Saturday, 29 December 2018

Filmic Forays - Top Ten Films of 2018

It's that time again! The time when I berate myself for all the films I failed to see over the past twelve months, and which therefore can't be considered for this list. Last year, for example, I missed out on Call Me By Your Name and The Florida Project, either of which, it turned out, might well have made my Top Ten list, thus preventing all the flack I took for including Mother!
As for this year's list, it won't (because it can't) include American Animals, Cold War, Shoplifters or Sorry to Bother You, each of which has received glowing praise from people whose filmic opinions I respect. And I'm a total Netflix newb as well, so most of the movies released on that esteemed platform passed me by this time around - with one notable exception that has made my Top Ten below. I shall do better in 2019.
Okay - one or two ground rules for my choices. All films in the list were given a UK release in 2018, hence one or two inclusions that may strike readers in some regions as a bit late-to-the-party. My criteria, roughly speaking, are as follows: the movie's strength in technical terms, my gut reaction on watching it and the way it's settled with me since the watching. So if a film falls short technically but it still smacked me soundly in my emotional centre, it might well still find a place. And before the TEN, here are my purely-for-fun Honourable Mention Awards:

Best Mad Adrenalin Rush With Added 'He Does His Own Stunts, Y'know' Factor: Mission: Impossible - Fallout

Best Fantasy World-Building: The totally groovy Afro-fururism of Black Panther

Most Misunderstood and Underrated Film of the Year: Runner-Up - Gringo (it was funny!); Winner - Downsizing (it was deep)

Most Uncomfortable-Yet-Undeniably-Touching On-Screen Relationship: Emma Thompson and Fionn Whitehead in The Children Act

Best Sequel That Could Have Gone So Horribly Wrong But Thanks Be To God It Didn't: Mary Poppins Returns

Biggest Blub-Fest: Mary Poppins Returns 

Happiest Film of the Year: Mary Poppins Returns

Scene of Greatest Hitchcock-Style Intensity: Emily Blunt uses a bathtub but not to take a bath in A Quiet Place (likewise in Mary Poppins Returns, oddly enough)

Film That Most Effectively and Frustratingly Derailed Itself En Route to Horror Brilliance: Hereditary

Film That While Not Perfect Genuinely Shook Me Up: Unfriended: Dark Web

Most Spine-Tingling Moment: Lady Gaga hits the chorus of the song 'Shallows' while unexpectedly performing on stage with Bradley Cooper in A Star is Born

Most Rewarding Moment of Character Development: Elizabeth Debicki hits Viola Davis back in Widows

Film the Ending of Which Almost Made Me Hate It Before Actually Making Me Love It: You Were Never Really Here

Slick-Smart-Classy-Ballsy-Epic Jessica Chastain-ness Award: Molly's Game

Saoirse Ronan Being Brilliant Because She's Saoirse Ronan Award: Lady Bird (starring Saoirse Ronan)

Most Impressive Film That I Simply Haven't Had Time to Review (So Don't Go Looking for a Link 'Cos It Ain't There): Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

The Filmic Forays Low Expectations Award for a Film that was Massively Better Than I'd Expected (this award is now officially a 'forays thing'): Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again (if you're not a lifelong ABBA fan, you won't get it)

It caused me a little bit of pain to reject each of those films from my top ten, particularly Poppins and Mamma Mia! (yes, I'm serious about the ABBA pic), and the following list is purely what I'm feeling right now. So before I undermine its value completely, here in ascending order are my Top Ten favourite films of 2018: 

10. Leave No Trace
Respect for independent cinema! No gloss, no histrionics, no crazy special effects - Leave No Trace thrives on heart and humanity alone, both delivered with beautiful understatement. Ben Foster conveys PTSD despite ever alluding to said trauma and teenage Thomasin McKenzie radiates pride and devotion as his daughter, even when her loyalty is tested, the authorities having put an end to their migrant wilderness lifestyle. A very pure and focused piece of storytelling that will warm your heart while breaking it.

9. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Twisted humanity is still humanity - and no one reminds us of it better than Irish playwright-turned-film-maker Martin McDonagh. Give him Frances McDormand as his lead as a bereaved and vengeful mother in rural America and let one truly unforgettable tale unfold in a manner that's as shambling and unpredictable as real life. Beauty in the landscape is at odds with ugliness of human nature - but there's also compassion, regret and the occasional glimmer of hope. It's also scabrously funny throughout, with a host of memorable performances, not least Sam Rockwell's inept (and racist) police deputy. 

