Film

Frozen II

28/11/19

Disney’s Frozen II  is facing a hard slog with this particular critic: I’m not a great fan of fantasy/quest stories, power ballads don’t really float my boat, and sequels are rarely much cop. But, being firmly of the opinion that opinions can and should change, I’m determined to approach it with an open mind. After all, there are great tales in every genre. In the end, if it’s done well, I’m happy.

2013’s original Frozen is a case in point. Despite myself, I liked it. A lot. Of course, this second outing can’t benefit from the freshness of the idea, and is bound to suffer – to some extent – from trying to replicate the original’s huge success. You can almost hear the songwriters’ straining for this year’s Let It Go. 

It’s three years after Elsa’s coronation, and everyone in Arendelle is enjoying Autumn. But then Queen Elsa hears a mysterious voice calling to her, and feels compelled to follow it. But her sister, Anna, won’t let her go alone, so – quelle surprise – they are accompanied by Christoph (Anna’s boyfriend), Sven (Christoph’s reindeer) and Olaf (the chirpy snowman). The voice leads them to the enchanted forest where, years ago, the women’s grandfather was killed. Elsa’s mission, it turns out, is twofold: to heal the rift between the Northuldra tribe and the soldiers of Arendelle, all trapped together in the forest since the fatal fight; and to appease the elemental spirits angered by human folly.

The songs, sadly, are all so-so ballads, with little to distinguish them, and none as memorable as Let It Go; more variety would really perk things up. Olaf’s constant joking is less adorable in this outing; I find myself wishing he’d shut up. And honestly, I’ve no idea why Anna and Elsa wear dresses, high heels and full make-up for hiking in the hills.

Still, the animation is glorious: the water horse (or Nokk) and the earth giants are particularly impressive. The plot is convoluted and a bit silly, but it skips along nicely and holds my attention.

The verdict: Frozen II is… lukewarm.

3.2 stars

Susan Singfield

Dolemite is my Name

27/11/19

Whatever happened to Eddie Murphy? It’s a question I’ve often asked myself.

For those who weren’t moviegoers during the early 80s, it’s hard to convey the seismic impact he had on cinema. I still remember my first sight of him in Walter Hill’s 48 Hours, sitting alone in a prison cell, earphones in and singing raucously along to Roxanne. It was evident at a glance that he was going to be a massive movie star. And through that decade, that’s exactly what he became in films like Trading Places and Beverly Hills Cop.

But during the 90s, things went awry. A combination of poor film choices, and personal disasters contrived to push him further and further out of the public consciousness. With only occasional flashes of the old brilliance, it seemed to be over for him. So hearing that he is starring in a new movie, released without fanfare direct to Netflix comes as a bit of a surprise – as does the discovery that Dolemite Is My Name is actually pretty decent.

Murphy plays Rudy Ray Moore, a real life comedian/filmmaker, often referred to as the ‘Godfather of Rap’ and, moreover, a man who Murphy has often cited as an influence on his own early career. When we first encounter him, Moore is working by day as the manager of a Los Angeles record store; by night, he’s performing as a music club emcee, but failing to connect with audiences.

When Moore hears a homeless guy reciting  bawdy poetry about ‘Dolemite,’ a legendary character amongst older members of the local community, he spots an opportunity to reinvent himself as a standup comedian. Donning an afro wig, and some some flamboyant clothes he hits the stage. In his brash new potty-mouthed persona, he makes an instant connection with the customers, and his fame begins to spread.

When he subsequently offers his act to record labels, they shy away, horrified by the unashamedly sexual nature of the content. Undeterred, he decides to  record some albums himself with the aid of friends and relatives; and pretty soon, he finds himself on the billboard charts, selling records by the ton.

And then, one evening, a disappointing trip to the cinema gives him another idea. Why not write and produce a Dolemite movie? No film company wants to take it on, so once again, he has to find unconventional ways to make it happen…

It’s lovely to see some of Murphy’s old familiar spark being reignited here. Moore’s story is that of the classic underdog, the kind of guy who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer and whom audiences just can’t help rooting for. I’ve never caught up with the original Dolemite, but it’s clear from the scenes lovingly recreated here (and reprised in their original form in a post credits sequence) that this Blaxploitation classic belongs in the ‘so bad it’s good’ category. This sparky film, directed by Craig Brewer, tells the story with aplomb and the presence of Wesley Snipes as louche actor D’ouville Martin and (an uncredited) Bob Odenkirk as a predatory movie executive add to its appeal.

Anyone interested in seeing this can catch it any time they like on Netflix. As for Murphy, he has a Coming to America sequel in the works. It remains to be seen if that endeavour will be afforded the luxury of a theatrical release.

Fingers crossed.

4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Knives Out

25/11/19

Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is an Agatha Christie-inspired whodunnit for our times. Although reliant on the tropes and clichés of the murder-mystery, the delivery makes this a thoroughly modern thriller.

The cast is stellar. Christopher Plummer is Harlem Thrombey: a successful eighty-five-year-old novelist with a penchant for games and a vast fortune to bequeath. The morning after his birthday party, he is found dead, his throat cut in an apparent suicide. But just as the police (LaKeith Stanfield and Noah Began) are ready to finalise the cause of death, enigmatic private detective Benoit Blanc (Daniel Craig) turns up, hired by an anonymous client to investigate further.

Thrombey’s children and grandchildren are all present, and it turns out each of them has a motive for his murder – although I won’t reveal the details here. His daughter, Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis), is a forbidding businesswoman, visiting with her husband, Richard (Don Johnson), and their feckless son, Ransom (Chris Evans). Thrombey’s son, Walt (Michael Shannon), is a gentle soul, but a hopeless case, incapable of making it on his own. He has a wife too (Riki Lindome), and an alt-right-leaning teenager (Jaeden Martell), who spends his time perusing questionable websites on his phone. And finally, there’s Thrombey’s yoga-and-crystal-loving daughter-in-law, Joni (Toni Collette), and her student daughter, Meg (Katherine Langford).

As you might expect of the genre, the setting is a remote country house, and so – of course – there are staff too: housekeeper Fran (Edi Patterson) and nurse Marta (Ana de Armas), both of whom prove central to the plot.

There’s an appealing playfulness here, with zingy dialogue and witty repartee, and the performances are as sprightly and assured as you’d expect from these marvellous actors. But the plot is a little predictable: there are no real surprises here, mainly because the various ‘twists’ are too heavily signalled. The middle third sags under the weight of a lengthy red herring, where the focus drifts from the larger-than-life characters and their shenanigans, following instead a more muted, less engaging thread.

Nonetheless, this is a lively and eminently watchable film – just not the masterpiece I hoped that it would be.

3.8 stars

Susan Singfield

 

Harriet

25/11/19

Anyone who has witnessed the superb double-punch that was Bad Times at the El Royale and Widows will surely have the same conviction as me: that Cynthia Erivo is destined to be a major player in the cinema. So her presence in the lead role of Harriet feels suspiciously like an affirmation. This is a part she was born to play and it’s hard to imagine anyone better suited to depict this spirited, fearless woman. Filmmakers have been playing with the idea of a Tubman biopic for something like twenty-five years now, back when producers actually considered offering the role to Julia Roberts! Wow. But here, finally, is the film we’ve been waiting for and, in terms of a performance, Erivo knocks it right out of the park. 

We first encounter Harriet Tubman in 1846, when she’s Araminta Ross, a slave ‘belonging’ to the Brodess family in Maryland, and dreading the prospect of being sold further south, as her two sisters were when she was a child. She’s also prone to having religious visions, a legacy of a fractured skull delivered by her ruthless owner, Edward. Harriet is married to John Tubman (Zackery Momoh), a so-called free man, and has acquired legal papers to prove she too should be free. But Edward is adamant that he will never give up such a valuable piece of property. When he dies, his equally odious son, Gideon (Joe Alwyn), needs to pay off his father’s gambling debts and decides that he will sell Harriet. She takes the only option she feels is left to her and runs away, leaving John behind for fear of getting him involved in her illegal act.

Through sheer grit and determination, she makes the one-hundred-mile trip to Philadelphia unharmed, and is introduced to William Still (Leslie Odom Jnr), a major player in the Underground Railroad, a secret organisation dedicated to bringing slaves from the Southern states to freedom in the North. Harriet takes her new ‘free’ name and tells William she wants to go back to Maryland to rescue her husband and the other members of her family, but he doubts that a lone woman could ever achieve such a task. Undaunted, she heads back anyway, risking her own capture to bring her loved ones to freedom. Once there, she finds that John, believing her dead, has married and is due to be a father. But the rest of her family still need guiding to safety. This achieved, Harriet extends her help to strangers. And when changing laws mean that she has to take her ‘passengers’ as far north as Canada, she doesn’t hesitate to do so…

Harriet is a film that eloquently communicates the true horrors of slavery. Whip marks on people’s bodies bear silent testimony to the horrors of the antebellum South, and the story doesn’t hold back on shaming the people who perpetuated slavery and who were even willing to go to war in order to preserve it. Gideon Brodress is depicted as a truly loathesome example of humanity and, sadly, the corridors of power are populated by others just like him. 

Tubman, by the way, is one of the few women who served as a soldier during the American Civil War, leading a black regiment to rescue 750 captive slaves at Combahee River. It would be hard to imagine a more worthy recipient of our respect and yet, when it was recently suggested that her image should replace that of Andrew Jackson on the $20 bill, a certain Donald Trump had the change ‘postponed’ until 2026. Which demonstrates that we may not have come as far as we might like to think.

Till then, Kasi Lemon’s moving and important film must suffice as Harriet Tubman’s memorial. Unsurprisingly, it isn’t getting the kind of massive rollout that more commercial movies are receiving, but I urge you to see it, if only for Erivo’s dazzling performance in the title role.

4.5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Honey Boy

24/11/19

This semi-autobiographical tale, written by Shia LaBeouf and directed by Alma Har’el, is clearly the actor’s attempt to exorcise the demons of a troubled relationship with his father, though he’s wisely changed the names of the protagonists. We first meet ‘Otis’ (Lucas Hedges) in 2017, when he’s pursuing a hectic schedule as a movie actor, and abusing drugs and alcohol on a daily basis. When everything spins out of control and he’s involved in an alcohol-fuelled car crash, he’s faced with a stark choice: go into rehab for the PSTD he’s suffering from, or face a four year stretch in jail.

Naturally, he chooses the former option.

From here the film cuts back in time to find Otis, at the age of twelve (and played by Noah Jupe), already working in television. He’s living in a seedy motel with his father, James (LaBeouf), who is a Vietnam veteran, a former rodeo clown and a convicted felon. It’s James’ job to chaperone Otis: make sure turns up for work every morning; go over his lines with him; and try to ensure that his son stays on the straight and narrow. But it’s evident from the word go that James is a pretty terrible example of fatherhood, and in no position to hand out advice to anyone. Indeed, he’s given to dark rages, which he takes out on the boy. As Otis bitterly observes, James is with him for one reason only, because he’s paid to be there.

Having estabished the two versions of Otis, the screenplay cuts nimbly back and forth between them, the twelve-year-old desperately searching for some kind of affection from his old man, the twenty-two-year-old still trying to deal with the messed-up psyche he’s inevitably been left with. Watching this, it’s little wonder that LaBeouf’s own career has been so incendiary. (The screenplay was actually written while he was in rehab.) If there were ever any doubts about the importance of nurture to a growing child, this film underscores its worth in thick black marker pen.

It’s frankly nobody’s idea of a jolly picture, but it’s brilliantly acted by all three of its leads, and Alma Har’el’s vivid, fragmentary style suits the subject admirably, particularly in the short dream sequences that punctuate events, and in which older Otis is still attempting to cross the void that lies between him and his father. While I’m never quite convinced that the angel-faced Noah Jupe could grow up to look like Lucas Hedges, this is a mere detail.

Honey Boy is a powerful, emotive story, expertly told.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Last Christmas

23/11/19

Last Christmas is a strange film, with an identity crisis every bit as troublesome as the one its protagonist is dealing with.

Said protagonist is Kate (Emilia Clarke) – formerly known as Katarina, but currently in the process of rejecting her Yugoslavian parents and heritage. She’s been critically ill and is recovering from surgery, but she’s struggling to accept the new version of herself, refusing to follow her doctor’s orders, desperate to pursue her singing dreams but unable to perform as well as she used to. It’s a lot for a young woman to cope with, and she’s worn her friends’ patience thin. Her boss (Michelle Yeoh) is wearying of her too: Kate is lazy, inattentive and unreliable, not qualities Santa needs from an elf-assistant in her Covent Garden Christmas shop.

Just as things seem to be spiralling out of control, up pops Tom (Henry Golding), a charming but mysterious stranger, who helps Kate to negotiate her way through the thorny issues she’s entangled in. He’s elusive, though, not relationship material, he tells her. But will her heart heed what he says?

I quite like the schmaltzy plot, but the telling (writing by Emma Thompson and Bryony Kimmings; direction by Paul Feig) is pretty artless, with huge signposts to the so-called twist, which you can spot from about the twenty-minute mark. And so many interesting ideas are set up and then abandoned, the running time taken up instead with not-quite-there comedic sequences, and characters interacting in ways that don’t convince.

For example, what about George Michael? Kate has a sticker on her suitcase and posters on her bedroom wall; she says she ‘loves’ his music, and it makes a decent backing track. But – so what? Her relationship with her idol is never explored; we don’t learn a single thing about what he means to her. Except, of course, for a queasily literal interpretation of the titular song. And, um, why no gay men – not a solitary one! – in a movie supposedly inspired by Michael? That seems a shocking omission, given his outspoken views on gay rights and representation.

I’m interested in Kate’s rejection of her roots in the former Yugoslavia too. This is a tantalising thread, her frustration with her mother (Emma Thompson) tied up with her desire not to be an outsider, not to worry like her mum about Brexit and hate crimes. But it’s not taken anywhere. True, as she begins to get herself together, we see her speaking her parents’ language to help some strangers on a bus, but there’s a lot more to unravel here.

It’s not all bad. It’s good to see a London rom-com where the characters’ accommodation is credible, for example: all sweet-but-very-cramped apartments or long-commute-away-small-terraces. This makes a change from the usual run of things, where we’re often expected to suspend our disbelief and accept that ordinary working people can live in mansions in zones 1 and 2.

But that’s not enough, is it? Last Christmas can’t quite decide what it wants to be: a knockabout comedy, a heartwarming tale of redemption, or a political satire. Sadly, it misses all three targets. This is an over-stuffed turkey of a film, all promise and no prize.

2.4 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

Le Mans ’66

20/11/19

It’s strange the way cinema can reel you in to subjects that would normally leave you as cold as the proverbial stone. To me, the idea of watching a real-life 24-hour sports car endurance race rates only slightly higher than listening to the collected speeches of Nigel Farage. But Le Mans ’66 actually manages to engage me – indeed, in places, it has me perched on the edge of my seat, holding my breath and crossing my fingers.

This based-on-real-events movie, scripted by Jez Butterworth (among others) and directed by James Mangold, focuses on the rivalry between the Ford Motor Company and Ferrari in the mid 1960s. It culminates in the famous racing event of the title. (In America, the film is known as Ford vs Ferrari, which – to my mind – feels much more on the button, but we’ll let that one go.)

Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) is a former racing driver, reluctantly forced to seek out a  safer occupation (sports car salesman) because of a dangerous heart condition. He is close friends with another driver, Ken Miles (Christian Bale), a cantankerous, tea-swilling Brummie, who – once behind the wheel of a motor car – transforms into an invincible force. Meanwhile, Henry Ford II (Tracy Letts) is fed up with his cars being regarded as dull. He starts to think about taking on Enzo Ferrari (Remo Girone) at the sport the latter dominates, with particular regard to the world’s most gruelling race, Le Mans. Shelby is approached to helm the project, but his choice of Miles as his head driver ruffles a few feathers, not least those belonging to Leo Beebe (Josh Miles), a character so oleaginous, he virtually leaves a trail of slime behind him.

The titular racing event beckons, but there’s a lot of work to be done before Shelby and Miles can even get to the starting line, and most of their problems originate from the interfence of  ‘The Suits’ who run Ford.

There are plenty of things in this film’s favour – not least a dazzling turn from Bale, who offers us one of the few truly sympathetic characters in this story. Damon gets the trickier role as the man who has to bottle up his raging inner demons as he tries to maintain the status quo between Miles and his image-obsessed employers. This is the 1960s and it’s still very much a man’s world, so there’s some major league dick-swinging going on from most of the players. Catriona Balfe is therefore a welcome presence as Miles’ wife, Mollie, and young Noah Jupe offers yet another lovely performance as his hero-worshipping son, Peter. But there are perhaps too many scenes where male characters in business suits stubbornly assert themselves, because… well, because they think they know best.

And… with a running time of two hours and thirty-two minutes, it’s hard to prevent the motor racing sequences from feeling a little bit like an endurance test for the audience. It doesn’t matter how brilliantly they are filmed – and trust me, they are – it’s sobering to emerge from the lengthy onslaught of Daytona ’66 only to realise that the film still hasn’t reached the climactic event after which it’s been named. How much punchier would this be if the running time came in at under two hours?

Still, petrolheads are going to have an absolute field day here – and a quick Google search assures me that the catalogue of awful decisions that are arbitarily thrown at Ken Miles really did happen as depicted here. Little wonder he was so cantankerous!

And, if a committed pedestrian like me can emerge from Le Mans ’66 feeling entertained, I’m pretty sure that plenty of others will too.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney