Film

The Commuter

 

 

15/01/18

Since 2008’s Taken, Liam Neeson has expended much of his onscreen energy trying to sell himself as an ageing action hero. While the first film was something of a guilty pleasure, the two sequels weren’t anything like as sure-footed, but Neeson (who, I feel compelled to remind you, once starred in Schindler’s List) clearly isn’t a man to give up on an idea. In The Commuter he lends the daily trip to and from the office a whole new dimension. As the opening credits unfold, we see him taking his regular journey in all weathers and in all types of clothing. The sequence is so nicely put together, it lulls us into thinking that this will be a classier film than we’ve come to expect from Mr Neeson, of late – but, sadly, that feeling is rather short-lived.

Neeson plays Michael McCauley, former cop turned insurance salesman. Happily married to Karen (Elizabeth Montgomery), he gamely takes the train to work every day, just as he has for the last ten years. But things take a turn for the worse when he arrives at work one morning to discover that the bank has decided to let him go. What is he to do? He’s sixty years old, for goodness sake! He has two mortgages and his teenage son is planning to go to a fancy college! Over a few beers he confides in his old pal, Detective Alex Murphy (Patrick White), and then hurries off to the station to catch the train home.

Once on route, he encounters the mysterious Joanna (Vera Farmiga), who offers him a very strange way out of his current predicament. Somebody on the train doesn’t belong there, she tells him. All McCauley has to do is work out who it is, stick a miniature tracker on the guilty party and receive a massive cash payout in return, enough to solve all of his worries. At first, he’s intrigued enough to start looking for this unknown person but, as the labyrinthine plot unwinds, he begins to realise it’s going to be a lot more messy than he’d anticipated…

This, I’m afraid, is the point where the film starts to go (if you’ll forgive the pun) right off the rails. The premise is so ridiculous, so downright complicated, it’s hard to hold back hoots of disbelief. Okay, so the action sequences do generate some excitement, but a whole raft of worrying questions start to prey on the viewer’s mind. How have the villains managed to contrive such an intricate plot? How is it that not one tiny element of the plan ever lets them down? More worryingly, how does a man who has spent the last ten years selling insurance contrive to be so good at beating people up, leaping on and off trains and crawling into inaccessible places? Yes, he’s a former cop, but doesn’t that consist mostly of eating doughnuts?

As the train (and the plot) thunders relentlessly on, we are treated to needlessly extended punch-ups (a scene where Neeson belabours an unfortunate man with his own electric guitar invites whoops of derision rather than the thrills it is surely aiming for) and there’s a late ‘shock’ plot reveal that will frankly surprise precisely nobody. All this is a shame, because Neeson is an accomplished actor and he deserves better material than this. Did I mention that he was in Schindler’s List? Oh yes, I did.

Okay, fans of thick-ear movies will find things to relish here. And I’m aware of the ‘so bad it’s good’ contingent who make these films bankable. But I’m unable to suspend my disbelief enough to let this one go by. Keep an eye out for some interesting faces amidst McCauley’s fellow-passengers, though. Isn’t that Jonathan Banks (Mike Ehrmintraut of Breaking Bad)? And her with the pink hair and the sneer – surely that’s rising star Florence Pugh from Lady MacBeth?

Little wonder she looks dazed… she’s doubtless wishing she’d taken an earlier train.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

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Coco

14/01/18

Pixar Animation Studios can generally be counted on to provide quality entertainment but it’s been a little while since they truly knocked something out of the park. Here’s a film that puts them right back where they belong. In a move that seems destined to send this film plummeting to the bottom of President Trump’s ‘to watch’ list, Coco is a celebration of Mexico and its culture. It’s a dazzling, inventive and sometimes surreal love letter to the country and, for once, the makers have got it absolutely right, employing Mexican talent in just about every area of this charming production.

