Monday, 9 January 2017

La La Land Review

12A, 128 mins.

It’s very telling that the first opening title of La La Land reads: ‘Presented in Cinemascope’ in narrowed, letterbox black-and white, before expanding into glorious Technicolour. This is the balancing act the film itself expertly juxtaposes: throwing back to a sense of old-fashioned romanticism from Hollywood’s Golden Age, while also being utterly fresh. It manages to feel both fuzzily nostalgic, and strikingly original, simultainiously.
  It does this, by casting two of our most recognisable contemporary stars, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling, who seem every bit as polished as Fred and Ginger themselves; it’s no overstatement to call them our equivalent. Stone plays Mia, an aspiring actress, who continually runs into Seb, a struggling jazz musician. Stone’s wonderfully expressive, emotive and endearing, while Gosling’s self-deprecating, sardonic and subtle - with fantastic piano skills.
 It’s a love story - as much a glossy, bitter-sweet ode to LA - as it is a conventional romance for the central couple - structured unconventionally. It triumphs over the stumbling-block so many musicals are faced with, as to why characters spontaneously burst into song (it hits the ground running, and takes a little getting used to), by so cleverly framing the musical sequences in a dreamy, heightened, stylised realism, before returning to their more mundane realities. The song-and-dance moments are a total delight: especially a tap number beneath LA’s twilit skyline, and a floating waltz around the stars of an observatory. Director Damian Chazelle, the thirty-one year-old Oscar-winner of Whiplash, has crafted a joyous treat that’s fizzing with optimistic effervescence. It’s a studied milieu of a setting that dichotomises both a celebration, and a display of its own iconography and shallow artifice (frequently adorned with painterly backdrops of palm-trees, back-lots and A-Listers): ‘They worship everything, but value nothing’, observes Seb.
  For the first new movie-musical in years, there are some very memorable tunes and lyrics: ‘She was freezing, she spent a month sneezing / Maybe this appeals, to someone not in heels’. The opening bars of ‘Someone In The Crowd’ stick with you, and there’s a great supporting, first acting role for John Legend, who has his own new song.
  It’s certainly the favourite to scoop the most at awards season, and similarly to An American In Paris or Singin’ In The Rain, feels like the next classic!

Rating: * * * *


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Monday, 19 December 2016

Star Wars: Rogue One Review

After the furor of 2015’s release of The Force Awakens - solidly enjoyable, if wildly over-hyped, frequently playing for borderline-parody laughs, too self-assured that it was far better than it actually was, expectations were decidedly middling for this standalone spin-off, especially with reports of an absence of light-sabres, Jedi, and several re-shoots late into production.
With the recent release of Potter’s own new incarnation Fantastic Beasts, Hollywood’s current tent-pole model - after sequel, prequel, cinematic-universe crossover and origin fairy-tale revisionism - seems to allude to the continuation of existing franchises.
  Those fearing a bout of superhero-sequelitus however, are in for an exuberant, elaborate, daring, gleefully rewarding chapter in the saga. In fact, to bill it so overtly as ‘standalone’ or a ‘spin-off’, is doing it a major disservice. Giving absolutely nothing away, it makes a plethora of choices both visual and narratological, that slot perfectly into the main series. It’s far better than Force Awakens; darker, busier, but also far more fun, grounded within a much more traditional Star Wars tone and linear, avuncular structure, while also being strikingly original, too.
  British director Gareth Edwards has assembled an eclectic cast, a clutch of our very finest of character actors, particularly Ben Mendelsohn as a terrifically grasping villain, Diego Luna as a morally duplicitous new Han-Solo figure, and an underused Mads Mikkleson who’s always brilliant.
 Felicity Jones suffers slightly as Daisy Ridley did before her, from wooden dialogue delivered in a flat monotone that seems entirely unique to Star Wars. In terms of pure fan-boy adrenaline though, this is a return to rich, event-cinema. There are genuinely awe-inducing shocks and surprises, as well as moments of expertly maneuvered cameo trickery, with several important returning characters making startlingly modified appearances.
  Aesthetically too, this is visual-effects eye-candy, with stunning aerial  space-fights - never looking sharper - especially in 3D!
  Composer Micheal Giacchino crafts a fantastic original score, while also riffing off John William’s iconic themes - if you listen carefully!

Rating: * * * *

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Friday, 9 December 2016

Snowden Review

Snowden, 15, 134 mins, Vertigo Films.

In his finest film in decades, Oliver Stone, a director at the very forefront of tackling cultural milestones, now chronicles that most decisive and polarising of figures; Edward Snowden.
 Snowden leaked thousands of the NSA’s classified documents to the press, claiming they flouted constitutional rights to privacy.
  So little of the inner-workings of what actually happened are known to the public, so Stone is set that most difficult of tasks, but crafts an utterly gripping, totally compelling cinematic exposé, into just how contentious the issues surrounding our collective securities and individual identities really are.
 It so easily could’ve been ploddingly pedestrian, or get bogged down in being a hot-button subject of such recent history, too top-heavy with gaggles of smart-phones and social-media platforms.
 The fact that it didn’t, is so profoundly due to Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s terrific, transcendent performance. As with the entire execution of the film itself, his central performance is so expertly understated. He’s always been such an incredibly subtle, confident actor; it really can just be an empathetic move of the eyes or incline of the head - and you reach into his very soul. This is all the more revelatory despite him being too conventionally smooth to really look like Snowden, but he certainly sounds like him with those mannered, dulcetly flat monotones - awards recognition is so long overdue.
  Supporting turns are also strong: Shailene Woodley infuses human vitality to Snowden’s girlfriend Lindsay. If I’ve a singular problem with the structural choices; foregrounding their fraught romance - over pulsing thrills - may become a little insouciant.
  That’s far from saying the film is devoid of tension: the sequence where the files in question are gradually uploaded to a USB-stick concealed in a rubics-cube to avoid detection is the film’s real pin-drop moment, as is Rhys Ifan’s capricious snake of a task-master, revealing private doubt in giant-screen form. Joely Richardson is icy as a spiky Guardian editor, and Craig Armstrong’s bubbling, synth-inspired score adds to the conspiratorial chill of paranoia - in a fascinating account of the ambiguity of freedom, authority, and morality. In my top two films of 2016.

Rating: * * * * *

Snowden

Thursday, 8 December 2016

Moana Review

Moana, PG, 103 mins, Disney Animation Studios.

A refreshing, stunningly realised and history-making parable - its heroine is the first in the studio’s history to originate from the Pacific Islands - of Polynesian descent.
  It’s comforting to know that in the current cultural landscape of unprecedented political change and diversity rows, Disney, as with Pocahontas and Lilo And Stitch before it, has made an embracing tale that displays its message with warming subtlety.
  It’s also not a traditional love-centric princess fairytale, instead decidedly a narrative of self-worth and ecological preservation. It’s directors, Ron Clements and John Musker, have helmed films with the calibre of The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, Hercules and Treasure Planet - so they’re unparalleled masters of stirring, majestic resonance and visual sweep.
  With stunningly beautiful animation, there’s everything from parting turquoise waves, sunrises and tiny nuances in the character’s faces; in moments you look at them and believe they’re real people - even more immersive in 3D.
  The visuals are further complemented by a magnificently joyous soundtrack penned by Lin Manuel-Miranda, the visionary behind Broadway’s hottest ticket: Hamilton. Believe me, the main ballad, How Far I’ll Go, is Moana’s Let It Go, and will drive parents mad on repeat forever, just like its icy predecessor, though for my money, it has the emotional edge over the gargantuan success of Frozen.
 But not half as gargantuan as Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson’s ultra-charismatic, film-stealing role as Maui, a muscle-bound, wisecracking demi-god - perfect casting! His number, ‘You’re Welcome’, cleverly plays on Johnson’s own perceived reputation as having an over-inflated ego and vanity - which couldn’t be further from the truth.
  Another favourite character of mine is Grandma Tala, perhaps the best-rendered grandparent ever in animation: Irascibly funny, Rachel House, who at just 45, brings an incredibly aged, very moving quality to her outstanding performance.
 2016’s best animation, Oscar-worthy and destined to be an instant classic!

Rating: * * * *

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Friday, 2 December 2016

Four Christmases Review

Season: Christmas 2008

Genre: Seasonal/ /Comedy/ Romantic/Slapstick.

