Archive for November, 2015

program_xlg***1/2 (out of five)

Stephen Frears knows how to make movies. Check out this selection from his CV: My Beautiful Laundrette, Prick Up Your Ears, Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, Dangerous Liaisons, The Grifters, High Fidelity, The Queen and Philomena. If you can’t find something there to love, you don’t appreciate cinema.

His ferocious portrait of Lance Armstrong’s doping program is as cold and steely as its subject. There’s no time wasted here on wives, children, parents, childhood, religion, politics, puppy dogs or pussy cats. This film is about bicycles and drugs – mainly drugs.

Of course, it’s really about Armstrong, and as played superbly – and very, very coldly – by the extremely gifted Ben Foster (3:10 To Yuma, Lone Survivor), he’s a creep. This adheres to everything I’ve read and seen and heard about the cyclist, which amounts to a lot. Even his attempts to be charming are creepy. His ambition is so naked, so transparent, he cannot even pretend to give a damn about other people.

Set up against Armstrong is Sunday Times writer David Walsh, who was instrumental, but not solely responsible, for exposing Armstrong’s staggering levels of deception. As played amiably and professionally – as usual – by Chris O’Dowd, Walsh is a decent enough good antagonist (to this story’s villainous protagonist) but the circumstances of history prevent them from having a proper showdown, and thus we the audience from achieving emotional catharsis.

That said, I was gripped throughout. I’m a sucker for the material, granted, but that’s because it’s absolutely fascinating stuff. If you’re green on Armstrong or a Tour De France junkie, there’ll be something here for you. As usual for Frears, the craftsmanship is superb, and the casting in particular is inspired: Lee Pace, Jesse Plemens and a surprising and pleasing Dustin Hoffman are all great in their roles. The one bum note is a truly weird performance by Guillaume Canet as the godfather of doping, “Dr.” Michele Ferrari. It may well be that Ferrari used cyclists like rats in an experiment, but to play him like Dr. Frankenstein from an early talkie is a bit much.

creed_ver3*** (out of five)

Clearly building a foundation for a franchise that can live forever, Creed sees Rocky Balboa training the son of his former opponent Apollo Creed to follow in his father’s footsteps – that is, into the professional ring. It’s got a terrific fight at the end, and all the proceeding stuff is professional and clear, while never being anything approaching thrilling or surprising.

Creed’s son is played by Michael B. Jordan, re-teaming with his Fruitvale Station director Ryan Coogler, who co-wrote the somewhat meandering screenplay with Aaron Covington. Jordan’s fine, as is (dead ringer for a young Lisa Bonet) Tessa Thompson as his love interest, a DJ called Bianca. They have a funny moment on a couch that is capped by a slow pan up to a turtle, his neck and head vein-poppingly erect in the most blatant and risible phallic symbol I’ve seen in a movie in a long time.

Stallone’s fine too, looking stocky and well. It’s impossible to guess his age now; he seems to have moved into an ageless twilight for the well-built. Perhaps thanks to Coogler, this time around he enunciates enough for us to understand every single one of his lines, perhaps a career first.

The best – and topically authentic-feeling – slice of the film is the antagonist opponent, Englishman “Pretty” Ricky Conlan, played exceptionally by three time ABA Heavyweight Champion Tony Bellew (as is his his trainer/manager played by Scottish Graham McTavish, who was also in Rambo). Unlike Rocky IV’s cold-war side-taking, England itself is not here singled out for villainy, even as Conlan kind of is. His cold murderous pre-fight stare is truly terrifying, and the press conference scenes echo many we’ve seen in real life, but more articulately. This is a boxing movie with a surprisingly good vocabulary.

Absolutely Anything

Posted: November 23, 2015 in Uncategorized

absolutely_anything_ver81/2 a star (out of five)

Absolutely Anything is Terry Jones’ first feature screenplay (written here with 65 year old Gavin Scott) since Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride in 1996 and before that, Erik The Viking in 1989. Those are also the last two features he’s directed. These yawning gaps present themselves in the form of horrendously stale jokes and awfully pedestrian – bordering on ameteurish – direction. I hate to say it of the man who gave us The Meaning of Life, Life of Brian, and Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but this is the worst film thus far of 2015, and so staggeringly terrible I can’t imagine it being beaten to the bottom.