Young Miguel (voiced by Anthony Gonzalez) longs to be a mariachi, just like his hero, the late (and locally born) Mexican screen star, Ernesto De La Cruz (Benjamin Bratt). But there’s a problem. Miguel’s great-great-grandmother was married to a musician who abandoned her and her baby daughter – the eponymous Coco – for the lure of fame and fortune, so now, generations later, music is a taboo subject around the home. Instead, everyone is involved in the family shoe-making business, where Miguel is expected to one day take his place.

As the story starts, it’s fast approaching November 1st, when families across Mexico celebrate El Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), where everyone congregates in the local cemetery to enjoy a feast along with their departed relatives. When Miguel hears that there is to be a talent contest in the town square, he is determined to enter it, but for that he needs a guitar – his own, home made effort has been smashed to pieces by his over protective grandmother, Mama Imelda (Alanna Ubach). So Miguel sneaks into de la Cruz’s tomb, intending to borrow the late star’s famous guitar. In doing so, he inadvertently manages to slip between worlds and finds himself stranded in a land populated entirely by the dead – and it’s here that he meets Hector (Gail Garcia Bernal), a guitar-playing skeleton who is desperately trying to get back to his own loved ones on the other side…

Coco is such a ravishing feast for the senses, it’s hard to know where to begin with the superlatives. It looks absolutely astonishing in just about every frame, the music is terrific and the story is funny and inventive. Perhaps most importantly, it perpetuates that great Pixar tradition where it can be enjoyed as much by the parents as their offspring. Interestingly, the film has a PG certificate – after all it does deal predominantly with the afterlife – but it would be a sensitive child indeed who’d feel threatened by its lively cast of skeletons and colourful chimeras (the spirit animals who look after the dead). The title Coco, by the way, refers to Miguel’s ailing great-grandmother, and the way she has been characterised probably deserves some kind of an award all by itself. This is animation at its most accomplished.

Ultimately though, how refreshing to see a depiction of Mexico that isn’t peopled by drug-dealing gangs, intent on torture and murder, but by loving families, who realise only too well that people only truly die when they are forgotten by the living. Perhaps this should be required viewing for all those Americans who believe the best way to deal with Mexico is to wall it off.

But I’m being way too political. Coco is perhaps best enjoyed as a slice of pure entertainment. This advance screening is surprisingly empty, but maybe the word just hasn’t got around yet. The news that is has already outgrossed the earnings of all twelve previous Pixar releases in China alone would suggest that the Disney empire is on target for yet another massive hit – and, in this case, it’s one that’s totally deserved.

Don’t you dare miss this. And don’t go thinking that if you haven’t got kids in tow, you can’t go along and enjoy it. Trust me, you’ll love it, whatever age you happen to be.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

Darkest Hour

 

12/01/17

Biopics can be a bit like buses. No sooner has Brian Cox’s Churchill drifted over the horizon than it’s Gary Oldman’s turn to don the homburg hat and wave a zeppelin-sized cigar in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour. While Cox made a perfectly good fist of his portrayal of the infamous war leader, Oldman submits a simply astonishing performance, a stellar tub-thumping object lesson in how to act everyone else off the screen. Despite several nominations down the years, he’s never won an Academy Award, but this should surely be the role to rectify that situation.

It’s May 1940 and the British forces in France are being disastrously defeated by the might of Hitler’s Germany. The unpopular (and ailing) Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) opts to step down from the post of Prime Minister and a coalition government looks around for somebody to take his place. It’s a poisoned chalice and nobody on either side makes any secret of the fact that Winston Churchill is not their preferred choice, particularly after his key involvement in the military disaster that was Gallipoli. Nevertheless, he is chosen, and is faced with the almost impossible task of rallying the country to fight on, when most of his colleagues are intent on making a deal with Mr Hitler. Elizabeth Layton (Lily James, looking uncannily like a younger Gemma Arterton) is assigned to be Churchill’s secretary and so has an inside view on how he operates, often dictating his famous speeches from the toilet (why not, his initials are on the door?) and explosively losing his temper whenever she gets something wrong. Meanwhile, the British expeditionary force is surrounded and fleeing towards Dunkirk and it’s starting to look as though they are about to be completely annihilated…

