Archive for the ‘reviews’ Category

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**** (out of five)

You’d need to have a cold stone heart – or, I suppose, prejudicially racialist views – to dislike Hidden Figures, the true story of black women working as “computers” at NASA in the 1960s. It’s a wonderful, rather incredible story, full of triumphant moments and performed by a perfect cast.

Yes, these highly talented mathematicians were called “computers” – before we called machines computers – because they made computations, in the same way accountants account and actors act. Not all of the details of the story are this revealingly accurate – the white characters, for example, are all composites of real people – but the astounding and goosebump-inducing achievements made by the three central characters are all historically cOrr ect and profoundly inspiring.

Empire’s Taraji P. Henson plays the central character, Katherine G. Johnson, a bona-fide math prodigy-genius who rose to essential prominence during the “space race” and beyond. She’s terrific, and more than ably supported by Octavia Spencer as Dorothy Vaughn and Janelle Monae as Mary Jackson, both of whom also delivered major damage to ceilings for black people and women within this bastion of astronomical ambition.

Theodore Melfi directs unobtrusively, letting the story and performers shine, but admirably restrains from underlining, and thus undermining, the story’s Big Moments. Like its fellow nominee for Best Picture at the Oscars, Lion, this is the tasteful version of a story that could have been ruined by a heavy hand, a bombastic score or too many studio notes. The true story is monumental enough.

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Luke Treadaway as James Bowen, with Bob as Bob.

***1/2 (out of five)

Okay, this is what happened: James Bowen, a young Englishman from a broken home who had spent part of his youth in Australia, found himself in the serious predicament of living on the streets of London with only a guitar and a heroin habit. He busked for chump change and half-eaten Pret A Manger sandwiches and searched for dry ground at night. He tried multiple times to kick the habit by enrolling in a state-sponsored methadone program, each time relapsing.

During his last chance with the program, when he was showing more determination, staying off the gear and sticking with the methadone, his case-worker took a little pity on him and arranged for him to occupy an unused council flat. While there, he met a beautiful, free-spirited girl and a stray ginger cat. The girl, based purely on a vibe, named the cat Bob.

Caring for Bob gave James a purpose, and in order to fulfil it, he learned to care for himself – a little. He hung on tight to getting clean, but was still shambolic in life, ruining small opportunities. But Bob the Street Cat was the endless purveyor of luck – spoiler alert – and, through the simple act of looking cute on James’ shoulders as he busked or sold copies of The Big Issue, attracted cash, a newspaper story, a book deal, and now this rather excellent movie. Needless to say, James is no longer living on the streets.

But if that’s not enough, here’s the kicker: Bob plays himself in the movie (and extremely well).

Luke Treadaway is very good too, as are Ruta Gedmintas (who starred opposite Treadaway in You Instead (2011)) and Joanne Froggatt as his sympathetic case-worker. Indeed, all the supporting actors are strong, although much of the screen time is simply Treadaway and Bob. Prolific journeyman director Roger Spottiswoode seems to have found new spark in his seventies, keeping the vibe gritty and authentic, which is in itself remarkable for a film about a young man and a cat. He doesn’t shy away from needles, dealers, and the effects of addiction, and Treadaway – reflecting what I understand of the real Bowen – never looks quite clean, even when he’s clean. The film also offers what feels like an authentic glimpse into the lives of the “aspirational homeless”, including fascinating scenes inside the London Big Issue office that gave me massive respect for that magazine and all who work for it. Obviously not a movie for young kids, A Street Cat Named Bob is tough and tender, and a massive, welcome February surprise. I loved it.

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James Bowen with Bob.

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

You may have heard that Manchester By The Sea, Kenneth Lonergan’s Oscar-nominated third feature as writer/director, is very sad. What you may not have heard is that, for the vast majority of its running time, it is very, very funny.

Lonergan, an established playwright as well as filmmaker, can write, and he can write killer dialogue. Manchester By The Sea has an intricate, complicated, extremely well-crafted structure, a thematically rich story covered with depth and sensitivity, but it also boasts absolutely wonderful back-and-forth banter that is always witty and sometimes hilarious. It is a far funnier movie than many of the “comedies” released over the last few years.

