CALL ME BY YOUR NAME
Prepare to swoon
Set “somewhere in Northern Italy” in 1983, this sensuous adaptation of André Aciman’s 2007 novel of the same name follows the intoxicating coming-of-age romance between Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer). The precocious 17-year old is a cultured but inexperienced teen who spends his summers on the sun-soaked Riviera with his family, transcribing sheet music, reading and casually flirting with his summer-gal Marzia (Esther Garrel). Every year, his scholarly father (Michael Stuhlbarg) invites a new grad student to aid him in his research. Enter Oliver into this bourgeois wetdream. He is an older, confident American historian who will stay in their villa for six weeks.
Elio and Oliver share bike rides, chats and piano lessons and what starts as cautious dislike evolves to infatuation for the volatile youngster on the cusp of adulthood. As for the Hollywoodesque charmer, he flitters between affectionate and aloof, as he is all-too-aware of the problematic ethics of the situation.
Call Me By Your Name is an exquisitely shot adaptation, penned by James Ivory, which sees Luca Guadagnino create an immersive world that you want to bathe in. Through Sayombhu Mukdeeprom’s sumptuous and tactile cinematography, you can smell, touch and almost taste the sun-kissed fruit of the Italian orchards, as well as get lost in this fleeting summer romance between two people who tentatively yearn for each other in their own ways. Guadagnino’s slow-paced and sophisticated love story showcases once more - but never before with such skill - how he has an undeniable skill for expressing desire as a dizzying force that often transcends language, much like what Todd Hayne’s achieved with Carol. The Italian director manages to fillet genuine emotional resonance and symbolic significance from what could easily be overripe imagery, and the results radiate sensuality.
This mastery of tone is matched by two excellent performances. Hammer has never been better, utilising his effortless, Dickie Greenleaf-esque charms to portray a character with conflicting urges and cocooned emotions. As for promising young actor Timothé Chalamet, previously seen in Interstellar, this is a career-making turn. He uses his restless appearance to great effect, and both manage not only to create an initially combative chemistry, but also convey a nuanced sense of unspoken longing. They ensure that the viewer never gets sick of witnessing the gradual break down of their defences.
Their romance all leads to an unbelievably powerful climax, a conversation between Elio and his father, that is fated to be 2017’s most memorable scene. It’s one for the ages, where a father opens up to his son, with the former sharing how love, even in the face of loss, is everything, and that cauterising pain is dangerous. “We rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of 30”, he tells his son. “Don’t make yourself feel nothing so as not to feel anything. What a waste.” It’s a heart-swelling moment devoid of schmaltz that sees Michael Stuhlbarg shine as the man who was aware of the nature of his son’s relationship with Oliver, empathises with him, and beautifully hints that he may have missed his chance with love - homosexual or not - back when he was Elio’s age.
It is a sumptuous moment which leads to yet another highlight. The credits roll as an original composition by Sufjan Stevens, ‘Visions of Gideon’, plays over a close-up shot of Elio’s face. “I have loved you for the last time”, sings Stevens, echoing another song of his played earlier in the film, 'Futile Devices': “It’s been a long, long time since I’ve memorized your face (…) I think of you as my brother, although that sounds dumb”.
As with a lot of music ingeniously curated by Guadagnino, the score complements thematic motifs, here of unspoken longing and nostalgia. Through Chalamet’s superb performance and the lyrics, we comprehend both the bittersweet joy Elio feels as well as the melancholic twinge he feels knowing that his relationship with Oliver is over. God help anyone who leaves the cinema before the credits finish, as many did when the film played at various festivals this year (link). It’s a scene that beautifully encapsulates the film as a whole, one which manages to turn the understated into something achingly heart-warming.
Call Me By Your Name is a rare achievement, a gay love story stripped of the polemical approach that so many queer dramas are lumbered with; here, there is no homophobia or the typical obstacles central to so many films. It’s a portrait of first love which tops a banner year for queer narratives. Indeed, from Moonlight to God’s Own Country, The Wound to 120BPM, 2017 has seen the triumph of LGBTQ cinema, and what a stunning way to end the year than with one of its strongest releases.
Believe the Oscar buzz and don’t miss out on a film will make its mark in the annals of both queer cinema and the romance genre as a whole.
- D - 22/11/17
THOR : RAGNAROK
Ask Marvel fans what their favourite film is and the chances you’ll hear “Thor” or “Thor: The Dark World” are slim-to-none. Trying to course correct, Marvel Studios are to be commended for yet again taking an out-of-left-field choice with Kiwi director Taika Waititi – the director of deadpan vampire treat What We Do In The Shadows and last year’s superb Hunt For Wilderpeople - and allowing him to inject his trademark absurdist comedy to the mix. And while this latest adventure for the God of Thunder, which sees him try to prevent Apocalypse Norse by going face-to-face with Hela The Goddess of Death (a gothic Cate Blanchett), might be by some distance the strongest Thor film, it’s still not quite up there with the best the MCU has to offer.
It’s a shame since the prospect of a Marvel movie directed by Waititi where Cate Blachett plays a particularly morose, eyeliner-abusing emo on Halloween is tempting to say the least. In all fairness, kudos to Thor: Ragnarok for committing to the sustained Spaceballs tone, due to the quip-heavy script and the scene-stealing Tessa Thompson, who previously impressed in Selma and Creed, and here getting space to stretch her comedy chops as the badass Valkyrie warrior with PTSD. Other highlights include the interplay between Thor and Hulk, with a never better Chris Hemsworth honing his comic timing and Mark Ruffalo having a lot of fun as a more neurotic Banner, as well as Jeff Goldblum being…well, Jeff Goldblum.
However, as much as the joke hit-rate is strong and the somewhat audacious Jack Kirby colour palette delights, the movie often feels too chuffed with itself, like everyone was too busy having a blast on set and getting away with a few irreverent beats to bother disturbing the established format. What you end up with is a funny, screwball romp that feels too light on real stakes and too much like a series of wacky sketches stitched together, as opposed to a more satisfyingly orchestrated adventure like Guardians of the Galaxy (Vol 1, that is).
Still, it does contain the best use of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant’s Song’ since The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, so, you know, that’s something.
- D - 26/10/17
Repli-can’t be missed
Before the press screening for Blade Runner 2049, a projected statement from the director implored critics to “preserve the experience for the audience” by not revealing the film’s twists before its theatrical release. So as to dodge any spoiler territory and preserve the plot, which in broad strokes concerns original replicant manufacturer Eldon Tyrell’s “final trick”, I shall brazenly paraphrase the original Blade Runner’s iconic death soliloquy:
I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. A replacement director helming the belated and uncalled-for sequel to a cult classic. I watched a film that doesn’t tarnish the legacy of the original but resurrects its bleakly introspective spirit, and complements its timeless quality. Time to go to the biggest screen you can possibly find.
Without slipping into misguided and blinkered fanboy territory, no one can be completely shocked that this second chapter to the 1982 original is a resounding triumph: it was in the hands of the French-Canadian director who, from 2010’s Incendies to last year’s Arrival, has not put a single foot wrong. Still, coming out of Blade Runner 2049 is a disorientating experience. So much could have gone awry with this gargantuan and potentially opportunistic undertaking, but the level to which Denis Villeneuve has risen to the challenge of delivering a satisfying follow-up to Ridley Scott’s film - which was then critically derided and now regarded as sci-fi landmark - is nothing short of astounding. Arm in arm with veteran cinematographer and regular collaborator Roger Deakins, he has crafted an ambient noir mystery that rewards careful attention and is tonally in tune with the original’s dystopian themes and aesthetic. Remarkably, the director has gone one step further by pushing the boundaries of the sci-fi genre, creating a cinematic experience like few others and succeeding where so many have failed, most recently Rupert Sanders with the dispiritingly hollow Ghost In The Shell.
Make no mistake: Blade Runner 2049 is a visual tour de force, a masterstroke of foreboding beauty which boasts both Villeneuve’s and Deakins’ unique flair for the poetic, and spectacularly coalesces with CGI effects and Dennis Gasner’s towering production design. From the rainy cityscapes of Los Angeles, to a deserted (and Kubrick-echoing) casino found within the titian hues of a sandy wasteland, via a watery lair fit for a Bond villain, practically every eye-bleedingly gorgeous frame could be proudly mounted on a wall. Moreover, they fizzle with superb detail that will not only leave viewers drunk on their composition, but also tease out emotion and meaning.
Many will be quick to hail the film outright as a modern masterpiece, and while it comes so-very-close, the final act can’t quite paper over a few cracks. Hampton Fancher and Michael Green’s screenplay may grapple compellingly with Phillip K. Dick’s epistemological quandaries and themes regarding identity, memory and technogenesis, but you can’t help but feel that by the end of the last third the storytelling can’t keep up and has taken a backseat to the awe-inspiring visuals. Ryan Gosling and a returning Harrison Ford populate the immersive world and their chemistry, as well as that between Gosling and his holographic squeeze (the excellent Ana de Armas, whose often poignant arc is strongly reminiscent of Spike Jones’ Her) is memorable enough to keep narrative momentum. Ford, in particular, who seems to be revisiting all is most iconic roles after Han Solo and Indiana Jones, gives a brief but terrific turn as a grizzled man who has sacrificed so much to exist, having come to terms with who he is. However, the performances can’t quite sustain it till the end; certain plot strands and characters (chiefly the villains, underwritten bum notes played by Jared Leto and the mite-too-cartoonish Sylvia Hoeks) merited more care and resolution. And this is an issue when the runtime is a sprawling two hours and forty-three minutes…
That said, it’s hard to hold a lasting grudge or focus too much on the minor blemishes when the cinematic experience is this atmospherically arresting and when you have Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer’s Vangelis-retooled score still ringing in your ears. (Speaking of which, it’s been reported that Run The Jewels submitted their score for the film – here’s hoping the band have the good sense and clearance to release that at some point.)
There’s little doubt that Blade Runner 2094 has raised the bar once more for the sci-fi blockbuster genre. Like its predecessor, it will be regarded as one of those once-in-a-generation films. If ever there is a third instalment - which does not seem completely out of the question considering certain loose threads - let’s hope Villeneuve and Deakins answer the call. The latter has been nominated 13 times for a golden baldie without a single win, a shocking fact considering he is one of the profession’s very best. If his immaculate craft isn’t a lock-in come awards season, then voters across the board need to be subjected to the Voight-Kampff test post-haste. As for Villeneuve, he’s once again proven to be a master craftsman, one whose latest will make him the most sought-after director of his generation.
- D - 05/10/17
ON THE ROAD
“That's life on the road for you...”
Prolific British director Michael Winterbottom constructs a rockumentary hybrid with his latest release, one which feels like the unofficial and significantly less slutty cousin to his 2004 film 9 Songs. While the latter was an erotic-cum-musical odyssey, where music was the soundtrack to fucking, On The Road sees music as the soundtrack to a fictional romance woven within the fly-on-the-wall documentary realism.
The camera follows young London indie rockers Wolf Alice and their roadies as they tour from city to city in the UK and Ireland, promoting their 2015 debut album, My Love Is Cool; we observe the intimate realities of touring life and the routinely responsibilities of the band and crew. In the periphery of all the soundchecks, press junkets and long drives on the M1 is a burgeoning relationship between the band’s new management rep (Leah Harvey, who exudes a Naomie Harris-like charm) and a grizzled Scottish roadie (James McArdle).
For fans of Wolf Alice, it’s Christmas. For the uninitiated, this docu-hybrid is the chance to discover a talented band, whose neo-grunge impresses, but who are lacking in personality, especially when compared to their far more entertaining supporting acts, Bloody Knees and Swim Deep. Ellie Roswell and her lot tend to leave their charisma onstage and while that’s fine and dandy, and even works to further deglamourize the rock’n’roll lifestyle, it tends to drag some segments down, leaving viewers wishing more time was spent with the fictional couple.
For all its originality, On The Road is not as entertaining as recent rockumentary Mistaken For Strangers or as fascinating as The Devil And Daniel Johnston. It’s an overlong observational odyssey which will leave many questioning its raison-d’être and wanting to revisit the far more audacious 9 Songs. However, it nonetheless works on its own merits: an intriguing and sometimes touching mood piece which allows viewers to get swept up in what feels like an authentic tableau of touring, gig-going and unresolved relationships. Whether or not that sounds like your idea of a good time, there’s no denying that the director and his frequent cinematographer James Clarke have effectively bottled up the spirit of live performances. Whether it’s the queue outside the venues, the mosh pit or the stage, they capture pre-gig fan excitement, the euphoria of watching a band perform, as well as that post-gig comedown which can be both magic and anticlimactic. After 24 Hour Party People and 9 Songs, it’s a joy to see Winterbottom show once more how deftly he films live music, blurs reality and fiction, as well as concoct bittersweet and somewhat oneiric insights into relationships.
All in all, On The Road is a monotonously mesmerizing oddity that isn’t particularly impactful but embraces the fact that, when it comes to life and music, there aren’t always satisfactory resolutions… and sometimes that’s quite alright.
- D - 21/09/17
Shrouded in secrecy til the very last moment, the only thing we knew about Lido-favourite Darren Aronofsky’s mother! was its anaemic synopsis, hinting at a psychological thriller about a couple whose relationship is put to the test, as well as some gorgeously enigmatic posters. This eye-catching marketing-done-right left many obsessing over cryptic clues that could be hidden within each painted picture, as well as ramping up excitement levels. Was it a home invasion thriller with supernatural leanings? A thinking man’s haunted house horror? Perhaps a pre-emptive and somewhat overripe announcement that the Aronofsky-Lawrence couple are expecting?