Wright has already dealt with Dunkirk in Atonement, so that side of things is kept very much in the background – or, more often, glimpsed from aeroplanes as bombs drop on the British forces. Here, the director concentrates on a character study of a complex man, chronicling his struggles with depression, his occasional lapses into bluster and his almost overpowering sense of isolation. Again and again Wright shows him enclosed in small spaces – riding in a tiny elevator, framed by the outline of a window, making important phone calls from the smallest room in the house. As well as that stellar performance, Oldman is aided by an incredible transformation, achieved entirely by ace Japanese prosthetics artist Kazuhiro Tsuji. Even in extreme close up, his efforts are utterly convincing.

If there’s a price to pay for such grandstanding, it’s inevitably the fact that the rest of the cast – Ben Mendlesohn’s turn as King George VI aside – are relegated pretty much to the sidelines. Even the usually dependable Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine is reduced to wandering on to give her hubby the occasional pep talk; it would have been nice to see her given a little more to do.

But, niggles aside, Darkest Hour is pretty enjoyable, and probably worth the price of admission just to see Oldman give that speech.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Downsizing

09/01/18

Downsizing is a high-concept film, its ‘what if’ premise explored with such fastidiousness that the undoubtedly outlandish seems utterly believable. We’re in the near future, and Norwegian scientist, Dr. Jorgen Asbjørnsen (Rolf Lassgård), has devised a means of shrinking organic matter (plants, animals, people). He envisages his discovery as a force for good, a way to reduce humanity’s impact on the environment, and to make space for the earth’s growing population. His prototype ‘tiny community’ is a success, and soon there is a growing demand for the safety and relative wealth downsizing seems to offer.

Eight years into the experiment, everyfolk Paul and Audrey Sefranik (Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig) are seduced by the idea. They’re tired and disappointed by the life they’re living: they’re not poor, but they’ve nothing extra; they’re exhausted and unfulfilled by their work (as an occupational therapist and a shoe-shop assistant respectively); their house is fine, but it’s a long way from the ideal homes that are peddled as the answer to their dreams. When their old friends, Dave and Carol (Jason Sudeikis and Maribeth Monroe), tell them about their new life in American tiny community, Leisureland, it proves hard to resist the lure of a world where their $160,000 assets will translate into $12,000,000 in real terms. They can have the mansion, the country club membership, the social life, the freedom. They can escape the mundanity of their existence and live the fantasy lifestyle of the super-rich. Of course their heads are turned.

But (spoiler alert!), their plans are thwarted when Audrey realises that she can’t go through with the irreversible procedure; she doesn’t want to leave her friends and family behind. But it’s too late for Paul, who’s already been shrunk, and – after the inevitable divorce – he finds himself adrift in Leisureland, poorer than ever and working in a call centre. Because, of course, Leisureland is a miniature version of the society in which it was conceived, with all the same inequities. It’s America in microcosm, and it needs an underclass to serve its rich.

And this, for me, is where the film really shows its chops. Because it’s not just a silly fantasy about tiny people – Mrs Pepperpot or The Borrowers for a grown-up audience. It’s a meticulously realised abstraction, with all implications scrupulously examined. We learn, for example, of dictators shrinking political dissidents, of prisoners shrunk against their will. We learn of tiny refugees, using the miniaturisation process to aid their illegal passage into other countries; of full-sized tax payers angry that the small people contribute less yet still get a vote; of entrepreneurs who seek to exploit, to become rich off the back of this noble experiment. It pulls no punches, lets no one off the hook, and yet it’s still marvellously entertaining – funny even – and a real delight to watch.

