Film

Ponyo

16/08/18

During the month of August when the Edinburgh Fringe is in full swing, we don’t have a lot of time to visit the cinema – but when we saw that Ponyo was showing at the Cameo Cinema, we had to make an exception. We’ve only recently started to discover the joys of Studio Ghibli and this is, quite appropriately, the one that got away. This quirky ‘boy meets fish’ story has so much to recommend it – gorgeous visuals, a powerful ecological theme and an almost overwhelming cuteness that’s never allowed to tip over into full-blown mawkishness.

Scientist/magician Fujimoto (rather disturbingly voiced, in this version, by Liam Neeson) lives deep beneath the sea in a Nautilus-like submersible, where he conducts a series of mystical experiments. When one of those experiments, a little red-headed fish, goes exploring, she is swept up by a dredger net and carried far away. She eventually gets washed ashore where she hooks up with a boy called Sosuke (Frankie Jonas) and, when she licks a drop of blood from his hand, a weird transformation occurs…

There’s something of the selkie myth to this tale, but as ever it’s shot through with that unique Hayao Miyazake world view. Odd though the story is, it’s an absolute joy to watch. The animation of the water itself is a particular delight, at times recalling Hokusai’s famous watercolours and, while this might not be quite up there with the likes of Howl’s Moving Castle or Princess Mononoke, it’s nonetheless a charming and spellbinding film.

If the opportunity occurs to see this – particularly on the big screen – don’t miss your chance.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

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Apostasy

06/08/18

I come to this film from a position of tolerance; I’m an atheist and – honestly, from this angle – most religions seem pretty strange. Alongside their (sometimes dubious, but usually well-intentioned) moral codes, they all impose a few seemingly arbitrary restrictions, and it’s easy to poke fun at these. But fundamentalism – of any kind, political or religious – poses more of a problem than any moderate view, I think, and the few Jehovah’s Witnesses I know are lovely people. Indeed, one of my favourite aunts is one. I don’t harbour any ill-feeling towards this particular belief system.

It’s important to make this point, because Apostasy doesn’t make it easy to view Jehovah’s Witnesses in a positive light. This assured debut from writer/director Daniel Kokotajlo is an angry piece, railing against the inflexibility of the church’s Elders, pointing out – again and again – how their strict adherence to the rules shows a complete lack of humanity. And fair enough, it’s his story to tell: he grew up in this community; this reflects his own experience. But he clearly has an axe to grind, even if it’s not with the church’s followers.

Molly Wright plays Alex, a quiet eighteen-year old Jehovah’s Witness, keen to dedicate herself to God. She wants to prove herself worthy of a place in the ‘New System’ – even though she has a medical condition that means refusing a blood transfusion could cost her life. Her mum, Ivanna (Siobhan Finneran), supports her decision; she too believes implicitly in the tenets of her faith. But Alex’s sister, Luisa (Sacha Parkinson) is not so sure: she’s suspicious of the edicts issued by a remote governing body; she’s restless; she wants out. And when she finds herself pregnant, she’s disfellowshipped and the whole congregation – including her family – is ordered to shun her. But nothing shakes Ivanna’s faith: not one daughter’s ill health, nor the other’s banishment. How can she defy the church? She truly believes her children will be damned if they don’t do as they are told. She does what she has to do, and tries to guide them to the light.

This is a slow and sombre film, and Siobhan Finneran’s compelling performance is the heart and soul of it. She doesn’t do much; Ivanna is still, outwardly composed; her turmoil is all internal and unexpressed – and yet it’s there, clearly, conveyed in subtle tensing of muscles and clouds behind the eyes. Sacha Parkinson and Molly Wright are also very good; they are both engaging young actors, appealing and identifiable. Jameses Quinn and Foster are suitably implacable as the Elders, and it’s interesting to see trainee Steven (Robert Emms) begin to change as he’s accepted into their ranks, parroting their words.

Kokotajlo’s direction is interesting: the whole film has a dreamy quality, as if it’s slightly removed from reality. There’s a subtle shift in light and colour that renders it quite different – effectively symbolising the skewed vision of these JWs.

A fascinating insight into a little understood religion; this won’t change hearts and minds, but it will certainly make you think.

4.3 stars

Susan Singfield

Mission Impossible: Fallout

 

27/07/18

Most film franchises follow a familiar trajectory. They start well and, through the rules of diminishing returns, steadily become ever more feeble until somebody finally has the good grace to pull the plug on them. The Mission Impossible series, however, seems to have gone in the opposite direction. After a couple of so-so efforts, episodes three, four and five really managed to cut some mustard – and this sixth instalment of the TV-inspired show is surely its strongest manifestation yet. Indeed, this audacious thrill-ride, courtesy of returning writer/director Christopher McQuarrie is so enthralling I occasionally find myself holding my breath as Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) jumps off buildings, races on motorbikes, dangles from helicopters and runs for miles, all in the name of truth and justice. Yes, it’s complete tosh, but when it’s done this well, who cares?

When we first meet up with Hunt, he’s worrying about Julia (Michelle Monaghan), the wife he’s been forced to live apart from in order to keep her out of danger. But of course, for an IMF operative, danger is never very far away. Old adversary Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) is being used as a pawn by various secret powers, who aim to utilise his special skills to convert some stolen weapons grade plutonium into deadly nuclear devices. Hunt and his sidekicks, Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames), are assigned to take care of securing Lane and the plutonium and, for this mission, they are assigned an extra player – August Walker (Henry Cavill), a hard man with a high opinion of himself. But, when things go awry, the team are faced with a even trickier challenge. They must track down two nuclear weapons before they are detonated – an occurrence which will destroy huge areas of the planet. (So no pressure there.) Luckily, Hunt’s old flame Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) is on hand to lend her own special talents…

There’s quite a tricky story line here, with plenty of unexpected twists and reveals – and naturally, some of those hi tech masks that the makers are so fond of, but really, it’s all just a linking device for a whole string of spectacular set pieces, which are so triumphantly realised, you’ll barely have time to stop and speculate how far-fetched they are. Cruise, looking far better than anyone his age has any right to be, revels in some of the most hair-raising stunts this side of a Jackie Chan movie – indeed, the scene where he actually breaks his leg is included in all its wince-inducing glory. Cavill, who I’ve never really rated as Superman, is a lot more interesting when given a bit more character to play with and there’s excellent support from the rest of the cast.

Okay, you can argue that this film isn’t really about very much, but you’d be missing the point. It’s all about action and only a very few movies have managed to do it as effortlessly as its done here. My advice? Strap yourself in and enjoy the ride. And Mission Impossible Seven? Well, I certainly wouldn’t rule it out.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Hotel Artemis

25/07/18

Set in a dystopian, near future Los Angeles… boy, if only I had a tenner for every time I’ve started a review with that line… there exists a secret location that’s kind of like BUPA for criminals. Basically, bad people become members, they pay their dues every month and, when they find themselves all shot up and in urgent need of medical attention, this is where they come to recuperate. The joint is run by The Nurse (Jodie Foster), once a valued member of the caring profession, now a hopeless alcoholic with a penchant for repairing the trickiest of wounds. You need a new liver? No problem! She has a 3D printer that can make you one! She’s ably assisted by Everest (Dave Bautista), a veritable man-mountain who’ll do anything for her but, she’s not a happy bunny,  haunted by something bad in her past, something we occasionally catch unsettling glimpses of.

Into this pressure cooker setting comes Waikiki (Sterling K. Brown) and his brother, Honolulu (Bryan Tyree Henry), who – after a bank job has gone belly-up – are badly wounded and struggling to survive. (In case you’re wondering about those names, characters are called after the holiday-themed rooms in which they are installed.)

But things are more complicated than usual. A problem with LA’s biggest water supplier has kicked off violent riots on the streets, so even getting across town is problematic. Once safely in the building, Waikiki meets up with his ‘friend,’ Nice (Sofia Boutella), an assassin who makes her living from bumping off VIPs, sharing the kill with her employers via a camera embedded in her head. Well, we’ve all got to earn a living, right?

And then, in comes The Wolf King (Jeff Goldblum), who, as the name might suggest, is LA’s most powerful gangster and also, it turns out, the man who set up the Hotel Artemis in the first place. So nobody is going to keep him out, right? Problem is, for a very important reason, he’s the last person that Waikiki and Honolulu want to meet up with…

Writer/director Drew Pearce’s futuristic film is an assured and intriguing piece of cinema. It may have all the trappings of a sci-fi movie, but it’s much more about the characters and the way they interact with each other. The complex storyline generates plenty of tension and there are  some fine performances from an ensemble cast. Foster is particularly good, submitting a brilliant character study in the lead role that makes me wish she’d act in more films. The setting too, with each room styled around a different theme, is memorable. Perhaps inevitably, in the final reel, events descend into violence, but this too is well-handled and doesn’t outstay its welcome. More sensitive viewers may wish to glance away from the screen at key moments.

So, that’s the Hotel Artemis. Well worth booking into for a short and occasionally enthralling city break. Just don’t expect to come out in one piece.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again

23/07/18

The reviews have been astonishing: Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again is, we’re told, a glorious piece of feelgood fun; moreover, it has the emotional heft to make us cry. We’re surprised: we’re ABBA fans (because the music is undeniably good, right?) but we both found the first film a sort of okay-watchable-quite-good-nothing-special kind of thing. So what makes it so much better this time?

Sadly, the answer is… nothing. Nothing makes it better, because it isn’t better: it’s worse. It’s weirdly patchy: some genuinely awful sequences interspersed with lovely moments. All together, it’s a mess. Most of it (the prequel section) tells a back story we already know, fleshed out without revealing anything. There are no surprises here. The sequel section fares better, with the multi-talented Amanda Seyfried (Sophie) bringing a much-needed sincerity to proceedings, and wringing every ounce of emotion from the songs (One of Us, which she sings with her estranged husband, Sky (Dominic Cooper), is the highlight of the film for me).

The prequel takes us back to 1979, when Donna (Lily James), freshly graduated from Oxford, unsure of what she wants from life, decides to seek adventure and takes herself off travelling. In Paris, she meets Harry (Hugh Skinner); charmed by his geeky naïvety, she spends the night with him before heading off alone to Greece. En route to the unnamed island idyll that claims her, she meets Stellan Skarsgård’s younger incarnation (Josh Dylan), but he’s off to take part in a boat race, and – while he’s gone – she falls for Sam (Jeremy Irvine), the Pierce Brosnan-a-like, who is absolutely perfect – except for the fiancée he forgets to tell her about. James is a charismatic performer, and her vocal skills are more than up to the challenge (which is more than can be said for poor Hugh Skinner, who has definitely been cast because he resembles Colin Firth, and not because he has any discernible musical ability). Her character is flighty and foolish, making literally no use of that Oxford degree, but she’s engaging and entertaining, and she makes us care about her.

Not much happens in the sequel, which is a shame, because it has all the best songs and all the best actors. I mean, Sophie gets pregnant and feels close to her dead mother, and there’s a party that’s threatened by a storm, but that’s about it. True, Cher is a camp delight, appearing as Sophie’s errant grandmother and stealing the show, and Dancing Queen proves the perfect accompaniment to a lively, animated crowd scene. But honestly, that’s all there is.

There are huge missteps too. I hate the graduation scene where Donna and her friends (Jessica Keenan Wynn and Alexa Davies) sing I Kissed the Teacher to a badly accented Celia Imrie (I think she’s supposed to be Scottish, but I can’t be sure). They’ve changed ‘he’ to ‘she’ in a bid to make the lyrics somehow more palatable, but I can’t see what difference it makes – it’s a good song, but the sentiment is undeniably creepy when filtered through a 2018 lens. It makes me most uncomfortable.

Ach, I don’t know. It’s just a load of mawkish nonsense, unpalatably sentimental and as silly as can be. Thank you for the music, ABBA – but can we stop filming this fluff?

2.8 stars

Susan Singfield

Incredibles 2

17/07/18

With a fourteen year gap between the first film and this sequel, writer/director Brad Bird can hardly be accused of rushing things into production – and the original was so perfect, it almost makes me wish he’d chosen to leave it as a standalone. But whether we want it or not, here’s a follow-up and it’s very every bit as assured as you’d expect from Pixar.

2 takes us straight to the heart of the action as Mr Incredible (Craig T. Nelson), Elastigirl (Holly Hunter), Violet (Sarah Vowell), and Huck (Dashiell Power) take on the villainous Underminer, who is wreaking havoc in the city centre with the aid of a huge drilling rig. The Parrs are somewhat hampered by the fact that, whilst doing their super heroic duties,  they also have to mind the newest member of the family, baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile), but at least they have the help of Frozone (Samuel L. Jackson), still the coolest super-dude on the block.

It quickly becomes apparent that not much has changed in the city of Metroville. Superheroes are still outlawed and the Parr family have been reduced to living in a shabby motel, whilst tackling villains in their spare time and generally being vilified by the press for having the temerity to do so.

But things start to look up for the Parrs when they are approached by wealthy communications mogul, Winston Deavor (Bob Odenkirk), who, with the help of his tech-whiz sister, Evelyn (Catherine Keener), is planning to make superheroes respectable again and, what’s more,  they have the kind of funds needed to back up such an operation. After some consideration, Winston decides to start the ball rolling by focusing his efforts exclusively on Elastigirl.

This means she now has to go out and fight crime on a nightly basis, while her husband stays home to mind the kids. This would be fine, of course, but unfortunately Jack-Jack is now displaying signs that he too has special powers and, while the others members of the family are content with just one apiece, he has been blessed with many different abilities. Furthermore, if he doesn’t get a cookie exactly when he wants one, he’s apt to turn into a raging monster. (Bird is making a point here, I think…) Elastigirl soon finds herself taking on the mysterious Screenslaver, a villain who specialises in hypnotising victims by making them look at a screen… hmm. That sounds depressingly familiar.

Incredibles 2 does exactly what its progenitor did so well. There are action set pieces aplenty (perhaps one too many, which gives proceedings a slightly saggy middle, but that’s a minor niggle), the 60s style artwork is er… incredible and, best of all, there are the characterisations, the animated faces somehow allowing you to share each person’s inner life. I’ve rarely seen it done as convincingly or as effortlessly as it is here. If the Screenslaver’s secret identity is easily guessable from early on, well, we should remember that these films are aimed primarily at children, even if Pixar do excel at creating material that’s also suitable for big kids like me. All in all, this is a resounding success, so what’s not to like?

And… what do we think? Incredibles 3 in 2032?

Sounds like a plan. I hope to see you there.

4.4 stars

Philip Caveney

 

First Reformed

13/07/18

Paul Schrader is most famous for writing Taxi Driver, Martin Scorscese’s devastating study of a lonely outsider driven to an act of extreme violence – but as a director, he has never really quite hit the mark. There was his fitful remake of Cat People in 1982; his study of the Japanese poet Mishima in 1985; and, more recently, his self-produced film, The Canyons, which attempted (unsuccessfully) to revive the flagging career of Lindsay Lohan. First Reformed arrives in the UK garlanded with praise by the American critics and it certainly represents Schrader’s most assured work as a director, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, the story it most resembles is Taxi Driver. It’s as though he can’t quite shrug off the influence of his finest achievement, even after all these years.

Ethan Hawke plays the Reverend Toller, resident priest of the titular church, an ancient clapboard affair that these days is more a haunt for tourists and souvenir-collectors than an actual congregation. Toller has experienced some misery in his recent past – his son, a soldier, died on active service in Iraq, and Toller’s marriage has subsequently failed because of that loss. It’s clear he’s been given this post mostly out of sympathy and he’s doing his level best to handle the role, but he’s increasingly troubled by the fact that his church is just a small part of a much bigger concern called Abundant Life, whose major benefactor is one Edward Balq (Michael Gaston), a local businessman who has his fingers in some very dodgy – and environmentally damaging – enterprises. To add to his problems, Reverend Toller is suffering from some kind of intestinal cancer and is existing mostly on a diet of whisky and Pepto Bismol.

Then he’s approached by young parishioner, Mary (Amanda Seyfried, taking a break from her usual more lightweight roles). She is pregnant but deeply concerned about her partner, Michael (Philip Ettinger), an environmental activist, who is clearly having doubts about bringing a child into such a troubled world. Toller agrees to talk to the young man and finds himself increasingly agreeing with Michael’s point of view. As events develop, he is also irresistibly drawn to Mary herself. And, as he struggles to deal with that realisation, he begins to contemplate an act of unspeakable violence…

This is an extremely dour and sombre film, shot in desaturated colour and projected in an almost square 1:37:1 ratio. The interiors of Toller’s house are distressingly bare and there’s a strange, almost subliminal score, courtesy of Brian Williams, that seems to amp up the sense of alienation we share with him. Hawke is excellent in the title role and the central premise of the aspirations of the church having to bow down in the face of big business are deftly explored. It’s by no means a perfect film – and I can’t help feeling that some of the praise that’s been lavished upon it may have been somewhat exaggerated – but it’s compelling enough to see you through to its odd and profoundly unsettling conclusion. Is it possible for a priest to maintain his faith in such a corrupt and devastated world? Does religion even have a place in it? Schrader’s film is brave enough to ask the questions, even if it can’t quite supply the answers.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney