Film

Joker

05/10/19

Joker arrives in the UK amidst a deluge of controversy. To some minds, it’s a work of genius. To others, it’s a dangerous and divisive polemic that invites troubled souls to indulge in their darkest, most dangerous fantasies. To my mind, the film belongs fully in the former slot, but it would be naïve to suggest that it’s not a searing indictment of American society, and that it doesn’t feel suspiciously like a call to arms. Though the names of a couple of films on a cinema marquee place the action in 1981, make no mistake: this is all about the America of today – and it’s not a pretty picture. The rich corporations rule this Gotham while the poor, the sick and the dispossessed are marginalised and brushed under the carpet.

Joaquin Phoenix puts in an extraordinary performance in the central role. He’s Arthur Fleck, a scrawny, malnourished loser, living with his ageing mother, Penny (Frances Conroy), in a dilapidated apartment in Gotham City. Arthur dreams of being a successful comedian, but lacks the ability to understand jokes or even deliver the routines he writes, since he suffers from a condition that makes him laugh involuntarily at random intervals. He earns a crust as a street-clown and children’s entertainer but, even in these roles, he’s beset by problems, picked on by street gangs and openly mocked by his fellow clowns. Meanwhile, he fantasises hopelessly about his neighbour, Sophie (Zazie Beets), and fills the empty hours watching his chat show idol, Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), on TV. But the cruelty he experiences on an almost daily basis is building something uncontrollable deep within him… something that will eventually inspire others to follow him.

Director and co-writer Todd Philips, previously best known for lame buddy comedy The Hangover, has really struck a powerful chord here. His reimagining of the Joker’s origin story is bleak but compelling stuff and, despite Phoenix’s dazzling starburst at the film’s core, the supporting characters are all well drawn and the hellish cityscapes in which the story unfolds are strikingly shot. Throw in a brooding musical score by Hildur Guönadóttir and you have a movie that grips like a vice from start to finish. The influences are evident and clearly not accidental. Martin Scorcese’s Taxi Driver and The King of Comedy are both openly referenced, and eagle-eyed film fans will also spot a brief homage to Sidney Lumet’s Network. It’s lovely also to see De Niro in a serious role for the first time in what seems like ages.

It’s ironic to note that this film goes straight to the top of my favourite DC movies, particularly as it doesn’t feature a superhero of any description – unless you count a glimpse of the infant Bruce Wayne, who will of course grow up to be Joker’s main adversary – and, doubly ironic, when you consider that my previous favourite was The Dark Knight, which also featured a memorable Joker in Heath Ledger. I guess the simple truth is that the Joker has overshadowed Batman in most of the films they’ve featured in together; he’s just a more interesting character.

Joker is a must-see: a brilliant evocation of an American city at flashpoint. The central message may trouble you – indeed, it really should trouble you – but this is giant steps ahead of most of the superhero stuff that’s currently out there.

5 stars

Philip Caveney

 

 

 

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Judy

03/10/19

The ‘Judy’ of the title is, of course, Judy Garland, and this rather downbeat film, directed by Rupert Goold and written by Tom Edge, concentrates not on the gloss and glitter of Hollywood, but on a less-celebrated period of her life: her five-week residency at London’s Talk of the Town, which proved to be – quite literally – the end of her career.

It’s 1969, long after her super-stardom and more than a decade after her cinematic comeback with A Star is Born. Judy (Renée Zellweger) is struggling to make ends meet. Addicted to barbiturates and hopelessly in debt to the IRS, she is virtually unemployable in her homeland, reduced to dragging her children, Lorna and Joey, onstage with her to perform song and dance routines for a hundred dollars a night. Judy’s ex-husband, Sid Luft (Rufus Sewell) is understandably concerned for the welfare of his kids, but Judy is determined to prove herself a good mother, despite never having had the luxury of a decent role model in her own childhood.

But then the offer from Bernard Delfont (Michael Gambon) rears its head and, sensing a way out of the corner she’s painted herself into, Judy heads off to England, reluctantly leaving her children in the care of their father. There are problems from the moment she arrives: she refuses to rehearse for the show and keeps complaining of ‘headaches’- but her no-nonsense PA, Rosalyn Wilder (Jessie Buckley), does at least manage to get her onstage for the opening night. Judy goes down a storm and things look promising… but of course, as history attests, from there, it’s anything but plain sailing.

The first thing to say about Judy is that Zellweger is totally convincing in the lead role, nailing Garland’s tragic self-doubt and vulnerability with aplomb and somehow even managing to look and sound uncannily like the real person. But a great performance doesn’t automatically make a great film. That, I’m afraid, is more of a mixed bag.

I like the flashbacks to the Hollywood years, where young Judy (Darci Shaw) does battle with the odious Louis B. Mayer (Richard Cordery), a man who thinks nothing of working a twelve year old relentlessly around the clock, knowing full well that she has to exist on a diet of ‘pep pills’ in order to keep going. Later on, there’s also a charming plot strand where Garland befriends a couple of gay fans (Andy Nyman, Daniel Cerquira) and ends up back at their flat, cooking them an omelette, which makes them, I suppose, the original ‘friends of Dorothy.’

But unfortunately, so much of the narrative is devoted to Garland, the other characters barely get a look-in. The super-talented Jessie Buckley, for instance, is second-billed here, but we learn virtually nothing about Rosalyn; and why bother to employ the mighty Michael Gambon if all he gets to do is sit in the audience and look disgruntled? Finn Whittrock also struggles to make anything of his role as ‘unsuitable husband number five,’ Micky Deans. Was this man a cruel opportunist looking for his own personal rake-off? Was he just lousy at doing business? Did he have genuine affection for Judy? There’s not enough information here to let me make a judgement on any of those questions and that’s a shame.

Still, if, like me, you have a soft spot for the divine Ms Garland, this is worth catching for that sublime central performance. Zellweger does rousing versions of some of Judy’s best-remembered songs and manages to capture her distinctive vocal inflexions perfectly. And, unless you’re made of stone, you’ll probably have a tear in your eye at the film’s unexpectedly redemptive conclusion.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Touch of Evil

29/09/19

Orson Welles is one of the most enigmatic filmmakers in history. His cinematic career began spectacularly with Citizen Kane in 1941, a film that has consistantly featured in critics ‘best of’ lists down the years. But – largely because of the malign influence of William Randolph Hearst, the newspaper tycoon on whom Kane was allegedly based – Welles’ subsequent endeavours consisted mostly of ducking and diving, scrambling around to try to scratch up enough money to back his features. Despite the inevitable low budget, his 1958 noir classic, Touch of Evil is always a joy to watch, particularly in this version, which reinstates footage cut from the original theatrical release – and the opportunity to see it once again on the big screen is simply too enticing to pass up.

Dazzingly shot in black and white by Russell Metty, the film stars Welles as veteran cop Hank Quinlan, who operates in a small town on the Mexican border. Quinlan is a man who never lets little technicalites (such as a suspect’s innocence) get in the way of a successful conviction. When a local building contracter is blown to pieces by a bomb placed in the boot of his car, Quinlan sets about finding the killer, but the investigation is compromised by the presence of Mexican cop, Mike Vargas (Charlton Heston – yes, really), who is celebrating his marriage to Susan (Janet Leigh), and who just happens to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Okay so, Heston (and also Marlene Dietrich) wear brownface to play Mexicans, which definitely wouldn’t fly in these more enlightened times, but there’s plenty here to enthrall, not least Welles’ audacious performance as the grotesque, racist police officer.

The film feels strangely ‘modern’ in its approach and it’s interesting to note that it was realised a full two years before Hitchcock’s Psycho would once again have Janet Leigh checking in to a terrifying motel. From the infamous twelve-minute tracking shot, depicting the planting of the bomb, to the final act where Vargas struggles to get Quinlan’s unwitting confession on tape, this is undoubtedly a B-movie masterpiece and one that stands up really well after all these years. It’s always sad to consider where Welles might have gone if Hollywood had been welcoming to his post-Kane projects, rather than repeatedly slamming the door in his face.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney

The Goldfinch

28/09/19

I somehow never got around to reading Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. I loved her debut, The Secret History, but was not so enamoured of The Little Friend. Eleven years after reading a book I admired but did not enjoy, of course I wasn’t going to be first in the bookshop queue when The Goldfinch was released. Still, I have retained enough interest in Tartt’s work to pop along to Cineworld and give director John Crowley’s movie version a few hours of my time.

I’m glad I do, because it’s an interesting tale. I’ve read a few quite harsh reviews, but I don’t agree with those. It’s not perfect: the pace is glacial at times, and adherence to point-of-view means that some of the most exciting sequences happen off-screen. Theo’s sense of detachment permeates the movie and sometimes leaves us feeling rather detached too. And the one-hundred-and-forty-nine minute running time tests my patience somewhat: half an hour could be cut from this without sacrificing much.