Starring: Vince Vaughn, Reese Witherspoon, Jon Favreau, Kristen Chenoweth, Robert Duvall, and Mary Steenburgen. With: Jon Voight and Sissy Spacek.

Running Time/Duration: 88 Mins Approx.

Certificate/Classification:   12A (Contains moderate language and sex references).

Seen At: The Trafford Centre’s Odeon Cinemas, Manchester.

On: Saturday, 6th December, 2008.

Supremely talented Hollywood favourite Vince Vaughn is usually known for darker, more adult projects such as Domestic Disturbance, Jurassic Park 2, A Cool Dry Place and of course his own reinvention of the most famous of hotel serial killers: Norman Bates, in the unashamedly identical 1998 remake of Psycho.
   However, this time last year, he made the wise choice of lightening his tastes a little with the delightful Fred Claus. He toned-down on the unsubtle, gross-out, slap sticky banter-esque humour that made him a huge star overnight with his breakthrough role in 1996’s Swingers - followed by the immature, parodying  Stiller/Wilson/Farrell collaborations like Old School or Starsky and Hutch  –of which, 2004’s Dodgeball was my favourite.  
 As a result has gained yet another – this time, family-orientated fan base.   
  One year on, he continues with the Christmassy theme with his Academy-Award Winning cute-as-a-cupcake co-star Reese Witherspoon, in Four Christmases.
   As soon as the gold-coloured magical titles appear, the opulently glittering cinematography, digitally-created snowfall and appropriately-updated seasonal soundtrack set the definitive feel-good mood.  It’ll warm the cockles of your heart during these cold winter nights, whilst making you laugh your stockings off at the same time. The two leads star as Brad and Kate, a couple who are not mad to get married or have children.
  In fact, in the opening bar scene, they even pretend not to know each other, with the first lines of the screenplay being as bold as: ‘You sure can talk the talk – but can you deliver the goodies?’.
  Their idea of Christmas tradition is to be anywhere but with their families at Christmas, repeatedly making up fictitious, increasingly elaborate stories. This time its ‘we’re inoculating children in Burma’, before ending the phone call with ‘Hi-Hop-Hey-Ho-Bop’ – Merry Christmas in Burmese.
   So it poses somewhat of a dilemma when all flights are cancelled and they’re forced to visit each other’s parents for Christmas…
  First, it’s off to meet Brad’s grumpy Pop Robert Duvall, as well as his brother – trained RFC fighter (‘not seen that move in a while!’) John Favreau. Duvall doesn’t exactly warm to his son’s gift of a ‘satellite’ as he calls it. When Brad says that he’s sorted a guy to install it for him, he replies: ‘If you think I’m gonna allow a sex predator into my house, you’ve got another thought coming’. So, Brad attempts to fit it himself with hilarious consequences… His brother’s wife has a tot in toe and is heavily pregnant with her second – so hormonal in fact that she asks Kate in a side-splittingly broad Southern American accent: ‘Would you like to flick my booby?’
   Next it’s on to Kate Mom’s Marilyn’s house (the ageless Mary Steenburgen). This segment is completely upstaged by ninety year-old Gram-Gram, who, when asked what she wants for Christmas replies: ‘I’d like to increase the frequency of what I can do to Grandpa with my hand and with my mouth…’
  Whilst Kate is frantically trying to retrieve a secret ‘magic-marker’ pregnancy-test (shock) from hyperactive toddlers inside of her worst fear (the dreaded jump-jump bouncy castle, Marilyn decides to reminisce over an old photo album. Brad discovers that Kate went to Fat Camp and was in fact: ‘Not a boy named Bjorn who was a twin that got jealous and ate the other baby in the womb’. Talking of babies, Brad has a terrible aversion to projectile-vomiting – ‘I wanna do it too!’.
  Then we meet Carrie’s Sissy Spacek, who plays Brad’s kind-hearted Mom Paula, whom Duvall earlier refers to as: ‘A common street whore’ due to the fact that she ran off with Brad’s best friend from school. Brad’s only feelings towards him are: ‘Now you’re sleeping with my Mom and it’s a little bit weird for me’. During the electronic version of charades, as well as being far to eager with the bleeper, Paula lets Kate in on the rather embarrassing fact that Brad: ‘Breast fed until he was five’.
   These are only a few examples of the one-liners featured in the belly-laugh inevitable, razor-sharp screenplay.
  The chemistry between the two leads is pure Christmas magic as they just bounce off each other with immaculately confrontational comic-timing, similar to Ben Affleck and Christina Applegate in 2004’s Surviving Christmas. Surprising, both festive favourites received a distinctly frosty reception from the critics. This hilarious, pitch-perfect comic caper obviously didn’t warm their cold hearts, but certainly raised mine to near boiling-point with its festive cheer. Never before have I laughed so much in a cinema, definitely not the Christmas turkey most people say it is, but rather a comforting and delicious Christmas pudding!

  Rating:****
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Monday, 28 November 2016

Enchanted Review

Season: New Year 2008.

Genre Part-Animated/Family/Fantasy/Comedy.

Starring: Amy Adams, Patrick Dempsey, Idina Menzal, Timothy Spall, James Marsden and Susan Sarandon.

Running Time/Duration: 107 Mins. Approx.

Certificate: PG: (Contains mildly scary scenes and brief innuendo).

Seen at: Parrs Wood Cinemas, Didsbury.

On: Sunday, January 20th, 2008.
When I was ten, I was taken to see 102 Dalmatians. It was brilliant – even more colourful, inventive, action-packed and funny than the original. Now its director, Kevin Lima (also the brains behind Tarzan) reinvents a mixture of classic Disney fairy-tales with a refreshing, modern twist, and a zingy combination of traditional animation and live-action. (The method is at its most charming when the two mediums are purposely intermixed together).
  No sooner has the viewer let the spellbinding tones of ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’  wash over them, are they whizzed through the very window of the Walt Disney Castle Logo itself, to see that Princess Giselle, played by Junebug Oscar Nominee Amy Adams, is plunged into a traditionally-animated wishing well and thrown into our live-action New York.
Adams exaggerates every little eye-flickering gesture – it is an expertly judged performance.
 Although the fairytale side of her is all set to wed her dashing but annoyingly stereotypically clichéd Prince Charming (played by X-Men’s James Marsden), predictably, she just can’t help falling for reluctant but charming divorce lawyer Robert (cue an appropriately understated performance from Grey’s Anatomy star Patrick Dempsey.
However, all this is further complicated by Susan Sarandon’s wonderfully vicious Queen Narcissa who’ll stop at nothing to ensure that Princess Giselle doesn’t take over her crown (just a shame she isn’t granted quite enough screen time, even though she totally steals the show).
  This is an endlessly inventive, refreshing piece of popcorn fodder, with gags suiting all ages, brimming to the very tip-top of the melting pot with poison apples happy endings, and – oh, purple dragons?! (Jon McLaughlin’s song: ‘So Close’ during the ballroom dance scene is very touching, and has deservedly been nominated at this year’s Oscars – as have two other musical numbers).
  Many a dedicated Disney fan will revel in noticing parodies and in-jokes from most prominently Snow White, (such as the opening storybook shots and the rendition of ‘The Happy Working Song’  but also Cinderella, and even more recent successes like Shrek.
But what it lacks in originality, it makes up for in spades with shimmering costume, parades, songs, and a certain magical sparkle you can only truly obtain, from Walt Disney Pictures…!

Rating: ****

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Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Lay The Favourite Review

Comedy

Summer 2012

Starring: Bruce Willis, Rebecca Hall, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Joshua Jackson and Vince Vaughn.

Running Time: 94 mins.

Seen At: Didsbury.

On:  Sunday 24th June, 2012.

The international box-office at the moment is an interesting state of affairs. The horror genre seems to be on fright-fest overload, what with The Pact, Red Lights, The Chernobyl Diaries and of course Prometheus.
  Director Stephen Frears is for my money one of the most versatile in the industry – he’s taken us through much classical period intrigue and the obsessions of a steamily seductive love triangle in Dangerous Liaisons, down into the consumerist greed of The Grifters, post-modern quirk - again with John Cusack - in Nick Hornby’s High Fedelity, transatlantic cautions of a distinctly darker sort in the highly affecting Dirty Pretty Things,  a somber reflection as a nation mourns in Helen Mirren’s Oscar-laden portrayal of a modern monarch with 2006’s The Queen, and in 2010 – one of those ‘feel-good’ chocolate-box village hits, with a heady mix of writing, baking, sun, wine and…oh, the odd dollop of unfaithfulness thrown in for good measure – in the charming Moira Buffini screenplay - Tamara Drewe.
  Now, he sticks with his model, with the figure of the deceptively ditzy heroine as his central protagonist, this time in the rather irritating shape of Beth (played by Rebecca Hall), a clumsy, whiney-voiced late-twenties-something backpacker, in a familiarly short pair of denims, who initially appears to be a dumb brunette at the most fundamentally cardboard-template-level. Didn’t Frears use exactly the same character arc for Gemma Arterton’s redeemed Tamera in 2010’s lovingly-crafted Tamera Drewe? Also, she can curiously, simultaneously solve anagrammatic puzzles off car registrations.
 She decides to exchange the murky world of seedy stripping in which the film opens – in really quite a strikingly comic, yet verging on edgy fashion, presumably attempting to act as an algorithm for the cautions of the excesses of money, alcohol and more – for the bright lights of…oh – Vegas? Surely every trap Beth is inexplicably running from also exists there – only in far higher, more exploitative quantities – they’re just advertised as glossed-over with a shameless, neon-lit sheen? Once there, she inevitably meets up with professional gambler Dink (Bruce Willis), who’s in the business of placing bets for a living, also known as ‘laying the favourite’. What ensues is at best, quite uninvolving, with little more than everybody grappling with corded phones, in the midst of heated arguments.
Rebecca Hall, a true British gem of an actress, makes really interesting choices. She gave my favourite performance in Woody Allen’s very charming and original Oscar-winner Vicky Christina Barcelona, showcasing a real talent for comic timing. She’s played fine dramatic turns in Christopher Nolan’s superb magician thriller The Prestige, as well as political electrifier Frost/Nixon. (She’s also to be seen in BBC Two’s adaptation of Parade’s End this Friday).
Here though, her talents are completely wasted on a deceptively sunny screenplay, weak dialogue, and an unengaging, flimsy, one-note character, similarly to Willis, another usually highly charismatic screen-presence given rather flat material to work with.
  The saviors are with two supporting roles: Catherine Zeta-Jones, one of my most favourite actresses (looking ultra-glamorous as ever), makes a triumphant return to the big screen as Dink’s high-maintenance, red-haired wife Tulip, giving her the chance to relish in reprising those frosty, gold-digger roles she delivers so perfectly.
Just think of Gwen, the spoilt, demanding, fading A-Lister – one half of America’s Sweethearts, man-eating Marilyn in Intolerable Cruelty, or the gorgeous seductress Velma Kelly in her Oscar-winning turn in Chicago. She’s at her very best playing these roles of the icy, yet extremely attractive women in the ruthlessly determined mould. Here, she’s also not afraid to be at the centre of one of the film’s very funniest moments, as Tulip resorts to going under the knife with some plastic surgery. We witness her directly after the procedure - before the reveal of the usually ‘perfect’ transformation – complete with her face wrapped in bandages!
  The other, equally entertaining role, arrives in the always skillfully funny shape of Vince Vaughn, an incredibly gifted comic actor, as shady money-launderer Rosie. Vaughn employs his customary, quick-fire delivery of dialogue, and much of the comedy in his scenes, as well as the film as a whole, arises from the camaraderie between him and his colleagues. A particular example is when he insists to Beth, convinced they are about to be found out, that they’re: ‘too cautious’  when he’s clearly anything but!
  What may add marginally more credibility to the film, is the fact that it is, partially, based on true events. It’s adapted from the memoir of the real-life Beth Raymer, and Dink and Tulip (no matter how closely or not they are portrayed in the film), are people who actually exist.
  Stylistically, it appeals to me that the film is shot in a bright, honey-glow glossiness, and even though it’s predominantly only mildly funny apart from a few stand-out moments, it has great supporting turns from Zeta-Jones and Vaughn. It’s light, bright, colourful, enjoyably energetic fare, and a refreshing change from that darker, heavier, far more serious output of films I mentioned, that can sometimes dominate the box-office.

Rating: * * * 


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