Simon Pegg follows Man Up with yet another horrible choice, and he looks much, much more uncomfortable in this one. Everyone does, as the lines are essentially unspeakable. Sanjeev Bhaskar, as Pegg’s school-teaching colleague, has to get things rolling with lines like “If you could do absolutely anything, what would you do?” Kate Beckinsale, as the Girl Who Lives Downstairs, Is Impossibly Beautiful And Single, has to play a stereotype of a stereotype of a stereotype and do things like, when her pathological stalker pulls a gun, say, mildly worried, “You’re crazy!” Worst of all – way worst of all – Robb Riggle, as that stalker, seems to have been told to watch Kevin Kline’s performance in A Fish Called Wanda and copy it, right down to the facial expressions as he spies through a window.

Riggle’s character is clearly stolen from Kline’s – the American blowhard making fun of the English accent (hysterical) – which was co-written by John Cleese, Jones’ fellow Python. I don’t know if Cleese let this slide because he took pity on a chum who obviously had no new ideas, or as some nasty prank – “Wait ‘till Kevin sees this!” Regardless, Cleese and the other surviving Pythons also lend their voices to the least interesting, least funny “aliens” in movies. They give Pegg the power to do “absolutely anything”, so we then get a hundred variations of “Let me be on the bus!” followed by Pegg being on top of the bus! Hysterical!

Deeply depressing, too, is the use of a very lacklustre, almost maudlin voice performance by Robin Williams as Pegg’s dog. Nothing the dog says is funny – the jokes are as old as silent movies – and I am embarrassed that Williams, a master of the form, had to stand at a mic and read them. I’m sure he did it as a favour to Jones, because the film looks like it cost 60p.

Alarmingly, an obvious and easy scene to cut – that dog rescuing Pegg from a suicide attempt – was left in. It’s an awful scene, and distasteful, especially since it does nothing for the plot and is not funny (indeed, as I said, it’s awful). This is how Williams got repaid – with a bad suicide gag?

This film is appalling. What a shame, because everyone involved (perhaps with the exception of the very dubious Bhaskar) – are usually quite capable. Here they all look like hacks. But the script – the “jokes” – oy! Jokes about every woman in Australia being called “Sharon” (I’m sure this is a Python rip-off); jokes about dogs being obsessed with humping legs and eating biscuits; jokes about being gay; jokes about plumbers (humping legs and being gay). The film even looks like it was shot in 1983. Politically it’s so out of touch it’s out to lunch: when the aliens start flipping through all the people of the world to choose an experimental subject at random, they’re all white. And it has absolutely no interior logic, which is infuriating, even in a film with aliens. When Pegg’s character causes the death of 38 men, women and children at his school, he arrives home looking a little weary, like he walked a block. When he starts some world wars, they’re being reported on television – with footage – forty seconds later. When he… oh, forget it. Lord knows how and why anyone agreed to make this script into a projected image, but a projected image is all that it is. What a shame.

Secret-in-Their-Eyes-Poster-Chiwetel-Ejiofor****

In 2010, I wrote of El Secreto De Sus Ojos, “It is a superb film, an incredibly rich and moving crime thriller telling a story both in the present and twenty-five years in the past, utilising the streets of Buenos Aires to maximum effect and deploying some of Argentina’s finest actors … [It] transcends its crime-novel beginnings … and resonates as much emotionally as viscerally. Never sordid, gratuitous or dishonest, this is a thoroughly satisfying, big-meal of a movie for adults to savour.”

That film won the Best Foreign Language Oscar that year, beating Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon and Jaques Audiard’s A Prophet. Considering the artistic and intellectual heft of those films, and the regard in which their directors were held, this was quite something, for we’re talking, at essence, of a police procedural – not usually Oscar material. But this film was special. It had an astonishingly brilliant plot – far, far superior to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, which was the other pulp novel whose film adaptation(s) transcended the material – and a very particular mood. It was seriously melancholy, full of dashed love as well as bad crime; it was methodical, measured, intellectually stimulating and thoughtful; and it was gorgeously shot. It was one of the film experiences of the year and I’ve never forgotten it.

The good news is that this remake, as completely redundant as it is, honours the tone and spirit of the original and, most importantly, doesn’t screw with the incredibly plotted story. The astonishing twists and turns are all there and I had an excellent couple of hours experiencing them all again, akin to listening to a really good and faithful cover version of a brilliant song. Director Billy Ray aims for that measured, melancholic mood and pretty darn well achieves it, aided immeasurably by a superb lead performance from Chiwetel Ejiofor, who surely must now be counted as one of our great screen actors, and who gets my vote for the next Bond (because come on, Idris Elba is too big – if Bond can beat up the henchmen, what’s the point of his brain, or the gadgets?)

