Tag Archives: film

The surprising link between Black Panther and X-Men

14 Feb
black-panther-reasons-watch-pic1

Welcome to Wakanda: the key cast of Black Panther

Black Panther has tapped into an audience normally uninterested in superhero blockbusters. It was striking how, at the first night’s screening at the Brixton Ritzy, the usually overwhelmingly white crowd was majority black.

For my part, I went with my young niece (actually first cousin once removed, but that’s a bit of a mouthful, so we’ll just go with niece). She doesn’t know her Marvel from her DC, and thinks she might have seen Thor but on second thoughts maybe it was Troy, so you can safely say she’s not usually first in line for such films. Black Panther is different. Black Panther is a cultural event, the first mainstream, massive-budget superhero film to feature a largely black cast. As the joke circulating Facebook goes, the only other actors are Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis, who both featured in The Hobbit, which makes them the Tolkien white guys.

Does it work? As a film, not altogether. There are huge gobbets of exposition shoved into the first act, all of it daft – a crashed meteorite has left a deposit of “vibranium” in the small African nation of Wakanda, a metal which somehow accelerates technological development and even heals wounds, creating a highly advanced civilisation hidden from view of the wider world. The special effects are occasionally hokey. The filming feels excessively studio-based. The pace lags in parts, as origin stories tend to.

On the plus side, the performances are top-notch, notably Letitia Wright as Black Panther’s sassy scientist sister, and Michael B. Jordan as Black Panther’s rival – more on that in a second. The production design, too, is magnificent. Some of the set pieces and battles are thrilling. Four stars, if I were to reduce it to a score.

But as a seismic cultural event, it’s a very big deal. It shows (hopefully!) that a black cast can find a mass audience. It presents a futurised ideal of African culture, without any attempt to dilute it for a Western audience: from the superb music curated by Kendrick Lamarr, to the fighting styles based on African martial arts, to the set design, costumes, hair and accents. It even has strong (if a tad one-dimensional) female roles.

Before the film, my niece pondered the irony that Hollywood, the biggest propaganda machine for the Western capitalist system, now seemed to be selling revolution. But notwithstanding Black Panther’s huge cultural impact, it seems to me to have a much less radical message.

The central conflict in the film turns out not to be between Black Panther and Andy Serkis’s pantomime villain with a plasma gun for a hand, but instead with a figure from Wakanda’s past who challenges Black Panther for the throne. Black Panther wants peaceful rule, perhaps opening up his kingdom slightly in order to help the poor and the oppressed in the outside world. His rival wants to smash the system, arming the disenfranchised with Wakandan technology to slay and overthrow their rulers across the world. The film clearly presents this as A Bad Idea, and a benevolent, non-democratically-elected king as A Good Idea – so not so revolutionary after all.

As my niece said, one is effectively Martin Luther King, while the other is effectively Malcolm X – which, intriguingly, is the same dynamic that powers all the X-Men films, by pitting Professor Xavier against Magneto.

 

Advertisements

Beauty in the beast: Guillermo del Toro on The Shape of Water

13 Feb
screen-shot-2017-09-14-at-9-49-54-am1

Sally Hawkins, as the mute cleaner in a military facility, makes contact with a creature from the deep in The Shape of Water

Pan’s Labyrinth was so exceptional, so unique, you’d think Guillermo del Toro could never again make a film that was its equal. You’d be wrong. The Shape of Water is every bit as beautiful, strange and idiosyncratic, but in tone shows the mellowness of del Toro’s middle age. While Pan’s Labyrinth was primarily about the monstrousness of men, The Shape of Water is more concerned with the humanity in monsters.

I saw the film at a BAFTA screening a few months ago, capped off by a Q&A with del Toro. He said that when he was young, he had terrible waking nightmares in which he would lie frozen in his own bed, seemingly conscious, watching monstrous hands clawing at his bedclothes. He made a pact with those monsters: if they didn’t hurt him, he’d be their friend for life. It’s a relationship he has been investigating throughout his film-making career.

With The Shape of Water specifically, he said the inspiration came from watching Creature From the Black Lagoon as a boy: he loved both monster and damsel in distress, and was heart-broken when they didn’t end up together. The Shape of Water is his attempt to rewrite that history.