That banter mainly – though not exclusively – occurs between Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) and his teenage nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Patrick’s dad (Kyle Chandler – the name is weirdly co-incidental), Lee’s older brother, has died from his chronic heart condition, and he and Lee are coming to terms with their grief and each other, as Lee has been named Patrick’s guardian in his brother’s will. They get along, terrifically in fact, but Lee has other grief in his not-too-distant past, the kind shredded and studded with suffocating guilt, and he is spiky and disoriented, removed slightly from the real world, ajar and adrift. Instant fatherhood was not on his agenda, but somehow he has to make it work, not only because he loves his nephew, but also because his brother, by all accounts an extremely decent man, was very much his best friend.

I had the strange impression that Manchester By The Sea may be composed of endless scenes of a dreary mope, but that is so not the case. Besides the many fire-cracker scenes between Affleck and Hedges (both are superb), and similarly excellent scenes involving Affleck and Michelle Williams as his wife, C.J. Wilson as his brother’s best friend, and many other inhabitants of the titular Massachusetts town, all played by excellent actors, there are scenes that simply follow Patrick’s storyline, leaving Lee off-screen, doing his own thing. It is a wider, broader, bigger film than its marketing may suggest, crackling with energy, pace, and dramatic heft.

It is also stunningly beautiful. The seaside locations are exquisitely shot by Jody Lee Lipes; Massachusetts is rendered simultaneously realistically – cold, old, ornery – and somewhat idealistically, the bounteous water and highway-side forests sparkling with crisp winter light. The music – a combination of original compositions by Lesley Barber and well-used classical pieces – is bold and rich, edging the visuals into poetic mini-montages that consistently punctuate the very human drama. The production design, while never drawing attention to itself, is flawless. I know Massachusetts very well, and this is Massachusetts.

Manchester By The Sea is a great film. It is thoroughly involving, deeply moving, and sparkles with humanity. Highly recommended and my favourite of the big Oscar contenders for 2016.

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*** (out of five)

Perfect Strangers, from Paolo Genovese, is one of those European romps that all take place in a single contemporary location – mainly around a table – and involve a lot of dialogue being spoken by locally popular actors that is sort of witty, somewhat sexy and potentially ponderous. The French and Italians both make this kind of film and, if successful, it’s a great business model. If not, it’s stagey and cheap.

Perfect Strangers – set in Rome among the genre’s typically upper-middle-class, forward-thinking modern bourgeoisie – just sits on the right side of the equation. It pulls off its decidedly tricky and potentially gimmicky premise through a better-than-average script, fluid direction that keeps a single set visually interesting, and most importantly, an excellent ensemble who all play the rather ridiculous situation straight.

That situation is this: at a dinner party for seven old friends, one of them suggests, as a sort of truth game, that they all surrender their mobile phones to the centre of the table for the night, and that all of their text messages and emails are revealed and their phone conversations had on speaker-phone in front of the others. Naturally – this is hardly a spoiler – secrets are revealed and they all realise they didn’t know each other as well as they thought they did.

This is a ludicrous concept, of course, but what high-concept isn’t? It skates by on very professional performances and a smattering of revelations that manage to subvert our expectations by about ten percent. It worked massively on the large (quite mature) audience I saw it with, who gasped, giggled, ooooed and aaaahed at each new twist. It’s an amiable ninety-six minutes that won’t change your life, as much as it would love you to hurl your mobile device into traffic upon leaving the cinema.

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*** (out of five)

What do you call the genre that encompasses American Hustle, The Wolf of Wall Street and Blow? I suppose you could go with “Rags To Riches” or even, more accurately and more often, “Rags to Riches to Rags”. But there’s a certain style and tone to these movies that links them besides their celebration / evisceration of the American Dream, and that tone is cribbed from Scorsese, making Wolf of Wall Street the natural leader of the pack, even if American Hustle may be more disciplined.

The other feature, I think, that audiences respond to is period. These wide-screen, semi-epic adventures tend to be set in the ‘70s, ‘80s and early ‘90s – sometimes all three. The production design – especially hair and make-up – is part of the fun.

Matthew McConaughey’s make-up and hairstylists went all out for Gold, Stephen Gagan’s change-the-names-for-legal-reasons adaptation of the true story of the Bre-X gold scandal, one of Canada’s great business stories. Gagan resets the tale to Reno but many of the true story’s outlandish details are there on screen, and they make for some excellent twists and turns.

McConaughey, fifty or so pounds overweight with a receding hairline and generally looking awful, delivers yet another earnest, endlessly entertaining, energetic and engaging performance, albeit one with too much mumbling (I think I lost a third of his lines). The storytelling is flabby too, but the many supporting actors are excellent, the design fine, and the source material absolutely deserving the movie. This could have been a great film; it’s a good enough one.gold-gold-movie-gold-film-films-movies-film-review11

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**** (out of five)

German Filmmaker Maren Ade (go ahead, say it out loud a couple of times, have a chuckle, and get it out of your system) takes her time with her dramatic comedy Toni Erdmann. It’s an enormously rewarding work, but, at two hours and forty-two minutes, it demands you surrender to its rhythm.

Ines – the incredible Sandra Hüller, who, in a more just world, would be waking up to an Oscar nomination tomorrow – is an overworked, overstressed young exec for a German international consulting firm currently posted in Bucharest. When her eccentric father Winfried’s dog dies, he pays her a surprise visit, and, worried about her, goes to odd lengths to cheer her up, including assuming an alternative persona.

The film is a superb and deeply-layered examination of the special relationship between fathers and daughters (to which, on that level, I could relate and surrender myself). However, it’s much more than that. In its extended scenes of the delicate dance of (somewhat dubious) business in Eastern Europe, it examines the ongoing misogyny inherent in corporate life, the use of corporate “fall guys” – in the guise of consultancy firms – that let mega-corporations walk away from abuses with a clean press record, and the blatant exploitation of Euro-struggling nations by wealthy ones. There’s a perfect moment when Ines, having just made an important presentation in an upscale hotel’s business centre, stares out the window at a household across the road that probably doesn’t have electricity.

Peter Simonischek, a prolific and revered TV star who normally presents as a handsome silverback, lets it all hang out as Winfried, a true eccentric whose empathetic wisdom is buried under layers of diffidence. He and Hüller play off each other superbly, often in extended moments of awkward silence. The entire film is full of awkward moments, awkward scenes, awkward lives. It won’t be for everyone – and please, don’t go expecting a gazillion yuks – but, by its end, it is thoroughly engaging, moving and meaningful, a major film with a lot on its mind. Highly recommended.

Sing

Posted: January 23, 2017 in movie, movie reviews, reviews, Uncategorized
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***

The folk at Illumination Entertainment, a French animation house, have had a stellar run of late. They made Despicable Me and its sequels and Minions off-shoots, as well as The Secret Life of Pets. So they are in the Billion Club and then some.

Add another. Their latest, Sing, has made a quarter bil and counting. DVDs, sequels and merch will push it into billion on its own in years to come. Sacre blue!

Their style is more ramshackle, eccentric and, well, French than Pixar or Dreamworks, and Sing is no exception. A Koala tries to save his foreclosed-upon theatre by hosting a singing competition. Various animals compete. Matthew McConaughey plays the Koala, which suits his hucksterish persona, and there are a lot of pop hits – across all decades – referenced, with a fair few sung in their entirety by hippos, lllamas, porcupines, pigs and others. It’s all incredibly colourful.

This was the first feature film I took my not-quite-yet three-year-old daughter to at the cinema. She made it through the whole thing and loved it. That’s rave enough. For my money, the middle act, lacking songs, dragged a bit, and the concept of not having enough money to save one’s property seemed to me to be a boring – and hopefully alien – concept for teeny kiddies (Princesses, you’ll notice, don’t carry wallets). But the animals are cute, the songs great, and… well, my daughter loved it, so yours probably will too.