8. Isle of Dogs
Isle of Dogs is my favourite animation of the year, Coco and Incredibles 2 notwithstanding. Maverick film-maker Wes Anderson matches the quality of his sublime The Grand Budapest Hotel, only this time he uses stop-motion to tell a rescue story involving disease-ridden dogs on a Japanese junk-heap archipelago. The straight-faced character humour, the exquisite framing of each shot, the obsessive attention to visual detail - everything that makes Anderson's work great is here in shovelfuls. Dogs, animation, tall tales - if you love any or all of those, watch this film now. It's a wonder.
7. First Reformed
Paul Schrader, writer of Taxi Driver, brings us Reverend Ernst Toller, a church minister who has lost his faith - not in God, but in all of humanity, not least representatives of his own faith community. Ethan Hawke is superb as the compassionate but angst-ridden priest, who like cabbie Travis Bickle before him is spiralling towards violence and disaster. First Reformed is a shot-by-shot masterclass in narrative cinema, telling a story that's apocalyptic in feel, and resonant with the environmental concerns of our time. This is my kind of religious movie - challenging, shocking and complex, with a sympathetic but flawed man of faith at its centre.

6. BlacKkKlansman
Speaking of films for our time - BlacKkKlansman may be set in the 1970s, but it tackles the racism of Trump-era America with angry gusto. Spike Lee's latest joint, inspired by the real-life infiltration of the Ku Klux Klan by black police officer Ron Stallworth (with a little help from a white surrogate), is a unique brew. Outrageously funny satire, nail-chewing tension and in-your-face agitprop - they're all here and they all work, to searing effect. It's jostling with terrific performances too - John David Washington and Adam Driver both excel. 

5. Roma
Oh the humanity! I only saw Roma a week ago and it raced its way to the top half of my chart. Why? Because it's intimate and vast, specific and universal, period-based and contemporary. It's bravura film-making from one of the greats working today (Gravity's Alfonso Cuaron) and it's an emotional roller-coaster initially disguised as a stately scenic ride - beautiful but with a seemingly meandering quality. Only when it plunges into trauma do you realise the kind of ride to which you're committed. Stick with it. It's gorgeous in a heart-wringing kind of way, and its central performance is quietly extraordinary.

4. The Shape of Water
Also known as Beauty and the Cat-Eating Fish-Beast, and with a Cold-War B-movie setting that also manages to remind you of both French fantasy Amelie and classic Hollywood musicals. It would probably be a mess, were it made by anyone other than Mexican auteur Guillermo del Toro. As it works out, The Shape of Water is a stunning adult fairytale - sometimes dark and violent, sometimes beautiful, life-affirming and erotic. Ultimately it's about difference - and whether to fear it or embrace it. And as the poster suggests, Sally Hopkins opts for the embracing. This is one defiantly weird film, so just go with it.

3. Bad Times at the El Royale
I had no clue what to expect going in, and I'm so glad that was the case. Part of what I loved was the cunning of Bad Times' puzzle-box construction, particularly when it clicked piece by piece into place, forming a complex whole. More of what I loved was the multiple levels on which it worked, the cleverly drawn and immaculately performed characters, the sweetly judged musical score, the striking set design and the gorgeous warmth of the late-60s period visuals. But what boosted it into my top three was the story's unexpected emotional core and equally unexpected central relationship. Plus it introduced us (with a little help from Widows) to shining new cinema star Cynthia Erivo.

2. Avengers: Infinity War
Infinity War isn't so much a film in its own right as a grand explosive culmination of eighteen other Marvel Cinematic Universe films, in which all the heroes we've embraced (or not, if you avoid this kind of movie like a rash) face off against their ultimate nemesis. He's purple and he has a point, but he's still an abusive bullying bastard. By the way, I wrote all about it at length for those who give a damn HERE. I love all cinema from niche arthouse stuff to mainstream popcorn extravaganzas as long as it's done well. And Avengers: Infinity War is done supremely well. I hadn't felt that level of bubbling expectation since the final Lord of the Rings movie and this film proved worth all that excitement and then some. It also ended with a gobsmacking plot-twist that demands addressing, but that's a whole other movie in a whole other year...