As such, it’s not merely about the beauty in the beast, but also a love letter to old Hollywood: that’s one reason why the Academy, which notoriously loves films about itself, has given it 13 Oscar nominations – wildly unusual for a genre film. Sally Hawkins’s character, who is as mute as a silent film star, even lives above an old cinema. There are scenes which nod to old Hollywood song and dance, without quite breaking into outright musical, and its bright colour palette could have been filmed in Technicolor.

As the mute Elisa Esposito, who cleans in a top-secret military facility of the early ‘60s which takes possession of a monster from the deeps, Sally Hawkins is extraordinary. She says more with gesture and look than most actresses manage from screeds of dialogue. In any other year she’d be Oscar’s hottest contender, but Frances McDormand, surely, will take the highest honour for Three Billboards.

The creature is beautifully realised, Richard Giles provides touching support as Esposito’s best friend, Octavia Spencer provides energy and comic relief, and Michael Shannon gives this essentially feelgood tale a heart of darkness as the xenophobic military man obsessed with the Red Menace, his severed fingers rotting along with his soul. But it’s del Toro’s film, and he will surely win best director.

The crew with del Toro at the Q&A clearly loved him: they say he is obsessively knowledgeable about every area of film-making, from cinematography to production design, giving them fully formed ideas which then allow them to concentrate on the extra 10% that would transform a film from great to genius. He even came up with a long-forgotten method for simulating underwater movement which would require no CGI or fancy effects.

Released in the UK on Valentine’s Day, The Shape of Water makes the perfect date movie – because if your partner doesn’t love it, you’ll know they’re probably not the one for you!

A ‘Big Night’ for food and film with Bompas & Parr

30 Jan
big-night-e28093-1996

Bompas & Parr’s inaugural London Food Film Festival opened with Big Night, starring (left to right) Minnie Driver, Stanley Tucci, Tony Shalhoub and Isabella Rossellini

Bompas & Parr are the Willie Wonkas of London. For ten years now they have been staging elaborate food- and drink-related events for any brand that cares – or should that be dares? – to commission them. You want a cityscape made of jelly? A lake of Courvoisier punch large enough for people to row across? Or perhaps you merely want to launch some coffee beans into the stratosphere to create the world’s “Space Coffee”? You know who you’re gonna call.

Already this year Bompas & Parr have created a Cryptozoological Haggis Workshop for Burns Night, a Seismic Sound Bath in Christie’s Gallery, and, now, this week, the first annual London Food Film Festival at the Curzon Mondrian cinema on the South Bank. I went to the opening night last night: a screening of Stanley Tucci’s Big Night (1996) chosen and hosted by Evening Standard food critic Grace Dent.

It was a lovely film, only slightly marred by the eccentric decision to show it with Malay (I think) subtitles: the Italian sections of dialogue were expressive enough that you got the sense of them anyway! About a struggling restaurateur whose chef brother refuses to compromise his art for the philistine clientele, Big Night was funny and not a little heartbreaking. As Dent said, “Restaurants are giant money pits and they will take you under, both financially and emotionally. In this film we see the struggle between authenticity in cuisine and being profitable.”

I feel Bompas & Parr may have missed a trick by not combining food with the film: after watching the great Italian feast that dominates the final act of the film, we hungrily repaired afterwards to the nearest Italian restaurant, the Gourmet Pizza on South Bank – as did at least one other table of diners. A few years ago, by contrast, I went to a terrific event in the basement of Gordon Ramsay’s Union Street Café which combined a screening of GoodFellas with Italian dishes and cocktails appropriate to the action. Ah well, maybe next year.

Before the screening, Sam Bompas explained how the festival was all part of their attempts to put together a Museum of Food: “Four years ago we were trudging around the Design Museum thinking, who gets excited about chairs? But everyone gets excited about food. So we went to lots of brands, to government bodies, and said we need a British Food Museum. And they all told us to get lost. So we thought we’d do it anyway.”

Their first attempt took the form of a three-month pop-up at Borough Market in 2015. “We had this interactive exhibition called ‘Be the Bolus’ in which you become a bit of food being eaten. You sit on a modified massage chair that vibrates and expands around you like you’re going down a digestive tract.”

The London Food Film Festival, too, falls under the Museum of Food umbrella. “We’re on the verge of a permanent home in London,” he says tantalisingly, “and in February we will release a programme, but this is the first thing we’re doing.”

At time of writing there were still tickets for the rest of the festival. Tonight (Tuesday) writer and Psychogourmet Geoff Nicholson presents La Grande Bouffe and Jiro Dreams of Sushi; on Wednesday, director Jamie Jay Johnson and comedian Seb Cardinal present “A culinary ramble through the very best in Food and Film” (excerpts from their favourite food moments on screen) and Tampopo; and on Thursday, Sam Bompas himself takes over the reins. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

“I was worried we’d run out of great food films for next year,” he confessed, “so I thought I would look at cannibalism in cinema [of course, as you would!], and show The Descent.

“I did want people to taste human flesh in some way,” he continued, “but I got an email from the human tissue organisation saying ‘stop what you are doing, it’s incredibly illegal’. But we will have a skull to drink from.” So that’s all right, then.

Bompas & Parr, you crazy geniuses, we salute you. Of course there should be a Food Museum. And as long as they’re behind it, I’ll be first in line

 

Calling Aaron Sorkin’s bluff: Molly’s Game review

13 Jan
MOLLY'S GAME

Jessica Chastain as Molly Bloom and Idris Elba as her lawyer in Aaron Sorkin’s Molly’s Game. This courtroom scene, with its extended seat-switching gag, is cute on the page, but leaden and ludicrous on-screen, requiring a screwball comedy both performers lack.

Poker does not translate well to the big screen. The drama is mostly internal. Watch a YouTube video of any key hand, and it will last several minutes. For most of that time, one player remains deep in thought: “He bet this, but on the last street he bet that, which means he could have this, but then this player often bets like so, and also he probably believes I have this whereas in fact I have that, and therefore…”

Fellow poker players find this internal drama gripping, because they will be going through the same thought process as they watch. Non-players, ie the majority of the film-going public, just see someone sitting on a chair frowning.

Major movies with poker scenes usually solve this problem by going over the top with preposterous hands and stakes. The classic example is Casino Royale, in which James Bond wins a $115m pot with a straight flush vs Aces full vs eights full vs a flush. Only Rounders remains true to the thought processes and rituals of the game, by means of extensive voice-over to get us into the heads of the players.

Molly’s Game, the directorial debut of peerless screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, ducks the problem entirely. The few poker sequences are filmed in the now hackneyed slow/fast motion style that directors reach for when they want to jazz up a scene and make it look “cool”. As to the rituals of poker that make it so compelling to its acolytes – the secret language of trips, boats, nuts and check-raises, the banter and the unwritten codes of table etiquette – those, too, are sidelined. It’s a particular shame here, as Molly’s Game took place in a world of high-stakes home games open only to the privileged few: we would have liked to peer behind the curtain.

Instead, Aaron Sorkin makes it a character study of Molly herself: a high-achiever with a hard-driving father whose Olympic skiing ambitions were crushed early by injury, and who found herself, almost by accident, running an illegal high-stakes poker game to Hollywood A-listers, hedge-fund millionaires and – her downfall – a smattering of mobsters.

This should be right in Sorkin’s comfort zone. From A Few Good Men through The West Wing to The Social Network, he has made a speciality of fast, intelligent dialogue spoken by fast, intelligent people. That he fails even in this is down to the central performance, or possibly Sorkin’s direction of it. As becomes painfully obvious from the opening voice-over, Jessica Chastain just can’t get her mouth around his script. She rattles it out, but doesn’t own it, like a soap star called upon to do Shakespeare.

As the lawyer who defends her, Idris Elba, too, seems at sea. There is no chemistry between the two, and his American accent is ludicrous. Only Kevin Costner as Molly’s father gives any sense of being a complex, flesh-and-blood person with an emotional hinterland, rather than an actor reciting lines.

In fairness, I should point out that many of my fellow reviewers seem to disagree, praising at least outstanding performances by two great actors at the top of their game, if not Sorkin’s direction. All I can imagine is that they have fallen into a classic poker trap of being influenced by the players’ strong past records, and believed the bluff.

First full review of The Last Jedi (spoiler-free)

12 Dec
daisy-ridley-as-rey-and-mark-hamill-as-luke-skywalker-in-star-wars-the-last-jedi

Daisy Ridley as Rey and Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: The Last Jedi

As someone who made a pact with God in my teens to spare my life until all nine films in the proposed Star Wars canon were completed, I watched Star Wars: The Last Jedi with mixed feelings. On the one hand it’s brilliantly acted, often funny, occasionally affecting, and with a climactic scene of startling beauty and grandeur. On the other hand, if I am to be struck down by a bolt of lightning after the next one, I’m not sure it’s entirely worth it.

Let’s start with the good stuff, and I promise to keep this spoiler-free. Daisy Ridley, already good in The Force Awakens, has grown into the role of Rey: she’s not just tough, she’s really funny. It seems like she’s been given all the best lines, until you write them down and realise they’re not that witty; it’s just the way she tells ‘em.

Adam Driver, of course, is a “proper” actor with an impressive indie CV that includes the sublime Paterson, and in this second film of the third trilogy he’s given much more scope to display his range. When he and Ridley share the screen, locked in a Jedi mind battle with a frisson of sexual tension, the effect is electric.

star-wars-8-porgs-food-luke-chewbacca

Kawaii! One of the loveable Porgs in Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Benicio del Toro also briefly joins the cast, and enjoyably out-hams the lot with a stutter like Hannibal Lecter sniffing a liver with fava beans and a nice Chianti. He plays an incorrigible rogue of no fixed allegiance, which goes some way to filling a Han Solo-shaped hole. Non-human additions include the Porgs, fat birds that have evolved the very sensible defence mechanism of being so kawaii that predators feel too guilty to eat them; the Fathiers, which are like extra fast and strong horses with goat-like faces; and the friendly Vulptices or crystal foxes.

There are some knowing winks to the original trilogy: Kylo Ren spinning briefly out of control in his TIE fighter, as Darth Vader once did; a rather gratuitous sequence in a casino where the score echoes the music during the alien bar scene of the very first film; and Princess Leia’s brilliantly bathetic opener to Luke Skywalker when they finally meet again after many years apart: “I know what you’re going to say,” she tells Luke: “I changed my hair.”

And though some action scenes are underwhelming – once you’ve seen one spaceship chase, you’ve seen ‘em all, and by now we’ve seen dozens; plus there’s a key lightsaber battle that is flat-out badly choreographed – there is one extended scene so breathtaking that it would not be out of place in Hero or House of Flying Daggers. It’s on a planet of salt flats that cover hidden scarlet sands, such that the boundless white plains, when trod by boot or furrowed by laser cannon, become streaked with red. These few gashes, as vivid as a Rothko, by the end merge into a vast charnel field of red, in which a single figure stands alone…

This is a pay-off that has taken 40 years to build, and it’s worth the weight.

And now the negatives. The Last Jedi is busy. Very busy. Aside from some obligatory Force mumbo jumbo between Rey and Luke on “the most unfindable place in the galaxy” (in reality Ireland’s Skellig Michael), it’s all running around without really any place to go. The Resistance forces have no clear or noble goal, beyond trying not to get blown up. They engage in numerous red herring missions of questionable logic. And there are glaring and, frankly, unforgivable inconsistencies in plot and character motivation that I would love to enumerate but won’t (because spoilers). To pick just the biggest, the hot-headed Poe (Oscar Isaac) would in any other army be court-martialled and vilified for gross insubordination with disastrous consequences – not once, but twice! – yet here he’s somehow still treated as a hero. No wonder the First Order are winning.

All the same, massive kudos to writer/director Rian Johnson for taking the best-loved movie franchise of all time and making not just a film that the fans can get behind, but a movie that feels like it’s his own.

 

Smell my crystal balls: which nominees will take the Oscars

24 Jan
la-la-land-ryan-gosling-emma-stone-1

The magic of movies: Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone in La-La Land

I saw La-La-Land a few months ago at a press screening, and I’ve never been more sure of an Oscars blitzkrieg than for this gossamer confection. It flatters the ageing voters of the Academy by recalling a bygone age of Hollywood musical glamour, but brings enough modern cynicism to make it seem brand-new. There were times, I kid you not, I wept just for the sheer beauty of the composition and colour scheme, let alone in sympathy when Emma Stone’s saucer-sized peepers filled with tears.

And so it’s proved: it received 14 nominations today, matched only by All About Eve and Titanic. Some friends of mine have remained unmoved by the film. No accounting for taste. I’m longing to see it again.

So what other films may get a look-in at the Oscars? Just get a whiff of my crystal balls:

Best Picture. La-La Land. Duh. Not even after Brexit and Trump can I believe that this safest of sure bets will be overturned, though both Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea have passionate fan bases (and I also very much liked Arrival, though it’s hard to love it).

Directing. Damien Chazelle for La-La-Land. His previous film, Whiplash, was nominated for Best Picture, though he himself missed out on being the youngest nominee for Best Director. He will make up for it by being the youngest winner, at (gulp) 32.

Leading Actor. Not La-La-Land, for once. Ryan Gosling was perfectly Goslingy, but never reached that extra gear that Oscar demands. Casey Affleck is the contender to beat for Manchester on Sea.

Leading actress. When I saw Arrival, at an early preview, I thought Amy Adams good enough to win it. Then I saw La-La-Land and, sorry Amy, that statuette is Emma Stone’s. Which suits me, since when I reviewed Easy A for The Times back in 2010 I went out on a limb to predict she’d become a huge star. But then last weekend I saw Jackie. Natalie Portman is EXTRAORDINARY. She disappears into the part completely. And as the only thing Hollywood loves to reward more in an actor than excessive weight loss/gain or disability is the impersonation of a famous figure, she has a chance of upsetting the La-La-Land bandwagon. Still won’t, though.

Supporting Actor. I’d like Jeff Bridges to win for his subtle, elegiac performance as the ageing marshall in Hell or High Water. But then Moonlight hasn’t come out in the UK yet, and they tell me Mahershala Ali may well take it. Fair enough. He was good in House of Cards, and it would be a pleasure to see an antidote to #OscarsSoWhite.

Supporting Actress. Viola Davis is tipped to take this for Fences. Again, the damn thing’s not out yet, so I cannot possibly comment.

… And then La-La-Land will sweep many of the smaller awards, too, especially cinematography, production design and song. It can’t possibly win Best Documentary, however! I’d like that to go Ava DuVernay’s 13th, one of the best docs I’ve seen in ages, available to view now on Netflix.

Why Rogue One is more historical drama than sci-fi – and all the better for it

18 Dec
rogue-one-international2jpg-f9a2d0_1280w

Felicity Jones leads the way in Rogue One: a Star Wars Story

Director Gareth Edwards has said he wants Rogue One: a Star Wars Story to be considered a heist movie as much as science-fiction. Actually, it occurred to me it was more like a historical drama.

Of course all the events in Star Wars do play out in the past, relative to our Earth (“a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away”). But Rogue One, unlike The Force Awakens, is also set in 1977 – or rather, whatever vision of an alternative world George Lucas was able to come up with in 1977, which is always dictated by the times. Look at any sci-fi film, and despite the attempts of futurity, you can always tell exactly when it was made. Lucas’s genius was to make his world pre-distressed, so that it seemed relatively ageless  but you’re still aware of the hydraulic whirrs on the machinery, the primitive (by now) recording systems that lie at the heart of Rogue One’s plot, the minimalist colour schemes that (like in Logan’s Run and Lucas’s own THX 1138) passed for futuristic in the ‘70s.

Edwards has recreated this world meticulously, so that it slots in seamlessly with the original trilogy. But just as BBC historical dramas sometimes get straitened and stifled by their corsets, there was always a danger he would follow the template too slavishly, to give us the Star Wars formula with none of the fun.

Instead, it’s a minor triumph. Rogue One is funny, exciting, moving, brilliantly acted, with plenty of surprises, and very much Gareth Edwards’ own.