Monday, 21 January 2019

Film Review - Glass (15)

Everything extraordinary can be explained away - and yet it is true.
Here's a quick heads-up if you're going to see Glass. Writer-director M. Night Shyamalan's new puzzle-box of a film acts as a sequel to two others. Not in a linear way either - it forms a kind of triangle. 2000's Unbreakable and the more recent Split, each a self-contained story, form a base with Glass at the apex. Your enjoyment of the new movie may well hinge on how well-acquainted you are with the previous ones. Oh - and how willing you are to embrace Shyamalan's distinctive brand of crazy.
Catch-up time. In Unbreakable Bruce Willis's David Dunn discovered that he was a street-level Superman impervious to injury, and that his nemesis was Samuel L. Jackson's Elijah Price, aka Mr Glass - a self-styled evil genius with a brittle bone condition. In Split, James McAvoy played Kevin Wendell Crumb, a young man with an extreme form of Dissociative Identity Disorder, whereby he would physiologically change depending on which of his multiple personalities took control; the most formidable of these was The Beast, a scarily evolved predator and serial killer.
Now Glass brings all these leads together, courtesy of Sarah Paulson's Dr Ellie Staple. Working at a high security psychiatric facility, she already has multiple-murderer Price under her care. Then dramatic events result in both Dunn and Kevin coming into their orbit to make up arguably the most bizarre support group in the history of psychiatric medicine. Dr Staple's field of expertise (a strikingly modern one) is super-hero delusions. Her mission is to convince these apparently extraordinary men that they are in fact - ordinary. But could the chance uniting of the three lead to different, darker consequences than those she had intended?
Here's the thing about M. Night Shyamalan: even in his better films, he runs the risk of toppling over into the preposterous. Located in a muted real-world setting (as were Unbreakable and Split), Glass continually threatens to tip into absurdity, but just about succeeds in keeping its balance. The committed and irony-free performances help a lot with this. Willis is solid as the self-doubting hero, but he's eclipsed to some extent by the more showy turns. Jackson takes a while (due to heavy sedation) to blossom into Mr Glass's full steely-velvet malevolence, but it's worth the wait. And McAvoy builds on his outrageous physical performance from Split, revisiting the multiple personalities we know and adding a handful more for show. (Virtuoso stuff - a bit too showy for some, but I enjoy it.)
The interactions of the three inmates is a source of fun that's weirdly comic (in more than one sense of the word), and it's enhanced by Ocean's 8 star Paulson as their doctor. Rather than simply a disbelieving foil, she brings depth of conviction that helps shape some of the movie's strongest scenes. There's a welcome return also of support characters from both previous films, grounding this one in a satisfyingly dark and mysterious universe, and developing the theme - modern mythology and its roots in something more mundane - that the director introduced long ago in Unbreakable.
Shyamalan is clearly in love with his storytelling ideas; he relishes the opportunity to draw strands together while expanding the whole, even if he risks stretching audience credibility too far. His other abiding flaw is a painstaking quality that slows the narrative to a crawl at times, one almost stubbornly at odds with other films in the same genre. Fortunately the brooding visuals always provide interest - accentuating performance quirks and delivering some stand-out moments of drama. Add to that superb shot composition and use of colour. And West Dylan Thordson's score is mesmerising.
It all makes for a darkly beautiful trilogy-closer, one that you'll either dismiss ultimately as nonsense, or embrace all the way to its lunatic end. I went with the latter option. After all, what's the point in disbelief if you can't suspend it?
Gut Reaction: A bit of 'Get a move-on, Night', but more pleasure at the off-kilter imagination on view and all that lovely cross-referencing (aside from one ill-judged director's cameo). 

Memorable Moment: Therapy session in the big pink room. 

Ed's Verdict: 7/10. Despite its sometimes plodding pace, Glass is a satisfyingly inventive follow-up to its two precursors - with its distinctive new direction, vivid characters and that infuriating, unpredictable Shyamalan factor. I liked it.

