Thursday, 14 February 2019

Film Review - Alita: Battle Angel (12A)

I'm not your daughter. I don't know who I am.
Let me plead ignorance from the get-go - I don't do manga. But then I don't read Marvel comics either, yet I feel perfectly comfortable reviewing MCU movies (click here, here or indeed here for my thoughts on last year's crop). See, sometimes an outside perspective can be helpful. Alita: Battle Angel is perhaps the first live-action adaptation from Japanese graphic novel source-material to have enthused manga fans, succeeding where films like Ghost in the Shell let them down. But does it work for members of the wider audience? Well more than this outsider was expecting.
Based on Yukita Kishiro's ongoing comic-book saga, Alita is set in the dystopian 26th century Iron City, a melting-pot that has survived an apocalyptic event referred to as The Fall. On a vast scrapheap kindly Dr Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) retrieves the disembodied head of a female cyborg (part human, part machine, if you don't do science-fiction at all). He reconstructs the girl, who he names Alita, bringing her back to life. 
But while his new surrogate daughter has a functioning human brain (and great mesmerizing manga eyes), she has virtually no memory of her past - aside, that is, from the flashes that come back to her when she fights. And boy this girl can fight. Armed with expertise in a deadly martial art named Panzer Kunst, Alita joins her new human dad in his night-time job as a bounty-hunter (hunter-warrior in the Iron City vernacular). But the forces that rule Iron City are soon taking a dark interest in this formidable teenage-seeming war machine.
That's the gist, but there's a whole lot more, believe me. The first hour of Alita's bonding with her engineer-father, her search for a sense of identity and her embracing of a brutal arena sport called Motorball - that's all fun and involving. But much additional story is simultaneously crammed in, including threads that simply can't be resolved in a single movie. (Franchise calling!) These exposition-chunks serve to distract from the central character dramas and create confusion over the nature of the true villain. There are so many plot elements to follow that the later stages become overly frantic and unfocused, both Jennifer Connolly and Green Book's excellent Mahershala Ali getting short-changed as a result. Oh and some of James Cameron's dialogue (ever a bit clunky) steps too far over the soppy-line.
All that's a shame, for elsewhere Alita really succeeds. The Dystopia - inevitably influenced by a dozen others - is a spectacular brand of grimy, while the performance capture of Alita and her fellow cyborgs is integrated seamlessly into the live action. Director Robert Rodriguez provides the action with grace and flow (backed up by first-rate cinematographer Bill Pope), and the crazy Murderball sequences benefit in particular. As for the acting, Rosa Salazar proves a sympathetic lead as Alita, her performance rendered impressively by the effects process. Waltz is in ultra-likeable Django Unchained mode, while Londoner Ed Skrein is a hissable lower-order villain - hunter-warrior Zapan. 
Credit to writer-producer Cameron (and I'm not always first in line to praise the Titanic-meister) for risking a brand-new cinema property rather than rehashing something old. And added props to him and Rodriquez for impressing manga fans with the result. For as long as Alita was working as a standalone story I felt a thrill of excitement, one which started to fade once the movie took on that groundwork-laying quality. You know, plot-cramming to set up future films, rather than keeping things tight in the immediate story. I enjoyed the movie much more than I'd anticipated, but I wish it had kept a tighter rein on the tale being told.
Gut Reaction: First half - genuine thrills. Second half - not lacking entertainment, but if I'd been wearing a watch, I'd have checked it.  

Memorable Moment: Going to need a new body then...

Ed's Verdict: 7/10. A technical triumph, if not a storytelling one. There's much to enjoy in Alita, not least its central character and her various cyborg showdowns. For this non-manga fan, it fell the right side of okay.

Monday, 11 February 2019

Feature - Five Filmic Valentines

I would rather share one lifetime with you than face all the ages of the world alone. Arwen - The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring.
There's no love like movie love. Whether it's gently warming your heart or deliciously rending it into tiny pieces and then scattering all the bits like a shower of bloody confetti, nothing does it better than the silver screen. So with Valentine's Day imminent, here are five cinema offerings, one of which is bound to match your mood on the big/bad/inconsequential/fabulous/notorious day. 

1. The Bittersweet Valentine - Twelfth Night (1996)
My love for this classic romantic comedy was shared with a friend who's sadly no longer with us, so it has an added poignancy for me now. Shakespeare's gender-bending romp is captured beautifully in this adaptation, with Helana Bonham Carter falling for Imogen Stubbs, who's pretending to be a man. Toby Stephens has already fallen for Helena Bonham Carter, but is getting uncomfortably distracted by Imogen Stubbs, even though he's been fooled by that pretending to be a man business. And puritanical old Nigel Hawthorne is convinced that Helena Bonham Carter has fallen for him, causing him to act in a very strange way (stalker in yellow stockings, if you will). The youngsters' love trials all get resolved very romantically, while the older characters discover all over again how cruel affairs of the heart can be. If Hawthorne doesn't break your heart, then Richard E. Grant surely will. Gender-fluidity, melancholy and madness - it's all been done since, but no one's done it better than the Bard. This version proves it beyond doubt.

Bittersweet Alternative - Call Me By Your Name (2017)

2. The Beautifully Doomed Valentine - Moulin Rouge! (2001)
You know from the opening line of the film that someone's going to kark it before the end, so you can't say you haven't been warned. Before that fateful moment, however, there's sublime romance, some very silly comedy and people in Paris 1900 declaring their love by singing Elton John and Madonna songs at each other. Baz Luhrmann has never been more - ehhh - Baz Luhrmann-y than in this extravagant bout of romantic craziness, i.e. there's much visual excess and lurching from one emotion to another so sharply it risks causing motion-sickness. But when Ewan McGregor's poet tunefully informs Nicole Kidman's courtesan that 'my gift is my song and this one's for you', your heart will melt. (And if it doesn't - Oi, Tin Man, go see the Wizard.)

Beautifully Doomed Alternative - The Great Gatsby (2013)  

3. The Dysfunctional Valentine - 500 Days of Summer (2009)
In Moulin Rouge love conquered all and then death conquered love. In 500 Days, however, love is a messed-up business from the start. You're made aware from the title that Joseph Gordon-Levitt's passion for Zooey Deschanel has a sell-buy date and the film never lets you forget it, with its zipping back and forth day-wise through their time together. This relationship was always going to be messy - Summer is flighty as a butterfly and Tom is too much wedded to the notion of 'the one', so he's basically laying his own heart on the chopping-block and then appearing surprised when the axe falls. The film is much wittier and more fun than I'm making it sound, with a Woody Allen vibe and arch nods to those cool classics of the French New Wave (I'm looking at you, A Bout de Souffle). Question is - will Tom learn from his dalliance with Summer and get a little bit more real? The ending provides a hint...

Dysfunctional Alternative - Blue Valentine (2010)  WARNING: While undeniably well-made-and-acted, this one should never be watched while you're feeling romantically bruised. It's bleak with a capital B, L, E, A and K.

4. The Sexy Valentine - Secretary (2002)
There are all sorts of 'shady' goings-on (that's a movie pun) in this spanktastically erotic comedy - and yes, the film is as provocative as its poster suggests. It's also a classy and complex psycho-sexual drama, with Maggie Gyllenhaal's self-harming temp and James Spader's repressed boss discovering a mutually enjoyable way of working through their respective issues. In addition Secretary is both very funny and much more romantic than you might expect. How well it bears up post-#MeToo with our modern re-evaluation of workplace relationships, I can't honestly say - it's been a few years since I watched it. But when better than the day of the February Lovefest to find out? (One thing I recall clearly is the look of lascivious delight on Maggie Gyllenhaal's face as she - to borrow from the poster - assumes the position. So if it's working for both of these consenting adults, who am I to criticise?)

Sexy Alternative - Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008)

5. The Happy Ending Valentine - Slumdog Millionaire (2008)

I saw a preview screening of Slumdog before there was any kind of buzz surrounding it. Subsequent poster taglines hailed it as 'the feelgood movie of the year', possibly forgetting that the story includes police-cell torture, race riots, familial bereavement, implied child mutilation and literal wading through shit (along with the metaphorical kind), before our hero comes anywhere near getting the girl. Having said that it's also a gorgeous piece of magical realism, structured around Dev Patel's attempts to win Frieda Pinto via the unlikely strategy of appearing on India's Who Wants to be a Millionaire?. And whatever horrors there are during the run-time, the film boasts the feed-good ending of that and most other years. Romantic joy has never been harder-earned, but it's all the more sweet as a result.

Happy Ending Alternative - WALL-E (2008) 

There you are - just a few alternative Valentine movie-treat suggestions courtesy of Filmic Forays. (Don't mention it - it's all part of the service.) Whatever your current rating on the loved-up-ometer, here's wishing you cinematic hearts and flowers in advance of February 14th. And may you fall in love with (or at) the flicks all over again.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

Film Review - Green Book (12A)

Eyes on the road, Tony.
Green Book is one of the big 2019 awards season crowd-pleasers and for good reason. It's a road movie driven by spectacular central performances from Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali, where the physical journey is (naturally) a metaphor for the characters' emotional one. Yes it's predictable and too bang-on obvious at some points, with the kind of Oscar-bait premise that has some critics sharpening their knives before they've even watched it. But lay your cynicism aside, because this is one hell of an entertaining ride and a heart-warmer to boot.
The screenplay is written chiefly by Nick Villalonga, real-life son of Mortensen's character, which boosts the movie's 'based on a true story' credentials. Tony Villalonga (aka Tony Lip) is a bouncer at New York's Copacabana night club, until fate sees him out of work and struggling to support his wife and son. A lucrative opportunity comes his way when classical/jazz pianist Dr Don Shirley employs him as driver on a two-month concert tour of the Mid-West and Deep South. But Tony's responsibilities go far beyond the steering wheel, 1960s red-state USA being potentially deadly for the African-American Dr Shirley. (The 'Green Book' of the title was an actual safe-travel guide for people of colour in that era.) Nor is it an easy relationship between the two, with blue-collar chauffeur and cultivated musician clashing on multiple levels.
In one sense Green Book is entirely what you expect. It's a race drama where two disparate characters are pushed together by circumstance and gradually find common ground - a reversed road-movie version of Driving Miss Daisy with every cliche intact. What enables it to transcend all of that is the story's roots in reality and the sheer number of ways in which Tony and Dr Shirley contrast each other. The driver is blunt and boorish with no grain of irony, while also a committed family man and thwarted romantic. The musician meanwhile is cultured and privileged, living more or less in isolation. And on top of that there's the race factor. An early action of Tony's marks him out as a dyed-in-the-wool racist who's driving purely out of financial necessity, while Dr Shirley exists in a limbo between the condescending white patrons for whom he performs and the black community in which he originated. Point is, neither is written or played as an archetype, but as an individual in whom you can totally believe.
The leads have both immersed themselves in their roles too. Mortensen is visibly overweight and sluggish with a thick New York Italian accent (the real-life Tony did go on to act in The Sopranos after all), while Ali (check out his Oscar-winning role in Moonlight for a points of contrast) is all aloof elegance and poise with his cravats and his pencil-thin moustache. Neither seeks to make his character easily likeable - Tony's innate prejudice isn't far from the surface to begin with and the musician's attitude to him is pure snobbery. Yet the chalk-and-cheese duo's interactions are riveting, strikingly funny and never less than authentic. Put simply, you enjoy hanging on with these two on the drive and end up longing for them to connect. And when they do, it's no great revelation, but rather a barely discernible warming to each other, fuelled in some part by the increasingly overt racism encountered as they journey south.
Green Book is a lush travelogue of a movie directed by Farrelly brother Peter (yes, of There's Something About Mary and Dumb and Dumber fame) that troubles the surface of American racism, while never plunging into its murky depths BlacKkKlansman style. While there are troubling moments, it retains its lightness of tone through the burgeoning relationship and humanity of its central pair. The story has been criticised by some as reinforcing a 'white saviour' narrative or one where the black man is tasked with rescuing the white man from his own bigotry, but I don't think it's either of those. This is a whole different narrative - the one about two flawed human beings each turning out better, because they spent time together. A buddy-movie in other words. It's a story that always works when told well - and in Green Book it's told very well indeed.
Gut Reaction: More LOL-ing than during most comedies, and misty eyes in the moments of connection. Yup, it got me pretty good. 