Whatever it was, there was something refreshing about going into mother! blind, an increasing rarity nowadays. If only the result could have lived up to the mystique bleeding from the posters…
We meet “mother” (Jennifer Lawrence) and “him” (Javier Bardem) in their isolated rustic mansion. He is a celebrated poet in the midst of a creative drought, while she renovates the once-burned down house. Trouble comes to paradise with the arrival of “man” (Ed Harris), who claims to have been told that their abode was a bed-and-breakfast. “Him” invites “man” in and immediately strikes a rapport, allowing him to stay for as long as he wants. His wife, “woman” (Michelle Pfeiffer) arrives the next day and the rather brash couple quickly make themselves at home, breaking several personal boundaries and even showing the mistress of the house outright distain when they’re not ignoring her. He sees the intrusion as an opportunity to welcome creativity into their house; she appreciates the implication that they could put an end to his writer’s block, but never feels comfortable with the parasitic presence of two perfect strangers…
There’s plenty to admire about Aronfsky’s full-on foray into horror territory, including Jóhann Jóhannsson’s assaultive sound design, as well as the ominous cinematography. Shot primarily from “mother”’s point of view, Matthew Libatique’s hand-held camerawork ramps up the unease the character feels, an atmosphere only heightened by the adroit handling of the single-location. From the Edgar Allen Poe staircase to the basement that would make Guillermo Del Toro’s shorts tighten, Aronofsky utilizes the house as a psychological barometer, a way to explore the character’s anxieties, magnifying the audience’s understanding of an increasingly fractured soul who spends time building herself up only to have others tear her down.
Full credit is also due to the writer-director for the way he eschews more straightforward tropes linked to motherhood. The horror genre has seen many a distressed mama-to-be, a malevolent matriarch or an overly protective mommy dearest; whether it’s in Carrie or Rosemary’s Baby (with which mother! shares some DNA), or in recent efforts like The Babadook or Ich Seh Ich Seh, motherhood is a one of horror’s most established staples, and therefore to successfully address it means to bring something new to the table. Aronfsky succeeds in this, preferring to explore how one can be cast as a mother figure even before being one. “Mother” acts like a dutiful and frequently effacing mother-figure to her husband, catering for his needs above her own, and is seen reprimanding some other guests like a matriarch would a misbehaving child. Once the child is conceived and born… Well, that’s another story which won’t be spoilt here.
Frustratingly, this rewarding approach to a common trope, as well as the intoxicating mystery cocooned within a home invasion thriller, isn’t graced with suffocating scares or a payoff worthy of the secrecy maintained until the first press screening, a secrecy which now feels like a calculated bluff. The second act sees certain subplots and major characters dropped altogether, and as the dread-laden tale takes a dizzying feverish freefall into hell, the overwrought allegorical content regrettably goes sky high. Seemingly unable to settle on one parable, Aronofsky gives them all a protracted go: mother! alternatively becomes a meditation about the toxicity of ego-driven masculinity, the necessity of chaos that decries from artistic creation, how fame invites invasiveness, and how mankind’s insatiable nature destroys the gifts nature has given us, all capped off with a Biblical reading that seems to imply both disparate acts are in fact reworkings of the Old and New Testament. None of these layers are fleshed out, and while a lack of spoon-feeding is always to be applauded, the ambitious pummelling of potential meaning exudes an exhausting whiff of faux-profundity. This dilutes the impact of the otherwise strong performances and the visually abrasive, stunningly shot bacchanal scenes. It’s a case of too much allegory kills the allegory, and as audacious, assaulting and at times shocking as mother! can be, it ends up as somewhat underwhelming once the initial blow to the senses rapidly fades.
Many will disagree, as the general consensus among the critical body at this year's Venice Film Festival (where I had the good fortune of seeing it) was overwhelmingly positive, but for this reviewer’s Mostra accreditation, mother! is a step down from the much tighter delirium of Aronofsky’s Pi or Black Swan. It feels like product of a furiously peacocking director who tried too hard to be abrasive and hasn’t convincingly delivered the tense, transgressive coup he sought to achieve.
- D - 11/09/17
The Discreet Charm of Sally Potter
Take career politician, an emotionally neglected husband, an acerbic American, a meditating German, an Irish banker with a penchant for nose candy and packing a firearm, and a lesbian couple expecting triplets. Invite your guests to a London townhouse to celebrate a work promotion. Crank up the temperature, wind up and let go. You’ve got the eighth feature from chameleonic British director Sally Potter, a lean, mean black comedy which succeeds where this year’s The Dinner failed... and then some.
The story centres on these seven characters and their secrets gradually rising to the surface, as they wait for an enigmatic absentee guest. The less said the better, as this monochromatic gem is a playful huis-clos whose premise doesn’t exactly tear up the chamber piece rulebook, but does deliver the goods when it comes to satire: the writer / director explores what could be labelled as ‘Englishness’, and has dubbed her film “a light and loving look at a broken England”. Impressively, Potter does it all in a commendably taut 71 minutes, one minute above the legal industry minimum to be considered as a feature length film.
The mordant send-up deals with the NHS, idealism versus realism in both top tier politics and personal relationships, and how self-delusion has come to plague liberal sensibilities. While diagnosis may seem rather bleak, the sharp script never skimps on the laughs and offers pleasant misdirection. However, it’s the performances that make The Party a triumph. The eye-wateringly stellar ensemble cast clearly had a blast, and deliver brilliant moments of heightened comedy; especially noteworthy is a music therapy scene where a soundtrack is being quickly curated on the record player by the aphorism-spouting Bruno Ganz and the distressed Cillian Murphy in order to revive an unconscious Timothy Spall. However, the piece’s standout is Patricia Clarkson, who is given the best (read: acid-tongued) lines and delivers a delightfully mischievous turn as an acerbic American. Lines like “you’re a first-rate lesbian and a second-rate thinker” not only make the character immensely watchable but wonderfully showcase Potter’s biting wit let loose; as for the dryly repeated “Shut up, Gottfried”, the line threatens to become the next “Shut the fuck up, Donny!”.
The one-location nature of The Party does make it unavoidably stagey, and many will be put off by its unfussy theatrical set-up. Potter has clearly channelled the works of Yasmina Reza, Harold Pinter and to a certain extent John Boynton Priestly; in fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine this ensemble performing the one-act play on the West End. However displeasing the staginess of the piece might be for some, The Party still happily stakes its claim in the pantheon of parties-gone-awry films, an illustrious and eclectic list which include the likes of The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, The Last Supper and even Thomas Vinterberg’s Festen.
Above all, The Party involuntarily address a recurring phrase that’s being bandied about that the moment: “This is the film we need right now”. As vacant as this frequently rolled-out label can be, it seems to apply here. It’s not easy to be an idealist at the moment, and, as Clarkson’s character says: “Remember when I was an idealist, like you? All those marches we went on together thinking that someone in power would listen...” Several lines of dialogue seem eerily prescient, and Potter relishes in addressing a variety of issues via her emotionally dysfunctional game of Cluedo. She seems to suggest that idealism might not be completely out of reach, provided filmmakers are willing to address serious issues in entertaining ways, without forgetting one's capacity critique one’s own failings (here, middle class liberals), as opposed to blindly lashing out at others. All in all, well worth celebrating.
(For more on The Party, click here for my interview with director Sally Potter: Loving Broken England.)
- D - 08/09/17
GOD'S OWN COUNTRY
Having wowed audiences at Sundance and at this year’s Berlinale, Francis Lee‘s debut finally heads into theatres and confidently becomes one of the fall’s must-see releases.
God’s Own Country is a gay romance that follows the burgeoning relationship between young Yorkshire farmer Johnny (Josh O’Connor) and Romanian migrant worker Gheorghe (Alec Secareanu). The former lives in harsh isolation in the Yorkshire Moors, as he works as a farmhand on the family property, helping his ailing, stern father Martin (Ian Hart). His only outlet is binge-drinking and anonymous hook-ups in pub toilets, and when foaling season arrives, Johnny’s stark routine and his deep-seated insecurities are shaken by Gheorghe’s arrival. The rugged Englishman initially clashes with the Romanian’s gentler nature, with casual xenophobia and suspicion bubbling under the surface. Gradually, their relationship evolves and the outsider begins to inject life into a trapped existence which is based on routine and ingrained taciturnity.
From this description alone, the film will inescapably garner comparisons with Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, a reference further indulged by the fact that the directors share a surname. It’s true that common themes of unrevealed love and repressed desire make this a cinematic touchstone. However, to tug too much on that thread would be to belittle what Francis Lee does with his stunningly assured debut. The first-time filmmaker skilfully eschews soap-opera pitfalls and more classical tropes linked to queer narratives by making God’s Own Country less about coming-out and the societal oppression towards homosexuality but more concerned with internal, self-imposed conflict. This is not a story about two men who can’t be together due to others’ perceptions, nor does it deal with flat-out denial; Lee’s script focuses more on how to deal with desire and love, and how surrendering to one’s desires makes a person vulnerable, exposed like a raw nerve to the often-harsh elements.
This is only heightened by the adroit handling of the rural setting. The Yorkshire Dale landscapes are moodily filmed and utilised to perfection, with the grey, flinty colour palette emphasised by the seemingly stripped-down cinematography, courtesy of Joshua James Richards. The countryside mirrors Johnny’s cold and rough nature, as does the film’s depiction of sexuality. Indeed, rare are films that so deftly use sexuality as such a barometer for a character’s psychology, a way to heighten the audience’s understanding of a tortured soul. Our perception of Johnny and Gheorghe’s relationship is deepened by the actor’s natural chemistry but also by way the sex scenes are filmed: Johnny is a ball of animalistic energy and his only way of dealing with his growing desire and the visible, jaw-clenched tension is through aggression and vigour. The actors’ physicality tells us more about their frame of mind than any long-winded monologue ever could, and Richard’s unflinching handheld camera and close-ups during the evolving scenes of intimacy only enriches our experience.
Full credit is due to the central duo, in particular Josh O’Connor, who excels in playing the emotionally cut-off Johnny in a career-making role. His character’s evolution is superbly rendered throughout, as we witness the chinks in his armour slowly lengthening into cracks, with the actor allowing problematic energy to flash over his face and articulating simple lines like “I don’t want to be a fuck-up anymore” in such a way that they feel like a tortured confession pulled from buried layers of repression. The results are quietly devastating.
The supporting cast are also to be applauded, with Hart barking orders at his son without being able to show appreciation or tenderness, and a brief role for Patsy Ferran boasts how much she can do with only a handful of scenes. She plays one of Johnny’s old school friends and beautifully conveys the sense that his sexuality is unspoken but accepted by his friends, unintentionally feeding the other chip on Johnny’s shoulder, as he feels like the world has moved on without him, the erstwhile centre of attention now calcified as an embittered loner. Special mention must also go to Gemma Jones, as Johnny’s no-nonsense grandmother, Deirdre. Her performance is affecting and shows the extent to which Lee has chosen the path less travelled: she knows about her grandson’s sexuality but, while only wanting his happiness, doesn’t address it because it would be out of character and might stunt Johnny’s softening.
Many viewers will also rightly draw links between the romance and Brexit, and, whether it was intended or not, there is a case to be made for saying that this debut subtly articulates some of the anguishes of a post-referendum Britain, as the arrival of the foreigner here only gives hope for the future, as opposed to weakening it. There is a wistful tone here that could be construed as critical of isolationism, and regardless of how deep one may wish to take this avenue of analysis, this palpable mood only highlights to what extent Lee has crafted a subtly sentimental and textured story. It is without a doubt 2017’s strongest British offering thus far, and a brooding piece of filmmaking that makes Francis Lee a talent to follow.
- D - 28/08/17
Gear up for a meta-heist comeback
Considering he was supposed to have retired from filmmaking back in 2013, Steven Soderbergh is making a right balls-up of retirement. Thankfully, his feature length comeback is less of a balls-up. It sees the American director giddily delivering what the self-aware screenplay dubs “Ocean’s 7-11”: an immensely entertaining heist comedy that follows two down-on-their-luck brothers Jimmy and Clyde Logan (Channing Tatum and Adam Driver) who instead of robbing Las Vegas casinos have their eyes on the Charlotte Motor Speedway during the Coca-Cola 600.
For those unfamiliar with the pinnacle of Yankee culture, they decide to pull off a heist during a NASCAR race.
But since this Coenesque duo’s family name has become synonymous with bad luck over the years, or “folk tales and backwoods gossip” as Jimmy would say, and because neither of them know anything about blowing up vaults, they’re going to need help. And this is where a bleach-blonde explosive expert serving out his final weeks in the slammer comes in handy…
The phrase “And Introducing Daniel Craig as Joe Bang” adorns Logan Lucky’s promotional materials and credits, rightly boasting what ends up as an ingenious bit of stunt casting. While it raises eyebrows at first, threatening to derail proceedings with the belaboured intrusion of anti-007 schtick, it quickly becomes a laugh riot. Craig evidently has the time of his life playing white trash; his exaggerated Virginia accent, bulging guns and boiled-egg-chomping proclivities all combine to remind audiences how great a character actor Craig can be when he’s not playing the martini-swigging spook.
The rest of the cast are game, with Katie Holmes, Sebastian Stan and Hilary Swank all reporting for duty and Riley Keogh standing out as the underused but memorable Logan sister, Mellie. Only Seth MacFarlane grates as a smarmy British race car driver whose presence and dubious accent rapidly becomes surplus to requirements. It’s a hammy turn that ends up as a bum note in an otherwise slick film, one hastily redeemed by far superior comedy.
Indeed, this self-reflective romp features many laugh-out-loud moments, including two scenes that justify the price of admission: Joe Bang revealing that his signature explosive depends on the chemical composition of gummy bears, and the funniest prison riot you’ll ever see, which includes ransom-concocting convicts exasperated by the discrepancies between the TV and literary versions of Game Of Thrones.
What makes Logan Lucky such a welcome return for the director, however, is its soul. Beneath the frequently hilarious caper, there’s also a timely film that isn’t afraid to prod gently at American woes: Soderbergh cleverly uses economic strife as a backdrop for the adventures of two blue collar brothers who represent discarded America. It may not be an overtly political piece, but by never cruelly gorging on caricatures, Soderbergh assures that the characters aren’t cheap redneck stereotypes but well-rounded protagonists that you root for, rather than mock. He doesn’t shy away from showing less edifying aspects of Southern culture, such as the icky child beauty pageant scene, but is more interested in the pathos inherent in the disenfranchised trying to make ends meet. A deadpan Adam Driver is particularly touching as the one-armed-Iraq-vet-turned-bartender who, despite his better judgement, goes along with his brother’s plan because his sibling has uncharacteristically planned ahead and because there’s a pesky family ‘curse’ to dispel. The relatable characters and attention to detail – miners having to drive across state lines to find work, drinking water making people sick, wounded vets – mean that the topical themes hit their mark.