Nicole Kidman gives admirable support in yet another very smartly chosen role, one that reflects her status as a great maturing beauty with a kind of dignified acknowledgement. On the other hand, the make-up department has gone a little overboard turning Julia Roberts, in a smaller role, into a real Plain Jane. Even cops can be pretty. In fact, in Hollywood remakes, they usually are. This remake may be unnecessary, but it’s good. In fact, it’s very good – even if you fondly remember the original.

Man-Up-2015

* (out of five)

Simon Pegg is a talented and successful man of the movies. Besides Spaced and “the Cornetto trilogy” of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End – his almost always excellent collaborations with writer / director Edgar Wright – and his occupation of second-tier funnyman in the Mission Impossible, Star Trek and (new) Star Wars franchises, he’s also a seriously well-endowed screenwriter, including being one of only two credited writers on the next Trek flick. So what in the world is he doing in this abomination of a RomCom? What could he have possibly seen in Tess Morris’s laugh-free script?

Perhaps the whole thing is intended as post-modern, including, as it does, every single RomCom cliché from the manual, including the running and public declaration at the end. But it’s not funny ironic, it’s not funny straight, it’s not funny anything. It’s embarrassing from start to finish and Pegg looks deeply uncomfortable in it.

He and Lake Bell (an American doing, it must be said, a flawless Brit accent) play a couple of Londonistas who meet on a blind date meant for someone else (in that he was meant to meet a different she under a clock, but she happened to be standing there). We follow them through an afternoon into an evening, painfully.

The film, directed by Ben Palmer (The Inbetweeners Movie) looks awful. Scenes in a bowling alley and Waterloo Station, in particular, are about as horribly lit as you can imagine cinema being capable of short of the camera pointed directly at a naked bulb. There is a fine piece of character work being done by always reliable Rory Kinnear. The rest is drivel.

he-named-me-malala***1/2 (out of five)

Oscar-winning doco maker Davis Guggenheim (An Inconvenient Truth) has made a revealing and sweet film about Malala Yousafzai and her dad Ziauddin, which can’t help but be thirty percent or so more resonant seen in the week of the Paris attacks. Malala was shot in the face by the Taliban as Paris has metaphorically been shot in the face by ISIS, and her response is brave and moving.

We all should remember the details of Malala’s attack, so the film gives us just enough material there. It is strongly focused on Malala’s work since healing, including visiting various countries to lend her support to various causes (including the kidnapped schoolgirls incident in Chibok, Nigeria). It contrasts her sudden worldwide fame and influence with charming scenes of her domestic life in Birmingham, UK, and reminds you consistently but never heavy-handedly just how awful the Taliban is.

But where the film glows is its depiction of Malala’s relationship with her Dad, Ziauddin, himself an inspiring, influential and brave activist. “He named her Malala” after an important folk heroine, and together, they are something to behold. Guggenheim’s film is not the kind that demands a big screen, but if you do see it at the cinema you might get what I got: that rare phenomenon of spontaneous audience applause at the film’s conclusion. If that’s because we were all thinking of Paris along with Malala, all the better.

spectre-banner-3**** (out of five)

Daniel Craig’s final film as James Bond is a visually dark, contemplative, adult affair that seeks to conclude a four-film arc, marking out Craig’s tenure as a sort of self-contained series within the larger franchise. Its plot directly links it to the previous three films, and there’s no doubt that this approach, given that Craig has said “never again”, carries a strong sense of story satisfaction. It has been carefully wrought.

I suspect it will go down as the third best of Craig’s lot; it is simply not as thrilling and fresh as Casino Royale, nor as charming and jittery as Skyfall. (I still maintain Quantum of Solace is a fine film with the second-best action set-piece of the four, but there’s no denying that its plotting, affected by the writer’s strike of the time, is lacking). Spectre will not be remembered for its action – none of its set pieces are top grade – but it has very strong characters, and, joining On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and Casino Royale, a powerful love interest for Bond. Indeed, this is one of the “romance ones”, and that romance is the film’s strongest element.