1. First Man
It occurred to me as I was watching it that First Man might end up as my favourite film of the year. Some have found it too slow and its lead performance too contained, but every last thing about this space drama fascinated and enthralled me, not least Ryan Gosling's anti-heroic, deeply human depiction of Neil Armstrong. The film's superior writing, its beauty, its sense of time and place, its subtly drawn character dynamics, its simultaneous journeys into space and the depths of the human soul... There was genuine scene-after-scene relish at what was unfolding before me. I'm not saying it's the year's best movie, I'd have trouble saying that about any single piece of cinema in any given year. But it was the one I found the most personally satisfying - dramatic, spectacular, meditative and profound.
And those, my Filmic Friends, are my favourite UK-released films of 2018 (until around April of next year by which time I've rematched some of the titles that didn't make it and caught up with the various titles I missed, thereby completely recalibrated my list, sticking Show Dogs at the top - that's not going to happen, I'm never going to watch Show Dogs, not while there are any other films in existence). Ultimately I'm making no great statements about the above choices beyond my own enjoyment, so feel free to tell me all about your own picks - particularly those I've still to experience. You may introduce me to an alternative 'top film of 2018'. No film list should be set in stone. 

See you in 2019 for a whole new year of Filmic Forays. I can't wait - can you?

Friday, 28 December 2018

Film Review - Mary Poppins Returns (U)

Good to see you too, Mary Poppins.
Mary Poppins Returns put me in mind of T2 Trainspotting - not while I was watching it, but afterwards. (I haven't lost my mind, bear with me here.) Both films are sequels to highly-regarded originals - T2 arrived twenty-one years later and MPR a grand fifty-four. Both draw strongly on our nostalgia for the first movie, while exploring new thematic and emotional territory. And both, ultimately, succeed as companion pieces that entertain, surprise and move in their own right. Admittedly Poppins has to use an (almost) entirely new cast due to the time lapse, while T2's was all the same, but in terms of follow-ups nailing the spirit of a classic, it can't be faulted. Hint - if you're choosing one of these two for family viewing this holiday season, go with Mary P. Analogy with 18-certificate drug movie ended.
Twenty-five years have passed on Cherry Tree Lane since the miraculous nanny left, having fixed the Banks family's dysfunctions with her magical touch. Michael Banks is now a father of three himself, but the children's mother has tragically passed away, requiring them to grow up unfortunately fast. Then disaster strikes in the form of a bank demand that threatens to see the family evicted from their beloved Number 17. Into this crisis floats Mary Poppins, exhibiting all the poise and eccentricity of before, along with just the right touch to set everyone's life back in balance. That's with a little help from a lamp-lighter name of Jack, who has a line in cheeky banter and a dodgy Cockney accent (not unlike a certain chimney sweep of old).
Balancing the familiar with the new is key here. This is a sequel in love with it source material, with the same quaint
 look and sensibility - including matte paintings of the London background, painstakingly reconstructed locations and delectable hand-drawn animated sequences. The story follows very recognisable plot beats as well, and the music subtly references the Sherman brothers' classic soundtrack, summoning up a heart-swelling sense of nostalgia. This film echoes its predecessor in a hundred ingenious ways. But there's enough that's different too - starting with the melancholy and the jeopardy that have enveloped the Banks family, prior to the eponymous nanny's reinstating of fun and wonder. There's also a sharp and witty script, a touch of daring and a vitality in every last performance.
And the first of those is Emily Blunt, who proves as inspired a piece of casting as fans of the original had hoped. Her Mary Poppins has both the primness and the warmth of the Julie Andrews version (along with the enigma and the ego), but she's also a shade more acerbic and significantly more mischievous. The animated worlds into which Mary leads her young charges are where she really lets her hair down, resulting in a dazzling and raucous music-hall sequence that serves as one of the movie's highlights. It doesn't hurt that Blunt can sing as well as she does, nor that her rapport with the children is so natural and rich with emotion. If you were in any doubt regarding her star quality, this will clinch it.
As Jack, Lin-Manuel Miranda is less the quirky comedian than Dick Van Dyke in the equivalent role. He still delivers a bucket of charm though, and demonstrates why he's been such a hit in stage musical Hamilton. (It's never more apparent than when he duets with Blunt on ribald vaudeville song 'The Cover is Not the Book'.) Ben Whishaw and Emily Mortimer are likewise splendid, with their touching grown-up portrayals of the original Banks youngsters. Beware - Whishaw will rend your heart as he gives vent tunefully to poor Michael's grief.  
As for critics who have cast doubt on the music's hummability factor, there's no questioning how well the songs fit character, period and context, nor how effectively they mesh with those of the 1964 film. Plus, similar criticisms were made this time last year about The Greatest Showman's songs, shortly before millions of people starting singing along. Only time will prove whether this new batch of tunes achieve a measure of supercalifragilistic status, but I'm humming a few already - surely a good sign. 
There's a prayer that film-lovers pray worldwide, when settling down to watch the sequel to some beloved piece of cinema (whether that movie is Trainspotting or Mary Poppins). It goes - 'Please God let it not be crap'. Five minutes into this 'return' those fears had been vanquished. After half an hour I was transported along with the Banks children. And by the end I felt I'd witnessed something truly wondrous. This sequel didn't just avoid diminishing the glorious original. It didn't simply hold its own. It made me love Mary Poppins - the film and the character - a little bit more than I had before. And that's quite the Christmas miracle.
Gut Reaction: Sheer grinning misty-eyed happiness, pretty much from start to finish, at all the talent, zest and love on display. 