It’s undeniable that Soderbergh takes few risks here, considering his previous handling of big ensemble casts and the heist-centric Ocean's trilogy. Momentum also dips before the final act, but this tonal shift is accompanied by Swank’s excellent turn as a terrifyingly stern FBI agent trying to poke holes in the twisty narrative, in what must be a meta flipping of the directorial bird to those still hung up on the fact that Ocean’s Eleven’s denouement was riddled with inconsistencies.
His “hillbilly heist” might not top end-of-year lists, but the excellent performances, clever editing and Rebecca Blunt’s wonderfully folksy and quip-happy script make Logan Lucky a criminally good return to form. And while the door is left open for a potential sequel, let’s hope Soderbergh remembers the last rule on Jimmy’s list for pulling off a successful robbery: “Hang up and know when to walk away”.
That applies to the film, not you, maestro. We’re glad the self-imposed exile is over.
- D - 21/08/17
THE DARK TOWER
A towering failure?
Based on Stephen King’s acclaimed series of sci-fi novels, The Dark Tower has been a long time coming. Originally developed by JJ Abrams and passing through various directorial hands, it seemed many were reluctant to adapt this apparently unfilmable fantasy-western, mostly because of the sprawling breadth of the source material. Catering to all audiences was also going to be a tough ask, and in an interesting move, Danish director Nikolaj Arcel - here making an unenviable Hollywood debut - and a gaggle of scriptwriters elected not to make a slavishly faithful page-to-screen adaptation. Instead, they chose to retool existing storylines into a sequel to the books, ensuring that King novices would not be alienated and that existing fans could be surprised.
The story follows the troubled young Jake (Tom Taylor), who has nightmares about another world where life as we know it is on the brink of extinction. He learns that these aren’t nightmares but visions, as he “shines” (one of many nods to the King canon) and manages to cross over into another world. There, he joins the last gunslinger, Roland Deschain (Idris Elba), in order to protect the titular edifice, which is under threat from the Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey, sporting a dynamite black open shirt / tailored black coat combo and looking like Al Pacino’s bastard lovechild from The Devil’s Advocate). Should the Dark Tower fall, all the other universes crumble with it, including Earth.
Clocking in at a shockingly slim 90 minutes (a rarity for modern blockbusters), the result won’t rank among the best King adaptations but certainly doesn’t deserve the critical mauling it’s been getting. There’s plenty of fun to be had, chiefly thanks to the breakneck pace and the cast. Elba is a terrific leading man and gets to show some finely honed comic timing, while McConaughey suavely conveys a sense of evil without chewing the scenery. As for Taylor, he is lumbered with both the age old Chosen One trope and being the audience cypher but credibly holds his own.
Understandably, protective fans might be frustrated that King’s magnum opus was streamlined and not treated more faithfully, but they should be thanking their lucky stars this isn’t a Ghost In The Shell botch job. Rather, The Dark Tower is a crowd-pleasing effort that definitely needed more time and care, but certainly isn’t a convoluted and dull disaster on the same scale as other recent franchise-building blockbusters. A darker, grittier take with a far less generic script would have been substantially better, but never once are you bored. Give us a sequel to the gunslinger’s adventures any day over any future instalments of The Mummy’s Dark Universe or a follow-up to Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets. And for all those who still feel like throttling those who butchered the beloved 8-volume epic, there’s always the upcoming It remake, which looks mighty promising...
- D - 15/08/17
Give it the brush off
“I’ll never find a way out of this”, moans Geoffrey Rush’s Alberto Giacometti during Stanley Tucci’s Final Portrait.
We know how you feel, maestro.
Based on the biography ‘A Giacometti Portrait’ by American art critic James Lord, Tucci’s sixth feature as a director focuses on the last two years of the renowned Swiss artist’s life, as he paints Lord (Arnie Hammer)’s portrait in his Parisian studio. He promises that piece will take “a day or two at the most”. Days quickly turn to weeks, and as they do, the audience will begin to feel their life-force ebbing away, mostly because this excruciatingly repetitive biopic goes nowhere. More charitable viewers could argue that this based-on-true-events story needs to feel repetitive in order to mirror the artistic ordeal and the frustration inherent to the painter’s process... Granted, but that’s no excuse for dramatic inertia, or full-blown farce, especially when Tucci decides to include a jarringly twee montage in his script’s final moments.