The object of Bond’s affection here – and we’re deeply in the zone of May/December (the much touted, respectably aged Monica Bellucci has a tiny part and is not the love interest) – is Madeleine Swann, played superbly by Léa Seydoux. Like many a Bond companion, she’s a little girl who has lost her daddy, and her love for Bond must be seen through the prism of a replacement father figure; Craig’s famously blonde hair is actually grey in this film, and he’s looking his age, which is much greater than hers. Nevertheless, their relationship is touching and believable, and director Sam Mendes is not afraid to let it breathe (which, when you consider how speedy most action films are these days, is pretty brave). The best scene in the film is the quietest. Bond has been really screwed up since Vesper Lynd bit the bullet, and it’s remarkably touching to see his mad iciness begin to thaw.

Tradition, two Oscars, and perhaps a little old-school Ian Fleming sexism demand that Christophe Waltz receives second billing, but Seydoux has far more screen time and emotional investment. She gives the film’s best performance. Waltz, in a surprisingly brief role, is effective but hardly impactful on the scale of at least ten of the franchise’s top villains, if not more. Andrew Scott and Ralph Fiennes play off each other very well as the bureaucrats (M and “C”) bickering back in Old Blighty, and Ben Whishaw solidifies his claim on Q. As an old-school, wordless heavy, Dave Bautista (Drax in Guardians of the Galaxy) is suitably heavy (and, astoundingly, never less than fully suited).

As for Craig, he’s great as usual, but you can sense his ennui. He’s over it and it just manages to show. His performance is subdued, almost laid back. He knows he’s the best Bond and he coasts a little. But every time he shares a scene with Seydoux, his game lifts noticeably. She brings out the best in him, something Madeleine also does to Bond. The film’s conclusion harks directly back to one of those “romance ones” I mentioned earlier, but this time, Bond gets the girl. I’m happy for him.

Now-Add-Honey*** (out of five)

Robyn Butler’s screenplay for Now Add Honey is breezy and buoyant , managing to stay light ’n easy even as it deals with some pretty serious themes: really bad adultery, parental neglect, drug addiction, the over-sexualisation of young performers, and, most passionately and effectively, the ageing of the female body. The fact that all this is crammed into a high-concept comedy with a deceptively simple  mis – “Normal life implodes for a suburban family when their pop-star cousin comes to stay” – is very much to Butler’s credit.

Butler plays Caroline, who has to shelter her sixteen year-old international sensation niece Honey (Lucy Fry) when her sister and Honey’s mother Beth (Portia de Rossi) is arrested for drug importation at Melbourne Airport. They’re in from LA, where Honey has developed into a vacuous idiot; now Caroline’s nice normal family has to deal with Honey’s absurdity, while Honey has to deal with their banality.

At least, that’s the set-up. But where the script really shines is in all that messy stuff I mentioned earlier. Butler is unashamed and unafraid to use her very wrinkles to get a lot off her chest (which she is also extremely happy to disparage to make her point); as she takes pot-shots at the entertainment industry, she is very clear to point out that not only the audience but young entertainers themselves – even when being manipulated by their parents, agents, photographers, labels and the like – must also take accountability on the issue of sexual exploitation. She kicks goals on the other issues too, all the while keeping her comic balls in the air – something a lot of light comedies simply do not achieve, allowing themselves to be swallowed by sentimentality or self-importance.

Fry is excellent as Honey, pushing her character’s ludicrousness to the edge without ever taking it over into cringe-worthy parody. She’s accountable for at least half the film’s laughs (and that’s a conservative estimate). Lucy Durack is great as Katie, Caroline and Beth’s sister, although she looks more like one of their daughters. Philippa Coulthard makes a strong impression as Caroline’s sensible daughter Clare (and will get you humming a particular Cure song way after you’ve left the theatre). The only one who seems (very) uncomfortable in her role is de Rossi, although, to be fair, her character is cordoned off from the rest for the cast for most of the movie, which may account for her tonally mismatched performance. While the others are playing high comedy, she’s playing to the back row.

Wayne Hope’s direction is deceptively matter-of-fact; what he does – and doesn’t call attention to – is honour the script. The jokes are well-timed, the dramatic bits are never allowed to tilt the film’s delicate balance, and the pacing is sharp. The only huge blunders are the score, which is generic and annoying, and a seriously misjudged romantic subplot involving a superstar chef (Robbie Magasiva). Everything else on on-note.