Where Are the Women?: Mortimer, Julie Walters, Meryl Streep, Angela Lansbury - all great. But it's Blunt you'll remember for her own fearless and fun interpretation of P. L. Travers' iconic character. Bravo, our Em. 

Ed's Verdict: 8/10. One of those scores that will probably rise on a second viewing. Mary Poppins' return is both total homage and original creation. In short, the spoonful of sugar we all needed. 

Wednesday, 26 December 2018

Film Review - Roma (15)

We are alone. No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone.
No film I've seen in 2018 expresses the idea of our common humanity more powerfully and beautifully than Roma. In it director Alfonso Cuaron intricately recreates events from his childhood in Mexico City, focusing on a character who in other dramas might easily have been sidelined as a bit-player - his family's domestic servant (for purposes of the drama named Cleo). Despite the movie's vast urban and rural backdrops, it's ultimately all about her - and yet through her it's about so much more.
The story begins in 1970 on a backdrop of escalating political tension in Mexico. Cleo acts as both maid and default nanny for a well-to-do family, presided over by matriarch Sofia (Marina de Tavira). An indigenous Mexican girl, Cleo exists in a strange middle ground - almost part of the family and adored by all four lively children, but still the one who sweeps up dog mess and has her meals in cramped employees' quarters. She's divided by class, race and economics from the mistress of the house; yet within the year covered by the film, both their lives are thrown into crises of marked similarity - events that will act as a litmus test of Cleo's true position within the family unit.
Written as well as directed by Cuaron, Roma is manifestly a labour of love. It was shot on location in and around Mexico City where the real-life events took place, the early 1970s painstakingly recreated where necessary (Cuaron has commented in interview how certain places struck him as virtually unchanged). The look of the film is striking from the opening frames - everything etched in pristine black and white using 70mm, the same panoramic format employed in epics such as Lawrence of Arabia, 2001: A Space Odyssey and Dunkirk. The result is stunning, whether in the depictions of hiving streets and slums and rural vistas, or in close-ups of a scuttling lizard and of toy cars zipping around a Scalextric track. Every mundane detail is soaked up by the camera and reproduced as something beautiful or at least striking, including the film's occasional images of shocking horror.
Cuaron's Hollywood years have prepared him well for the telling of this hyper-personal tale. His slow pans let us absorb the intricacies of each environment at our leisure. His static shots observe whole mini-dramas as they unfold, sometimes in near silence (like one unforgettable extended moment between two characters in a cinema or another where Cleo stares over woodlands from a country retreat). And when his camera tracks a character, it tracks daringly long, recalling the astonishing screen choreography he demonstrated in Children of Men. Everything his camera does is an unshowy but noteworthy achievement.
Cleo's story unfolds on a background of political upheaval and activism - there are some wildly impressive set-pieces - yet it remains her intimate tale at all points. In the lead role is first-time actress Yalitza Aparicio, delivering a performance that proves quietly brilliant, and touching to the point of heartbreak. Most of the cast are novice actors (de Tavira is one of the exceptions as the elegant Sofia), but they are cannily chosen, provides this factually-based story with a raw authenticity.  
Let me add - Roma is a slow-burn. It's never less than exquisitely crafted and visually gorgeous, but the dramatic fireworks are infrequent and the sense of its story is not quickly apparent. Expect to spend proper time getting to know Cleo and her wealthy surrogate family, before you realise how tightly the emotional hooks have dug. This is an immersion in a specific time and place so vivid in sight and sound that you can almost smell it too. It's also a powerfully universal story - of injustice and tragedy, but also of love and hope.
Gut Reaction: Utter absorption, not wanting to miss a single visual detail - even when it hurt to watch.

Where Are the Women?: Cuaron loves the women in his films, never more so than in this one. De Tavira is terrific as Sofia, but this is chiefly Cleo's story - and Aparicio portrays her with a tender and painful sense of truth.

Ed's Verdict: 9.5/10. A masterful piece of film-making, the full genius of which only becomes apparent by the end. Themes of race, class, gender and political change are all addressed - but through the lens of a heartrending personal tale. Just superb.