And, of course, because Final Portrait is about a troubled genius living in Paris, zerrrr must be a lot ov smoking, generically chirpy Frrrrench muziiic, rrrred wine a go-go and whorrrres a’plenty... as well as a scrupulous pimp. Surprisingly.
The talented cast aren’t so much wasted as given little to play with, Rush aside. He is initially entertaining as the erratic painter but even he quickly descends into caricature, while the effortlessly charismatic Hammer knows how to wear a suit but essentially spends most of his time sitting gormlessly on a chair. Best to keep your eyes peeled for Luca Guadagnino’s upcoming Call Me By Your Name, a mesmerizing piece that shows what the actor can do with a sensitively-written character. As for the always-watchable Clémence Poésy, she is reduced to playing Giacometti’s prostitute muse as a shrieking harpy whose ear-bleeding mulings give the explosions in Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk a run for their money. Only Tony Shalhoub briefly steals the show as Alberto’s brother, Diego.
There are some sentences you don’t expect to write. That was definitely one of them.
Ultimately, this well-meaning biopic isn’t a crime against celluloid by any means; it’s just a weightless shaggy-dog story that never exudes much ambition, one which would have worked much better as a short, two-hander play. As it stands, Tucci just seems content to stretch out some anecdotal material that doesn’t satisfyingly fill 90 minutes. Best not to Gogh. *Urgh*
- D - 05/08/17
AND THE CITY OF A THOUSAND PLANETS
Full disclosure: I love Le Cinquième Elément. Love it, love it, love it.
So much so that I snobbishly insist on referring to the 1997 blockbuster by its original title - as intended by French director Luc Besson - as opposed to commonly-used ‘The Fifth Element’. Besson gave us a heartfelt, heroically silly and downright visionary sci-fi masterpiece that holds up remarkably well even after 20 years. So, when it was announced that the director was helming another super-sized behemoth and spiritual successor to his camp classic after two decades, not only was this sweet music to my ears, but you’d have to kidnap every single family member to stop me from rushing to the nearest multiplex.
Sadly, some 20th anniversaries clearly shouldn’t be celebrated.
Based on the graphic novel ‘Valérian and Laureline’, Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets stars Dane De Haan and Cara Delevigne as peace-keeping agents travelling through space, encountering alien life forms and 28th Century rapscallions. Not that that matters, as the only thing you need to know about this effects-heavy extravaganza is Besson’s elevator pitch, which probably went something along the lines of: “I’ll make an operatically huge mash-up of Star Wars and Avatar, with Rihanna randomly cameoing to needlessly show some flesh as an exotic dancer and enough world-building to make Marvel Studios blush. Oh, and I’ll sink incontinent amounts of cash into the project, so audiences will go see it simply to witness what an independently financed $200 million movie looks like.”
(Valerian is reportedly the most expensive European production of its kind thus far).
Tempting though that may sound, especially considering the filmmaker’s previous levels of creativity, Valerian is an ambitious but resounding failure, unworthy to sit next to Le Cinquième Elément’s gleefully self-aware antics. By essentially flinging everything his budget could buy at the screen, Besson clearly hoped his retina-assaulting CGI posturing and a primary-coloured palette would distract from his convoluted screenplay, which boasts Jupiter Ascending-levels of narrative ineptitude and howlingly bad dialogue. While Le Cinquième Elément had a deceptively sharp and humorous script, bolstered by knowing beats, Valerian panders to the tweens and makes the lead characters inexplicably and constantly shout each other’s names to begin each sentence. The visuals, grandiose though they may be, can’t mask a piss poor screenplay. Hell, even the effects soon become distractingly hyperactive; they leave audiences feeling uninvolved and unable to enjoy any of the overstuffed tableaus.
As for the players, De Haan is wildly miscast, trading in Han Solo-like swagger for the constipated look of a petulant sex-pest. His performance misses the mark so much he ensures that his fashion model co-star feels like a serious thespian, in a surprisingly competent bit of stunt casting. Believe it or not, Delevigne may just have what it takes to be a bankable screen presence, something last year’s Suicide Squad viewers would have had trouble believing.
Valerian will prove to be a divisive film: many will be blinded by Besson’s commitment to visual spectacle and will cling on to the vain idea that this film is a bold and misunderstood gem fated to become a cult classic. Fans of Avatar, laughable exposition dumps and episodic videogame plotting will try to make it so; others will see straight through the Frenchman’s muddled and exhausting tactics, and will find Valerian more annoying than enthralling. A few inventive flourishes and a faultless opening sequence aside, the ride just isn’t worth your time. You’d do better to dig out your Multipass, tune in once more to Ruby Rhod and shrug away this intergalactic merde.
- D - 28/07/17