There’s been some criticism of the supposed ‘white saviour’ narrative, and the suggestion that Vietnamese character Ngoc  Lan Tran (Hong Chau) is a racist stereotype. But I really don’t see these things. Sure, Paul Safronik attempts to ‘save’ Ngoc, who is an amputee; he’s keen to reassert his sense of self by helping to improve her prosthetic foot. But she rejects his help, and – when she finally capitulates – he completely fails. She might seem like a victim (a political activist, shrunk by her government, the sole survivor of an illegal  immigration, her leg lost in the process, working as a cleaner for the rich people in Leisureland), but she’s not: she operates entirely on her own terms. She owns the cleaning business, we realise; she employs Paul, puts him to work; it’s she who rescues him, in fact. And I don’t know how she’s a stereotype, unless it’s her accent, which Hong Chau says she copied from people she knew as a child (“I grew up around Vietnamese refugees, around people who don’t speak English as a first language”). Any which way, it’s hard to see how a film where the female lead is Asian, disabled, strong and independent, can be considered retrograde.

In short (sorry), this is a fascinating piece of cinema, one that – I’m sure – will bear repeated watching. I find myself utterly captivated by it, and recommend it wholeheartedly to anyone who likes a film that makes them think.

5 stars

Susan Singfield

 

 

 

All the Money in the World

 

06/01/18

You have to admire Ridley Scott. At eighty years old, he seems to have levels of energy and commitment that would put younger directors to shame. Having emerged from the disappointment that was Alien Covenant, he threw himself headlong into his next project, the stranger than fiction tale of the abduction of Paul Getty III, nephew of multi-millionaire J Paul Getty. The film was in post-production when the allegations about Kevin Spacey (who was playing J Paul Getty) emerged, and Scott went to the unprecedented lengths of reshooting all of his scenes with a new actor, Christopher Plummer. The fact that Plummer is now being talked up for Oscar nominations speaks volumes about how successfully he has been assimilated into the final product.

It’s 1976 and sixteen year old Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) is wandering around Rome, enjoying life, when he is unceremoniously bundled into a van and driven to a remote location in the wilds of Italy. His mother, Gail (Michelle Williams in her latest onscreen transformation), receives a phone call saying that the kidnappers are demanding a ransom of seventeen million dollars and that Gail should approach her father-in-law for the money.

But there’s a problem. J Paul Getty isn’t your usual sort of millionaire. He may be the richest man in history but he still launders his own underwear when he stays in hotels and has even had a coin-operated red telephone box installed in his British mansion for whenever guests wish to use the phone. He outright refuses to pay the ransom and brings in Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) to handle negotiations with the kidnappers. As time slips by, Paul’s situation begins to look more and more precarious… and it’s only a matter of time before blood is shed.

Screenwriters David Scarpa and John Pearson have crafted a sprawling, but fascinating story, with details so weird that they really couldn’t pass for fiction. Okay, so some elements have been tweaked for the sake of building suspense – the conclusion of the case was certainly not as nail-bitingly dramatic as it’s portrayed here and occasiona liberties have been taken with the chronology of the story – but it all makes for a compelling narrative and, naturally, Scott makes every frame look gorgeous. Michelle Williams seems to completely reinvent herself from film to film and Plummer is good enough to make you stop caring what sort of a job Spacey might have made of so meaty a role.

Ironically of course, the reshoots have helped to bring this film to wider public attention and, judging by the packed afternoon screening we’re attending, All the Money in the World is destined to do a lot better than its predecessor. It absolutely deserves to.

4.6 stars

Philip Caveney

Hostiles

05/01/18

It’s often been said that, in times of political uncertainty, Hollywood revisits the Western – and it’s certainly true that this once moribund genre has recently enjoyed a bit of a renaissance, not least through Netflix’s superb series, Godless, which offers a refreshingly feminist view on the subject. Scott Cooper’s bleak and savage vision of the Old West seems designed primarily to remind us what an unpleasant era it was in which to eke an existence. Which is not to say that it isn’t a fascinating film. It is – even if it occasionally makes for uncomfortable viewing.