Friday, 18 January 2019

Film Review - Vice (15)

I want you to be my VP. I want you. You're my Vice.
Vice is a timely reminder that the American madness of the modern era didn't begin with Donald Trump. There's a tendency to look back now with a kind of ironic fondness on the George W Bush days and forget that they had an insanity all their own - one that helped rearrange world politics beyond recognition. Adam McKay's film takes us through the whole global shit-storm in the wily company of Dick Cheney, Vice President in the Bush administration and the man universally considered to be the power behind that throne. It's a wild, darkly funny and - for those who didn't live through it - genuinely shocking ride, where the head-spinning decisions being made in the White House are matched by those of the writer-director on the screen.
The film takes us back to the '60s, when college drop-out Cheney (Christian Bale) is in danger of self-destructing even before his career has begun. Knocked into shape by his formidable girlfriend-soon-wife Lynne (Amy Adams), he heads for Washington DC and establishes himself in successive Republican administrations, with experienced operator Donald Rumsfeld (Steve Carell) showing him the ropes. But it is during Bush Jnr's run for the Presidency that Cheney gets to demonstrate his full political skill-set, becoming - through cunning and quiet force of will - the most powerful man in government and a ruthless decision-maker at a time of national and worldwide crisis. The hijacking of US conservatism by extremist thinking, this movie suggests, happened long before a certain TV reality host took the Oath of Office.
Vice is five decades' worth of US political history put through a satirical meat-grinder. McKay, who skewered the US financial markets in 2015's The Big Short, learned his craft on Saturday Night Live, and those comedy roots show here. Not that the players are SNL-style stereotypes (there are some meaty dramatic performances), but the director takes that raw material and forges it into the maddest, most irreverent history lecture you've ever experienced. Voice-over, captions, razor-sharp edits, bursts of surrealism, fourth-wall-smashing and a few other directorial flourishes way too brazen to spoil here - McKay uses it all to lampoon to increasing gall of Cheney and his associates as they rewrite the Washington rule-book. Laughter and dread are fused together as events turn more serious, not least when the future-VP starts toying with the Unitary Executive Theory, an idea truly taken from the Dark Arts of US political thinking.
Beneath all the visual craziness (along with increasing layers of convincing prosthetic) is Bale's movie-grounding performance. Its brilliance comes from portraying manipulative genius in a character who's also a charisma-vacuum. His Cheney is inscrutable throughout, hinting at all the machinations going on beneath an impenetrable surface. Adams brings all the nuance and ambiguity you'd expect to wife Lynne, a woman who inspires admiration one moment and then appalls you the next. Their family life serves as a normalising counterpoint to all the political intrigue, though even that can't remain entirely uninfected. Carell's Rumsfeld is chilling beneath a rakishly jokey surface, while Sam Rockwell skillfully brings George W. Bush back from the world of SNL caricature and makes him real again, however gullible and out of his depth.
What is absent from this tale is any clear sense of what pushes family-man Cheney to the extreme measures he takes in office. One recurring metaphor suggests how he operates, but not his motivation. Is it political ideology, a craving to exert power, or a twisted marriage of the two? Ultimately McKay leaves the answers locked deep in the man's mind, focusing on what was done, rather than why. And the what - seeing it all unspool with such devastating results over two short hours - is quite mind-blowing. It truncates modern history mercilessly, sure, and some conservatives will brand it liberal propaganda. But Vice still carries out one hell of a dissection of the Bush/Cheney administration, along with its study of the man who pulled the strings. As political cinema goes, it's grim, hilarious and essential. And yes, that is Christian Bale.
Gut Reaction: Entertained and appalled. At the same time. That'd be enterpalled, then.  

Memorable Moment: So who is the mystery narrator? Oh that's who! 

Ed's Verdict: 8.5/10. Grandly ambitious, this has the spliced and diced quality of Oliver Stone, with the demented spin of the guy who created Anchorman. Yet so much of it rings horribly true. Compelling, treacle-dark stuff. 

Tuesday, 15 January 2019

Film Review - The Upside (12A)

