. It also has a minimal music score, creating an austere feel in keeping with the Calvinist setting. Hawke's performance is mature and compelling, a portrait of suppressed turmoil that occasionally bursts into heated expression. Like Travis Bickle (the taxi-driving protagonist of Schrader's 1976 classic screenplay) before him, Rev. Toller is on a scary trajectory. Meanwhile Seyfried brings warmth to the movie's cold world, comedian Cedric the Entertainer convinces as the reverend's weary mentor, and Philip Ettinger plumbs depths of despair as Michael. Schrader has immaculate control of it all, steering his fiercely provocative tale to a conclusion that will linger long in the memory.
The Judgement: 9/10. First Reformed is far from comfortable viewing, but the film exerts a strange hold from its earliest scenes that builds into something quite astonishing. It tackles global concerns of environmentalism, corporate greed and extremism, but filters them through one man's existential crisis and his efforts to locate hope in despair. It's also character-based storytelling from a master - one who's back at the height of his powers. 

Saturday, 17 November 2018

Film Review - Overlord (18)

A thousand year Reich needs thousand year soldiers.
Now that cinema screens are filling up with family-friendly holiday titles, what do we need to stop it all getting too sickly? That's right - American GIs fighting genetically altered Nazi-mutant super-soldiers. Call it a seasonal palate cleanser. Overlord is as much fun as I just made that sound (i.e. lots), but with rather more brains and heart than you might expect, not all of them gratuitously splattered across hard surfaces.
It's 5th June 1944, the eve of the D-Day landings, and one task-force of soldiers has a specific mission - to parachute into rural France and destroy a radio tower, thus disrupting Nazi communications and helping out the main invasion force. Things go wrong from the early stages, only a ragged band of survivors making it to the mission site - and that's before a whole other sinister truth is uncovered. Nazi scientists have been carrying out some deeply unpleasant experiments on the local populace, with a terrifying, game-changing goal in mind. The GIs' mission is now doubly deadly, as well as doubly essential. 
If this all sounds the stuff of 1980s B-movie exploitation, well yes - of course it is. But it's got quite a lot else going for it too. Produced by J. J. Abrams Overlord a is handsome-looking movie, right from the impressive (and terrifying) aerial sequence with which it opens. Behind the story are two proven screenwriters, adding some dramatic weight and ingenuity to the unashamedly schlocky subject-matter. Rather than being a combat movie ham-fistedly reshaped as a horror halfway through, it manages to embrace both genres at once, the weirder elements acting as an extension of the main Second World War tale. Both aspects of the film are gutsy, in figurative and literal ways.
There are characters you end up rooting for too, as opposed to the disposable type in traditional B-movies. None are drawn in Shakespearian depth, but they're adequately sketched - the combat-hardened corporal who takes charge, the wise-cracking cynic, the small-town guy who barely survived boot camp - so you'll care whether or not they make it through their gory ordeal. Grounding it all is Private Ed Boyce, a gentle but heroic everyman, who provides the story's through-line and its conscience. It's a fine performance by Brit actor Jovan Adepo (Denzel Washington's son in last year's Fences), as nuanced as the lunatic plot will allow. 
Overlord is a grim and glorious fusion of The Dirty Dozen with David Cronenberg-style body horror. It's rammed with thrilling battle sequences, twisted science and evil Nazis just begging for a comeuppance (37 years on from Raiders of the Lost Ark they're still the most hissable movie villains on the big screen). Director Julius Avery knows the kind of property he's working with here and he makes the most of it in a pacy, certificate-18 adventure, his personal high-point being the initial aircraft catastrophe and its flailing aftermath. Under his guidance pulp fiction has seldom been more squelchy - or more balls-to-the-wall entertaining. 
If your attitude to the approach of Christmas is Grinch-like, well - here's your perfect antidote. Keep your rifle close and give those Nazis hell.
Gut Reaction: Increased body tension, several jumps, a few laughs, a number of horror-induced cringes, a building sense of exhilaration and a whispered expression of the sentiment 'This is great!'.

Where Are the Women?: There's only one female character in this boys' own horror/adventure-fest, Resistance fighter Chloe (Mathilde Ollivier). Happily she's front and centre, and progressively more badass as the story progresses. So that's good.

Ed's Verdict: 7.5/10. Replete with full-blooded irony-free performances and gory practical effects, this is rollicking wartime adventure for the non-squeamish. Loved it.

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

Festive Forays - Dr Suess' The Grinch (U)

Leave me, Max. I want to be alone.
Illumination Pictures' The Grinch is the latest incarnation of a 60-year American institution - Dr Suess' tale of a Scrooge-rivalling Christmas-hater and of how he comes to embrace the true spirit of the season. Seuss' classic children's poem - How the Grinch Stole Christmas - was most recently adapted for the screen in Ron Howard's 2000 effort, with its hairy green protagonist given a live-action makeover. Epic schmaltz colliding with Jim Carrey's rubber-faced mania. This latest Grinch retelling is big, bold and full of animated cuteness, from the people who gave you Despicable Me and Minions. For my money it's more palatable than the Howard version - though it's still a lot of Christmas to stomach.
The Grinch (as you're probably aware) is a misanthropic beast, whose mountain cave overlooks the Christmas-loving town of Whoville. So great is his antipathy towards the Yuletide festival that he plots to become what's effectively the AntiSanta, stealing into the Who residences on Christmas Eve and thieving all things festive to the last scrap of tinsel, with a view to dumping it all off a cliff-edge. 
That basic template is followed here, with a few noteworthy additions. The Grinch, for example, is a lover of gadgets, his loyal dog Max acting as Gromit to his mean-spirited Wallace. Who-child Cindy Lou is transformed from the poem into an action-heroine on a mission to meet Santa. And most significantly the film delves back into the question of why the Grinch steals Christmas - the reasons behind that heart being 'two sizes too small'. He's more anti-hero than villain, see, much in the style of Despicable Me's Gru. He's too funny and too fond of his doggie companion for the target audience not to love him. A gleefully crotchety voice performance by Benedict Cumberbatch only adds to that effect.
Children will adore The Grinch in all aspects. The animation is on point throughout - visual dazzlement is a given these days with the big specialist studios - and all of the Grinch's inventions are magnificently conceived. Max is a winsome canine sidekick and only one of numerous adorable critters; Illumination Pictures is particularly good at these, with an overfed reindeer named Fred serving as a comedy highlight. There are pratfalls aplenty and the visual humour is all judged with timing for which most live-action comedies can only wish.
As for the adults in the room, this might just be Christmas overload in a story that's all too familiar to provide genuine surprises. The Who Yuletide (Whultide?) celebrations are so colossal in scale that they rather undermining the whole 'Christmas exists in the heart' message. It's spectacle saturation, making you long for something a little bit lower key. And while the script is sound, most of the funniest bits are indeed in the trailer. (Moments involving some over-enthusiastic carol singers and an immense pipe organ do provide an unexpected grin however.)
The Grinch is a finely-tuned marvel of contemporary animation and something of a crowd-pleaser, especially if the crowd is largely young. What it perhaps lacks, due to its sheer level of technical showing-off and its determination to create the biggest bestest  animated Christmas ever, is genuine heart. Someone get in touch with Alanis Morissette - because in a retelling of the Grinch story, that's ironic.
Gut Reaction: Quite a lot of chuckling, though not as much as I'd been hoping.

Where Are the Women?: Cindy-Lou is a feisty and capable little heroine and her mom has the Christmas kitchen so under control that it'll make some viewers spit.

Ed's Verdict: 7/10. Full of technical brio and cute characters - but like last week's Nutcracker it doesn't quite achieve that classic Christmas movie status. 

Friday, 9 November 2018

Film Review - Widows (15)

Our husbands aren't coming back. We're on our own.
UK Filmic Forays readers of a certain age will remember Widows, the hard-boiled '80s TV crime drama that Lynda La Plante adapted from her own novel. Director Steve McQueen certainly recalls it; those gutsy female leads remained with him for three decades, so that this new version of the story has become his surprising follow-up to 12 Years a Slave. He shrewdly brought Gone Girl/Sharp Objects writer Gillian Flynn on board too, to create the screenplay. Their collaboration - like you might have anticipated - has forged a riveting crime thriller with added depth and contemporary relevance.
The big-screen Widows relocates to modern-day Chicago and plunges us straight into the blood and bullets of a heist gone terribly wrong. It's one from which none of the thieves will survive. Veronica Rawlings, wife of the criminal group's leader, is still reeling from the loss of her husband (a cameoing Liam Neeson), when she discovers a second harsh truth. The robbers have stolen from local gangster-turned-politician Jamal Manning, and he's demanding that the debt be paid in full by those they left behind. Fast running out of time, Veronica (Viola Davis) enlists the aid of two more women widowed by the heist and pitches a daring idea - they will work through the plans for the next robbery their late husbands had lined up and carry it out themselves. 
Widows is a heist movie the way HBO's The Wire was a crime drama, i.e. it's that and vastly more. The genius begins with Flynn's screen-writing - she tells the story of a complex heist with smart economy, while connecting the women's narrative to that of warring local politicians. Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell play two generations of a mayoral dynasty, whose reign is being challenged by the widows' nemesis Manning (Brian Tyree Henry). Veronica and co are snared somewhere in between. The minor miracle is that all these characters and their stories have room to expand, achieving a degree of complexity within the tightly plotted framework. 
Add to that McQueen's hold on the story - constantly challenging our expectations, with every shot crafted to deepen appreciation of character and location. Under his steely gaze Chicago itself comes into sharp focus with its ethnic and financial divides. But he also knows how to tell a good crime story, making the most of all the surprises in Flynn's devious script. And he lets the camera linger on the faces of his actors, capturing every flicker of emotion as events push towards their crisis.

There are no off-note performances here, just excellent ones. Eighty-eight-year-old Robert Duvall has power and ferocity as veteran politician Tom Mulligan, while Daniel Kaluuya (so amiable in Get Out) is properly scary as Jamal's psychopathic brother.
Farrell and Henry impress too, but as with the '80s TV show, this is all about the women. Davis, who carved out that Best Supporting Oscar in Fences, is a powerhouse here as the formidable Veronica. She's hurting, scared and vulnerable, but she also radiates strength as the widows' rallying point. Michelle Rodriguez tempers her usual toughness as the one mother in the group, while Cynthia Erivo (sensational in Bad Times at the El Royale) has bags of attitude as the one non-widow enlisted to help them. And rounding out the team is The Night Manager's Elizabeth Debicki, whose journey as serial-victim Alice is perhaps the most striking of the movie. Watching these gals pick up where their husbands left off is nothing short of enthralling.
As a heist story Widows doesn't let down - the central set-piece is as taut (fuelled by Hans Zimmer's score) as you might hope. But it's also a fascinating study of social conflict along lines of gender, race and economics. And at its heart is the bond of necessity between these four desperate, disparate female anti-heroes. They're not good-girls, but you'll come to see things from their viewpoint, and by the end you'll be rooting for them every hard-fought, potentially disastrous step of the way.
Gut Reaction: Locked in from the heart-pounding opening scenes, then regularly blind-sided - by unexpected plot curves and great moments of performances.

Where Are the Women?: See the film's title. Also its amazing writer. And look out for Jacki Weaver's amazing cameo as Alice's mother.

Ed's Verdict: 9/10. Intelligent multi-layered movie-making that demands to be seen again. The lesson? That with the right people doing it, a riveting genre flick and a work of art can be one and the same thing.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

DVD/Blu-ray Mini-Review - Swimming With Men (12A)

No one talks about swim club.
The Gist: Rob Brydon plays Eric Scott, a middle-aged accountant stifled by his job and despairing of his marriage, who discovers an all-male synchronised swimming team at his local pool. In the throes of his mid-life crisis he is welcomed by the group, men in similar turmoil to himself. 'Swim club' is as much a way of life/means of male-bonding as a hobby, and nothing to do with competition - that's until the prospect of the men's world synchronised swimming championship comes into view. Coached by pool employee Susan, the boys bicker and splash their way towards the possibility of international glory in their unlikely choice of sport.
The Juice: Swimming With Men takes clear inspiration from The Full Monty and while it doesn't share the 1997 phenomenon's social bite, it does have a few things to say about male identity and the soul-sucking nature of the modern workplace. It's all conveyed with warmth and humour, director Oliver Parker (Johnny English Reborn, Dad's Army) nicely conveying Eric's white-collar anguish and the zen-like calm he experiences underwater. Praise too for smart editing that sharpens the effect of an already well-crafted screenplay that weaves in multiple character subplots with ease. Brydon plays the hero with lugubrious charm (British TV viewers already know how naturally funny he is), while the other swimmers - Rupert Graves, Downton Abbey's Jim Carter, Daniel Mays, This is England's Thomas Turgoose and Adeel Akhtar - prove a consistently funny and likeable ensemble, who actually succeed in some impressive synchronised moves. And as Susan, Peaky Blinders' Charlotte Riley kicks their swimming-trunked backsides with surprising ferocity.  
The Judgement: 7/10. There's a good deal of fun to be had with this saggy waterlogged bunch and their comic-heroic attempts at looking graceful in water. While the premise is slight on paper and the script hits lots of conventional beats, the camaraderie between this bunch is tangible, providing much laughter with rather than at them and keeping the whole story comfortably afloat (badum tish!). Inspired by the true story of the Swedish men's synchronised swim team and featuring a cameo from that aquatic Skandi band, this is a thoroughly enjoyable Monty-esque romp that earns it feel-good moments and almost makes me want to go back to the pool. Almost.