Wednesday, 27 February 2019

DVD/Blu-ray Mini-Review - Cold War (15)

Now I am yours. For ever and ever.
The Gist: Love sucks - but at least in Cold War is does so with beauty and style. Wiktor is a musical director helping scout talent in rural Poland in the years following the Second World War. The goal is to create a people's song and dance troupe that shows off the richness of the country's folk music (an enterprise that ends up as a propaganda tool for the ruling Soviet authorities). During the audition process he falls for Zula, a precocious young woman with a purportedly dark past. The affair that ensues must be kept secret, though it could be celebrated openly if the pair defected. The question is whether both are equally committed to running - and whether the relationship could endure in the decadent West, away from the climate that nurtured its furtive beginnings.
The Juice: Captured in aspect ratio and crisp black and white, Pawel Pawlikowski's sweeping romantic drama rivals Roma as one of 2018's most strikingly gorgeous films. The initial snowbound Polish scenes are static and austere, with the movie bursting into frantic life during the music-troupe sequences and then turning slinky and sinuous as the story progresses to the smoky jazz clubs of Paris. Tomasz Kot and Joanna Kulig make for a tremendously sexy pair as Wiktor and Zula, their passion as hot as the Eastern bloc winter is freezing. Then things turn ironically angsty and obstacle-strewn when they embrace the freedoms of the West, in scenes reminiscent of a French new wave classic. Their story covers two decades in a mere hour and a half, leaping years at a time and letting the viewer piece together the intervening events. While rich in historical detail, this film is all about the impossible anguished love of two people who just can't fit, even when life allows them the freedom to do so.
The Judgement: 8.5/10. Based on the pristine cinematography and smouldering performances alone, this is a 10. I was frustrated by the choppy narrative, however, wanting to understand more about the dynamics of Wiktor and Joanna's relationship, but never getting to spend sufficient time with them in any one place. It's testament to how intoxicating these characters are, however, (to say nothing of how magnificently Europe's past is recreated) that I wanted much more of their company. Maybe that was the point.

Saturday, 23 February 2019

Feature - Filmic Forays Oscar Round-Up 2019

The run-up to this year's Academy Awards was anger-making. Not the fact that certain films I loved didn't make the cut (see below). Nor that the Academy has this weird habit of very occasionally chucking a foreign language picture into the mix, as if English language films are fundamentally superior. Nor indeed their (thankfully abortive) idea of a 'Popular Picture' category, that threatened to widen the divide between populist and so-called prestige cinema. Nope - something much more galling happened than any of those...
In an effort to create a snappier Oscars broadcast, ABC decided that four statuettes be awarded during commercial breaks, with edited highlights to be broadcast later. The categories they chose to cut included cinematography and film editing. Think about that. The cinematography Oscar - that's the award for the person responsible for setting up every shot in the movie. Cinematography is the filming part of film. And film editing - that's how the narrative is shaped in post-production, the bit that more than anything turns a mass of shot footage into a well-crafted final product. But according to ABC executives those artisan parts of the process weren't so important. It's all about the STARS and never mind what insignificant bod pointed the camera or snipped the reel. Makes me flaming furious!!!
Okay, I feel purged of wrath, not least since ABC reversed their absurd decision in the face of utter outrage. But it still infuriates that they were intending to do it in the first place. However... let it go, Ed. And let's get back to why we're really here. 

I'm writing this part a couple of days before the ceremony, so here's how we'll do things regarding key awards categories. In each case I'll give my own choice, followed by my prediction for the winner, and then I'll leave a space for the actual winner (to be filled in after Sunday night's event). It's always fun to add a predictive element. Off we go...

Best Actress in a Supporting Role
Who I'd Like to Win - Regina King for If Beale Street Could Talk
Who I Predict Will Win - Regina King for If Beale Street Could Talk
This I think is a slam-dunk, despite a very strong line-up. King was scene-stealingly magnificent in Beale Street - I mean she exuded quiet power and then she damn well broke your heart. Amy Adams should be showered with Academy Awards in general and her performance in Vice is top drawer, while Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz matched each other's prickly brilliance in The Favourite. But Beale Street deserves some proper love and King needs to be seen a whole lot more. She really is that good.
(Where the hell were they?: Claire Foye in First Man, Cynthia Erivo in Bad Times at the El Royale)

And the Winner IS... Regina King.
(So that's good.)

Best Actor in a Supporting Role
Who I'd Like to Win - Richard E. Grant for Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Who I Predict Will Win - Mahershala Ali  for Green Book
Frankly I'd just love to see the delight on Grant's face if he won the statuette. The viral video in which he expressed his delight at the nomination was joyful enough (click here to share in his glee), so imagine how he'd react to an Oscar win. Plus he's as good as he's ever been in Can You Ever Forgive Me. However Ali is a shoo-in here and deservedly so. He transformed himself in Green Book to play the uptight Dr Don Shirley and the result was superb.
Where the hell were they?: Nicholas Hoult in The Favourite

And the Winner IS... Mahershala Ali.
(No surprise there, and no complaint either - Ali is a class act and Green Book proved his versatility, while demonstrating how meticulously he can construct a performance. Grant picked up the equivalent award at the Independent Spirit Award - check out his lovely acceptance speech by clicking here - which is a splendid thing.)

Best Actress in a Leading Role
Who I'd Like to Win - Olivia Colman for The Favourite
Who I Predict Will Win - Glenn Close for The Wife
Don't get me wrong, Glenn Close supporters, your favourite is the favourite and her performance in The Wife is a high-point in a magnificent career. But most Brits are rooting for Olivia, since we love her, her Queen Anne has made her an international star and the speech would be muddled, hilarious and moving. Actually Melissa McCarthy's would also be pretty entertaining, and she rocked it in Can You Ever Forgive Me. But no, I won't begrudge Close the Oscar for a single second.
Where the hell were they?: Viola Davis in Widows

And the Winner IS... Olivia Colman!!!
(Liv's speech... Muddled, check. Hilarious, check. Moving, check. Watch her in interview re her acting process and you'll discover that she doesn't really have one, or none that she can easily identify. Simply put, she's one of the most instinctively brilliant actresses around today. Glenn Close's seventh near-miss tinged the moment with sadness, which Colman duly acknowledged.)

Best Actor in a Leading Role
Who I'd Like to Win - Viggo Mortensen for Green Book
Who I Predict Will Win - Christian Bale for Vice
I've been a Viggo fan since his Lord of the Rings days and he immersed himself completely in his Green Book role of Tony Vallelonga, turning in a performance that was as funny as it was unexpected. But Bale transformed himself even more as Dick Cheney, in a career that has seen him regularly shape-shift to stunning effect. Yes Remi Malek could steal it with his Freddie Mercury strut, but I'm calling the Dark Knight himself. See if I'm wrong.
Where the hell were they?: Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly in Stan and Ollie; Ethan Hawke in First Reformed

And the Winner IS... Remi Malek.
(Robbie Collins from The Telegraph - whose opinion I generally respect - says this performance is plain bad, but personally I agree that Remi rocked it - and us. However while not having seen Willem Dafoe in At Eternity's Gate yet - shame on me - I'd have gone for either Mortensen or Bale over Malek.)

Best Adapted Screenplay
Who I'd Like to Win - If Beale Street Could Talk
Who I Predict Will Win - BlackKklansman
This is a tough one (which is always a good sign for a filmic-writing year). I haven't seen The Ballad of Buster Scruggs yet, but it's the Coen Brothers, so the writing is going to be great. As for the others, they've all earned their place, but I loved how Beale Street told a poetic love-story infused with burning political anger. BlackKklansman has the latter along with a lovely seam of absurdist humour, however, which I think will clinch the Oscar.

And the Winner IS... BlackKklansman.
(I'm very happy for Spike Lee and co - this was a terrific script with a message for our time, boldly realised on the screen. Both If Beale Street Could Talk and Can You Ever Forgive Me? would have satisfied as well.)

Best Original Screenplay
Who I'd Like to Win - First Reformed
Who I Predict Will Win - The Favourite
The screenplay for First Reformed is one of the best and most challenging that Paul Schrader has ever written and I love the fact that it's got some recognition from Oscar. This is another tricky category to predict, with Green Book and Roma both in with a shot, but I'm opting for The Favourite - caustic, bizarre, funny and tragic.
Where the hell is it?: Bad Times at the El Royale 

And the Winner IS... Green Book.
(It's a perfectly good screenplay - a great springboard for the two central performances - but it's not the most original 'Original'. I was hoping against hope that First Reformed would take that one and give all concerned their moment in the Oscar sunshine.)

Best Production Design
Who I'd Like to Win - Black Panther
Who I Predict Will Win - Black Panther
The competition includes the court of Queen Anne, Cherrytree Lane and the Moon, but come on - have you seen Wakanda???

And the Winner IS... Black Panther.
(Told you. Wakanda Forever.)

Best Costume Design
Who I'd Like to Win - Sandy Powell for Mary Poppins Returns
Who I Predict Will Win - Sandy Powell for The Favourite  

Sandy Powell has had her work cut out this past year, so it'd be nice to see her get some Oscar love. But Ruth Carter might nip in and take it from under her nose for Black Panther. (That's me hedging my bets again...)

And the Winner IS... Black Panther.
(Can't argue with that one. Still gutted for Powell though.)

Best Music (Original Score)
Who I'd Like to Win - Mary Poppins Returns
Who I Predict Will Win - If Beale Street Could Talk
I loved the music for both of these along with that for BlackKklansman (its main theme is still in my head months after seeing it). However I'd love the Poppins writers to be rewarded for the remarkable work they did in crafting music that complimented the original film, while being memorable in its own right. Shelve those hopes... Nicholas Brittell's score for Beale Street is awesome in its beauty and will (probably) walk away with this one.

And the Winner IS... Black Panther.
(I clearly need to listen to Ludwig Goransson's score some more. Wakanda cleaning up here in the technical awards.)

Best Music (Original Song)
Who I'd Like to Win - Shallow (A Star is Born)
Who I Predict Will Win - Shallow (A Star is Born)
The Place Where Lost Things Go in Mary Poppins Returns will seriously trouble your tear ducts, but there's no denying the song-writing dynamite that is Shallow. And when Lady Gaga belted it out impromptu alongside Bradley Cooper, it was surely the most spine-shivering cinematic moment of 2018. The cert of all certs or I know ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.

And the Winner IS... Shallow.
(Thank God. I set myself up to look really foolish there.)

Best Film Editing
Who I'd Like to Win - Vice
Who I Predict Will Win - Vice
The decade-spanning satirical history-lesson that was Vice certainly required the showiest editing of this group and Hank Corwin came up with the goods. He chopped up the original footage and reconfigured it into something that's constantly surprising and contributes hugely to the effectiveness of the dark humour. (Just a shame when he gets up to accept the award it'll be during an add break. Grrrrrrrrrr...)

And the Winner IS... Bohemian Rhapsody.
I guess the Live Aid finale stole it where the editing was concerned. Still surprised though. I thought Hank Corwin was a shoo-in for Vice.)

Best Cinematography
Who I'd Like to Win - Roma
Who I Predict Will Win - Roma
I've a bit of catching up to do re this category (have yet to watch Cold War and Never Look Away), but if there's a film from last year that has more gorgeous cinematography than Roma, I really need to see it. Director Alfonso Cuaron operated the camera himself, and damn he knows his stuff. Crisp black and white wide-frame photography capturing the Mexican landscapes, both urban and rural, in exquisite detail. Beauty in every frame, even - strangely - when Cleo the maid is mopping dog turds from a parquet floor. Again an ad-break award. I'm starting to seethe all over again...
Where the hell are they?: Linus Sandgren for First Man

And the Winner IS... Roma.
(This makes me happy. Towering visual ambition. And stunning in every frame.)

Best Director
Who I'd Like to Win - Yorgos Lanthimos for The Favourite
Who I Predict Will Win - Alfonso Cuaron for Roma
I hate to choose a favourite here (seriously, no pun intended). On one level it'd be great to see Spike Lee acknowledged for BlackKklansman. However I loved the bizarre quality that Lanthimos added to The Favourite with every choice he made. But then again I have a growing sense that his is Cuaron's year - and there's no arguing with the superb job he did with all aspects of Roma.

Where the hell are they?: Lynne Ramsey for You Were Never Really Here, Marielle Heller for Can You Ever Forgive Me?

And the Winner IS... Alfonso Cuaron.
(Again yes. I wanted the spoils more evenly distributed between Roma and The Favourite, but there's no denying what a great job Cuaron did here.

Best Animated Feature
Who I'd Like to Win - Isle of Dogs
Who I Predict Will Win - Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse
Isle of Dogs is joyous in every regard, and one of my favourite films of last year - an intricately constructed Wes Anderson movie right up there with The Royal Tenenbaums and The Grand Budapest Hotel. But while I haven't yet reviewed Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse, I've seen it and it's a visual wonder. Not my bag and not my fave, but undeniably a superb animated feature and a comic-book crowd-pleaser.

And the Winner IS... Spiderman: Into the Spiderverse.
(I'd better write a review for this one now. Everyone else has.)

Best Picture
Who I'd Like to Win - Roma
Who I Predict Will Win - Roma
I've actually talked myself into this choice, having been on team Favourite since early January. While I love Yorgos Lanthimos' period drama for its anarchy, savage comedy and gloriously nutty performances, Roma impresses me a little bit more every time I'm reminded of it. Okay - I've got a feeling it'll land the big prize due to the fact that a Mexican winner will piss off supporters of Donald Trump, but set that aside. It's a truly brilliant piece of cinematic art and a rare occasions when the Academy realises that - hey - film is international!
Where the hell are they?: First Man, If Beale Street Could Talk, Bad Times at the El Royale

And the Winner IS... Green Book.
(Don't get me wrong - I thoroughly enjoyed this winner, and its Oscar success won't get me reevaluating the crap out of it or backtracking on how entertaining an experience it was. However this is a classic Academy safe-choice, the kind of winner I didn't think we'd see again following the triumph of genuine originals like Moonlight and The Shape of Water. Telling a crowd-pleasing story in a solid fashion with some classy central performances is great, but it shouldn't be enough to bag the big prize of the night. Best Picture should be about ground-breaking ambition and sheer cinematic craft on every level. Never mind - Green Book is still a lovely film.) 


Final Oscar Thoughs:

For all the numerous controversies surrounding this year's ceremony, they all count for little so long as a diverse range of cinema - including the challenging and cutting-edge - is being included in the choices. And while some omissions are grating, some groups (female directors, anyone?) under-represented, there's a far wider and more interesting range of films up for the main prizes than say even five years ago. 

Let's be honest - on one level movie awards, including those from the august Academy, are bullshit. How do you gauge whether Roma is worth more or less than The Favourite? Or whether a vibrant mainstream entertainment like Black Panther is one iota less important than either? It's hardly an exact science. However, so long as the awards season demonstrates than there are numerous ways in which cinema can be great, that's what matters and what makes the occasion worthwhile. And it's what is gradually, steadily starting to happen, whatever you or I think of the overall winner. (And even if the people in charge of the show are prone to some truly dumbass decisions.)

I hope you had a happy Oscar Night and will get busy catching up with the films you missed. Till next year...

Friday, 22 February 2019

DVD/Blu-ray Mini-Review - The Wife (15)

'A writer has to write.'
'A writer has to be read, honey.' 
The Gist: The Wife is a story for our time. This adaptation of Meg Wolitzer's 2003 novel may tell a well-tried story of literary endeavour and human failing, but its core theme of stifled female ambition makes it pure 2019. Glenn Close is Joan, devoted but long-suffering wife of author Joe Castleman (Jonathan Pryce) - tending to her ailing husband's needs and rising above his extra-marital dalliances with heroic forebearance. The news that Joe is to receive the Nobel Prize for Literature elates them both, but on the trip to Stockholm, Sweden for the award ceremony Joan's delight is tempered by another very different emotion. She and Joe have carried a secret throughout their marriage, one which a tenacious literary biographer (Christian Slater) is determined to uncover, and one which is eating away at Joan more and more. Exactly how much of Joe's literary success is down to her and how long can she square that knowledge with her pride?
The Juice: While the performances are strong all round here, this film rests squarely on those of its leads - and they do a truly sterling job. Close has been snaffling up awards, largely due to her ability to speak triple-volumes with a stare (watch her response to the Nobel committee phone-call for a masterclass in warring emotions). But Pryce is excellent also - his peacock arrogance belying a deep insecurity. Together they are acting dynamite, conveying a complex marriage full of betrayal and compromise along with genuine love. The whole movie is a slow-burn of frustration to the inevitable moment when both partners confront the significance of Joe's award. Annie Starke (Close's real-life daughter) and Harry Lloyd also engage as a younger version of the couple, in flashback scenes that reveal the source of the tension at the heart of Joan and Joe's relationship. Director Bjorn Runge serves the actors skilfully and Jocelyn Pook compliments the story with a graceful orchestral score. If I have one gripe it's that the screenplay simply hasn't got enough poetry for a story all about writers. There really could be more insight here into the nature of the Castleman literary legacy.  
The Judgement: 8/10. With a riveting core dynamic between Close and Price it's no wonder that awards have resulted. (Shame though that Pryce hasn't shared more in the attention.) While the script could convey more of the artistic genius at the story's heart, the beautifully observed characters and their turbulent inner life have power to keep viewers enthralled. And seldom has the 'behind every great man' cliche been critiqued as powerfully as here.  

Tuesday, 19 February 2019

Film Review - Happy Death Day 2 U (15)

It's Monday the 18th... again. Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaagh!
2017's Happy Death Day was a winner - namely of the Filmic Forays Low-Expectations Award for a Film that was Massively Better Than I Expected (quite the honour, let me tell you). Expecting the kind of C-grade teen horror movie you laugh at, I was delighted instead to find myself laughing with that strangely sweet-natured horror-comedy. A Groundhog Day/Mean Girls/Scream triple-fusion, it took sorority piece-of-work Tree Gelbman, put her through a nasty-stabby time-loop wringer and turned her into a proactive heroine for whom the audience was rooting all the way. Of course such enthusiasm meant I approached Happy Death Day 2 U as a wary fan - nervous of what a sequel might do to the first film's crowd-pleasing legacy...
Aaaaaand relax. It's good. Not without its flaws, but - definitely good. 
It's also a huge surprise in its own right, in that it take the genre conventions established in the first film and smashes a whole new genre into them with the force of a particle accelerator. Within the first ten minutes most of what you might have been expecting is blown to smithereens, before being reassembled into something that is definitely familiar, but - different. Okay I'm tiptoeing around plot points here, as HDD2U is best experienced by fans with its WTF-factor intact. What I can say is this... Tree is happy with new boyfriend Carter, the time-loop is broken and her life is back on track. But the cause of said time-loop, which has an unexpected connection to Carter's oafish roommate Ryan, is still in play and soon she finds herself trapped back in Monday 18th - the same as before, only not. The stakes this time around are very different.
There's a degree of sadness (expressed by Tree herself in the movie) that whatever mystical explanation audiences had for the heroine's Groundhog experience has been totally undermined by the sequel's radical twist. In addition the new plot elements require some wild leaps in logic that we're left to bridge for ourselves, as the story is far too busy moving forward to sort them out for us. However the new tack does usher in a multiverse of possibilities that serve to keep the central premise fresh. There's a ticking clock aspect, a clutch of new/developed/altered characters and a heartbreaking central dilemma for the Deathday Girl.
Speaking of Jessica Rothe, she is - once again - the chief reason for this film's success. In the first she made a sarcastic 'beatch' likeable and that character's repeated slaughter palatable through bolshy energy and a nice line in gallows humour. Now she reenters the loop as a raging blonde torrent - fierce and hilarious, attacking the material with the panache of a star rather than a standard B-movie scream-queen. Despite an enjoyable group dynamic this is her show and she excels - both in the helter-skelter craziness of the plot and in the genuinely affecting character moments. Seriously, give the girl more work. She's good! 
The unleashing of this comedic whirlwind is indicative of the film's intentions as a whole. While some horror elements remain - a bit of stalk-and-slash down campus/hospital corridors - this is much more a comedy, a character drama and a romance, plus that other thing I've not explicitly stated. It succeeds totally at the first three and has a good stab at the third, the musical score and an early film reference cheekily underscoring the daring new direction. Do all the elements hold together? Just, and only if you fill in various plot-blanks and tie up on or two plot threads yourself. However the whole enterprise is so good-natured and gleefully played that you'll likely be happy to do that. And there may very well be a HDD3 - so that Tree Gelbman and friends can all die another day.
Gut Reaction: Some fairly major head-spinning at the genre-hop and a bit of grasping for sense. But mostly laughter and delight at seeing Tree in action again.

Memorable Moment: Montage of the macabre.

Ed's Verdict: 7/10. If you can get your head around the new concept and roll with the madness, you'll find this a worthily fun follow-up. What's Happy Death Day for, if not to screw with your expectations?

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.