Have you ever taken care of anybody?
I'm at a disadvantage here, inasmuch as I've yet to see the French original on which The Upside is based. Hollywood's history of adapting successful European films is checkered at best, and fans of 2011's Les Intouchables are apparently not best pleased at the result. Something other than the language, they insist, doesn't translate. Me, I'm not placed to make that comparison. Taken on its own terms this comedy-drama, while problematic at points, is far from the catastrophe some are claiming. It's not perfect, but it is perfectly enjoyable.
Kevin Hart plays Dell Scott, an unemployed ex-convict with a hefty chip on his shoulder and a cavalier attitude to providing for his ex-partner and young son. Forced to apply for jobs in order to avoid return to prison, he attends interview for the position of 'care auxiliary' to Phillip Lacasse (Bryan Cranston), a millionaire businessman who was rendered paraplegic by a paragliding accident. He is shocked - as is Phillip's business secretary Yvonne (Nicole Kidman) - to find himself actually hired. Thus begins an unlikely relationship and even odder friendship between novice under-class carer and his wealthy, cultivated charge, with each discovering they have a lot to gain from the other.
You can tell from that outline that this is the kind of story lending itself to one of those personal development story-arcs full of caring/sharing/learning moments - the kind that only truly work when treated with a really deft touch. If The Upside has an issue it's that the plot beats are predictable and their delivery rather too heavy-handed. These are complex issues being dealt with - class and race division, poverty versus privilege, disability and the failure of the able-bodied to see beyond it - and they need to be delivered organically through the drama rather than shoved right into the audience's face. It's an undeniable failing in what might otherwise have been a terrific film.
Elsewhere the work is strong. Neil Burger directs it all solidly and the cinematography has a raw digital feel to it rather than high-definition gloss, something that works with the edgier elements of the screenplay. The performances are excellent, with sparkling chemistry between the two leads. Hart has an enjoyably loose comic style that's capable of elevating weaker material than this (I'm looking at you, Night School) and here he gets to demonstrate some proper dramatic chops as well. Cranston brings his customary class and depth to the role of Phillip, whatever rumblings there are regarding whether or not a disabled actor should have been cast in the role (now that's a whole other topic for a whole other blog entry). A genuine sense of connection exists between them - laugh-out-loud vitality that brings the relationship to life. Kidman is good too, investing the devoted but brittle Yvonne with real dimension in what could have been a cipher of a role. The household becomes a weird but strangely functional family and it's undeniably good fun.
Remember all that when you read some of the more scathing reviews on offer. True things fall into place rather too easily in a story fraught with tough situations - the movie could do with more real-life raggedness rather than those smoothed-off Hollywood curves and easy cliches. But it's also well-intentioned, energetic and makes some worthwhile observations (even if it hammers them home rather too hard). I do want to watch Les Intouchables, so I can make fair comparison, but I'll endeavour to steer clear of that 'other-is-better' snobbery that infects some film criticism when it comes to reviewing Hollywood product. Even English-language remakes deserve to be considered for their own merits. Including this one. 
Gut Reaction: Irked by the more obvious plotting, but I also laughed heartily more than once. 

Memorable Moment: The braving of the catheter.

Ed's Verdict: 6.5/10. Too soapy and predictable to be truly great, there's still good entertainment here - largely due to that spirited central dynamic.

Monday, 14 January 2019

Film Review - Stan and Ollie (PG)

'Well, that went well.'
'It certainly did.'
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy - I watched their films during school holiday mornings when I was little, and no one has ever matched them. Simply put, they were the greatest comedy double-act, in any medium, in the history of the world. Fact. Abbott and Costello, you say? Morecambe and Wise? French and Saunders? Sorry, all wrong. Talented though those pairings unarguably were, no duo has matched the divine inspiration of Laurel and Hardy. Which is why it's wonderful that this new movie biopic is truly worthy of their talents. 
The story largely takes place during the pair's tour of UK theatres from 1953-54. Their movie-making heyday is past, following Stan's falling-out with producer Hal Roach, and the partnership has dissolved. Now broke - due to alimony demands and the shocking fact that they received no residual payments for their on-screen work - they have reunited to recreate their old slapstick routines as a vaudeville act, while Stan struggles to negotiate them both a new film contract. (Ollie's problems are more health-related.) Existing tensions only increase once their wives join them on the tour. Whatever their chemistry as performers, the boys' real-life relationship is under strain, personality differences and past choices threatening to cause a permanent rift between the two old buddies. 
Stan and Ollie is a lovingly crafted and poignant period drama benefiting from screenwriter Jeff Pope's canny choice - to view the entire Laurel and Hardy story from the perspective of that problematic latter-day tour. As a result the film sidesteps the pitfall from which biopics tend to suffer, namely trying to tell too much and ending up a kind of greatest hits tick-box. This becomes less the story of the duo's screen relationship and more an exploration of the friendship that existed beneath, one which deepened significantly in those twilight years. The dialogue is astute as well as funny; sure there's conjecture involved regarding how the pair addressed their differences in private, yet the script cleverly mines details of their real-life story to provide emotional authenticity. If we can't know these conversations took place, it makes sense to imagine that they did.
At the movie's centre are two frankly astonishing performances from Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly as Stan and Ollie respectively. Their pairing captures the symbiotic perfection that existed between the original duo, so it's odd that one or the other has gained a separate nomination from certain awards bodies. That each works so well is due to the chemistry achieved between the two. There's also a sense of who these guys were in real life - Stan the creative brains behind the operation, Ollie the charming bon viveur - while aspects of their movie personas, whether a style of walking or a nervous thumb-twiddle, keep showing through. (Kudos too to the make-up department, particularly for Reilly's convincing prosthetics as the heavy later-life Hardy.) It's all immaculately observed, as are the pair's recreation of classic Laurel and Hardy routines - like the iconic song and dance sequences from Way Out West or a joyous excerpt from County Hospital. ('Hard-boiled eggs aaand nuts! Hmph!')
And if the elegiac tone threatens to makes things too sedate, a whole new momentum is achieved when Nina Arianda and Shirley Henderson arrive as the comedians' wives Ida Kitaeva and Lucille. Protective of their husbands in different ways and just as inclined to bicker as the boys, they're a comedy injection in their own right, resulting - as the duo's theatrical agent puts it - in 'two double-acts for the price of one'. The interaction between the girls is scintillating (Ida imperious and Lucille determined to bring her down a peg), while that with their husbands only adds to the story's pathos.
Ironically for a movie dealing with two of the funniest men ever to grace a cinema screen, Stan and Ollie is more likely to inspire the other kind of tears. There's some lovely humour here, not least when the pair riff on their own routines for members of the public, but there's as much melancholy in the harking back to glories of old. Ultimately though this is a warm-hearted and immensely moving tribute - not only to the comedy couple who made successive generations laugh till they cried, but to the depth of the friendship that defined both their lives. A triumph then? It certainly is, Stanley.
Gut Reaction: The laughter of recognition, and more tearing-up than at any film I saw in the previous twelve months. 

Memorable Moment: Classic improv on the cross-channel ferry. (The movie's funniest and most touching moment all in one.)

Ed's Verdict: 8/10. The real Stan and Ollie needed two genius performances to do them justice. Coogan and Reilly deliver, in one of the most touching cinema bromances you'll ever see.


Saturday, 12 January 2019

Feature - 10 Out of 10 - Which Movies Get a Filmic Forays Top Score?

These go to eleven. Nigel Tufnell - This is Spinal Tap
'So when are you finally going to give your first 10?' a friend recently asked, concerning my reserved attitude to top-scoring on this very blog.

Last year I rated Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Shape of Water as 9/10, while going so far as to present Isle of Dogs, First Man and Roma with a 9.5 apiece. Newly released The Favourite gained that latter score last week. Is begs the question 'Come on, Ed, what do you actually consider deserving of a 10?' closely followed by 'Are there actual criteria by which you're judging, or are you just winging it?' and 'Who the hell are you to pass judgement anyway sitting there typing your crap while proper creatives have devoted maybe years of their lives to producing a complex piece of cinematic art/entertainment only to have some self-appointed critic casually fling a number at it and besides when did you ever make a film, jackass?'
The response to the final one is 'Bit harsh, pal - I'm simply providing a personal viewpoint on something I love - cinema - and my ratings are precisely that, 'personal', so - you know - don't shoot me. And no, I've never made a film, I only wish I had.'

(To be honest I've never been expected to answer the third question or anything like it. That's just me being unnecessarily defensive.)
As for the first two questions, I think there are many films deserving of my 10, including in retrospect - that being a key phrase - several from last year. As for the criteria, they're not scientific, but they go something like this:

1. Level of technical accomplishment, i.e. how well the film is directed, acted, etc (obvs).

2. How I respond to it at the time, i.e. my gut reaction.

3. How well it sticks, i.e. its rewatchability/retrospect factor.


The third one is particularly important in finalising a top score. I'm instinctively reluctant to slap a 10/10 on any film after a first watch - it seems such a big statement and leaves only one direction to go on subsequent viewings. If I've scored 8 or upwards, however, it's perfectly possible that second time around  the movie's merits will impress me even more. Example - I rewatched A Quiet Place over New Year with friends and it struck me how fine this thriller is in multiple regards - tense, beautiful and moving. Maybe deserving of higher than 8.5 and a place in my 2018 Top Ten list. Oh the agonies of the conscientious reviewer... 
Point is, if either First Man or The Favourite for example hold up and reveal even more second time around (as I strongly suspect they will), then I will very gladly stamp them with a big fat 10/10. It won't mean much in the grand scheme, but it'll feel satisfying to me.

With all that in mind, here are six random films out of many possible choices, and the reasons why they get the Filmic Forays Not-Necessarily-Perfect 10. 

1. This is Spinal Tap (1984)
Oh this one is perfection. Rob Reiner's template mockumentary gets funnier on every viewing. The first time you watch this story of a Brit rock-band trying to relive former glories on an ill-fated American tour, you laugh at the obvious stuff - the band's response to their rubbish matt-black album cover, the inappropriate name of Nigel Tufnall's Mozart/Bach-inspired piano piece, the onstage Stonehenge debacle. On subsequent revisitings every throwaway line, every stumble, every bemused reaction shot becomes hilarious. The whole film heightens reality just enough to keep the humour exquisite, while the edit ensures that absolutely nothing is wasted, in what becomes a strangely touching bromance (between idiots). It's a mine of comedy gold that just keeps on delivering.

2. The Shawshank Redemption (1994)

There's a reason that Shawshank is at the top of imdb.com's Top Rated Movies. It's not necessarily 'the greatest film ever made', but it does hit the spot for a broad demographic of viewers. How good is it? Well I recall wondering, two thirds of the way through my initial watching of the movie, whether something that promised so much could actually deliver a climax to match. It did, twice. Two bravura payoffs - one air-punchingly dramatic, the other profoundly moving, combined one of the most satisfying film endings in the history of film endings. And all because the painstaking craft of all that's gone before. This film is a paean to the best kind of hope and a love-letter to friendship. There are scores of people who claim it saved their life, for heaven's sake. Shawshank has earned its top score.
   
3. Magnolia (1999)
Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia is a great example of what I'm going to refer to from now on as an 'Imperfect 10'. It's one of my two favourite film projects of all time (The Lord of the Rings is the other one, thank you for asking) and it's a thing of magnificence, charting as it does the trials of ten disparate Los Angelenos over a single day. This three-hour epic of human emotion grapples with a clutch of big questions in an intense and imaginative way. Thing is, in its ambition one whole subplot gets dropped along the way and with all the drama brewing the opening half hour can become oppressively sweary-shouty, but as a whole this movie gets so much right, draws out such blistering performances and pulls off such jaw-droppingly audacious moments of drama that to give it anything less than the full compliment of points would be - frankly - wrong. (This phenomenon could also be referred to as the Apocalypse Now factor.) 

4. Shaun of the Dead (2004)
Ah Shaun. Now here's a film that I'd probably have given a good solid 8/10 on first viewing. But then you watch it again (and again, and again...) and like This is Spinal Tap you begin to relish all the tiny little visual and verbal touches that you missed first time around. How intricately structured the whole thing is, how it sustains humour and menace without compromising either, how it achieves actual emotional depth amid all the comedy-zombie mayhem. Every moment is thoughtful and creative, it's a masterclass in storytelling technique and it rises above pure genre parody to become a wonderful (and uniquely British) creation in its own right. Shaun is one of those films I'll watch if I stumble upon it on TV, even though I own the DVD. 'It's on the telly right now, so what else am I going to do? It's Edgar Wright's masterpiece!'

5. Children of Men (2006)
I include this one partly because it's my favourite Alfonso Cuaron film and a damn fine dystopian thriller, and partly to point out that where film appreciation is concerned, it's horses for courses. I once recommended Children of Men to a friend and his wife as my 2006 film of the year (a slam-dunk - one of those choices I didn't even have to think about) and they both - quote - 'hated it'. Maybe its vision of future Britain was just too bleak, but whatever had impressed me simply didn't work its dark magic for them. I recommend it undeterred, especially if you loved Cuaron's recent Roma. It bears all those same marks of cinematic craft, but used in a more dynamic way, albeit in a world where the entire human race has been rendered infertile and is staring at oblivion's slow approach. A movie of colossal technical ambition with a profound story at its centre - one that's not as hopeless as I've made it sound. But I'll let you decide between my love and my friends' hate. 

6. The Babadook (2014)
I've already explained why I admire this film both here and here, so there's little more to be said. Like Shaun of the Dead this little Australian gem demonstrates shot-by-shot mastery of film-making craft, only this time used to much more serious effect. The Babadook turns limited budget into a virtue, reminding us that vast scale is not a prerequisite for creating great cinema. It's a horror pic, yes, but (again like Shaun) it transcends genre, the sheer ingenuity of the storytelling becoming more apparent every time you return to it. So I'm properly perplexed that director Jennifer Kent's 2018 follow-up film The Nightingale hasn't been given a UK release date yet. Just saying.
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As those choices probably shows, there's no hard and fast technical rule as to why any one film makes it onto my unofficial 'favourites' list. Basically if I love a movie enough to revisit it for the sheer joy of its craft along with whatever emotion it inspires in me, it's earned that ultimate rating, And that's regardless of nitpicks or the possibility that it's aimed stratospherically high without hitting the mark in every regard (I return you again to my 'Imperfect 10' concept). 

You'll forgive me if I hold off on slapping the big One-Zero on any title after a first screening (including those on my Films of 2018 Top List), however much I appreciate it at the time. If a movie is that good, it'll more than withstand multiple viewings. Plus this system gives me an excuse to go back to some thrilling filmic places in the near future. 

Isle of Dogs, First Man, The Favourite, I'm not done with you yet...

Tuesday, 8 January 2019

Film Review - Bumblebee (PG)

You don't like The Smiths. Okay...
Bumblebee is an intriguing film phenomenon. For over a decade Paramount have been distributing movies from the Transformers franchise to enthusiastic box office response and (with the exception of the first one) unanimous critical contempt. Now with a new screenwriter and director on board comes a prequel that has charmed critics and fans alike. I've finally seen it and the reasons are clear. In contrast to the crass humour and CGI mayhem of recent Transformers entries, this episode is endlessly fun and charming - a generation-spanning treat.
Set in 1987 it centres on Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), a teenager crushed by the death of her beloved father and struggling to move on with her life. Her acquisition of a decrepit Volkswagen Beetle provides her with diversion, more so when it turns out to be a massive yellow space-robot in disguise. B-127 aka Bumblebee is (as Transformers fans will need no reminding) a refugee resistance fighter from the planet Cybertron. Recovering from extensive battle injuries, he's as broken in his way as Charlie, so that the two form an unlikely and touching bond. But Bumblebee has been tracked to Earth by a malevolent pair of Decepticons (the Transformers robotic villains with the dead-giveaway name), and his new human friend can only disguise his whereabouts for so long...
Bumblebee is an object lesson in reinvention. The number of things it gets right is striking, beginning with the scaling down of the story from all-out-war to focus on the intimacy of a single friendship. Charlie's bond with Bumblebee is reminiscent of Elliott's with E.T., or, in terms of scale, Hogarth's with the titular alien robot in 1999's The Iron Giant. There may be government forces closing in (another E.T.-style trope) and the promise of slam-bang action before the movie is through, but this is primarily the story of two lost souls helping each other heal. It's funny along with touching, much of the humour stemming from the clunky robot's attempts at being delicate.  
The animation is deft and observed in forensic detail, fully realising B as a character; the moment he ruffles Charlie's hair with a great metallic paw is particularly endearing. Nor are the CG elements ever allowed to overwhelm; even at the climax there's never more than three robots on screen and the human-alien bond stays in tight focus, whichever form the mechanical guy is taking. 
Steinfeld makes for an appealing human lead - deeply vulnerable, but gutsy and resourceful too (check out her Oscar-nominated turn in 2010's True Grit), with great taste in music. She's backed up by winningly geeky love-interest Memo (Jorge Lendeborg Jr.), while WWE wrestler John Cena provides the requisite military bluster as bulky Agent Burns. But this is chiefly B and Charlie's show, one which draws out a surprising degree of unaffected sentiment along with the slapstick. The other most notable stars are Christina Hodson's consistently witty and well-judged script and unfiltered '80s nostalgia. Kids will love the robot comedy and ingenious transformations, while adults of a certain age will revel in the music, movie-references and lo-tech of a pre-internet era. 
The film's whole feel is summed up by Bumblebee's choice of battered VW Bug for camouflage - balancing advanced tech and special effects with all that's reassuring and old-school. You know - things like classic visual humour and great dialogue and properly-earned laughs. Old and new are combined in an entertainment package as family-friendly and cynicism-free as the Transformers movies ought to have been all along. It's a joy from start to finish - fresh, exciting and full of heart. Now if all the films turned out like this one, I'd be a fan.
Gut Reaction: Smiled a lot of the time, laughed the rest, and rooted for our heroes, both human and - eh - autobot.

Memorable Moment: Auto-driving to Tears For Fears.

Ed's Verdict: 8/10. An unexpectedly delightful turn-of-year surprise. These classic toys have finally become the on-screen retro fun they should be.

Sunday, 6 January 2019

Film Review - The Favourite (15)

Favour is a breeze that shifts direction all the time.
Anyone expecting The Favourite to be a traditional stately costume drama will have those expectations shot to hell - as with a well-primed musket - within the first ten minutes. In that time Olivia Colman's Queen Anne has a childish screaming fit and Emma Stone's Abigail gets literally booted from a carriage by an individual referred to in the credits as 'wanking man'. Yorgos Lanthimos' film has all magnificent spectacle and exquisite costume design you might expect, but it's also vicious, ribald and wildly eccentric throughout - making it the first essential Filmic Foray of 2019.
Queen Anne 18th Century court is rife with political conflict. The real power behind the throne is Lady Sarah Churchill - the Duchess of Marlborough (Rachel Weisz). As the Queen's trusted friend and confidante, she's in a position to steer British governmental policy. Her decision to allow her lowly cousin Abigail (Emma Stone) a servant's job at court seems innocuous at the time. But Abigail's innocence belies a fierce determination to regain her social status, along with the artfulness to make it happen. Lady Sarah quickly realises she has a rival for her position as the Queen's 'favourite', one equipped to match her in a savage battle of wits.
Let's be clear - for lovers of sumptuous period films The Favourite is gorgeous in every frame. Its locations brim with grandeur and the costumes (designed by Mary Poppins Returns' Sandy Powell) were impressive enough to grab even my attention. But under director Lanthimos' eye this courtly environment takes on other unexpected qualities, both surreal and relatable. He frequently filters the screenplay - one that's already pithy, profane and hilariously shocking - through a panoramic fish-eye lens, like the entire reality of the court is distorting. The camera spins one-eighty and picks out characters from unexpected angles, giving the period tale a dynamic contemporary feel. Meanwhile the Baroque music score becomes progressively more discordant and grating, as events twist in ever more nasty ways.
If you're acquainted with Lanthimos' previous films - most recently The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer - you'll know the kind of off-beat and unsettling worlds he's capable of creating. What you get in addition here are intense expressions of emotion, whether the characters are storming, sobbing or politely spitting out bile. There's nothing genteel about the wit on display here; this is a place of double-dealing, jealousy and spite, one where the closest-seeming friendships are suspect. 
At the heart of it all is that triangle of magnificent female performances with Colman's petulant but pitiable monarch at the apex. Floundering and gout-ridden, she's both hilarious and heart-breaking. Weisz rules the court with steely calm and a whip-crack verbal delivery, while Stone's apparent wide-eyed ingenue proves in tiny incremental steps to be so much more. The steady deepening rivalry of the two is compelling - a truly dark delight. As for the powdered and extravagantly-wigged men of the court, only Nicholas Hoult's leader of the opposition seems to have any leverage in the situation, but even he might be getting played. Nothing should be taken at face value.
The Favourite is an announcement to mainstream cinema-goers of Yorgos Lanthimos' brilliance. It's also a showcase for the kind of powerhouse female performances this blog championed all last year. With Awards Season beckoning, this triple-bill of complex women will gain massive attention and rightly so. They help rip up genre expectations in a power-play that's gripping, sexy, funny and moving - and which wrong-foots its audience persistently. Now how often does a historical drama give you all of that?
Gut Reaction: Enjoyment of the spectacle, steadily building laughter and a hint of dread.

Memorable Moment: Courtly dancing like you've never seen it before.

Ed's Verdict: 9.5/10. A huge mash-up of popular cinema and arthouse sensibilities, The Favourite is grand, outrageous and a success on every level. Unmissable.