Saturday, 22 December 2018

Film Review - Mortal Engines (12A)

We have to stop London before it destroys us.
Certain books demand to be adapted for the screen. They have a cinematic quality that just springs off the page. Advances in movie-making technology happened precisely so these crazy stories could be translated into visual form. Philip Reeve's Mortal Engines is a prime example. The first instalment in a dystopian quartet, it has both monumental scale and outrageous imagination, and it bristles with challenging ideas. This film adaptation, crafted by the writers and producers of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, strives mightily to capture the brilliance of the novel - but falls short. There's a simple reason why, and I'll get to that.
Mortal Engines is set after a global apocalypse in the 'Age of Traction'; cities like London are now gargantuan vehicles, which rove the ravaged landscape seeking to assimilate or 'eat' smaller wheeled habitations. It's a process grandly referred to as Municipal Darwinism. Pitted against the travelling cities are Anti-Tractionists, from old-time stationary cities. Most pre-war tech has been destroyed (this is one vast steampunk world), but any that can be salvaged provides its owners with a deadly advantage in the ongoing conflicts. Key to the story in this weird future are a scheming London guild-master called Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving), an earnest young historian name of Tom Natsworthy (Robert Sheehan) and Hester Shaw, a single-minded young woman with a score to settle, played by Hera Hilmar. Their paths cross in the opening act, setting events in motion that lead to an epic confrontation.
That's one marvellous story to be told, and much of what impressed about the Tolkien cinematic trilogies is present here as well. Peter Jackson's Wingnut production company have done a spectacular job in realising the story visually; an opening sequence of the motorised London chasing down a small habitation simultaneously dazzles and compels. The sets are all constructed magnificently and dressed with fascinating attention to detail, those endlessly varied London-scapes being a highlight. There are eye-poppingly surreal steampunk visions throughout, along with several pulse-racing scenes of pursuit and escape. Visually there's as much world-building going on here as there was in Middle Earth, and director Christian Rivers tells the story with all the flair he's absorbed as a Jackson alumnus.
It all attempts to stay character-centric too, so that Hester - her face partially masked with a dark-red scarf as she angles to enter London - becomes one of the abiding images among the frantic opening action. Icelandic actress Hilmar is terrific in the role, gradually allowing humanity to thaw her character's icy facade. Sheehan serves as an endearing city-boy counterpart to her rugged survivalist, while Weaving gives pure charismatic bad-guy. Not that we ever get to remotely understand what is driving his nefarious actions, but that's part of what ultimately lets the film down...
Put simply, Mortal Engines gives you the sense that a six-hour movie has been compressed into two. This is a story replete with mesmerising science-fiction vistas and possessed of even greater numbers of intriguing ideas. It's crammed with characters too, potentially rich ones with fascinating back-stories, all of which deserve (or even demand) attention. Problem is, there's simply not enough time in which to do it all justice. Locations and events and dramatic twists all tumble together into what becomes a big noisy mess - wonderful-looking but ultimately incoherent, with a host of key questions unanswered. Characters lose out too, some virtually disappearing from the narrative, making me wonder whether a much longer edit was chopped down on insistence of the studio. Whatever the case, only Hester and Tom's relationship survives over the running-time, providing all the film's genuinely moving moments.
Ultimately this is a case of great source material, great talent, wrong format. In the same way that George R R Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire saga could only have worked on TV (as the incomparable Game of Thrones), so Peter Jackson and co really needed to approach this, if at all, as a small-screen mini-series. They know how to do the visual scope and then some, but you can't cramp a story of this magnitude. Reeve's novel needed room to stretch out and breathe. Here's hoping audience members will feel inspired to give the Mortal Engines cycle a read.  It deserves their time.
Gut Reaction: Awe and enjoyment, gradually fading into that 'what might have been' sense of frustration. But Hester still brought tears to my eyes at one point late on.

Where Are the Women?: Hera Hilmar really shines (see my Gut Reaction). Singer Jihae also has room to impress as resistance leader Anna Fang. Everyone else needed more screen time to make an impact!

Ed's Verdict: 6/10. If The Nutcracker and the Four Realms had beauty without substance, this has beauty and too much damn substance to fit in one short film. There's so much to love, which makes it all the more of a shame.

Thursday, 20 December 2018

Netflix Mini-Review - Mowgli: Legend of the Jungle (12A)

The man-cub is mine. I have already tasted its mother's blood!
The Gist: It's Kipling, folks, but not as Disney-lovers know him. Mowgli steers much closer to Rudyard K's collection of short stories than either Mouse version of The Jungle Book did, with sometimes disturbing consequences. We meet the 'man-cub' as a baby who has lost his parents to the vicious tiger claws of Shere Kahn. Discovered in the heart of the Indian jungle by noteworthily empathetic black panther Bagheera (voiced by Christian Bale), Mowgli is ultimately raised among a family of wolves. Kahn has carnivorous designs on him, however, and many animals - wolf or otherwise - believe that he has no place among them, and that his presence will only serve to draw the deadly human species closer. As a coming-of-age the boy must therefore prove himself as a true member of the pack, or leave his adoptive home forever. 
The Juice: Originally slated as the first release from Andy Serkis' Imaginarium company, Mowgli suffered the misfortune of running up against Disney's life-action Jungle Book remake in 2016. So it was pushed back to 2018 and a Netflix release, along with a limited theatrical one. A significantly darker retelling of the stories, it has no songs and little in the way of comic relief. Mowgli is all about the brutal law of the jungle and the sometimes even more ruthless actions of Man. Serkis is the motion-capture king (see the recent Apes trilogy if you need proof) and under his guidance the human-animal performances are superb; they look more photo-realistic under some light settings than others however. The voice work is also impressive - Benedict Cumberbatch and Cate Blanchett stand out as Kahn and the ancient python Kaa respectively, although Serkis himself is good value as a sergeant-major style Balloo the bear. And the most striking turn is that of young Rohan Chand as Mowgli himself - wide-eyed innocence turning into hard-bitten experience that's at points quite shocking. And that, perhaps, is the problem. While touching at points, this story takes its mission statement of truthfulness to unflinchingly grim places - beyond the comfort-zone of any family audience.
The Judgement: 7/10. Technically solid and full of top-flight performers at their best, this is an interesting and sombre take on the Kipling jungle tales - with interesting subtext on the experience of adoption and living between two cultures. The story's victories are won at a heavy price, however. With all cuteness undercut quite savagely, it's one to be admired (even admired quite deeply) rather than loved.

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

Film Review - Aquaman (12A)

You are the bridge between land and sea.
Before the DC Universe gave him a make-over, I knew Aquaman chiefly from a reference in Bare Naked Ladies' song 'One Week' and from Raj Koothrappali's unflattering cosplay version in The Big Bang Theory. 'Aquaman sucks,' the astrophysicist pouted, convinced that his friends were costumed as all the cool DC characters like Batman and The Flash.
Then the heroic fish-man was reborn as Jason Momoa, previously best known to most of us as barbarian horse-lord Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones. Far from remaining the joke of the DC comics, the character is now certifiably cool (he had ample room to prove it in last year's mixed-bag Justice League), with Momoa's winning performance one of this new standalone film's big positives. That's not to say that Aquaman achieves greatness, but it's one of DCU's more entertaining efforts, and it's nothing if not spectacular.
Aquaman is Arthur Curry, son of a lighthouse keeper and a renegade sea-born princess (Nicole Kidman). He's brought up by his human dad - mom having been tracked down by the same oceanic forces she was originally fleeing - and is amazed to discover the water-breathing, fish-whispering abilities he has inherited from the maternal side, along with super-human strength.  Living a coastal existence between two worlds, the grown-up Arthur is loathe to fully explore his fishy ancestry. So when the regal Mera (Amber Heard) strides out of the sea to enlist him as peacemaker in a brewing conflict between ocean-dwellers and humans, he is reluctant to get involved. But his royal half-brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) is forging an aquatic alliance that could threaten war on a global scale, so what's this good-guy going to do but embrace his aquatic heritage and get the whole waterlogged mess sorted out?
Arguably the most epic DC Universe film to date, Aquaman is also the most purely escapist and fun, due to a combination of thrillingly realised action (on both land and sea) and that affable central performance. As the beer-swilling, wise-cracking muscleman with his inner hero floating just beneath the surface, Momoa rocks it, aided by natural charisma and a tattooed-torso/leather waistcoat sense of style. The lengthy underwater sequences are also terrific - heavy with CGI, but realised with imagination and ethereal beauty, along with a range of satisfyingly bizarre amphibious creatures. It's a far cry from the darkness that has tended to suffocate other DC movies, due in part to James (The Conjuring) Wan's spirited direction. 
As for the flaws, they reside chiefly in a screenplay that clunks more often than it sings. While there are occasional funny or poetic flourishes, more often it's a matter of cliche and half-assed jokes that sink right to the ocean bed. There are also ponderous scenes of underwater politics, with Dafoe, Wilson and a bearded Dolf Lundgren managing, commendably, not to choke on absurd exposition. Things achieve a more even stroke when Arthur and the flame-haired Mera set on a rough-and-tumble treasure-hunt across sea, sky and desert. The growing chemistry between them is far more satisfying than the turgid dialogue elsewhere, while their hand-to-hand combat against multiple antagonists over Moroccan rooftops is genuinely enthralling.
At its best Aquaman is as much fun as a twisting water-slide, combining fast-paced plotting and likeable characters with phosphorescent beauty that will steal your breath. It flounders at points, and could explore its environmental subtext more thoroughly, but ultimately it sweeps you along with irresistible force. To what extent? So that when the end-credits tease an inevitable sequel, you'll be keen to hang out some more with Arthur whether on land or sea. Aquaman's the cool DC hero these days. Now who saw that coming?    
Gut Reaction: First half hour was all 'it's not as good as Marvel' cynicism. Then the rest of it got me with its sheer good-natured zest. 

Where Are the Women?: Atlantean gals take no prisoners. Heard and Kidman prove it. Plus they're both flippering gorgeous.

Ed's Verdict: 7/10. It doesn't have the scriptwriting sharpness of most Marvel movies (sorry - had to be said), but Aquaman is still buoyant holiday entertainment, joining Wonder Woman as a standout from the DC cinematic canon.

Monday, 17 December 2018

Feature - Women and Hollywood (One Year On from Weinstein)

I encourage women to step up. Don't wait for somebody to ask you. Reece Witherspoon.
It was seeing Sean Young with her kit off that brought it home to me - I mean really slammed it home. I'd known, for sure, but there are different levels of knowing. Hollywood, I said, you have one embarrassingly chauvinistic history. 
To explain - I was brushing up on the original 1982 Blade Runner movie just over a year ago in preparation for reviewing its 2049-based sequel. The DVD included the excellent Dangerous Days making-of documentary, in which members of the all-male production team recounted a debate they'd had on set. Should the pivotal Harrison Ford/Sean Young love-scene be more titillating? An alternative version had actually been shot (see above) and the doc showed it in its dubious soft-core glory - pure '80s exploitation at Young's expense. Ford, being a proper male movie-star, kissed her while keeping his shirt and trousers on. Even in the context of that distant-seeming era it was glaringly sleazy male wish-fulfilment, and it jarred horribly with the movie's overall tone. (Admittedly the teenage me would have loved it, but that, my friends, is scarcely the point.) Thankfully good sense prevailed on this occasion and the director Ridley Scott opted for something with more Bogart/Bacall-style restraint for the final cut. (For all Blade Runner's numerous final cuts.) 
But the fact that they even shot a nudey version of the scene speaks volumes regarding the era and what was regularly passed as acceptable. It's everything from which women in Hollywood have been struggling to free themselves for decades, with incremental hard-won success. Prior to the allegations against movie mogul Harvey Weinstein last year, scenes of the sexed-up Blade Runner variety had become far less prevalent, but the attitudes that spawned such a scene had not, hence all the naming of (male-predator) names and the advent of the #metoo movement. 
A year ago today I posted my thoughts on the situation (click here to read them in full), with a hardly controversial view that the underlying issue was one of representation. Once you have enough female directors, producers and actors doing high-profile work, you undercut the whole predatory culture and consign it to history's dustbin. The predators might still be around, but they won't have the same male-dominated structure in which to operate. Bit of a no-brainer - but the problem of course is actually achieving that reality. 
With that in mind that I added a 'Where Are the Women?' feature in my reviews, an effort to chart progress on that front. It's not meant to be a tediously PC box-ticking exercise; a period war-movie like Overlord is obviously going to have a largely male cast and talented guys established in the movie business should have room to keep doing what they're already doing well. Nor am I under any illusion that my humble week-to-week bloggings hold sway over those in positions to make changes (well not yet at any rate). It's simply of interest to me, and hopefully some of my readers, to monitor what, if any, changes are taking place within America's highly influential movie industry. I think the conclusions twelve months on are at the very least interesting...
I've watched and reviewed 70 US-made films - many of them from Hollywood studios along with a handful of independents - and rated them on similar terms to those I watched in 2017, i.e. how many of them have females either as protagonists or featuring in a number of leading roles. 50 of those meet those basic criteria, that's 71%, up from the previous year's 38%. True it's anecdotal, based on very limited data and frankly of no real use to anyone, but I think some observations of genuine value can be made. 
The first is the prevalence of the female protagonist. Molly's Game kicked-started my filmic year, with Jessica Chastain crushing it as a real-life poker-game hostess in an oppressively male environment. Then Michelle Williams was the emotional centre of Getty kidnapping drama All the Money in the World. The entire awards season was similarly dominated by memorable leading women - Frances McDormand, Sally Hawkins, Saoirse Ronan and Margot Robbie each put a firm stamp on major film projects. 
It's a pattern that extended throughout 2018 - Shailene Woodley was resourceful at sea in Adrift, Jodie Foster took no crap running her secret hospital for criminals in Hotel Artemis and Anna Kendrick teamed up with Blake Lively to scintillating comic effect in A Simple Favor. Then three generations of fighting women took on serial killer Michael Myers in the new Halloween - a visceral #metoo display if ever there was one. I've yet to catch up with Alicia Vikander and Jennifer Lawrence in Tomb Raider and Red Sparrow respectively, but clearly the female action hero was kicking ass all over the show. Even my beloved Marvel Studios have been getting with the program. Black Panther was as much about its powerful ensemble of female characters as King T'Challa himself, while Ant-man was teamed with Evangeline Lilly's Wasp with hugely enjoyable results. And even if the Avengers relied more on their male old-guard in Infinity War, the ending teased the most powerful addition to the MCU so far - Bree Larson ready to make her debut in 2019 as Captain Marvel. 
We had several examples of the female ensemble too, and not just in unfortunately lacklustre comedies such as Book Club. Two all-woman heists took place - Ocean's 8 carried theirs out in passably entertaining fashion, while the Widows did so with real dramatic guts. And while I've yet to see it, Netflix-released sci-fi thriller Annihilation has garnered great reviews with its largely female cast. (I really need to get onto that one fast.) The girl-gang movie is becoming a more regular occurrance, and one much less limited by genre. It's almost like the big studios are realising that (1) women enjoy cinema as much as men, (2) they like different types of cinema and that (3) men aren't necessarily put off films due to their having a bunch of women in them! See? There's a lot of good news here.
Perhaps the most heartening thing I noticed all year is a widespread understanding that supporting female characters should never be a cipher for male leads - reduced to bland wife-girlfriend status or plot-facilitating stereotypes. Hence in Mission: Impossible - Fallout Tom Cruise's lead is aided and/or opposed by a variety of women with real agency, intelligence and strength. In First Man Claire Foy brings award-baiting dramatic heft rather than simply being 'the astronaut's wife'. And in Creed II Tessa Thompson has her own properly developed character threads, rather than remaining the fighter's loyal ringside partner. So while Hollywood screenwriters are still predominantly male, at least they have an ever-developing sense that the women in their screenplays should be as three-dimensional as the men. Hey - Dwayne Johnson headed up two action movies this year (Rampage and Skyscraperand while both were thoroughly dumb, the female co-star of each was proactive and smart. Now that is cause for celebration!
My screenwriter comment, however, leads to progress yet to be made. There are terrific female writers out there in the world of cinema - this year Diablo Cody created a fascinating original script in Tully, Audrey Wells wrote a searing adaptation of The Hate U Give and Gillian Flynn of course presented us with that terrific new version of Widows - but the most recently compiled statistics put the percentage of Hollywood films written by women at not much over 10%. The numbers concerning women in top production jobs isn't much better - shy of 20%. 2018 saw the UK release of Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird, Lynne Ramsay's You Were Never Really Here and Debra Granik's Leave No Trace - all superior work, but in each case a relatively small-scale production. It's still noteworthy when a big-studio event movie - whether a popcorn flick or a prestige project with awards-season ambition - has one or more women at the helm. (This goes far beyond Hollywood too. Statistics regarding the British film industry for example are scarcely more heartening.)
I won't even get into reasons - that's a whole other article and a whole lot more research on my part - save to say this... There are many more talented female writers, directors, cinematographers, etc out there, than are being given room in the film industry to show what they can do. Thankfully a slow but significant culture change has been underway, I'd say for the past decade, and the events of the past year are having a catalytic effect in speeding this up. Nor is that ground, once gained, likely to be lost. If a significant proportion of the top jobs are gained by women, that will become a self-perpetuating situation of its own, one resulting in greater equality and a more even sense of gender representation.
Why does it matter particularly to me? Well it's partly the innate belief in fair play with which I grew up, but there's more to it than that. You see I love cinema and the stories it can tell. But if only certain people are given opportunity to be creative within that art form, then a narrower range of stories gets told. The greater variety of individuals who are encouraged and enabled to direct and write and act, the more far-ranging and original and surprising those stories become. That's good for me as a viewer. And it's good for cinema as a whole. 
The Hollywood culture that threatened to objectify Sean Young way back in 1982 is properly losing its hold. Allow women their full stake in the whole process and watch the creativity explode on screen - those different energies clashing and combining and complimenting each other. Now that's properly sexy.