Memorable Moment: The sharing of the fried chicken. 

Ed's Verdict: 8.5/10. Had it not been a true story or written well or acted superbly, Green Book might have been cringing. But it was all of the above, and it's bloody brilliant.

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Film Review - Can You Ever Forgive Me? (15)

Quite by accident I find myself in a rather criminal position.
Justice is served - twice - by Can You Ever Forgive Me?. Melissa McCarthy, whose talent was spent thanklessly on two variable 2018 comedies (click here and here), lands a bitterly humorous leading role that demonstrates her range and depth as an actress. And Richard E. Grant, the much-loved Brit too often wasted in minor roles, is given proper room to show off as her flamboyant but shady pal. It's not their chemistry alone that makes this real-life story so special, but the pairing is inspired - more than vindicating the film's place in my 2019 Most Anticipated list.
Marielle Heller's literary drama is based on the story of biographer Lee Israel, who used unscrupulous means in the early '90s to escape from the financial rut into which she'd fallen. With her writing no longer in vogue and her abrasive personality having alienated everyone she knows (agent included), Lee is scrabbling to pay her rent and can't even afford veterinary care for her ailing cat. Casting around for an alternative source of income, she discovers how much collectors are willing to pay for literary artifacts, such as letters from celebrated wits like Noel Coward and Dorothy Parker. And if the artifacts aren't readily available, then she has the writing flair to conjure them into existence. Her one friend and confidant in this counterfeiting enterprise is Jack Hock (Grant), a barfly and a con-artist in his own right, who she finds quite willing to aid and abet her.
It's McCarthy who provides the initial hook for this curious tale. Dowdy, dour and permanently marinaded in alcohol, Lee is still someone we root for, due to the humanity and quiet desperation the celebrated comedian brings to the role. She's snarkily funny too, even her most reprehensible behaviour summoning up audience laughter. But the movie really hits its stride when she strikes up her unlikely friendship with Jack. Some have labelled the raffish old soak as a mature version of Grant's classic Withnail and I character; in fact Jack is more life-affirming and good-humoured than Withnail ever was, even if he's every bit as feckless. The relationship between the two is flawed, hilarious and at points oddly touching. It clicks from the moment they meet and as screen friendships go is irresistible - the bruised heart and soul of this undeniably strange story.
But credit is due elsewhere too. The leads bounce off a screenplay that's worthy of the iconic writers imitated by Lee; hers and Jack's dialogue is thick with acidic wit throughout. Heller's direction is smart and restrained, enhancing the performances shot by sweetly-judged shot, and the whole thing is edited to a tee. There's a nifty soundtrack too, perfectly complimenting the bohemian literary New York setting (listen out for a neat use of Paul Simon's I Can't Run). It all enhances the subterfuge part of the plot, Lee's illegal dealings - however small-scale compared with say Ocean's 8 - summoning up an uneasy buzz of excitement. 
If the film works well as a mini crime-drama, it succeeds ever more as a portrait of isolation and thwarted ambition. The ease with which writer and conman fall into friendship underscores how lonely each of them is, while Lee's acts of forgery are as much an attempt to satisfy her creative urge - to exercise the talent that has always defined her - as to pay the bills. Every tragi-comic moment is crafted beautifully and with no trace of false sentiment, making this a vastly more universal story than its subject-matter might suggest. And at the centre of it are those two great talents, getting to show exactly what they can do given classy material. Lee and Jack are unarguably dreadful people - but thanks to McCarthy and Grant, you'll find yourself starting to love them.
Gut Reaction: It made me smile, frequently, and then it made me sad. And then it made me smile some more, albeit in a sad kind of way. 

Memorable Moment: Prank phone-calls really shouldn't be this much fun. 

Ed's Verdict: 9/10. Made with supreme confidence by all concerned, Can You Ever Forgive Me? is a subtle, character-driven delight. Its Oscar noms are well-deserved, but shouldn't the director have one too?

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Film Review - The Mule (15)

Don't do what I did. I put work in front of family.
A decade ago Clint Eastwood said it. He downright insisted he was hanging up his acting spurs and that Gran Torino would be his final turn in front of the camera. A perfect swansong too - humorous, elegiac, tragic, humane... For ten whole years he held to his plan, taking on directing jobs only. But now here he is as 90-year-old Earl Stone in The Mule, saying he couldn't find anyone else old enough and still alive to play the role. Fair enough - the film's a rattling good yarn after all and quite in step with the Clint legacy.
Written by Nick Schenk, Eastwood's collaborator on Gran Torino, The Mule takes its inspiration from a New York Times Magazine article concerning an elderly drug mule working for a Mexican cartel. The film's Earl is a horticulturalist and one-time travelling salesman, who's a much bigger hit with his wider social circle than with the family he neglected over decades. Faced with his house's foreclosure at the same time as his granddaughter's wedding, he takes a one-off driving delivery job, no questions asked, for an anonymous party. The work turns regular, even when the naive Earl confirms his suspicions as to what he's actually transporting. But soon the investigations of a hot-shot new DEA agent (Bradley Cooper) threaten to complicate matters for elderly drug-runner known as 'El Tata'.
I'll admit I'm a sucker for this movie. I've been a Clint Eastwood fan for more years than I care to specify, so it's great to see him in action one more time - leaner and more stooped than ever before, but with that knotty strength barely diminished and his screen presence totally intact. His charisma lends itself to Earl - a game old roue and lover of life, who engages your sympathy for all his glaring personality flaws. Clint's eye as a director is functioning well too, so that he's created a solid road movie and understated thriller, one that makes the most of its rural Illinois backdrops. Earl's story unfolds in leisurely style, but you're never less than invested in the old reprobate's progress. Scenes where he spars with his bemused and vastly younger criminal associates are a particular joy, though one where he enjoys the fruits of his illegal labours with nubile young company is - well - unnecessary.
Claims that the film is just too unhurried have justification. The scenes with Cooper, his partner (Michael Pena) and boss (Laurence Fishburne) move the plot along, but lack any kind of dramatic bite. It's a serious shame to have actors of this calibre on board, when the screenplay gives their dialogue no spark whatsoever. Dianne Wiest fares better as Earl's ex-wife Mary (as with Clint it's great to see the one-time Woody Allen regular back in the movies); the scenes between them dice with over-sentimentality, but get away with it - just.
The Mule really revs up when Earl is on the road, singing along to olde tyme radio songs like he's on vacation rather than transporting sizeable quantities of illegal drugs. It's like writer Schenk came into his own when crafting the elderly reprobate's exploits, including the latter stages when events take a darker turn. The result is a likeable film which touches on themes of mortality and regret to moving effect, while still holding out hope for a rambunctious, life-embracing old-age. And it's buoyed up by that additional, unexpected turn by Eastwood. Maybe this one will really be his last. You know, I kind of hope not.
Gut Reaction: I smiled, a lot, that in his upper eighties Clint can still own it like he did back in the Josey Wales days. 

Memorable Moment: Oh-oh. Sniffer dog...

Ed's Verdict: 6.5/10. While The Mule doesn't have the dramatic and thematic weight as Gran Torino, it's still an enjoyably tall tale. And did I mention Clint Eastwood is terrific?