The film starts in New Mexico in 1892, towards the end of the infamous ‘Indian Wars.’ Captain Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale), a seasoned cavalry officer, finds himself presented with an assignment he really doesn’t relish. He is to escort his old adversary, a captive Cheyenne warrior called Yellow Hawk (Wes Studi), to Montana. The old man is stricken with cancer and wants to return to his ancestral burial grounds to end his life. Blocker makes no secret of the fact that he hates Yellow Hawk and has no intention of burying an axe unless it’s in the back of the old man’s head, but the US President has decreed that he must fulfil his obligations, so he rounds up a detachment of men and sets off on the long and arduous journey. (Watch out for a cameo role from young Timothee Chalomet currently being talked up as a potential  Oscar contender for his role in  Call Me By Your Name.)

Soon, Blocker and his men stumble across a harrowing tragedy in the shape of Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike), who has just witnessed her entire family being massacred by a Comanche war party. Blocker has no option but to take the widow along for the ride, hoping that he can drop her off somewhere safe along the way… but as the journey progresses and a series of disasters unfold, it becomes clear that Blocker and Quaid’s  lives are to become inextricably entangled.

Cooper paints an unpleasant picture of the West: a world where gunfire and rape seem to lurk around every corner; where most of Cooper’s men are suffering from what was then called ‘the melancholy’ but which we now label as PTSD; where irrational hatred begets ever more hatred; and where women are seen as a commodity to be taken and used at any man’s whim. Bale is excellent in the central role, managing to convey his internal agony with little more than a look and a shrug – whilst Pike, whose character goes through a living hell in this film, is also memorable.

More than anything else though, the film serves as a comment on what’s happening in Trump’s America right now. It helps you to understand the entrenched Republican values that makes Americans so resolute on the right to bear arms – and why the country is inevitably heading for such devastating sorrows.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

Molly’s Game

04/01/18

As a screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin has certainly earned his stripes. From The West Wing to The Social Network, he’s proved his abilities as an ace screenwriter. For his directorial debut, he’s seized upon the real life story of Molly Bloom (not that Molly Bloom) portrayed here by Jessica Chastain on excellent form and based upon Bloom’s autobiography – which probably explains how she is be presented here as a bit of a saint, rather than the ruthless enabler she so clearly was.

The film opens with an extended voiceover that explains how Bloom’s youth is spent as a competitive downhill skier, schooled by her hard-assed father, Larry (Kevin Costner) and constantly in the shadow of her more successful brother, a downhill champion. When a terrible injury puts a premature end to her sporting ambitions, Bloom looks around for alternative forms of employment and more by accident than design, ends up helping to host a series of ‘slightly’ illegal poker games where celebrity players gamble (and generally lose) obscene amounts of money. When her boorish employer, Dean (Jeremy Strong) decides to cut her out of the games, she immediately sets up in competition with him, hiring swankier venues and stealing all of his regulars. From there, she goes all out to tempt in more affluent players. When, two years after quitting the business, she is arrested by the FBI she goes in search of a lawyer and finds Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) who despite his initial reluctance to represent her, is soon won over by Bloom’s charms… (Jaffey, by the way, isn’t a real character, but an invention, intended to represent the various lawyers she was associated with before coming to trial).

It’s perhaps inevitable that Sorkin the director fails to fully rein in Sorkin the writer – with a running time of two hours and twenty minutes, Molly’s Game becomes somewhat lumpen in the middle section and could surely have lost half an hour in the editing suite. Furthermore, those viewers (like me) who know or care nothing about the rules of poker may find their attention wandering during these stretches – but the film gathers momentum as it heads into its final stretch and has me hooked to its conclusion.

Sorkin’s dialogue is as delicious as ever, but if there’s an overall problem here, it’s simply that it’s hard to sympathise with any of the major characters – Elba’s fictional one aside. The once cute Michael Cera (of Juno) is really unpleasant as the mysterious Player X and even the usually affable Chris O Dowd is irritating as perennial loser Douglas Downey. And no matter how eloquently Chastain plays that lead role, its hard to feel warmth for a woman who doesn’t think twice about exploiting the needs of gambling addicts in order to earn herself considerable sums of money.

In the end, Molly’s Game is watchable if flawed. Poker fans will doubtless see this as a royal flush, whereas to me it’s more like three of a kind.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney