Tuesday, 11 December 2018

Festive Forays - Ralph Breaks the Internet (PG)

This is the most beautiful miracle I've ever seen.
In 2012 Disney gifted us with Wreck-It Ralph, a bright and funny homage to classic video arcade games that also also celebrated the warm, fuzzy virtues of friendship. It crammed in references to Pac-man, Super Mario Bros. and the rest, while creating original yet familiar-seeming games around its protagonists. Ralph was the secretly good-natured villain from Donkey Kong-inspired 'Fix-It Felix', while Vanellope von Schweetz aspired to compete regularly in her cutesy road-race game 'Sugar Rush', despite the 'glitch' that afflicted her. This was big-hearted stuff, achieving intimacy through the burgeoning friendship of its central pair, despite the film's epic scope. So has Ralph Breaks the Internet pulled off the same trick, while going even bigger? Well, it has and it hasn't...
In Ralph II our pixillated duo - now firmly-established best friends - are surprised by the installation of a Wifi connection, one that's off-limits to them all as arcade-game characters. When a part gets broken in Vanellope's vintage game, however, threatening to shut it down forever, Ralph discovers he can locate a replacement somewhere called eBay. Fired up by a sense of adventure, Vanellope accompanies Ralph on a forbidden expedition to purchase the part. It takes them into the vast and bewildering world known as The Internet - not so vast though that it's proof against the well-meaning Ralph and his brand of ham-fisted havoc.
There is much to love in Ralph and Vannelope's online escapades. The Disney animators' sky-high craftsmanship is matched by how imaginatively the internet is rendered as a physical place. True the film's product placement jars at points - Google and Amazon could surely have been parodied rather than directly represented - but the greater part of this is genuinely creative. Everyone's experience of search engines, spamming and online faddishness is represented with ingenuity and a real sense of fun, and there are nice sideswipes at the more destructive kinds of internet activity, like the malice of comments-section trolls. Clashing animation styles are put to terrific use as well, not least when our goofily sketched heroes investigate a grungy Grand Theft Auto-style race game. It's clever and inventive stuff throughout with plot twists miles beyond predicting.
The problem perhaps is that it's too smart, too sophisticated, too conceptually vast in what it ultimately attempts to portray, with the result that the warmth of the original film risks being lost. There's a lot of grown-up humour here - the clever variety of Pixar's Inside Out rather than anything seedy - and for all the younger audience's computer literacy much of it seems destined to go right over their heads. Equally there's a sense of being swamped along with Ralph and Vanellope in this movie-internet's visual hugeness, to the extent that leaving the screening-room might feel like the start of a major digital detox. There's a swell time to be had here for sure, but in the latter stages spectacle threatens to overwhelm the movie's more amiable aspects.
Happily our flawed but heroic pals (voiced with verve once again by John C. Reilly and Sarah Silverman) make it through the escalating mayhem with their lovable personalities intact. The actors' improvised bickering translates into a wonderfully developed animated relationship; Vanellope is especially funny and adorable this time around, while Ralph learns painful but necessary lessons about what it means to be a proper friend. It's this character bond that holds the experience together, while providing some welcome (and thankfully non-trite) life-lessons. For all the teeming electronic activity on display, it's relatable human interaction that grounds this sequel, providing it with some of the original film's soul.   

Gut Reaction: Awestruck by technical achievement, occasionally heart-warmed and rocked with laughter at least three times. That'll do. 

Where Are the Women?: As well as the splendid Silverman, there's Gal (Wonder Woman) Gadot as a bad-ass road-racer chick, Tajari P. Henson as a clued-in algorithm called Yesss and a gaggle of feminism-embracing Disney princesses. Despite the big dude in the title role, the girls own this one.

Ed's Verdict: 7/10. Ralph II's internet-ty aspects are almost too ambitious and knowingly clever for their own good. It takes Ralph and Vanellope's partnership to keep us rooted in our love of the franchise. 

Friday, 7 December 2018

Film Review - Creed II (12A)

He broke things in me that ain't never been fixed.
I was there when it all went down first time around. When Apollo Creed was knocked to the canvas by Ivan Drago, never to rise again. When Rocky Balboa  - the 'Italian Stallion' -  returned to the ring to avenge his friend before a partisan Moscow crowd. When he damn well won the Cold War for the USA, in spirit at least. I witnessed every drop of sweat and blood those mad Titans spilt - from my seat in the Iveagh Cinema, Banbridge, circa 1985. It was wildly over-the-top for sure, a long way from the urban grit of the original Rocky, but damn was it thrilling too.
Now thirty-three years later Soviet colossus Drago (Dolph Lundgren) is back for vengeance-by-proxy. In Creed II Apollo's son Adonis 'Donnie' Creed (Michael B. Jordan) is punching his full heavyweight in the boxing world - mentored by Rocky himself (Sylvester Stallone back in the role that defined him) and hoping to settle with his singer-girlfriend (Thor Ragnarok's now thoroughly famous Tessa Thompson). But then the Russian nemesis of the father he never knew throws down a terrifying challenge. Drago has a son of his own, named Viktor, who looks like he's been created in an iron foundry, and who has been trained with the express purpose of defeating Creed junior. Don't do it, the older/wiser Rocky advises, but Donnie has blood in his eye and sets out to avenge his late dad. 
2015's Creed proved a wonderful surprise. Here was a film that reinvigorated the Rocky franchise while tapping into what made us love it in the first place - namely heart and soul. The biggest compliment I can give Creed II is that it doesn't let its predecessor down (hooray!), acting rather as an enthralling companion piece. It teases out character threads from the first and deepens established relationships, while introducing fascinating new ones. 
Director Steven Caple Jr. does a creditable job in his first major studio gig, retaining the grainy blue-collar sensibility of the Ryan Coogler original and supplying the fight sequences with sufficiently bruising authenticity. (If he doesn't yet have Coogler's stature, he's on the way to achieving those heights.) Co-written by Stallone the movie delves into familial bonds and pressures like never before, while supplying each of its central characters with depth and believability. Yes there's lots of intergenerational dude-stuff going on, but it's leavened by a beautifully developed relationship between Donnie and Bianca, detailing their joys and travails as a couple and taking them in some unexpected directions. 
Jordan, the other side of his Black Panther triumph, lives the title role, bringing both charisma and vulnerability along with the brawn. Stallone meanwhile is predictably great as Rocky, the old warhorse turned trainer and surrogate dad. But oddly enough it's another father-son combo that stole the film for me - that of team Drago. Three decades have transformed Ivan from the cartoon-style machine he was in Rocky IV into something very different and way more interesting; rather than simply a pair of brutal antagonists, he and his boy Viktor have understandable motivations for their actions. The result is a climactic fight sequence where you feel properly invested in both contestants. Now that's some good screen-writing.
It's one of Creed II's main strengths - the amount of character detail introduced in between all the power-punching, so that those punches carry emotional weight. Another is the fact that while the film followed a seasoned Rocky formula, it finds clever ways of subverting expectation - never anything major, but enough to provide an element of pleasant surprise. Caple Jr, Stallone and co provide just enough variation on a much-loved theme to let you thoroughly enjoy it all again. And when a certain familiar musical theme kicks in towards the end, you'll feel that Donnie Creed has more than earned it. The Balboa mantle has truly been passed on.
Gut Reaction: A lot of wincing, as particularly brutal hooks and upper-cuts were landed. But this movie punched me right in the feels as well.

Where Are the Women?: Thompson is terrific and given proper space to develop as Bianca. And Phylicia Rashad is wonderfully knowing as Donnie's seen-it-all mom.

Ed's Verdict: 7.5/10. This could have made original Creed less than it was. Instead it enhances everything, while taking storylines from the daft Rocky IV and giving them some gravitas. Result - another knockout. 

Tuesday, 4 December 2018

DVD/Blu-ray Mini-Review - Leave No Trace (12)

Everything's different now.
The Gist: Will and Tom are father and daughter living rough in vast public woodlands outside Portland, Oregon. He's a widower and a war veteran, internally wrestling with PTSD and taking comfort in his survivalist lifestyle. She's a bright and devoted teenager, absorbing and living by her dad's instruction, while seemingly not looking beyond her immediate existence. Best friends as well as family, their bond runs far deeper than the few words that pass between them. But when local authorities track them down and seek to integrate them into the wider human world, the pair's unique connection threatens to founder along with their wilderness existence.
The Juice: Director Debra Granik brought Jennifer Lawrence to prominence in her harsh 2010 drama Winter's Bone. She might well have just done the same for Thomasin McKenzie, who gives a winsome and utterly truthful performance here as daughter Tom, a girl whose devotion to her father will be inevitably tested. Just as impressive is Ben Foster's Will, an understated but heartbreaking portrayal of the psychological devastation inflicted by war. Affecting and tender, their relationship (with its mounting complexities) is the heart of this poignant film. But Granik's storytelling is also an unshowy star, wasting not a single shot and capturing the Oregon forests in all their dank, wintry beauty. Dickon Hinchcliff's haunting, bluegrass-tinged soundtrack is the perfect melancholy accompaniment to these subtly unfolding events.
The Judgement: 8.5/10. Leave No Trace tells a similar story to 2016's Captain Fantastic, but with all Hollywood artifice stripped away. Much is suggested, but little specified, about the central pair's backstory, while their struggles (joint and individual) are conveyed with enormous compassion. Cleanly shot natural settings, naturalistic acting and spare dialogue - this is a beautifully evocative piece of film-making, inspired by a true story and mining depths of truth in its characters. Impressive and moving stuff. 

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

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

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

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

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

Friday, 23 November 2018

Theatre Review - Table (Tower Theatre Company)

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

Thursday, 22 November 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 19 November 2018

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

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