But still. The plot is all convolution, contrivance and coincidence, but I don’t mind a jot. It works. Theo Decker (Oakes Fegley/Ansel Elgort) is at an art gallery with his mum one morning, passing the time before a meeting with Theo’s middle-school principal: he’s been caught with cigarettes. They never make it to the meeting, because a bomb explodes, killing Theo’s mum (Hailey Wist). As the dust clears, Theo sees Welty (Robert Joy), an old man at the gallery with his young niece, Pippa (Aimee Laurence/Ashleigh Cummings). With his dying breath, Welty gives Theo a ring, tells him where to take it, and urges him to rescue a priceless painting lying in the rubble. Theo puts the picture in his bag and stumbles home.

He’s taken in by the Barbours; he’s friends with their son, Andy (Ryan Foust). They’re a wealthy family, kindly but cold. Mrs Barbour (Nicole Kidman) in particular is stiff and uptight, doing her duty but with little compassion. As time passes, however, she becomes fond of Theo, and he starts to feel like he belongs.

Until his wastrel father (Luke Wilson) shows up with his latest girlfriend, Xandra (Sarah Paulson), and Theo is hauled off to the Nevada desert, where he befriends a Russian goth called Boris (Finn Wolfhard/Aneurin Barnard). He’s still got the titular painting though: his talisman, his link to his mother.

And when the wheels come off again, he makes yet another new start…

Nicole Kidman is the best thing about this film: she’s luminous and utterly convincing at all times. But the acting is uniformly good, the young cast particularly impressive in these demanding roles.

The film looks ravishing. The desolation of the abandoned housing estate in Nevada is beautifully rendered, the antique repair shop appears marvellous and magical.

The ending, however, feels a little deflating, the action occurring out of Theo’s (and therefore our) sight. Despite this, I think The Goldfinch is a decent film, and I might just purchase the novel now.

3.5 stars

Susan Singfield

Ready or Not

 

27/09/19

Grace (Samara Weaving) has always wanted a family of her own. So her impending marriage to Alex (Mark O’ Brian) feels understandably like a cause for celebration – not just because she loves him madly, but because he’s a member of the prosperous Le Domas family, who have made their millions from a range of popular parlour games.

But even at the wedding, she picks up strange vibes from Alex’s parents, Tony (Henry Czerny) and Becky (Andie McDowell), and also from his decidedy odd brother, Daniel (Adam Brody).

On the evening of the wedding, after the official ceremony is over, Grace is invited into a secret room in the palatial family home to be properly ‘initiated’ into the Le Domas clan, to whom tradition is clearly all-important. Perhaps not suprisingly, in order to join their ranks, she must first play a parlour game. Grace is instructed to choose a card from a mysterious box; the one she picks has just three words written on it: Hide and Seek. She is told to conceal herself anywhere in the house and the others will attempt to find her… harmless fun, right?

Wrong.

Ready or Not is in that rare tradition of comedy horror films, comprising equal parts shudders and sniggers. It’s a genre that admittedly contains more misfires than successes but, happily, this particular contender definitely falls into the latter category. Cleverly scripted by Guy Busick and Ryan Murphy, the story galumphs along at such a frantic pace there’s never time to pause and consider how ridiculous it all is. It’s not long before poor Grace is being put through the mill – chased, stabbed, shot and bludgeoned. It’s certainly not the blissful wedding night she’s anticipated. Scenes of grisly body horror are skilfully interspersed with laugh-out-loud gags and there are enough twists and turns in the screenplay to keep us guessing right up to the very end.

Samara Weaving is surely destined to be major player in the cinema – the camera loves her and she makes Grace a determined, multi-faceted character; we’re rooting for her from the film’s opening moments. Admittedly, there isn’t a great deal of substance to this dark confection but, as a slice of pure entertainment, it’s deliciously horrible.

Those of a nervous disposition, take note: some scenes are not for the squeamish.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

It: Chapter Two

25/09/19

I’m late to the party on this, mainly because I feel the previous film was overrated and I’m not exactly eager to see any more. However, in the end, curiosity gets the better of me. I’ve always considered the source novel Stephen King’s best piece of writing. So here I am, watching It: Chapter Two, and moreover, viewing it on Cineworld’s ‘immersive’ concept Screen X. (Essentially, it’s a big screen with images that occasionally go around corners. Not so much immersive as meh).

The first thing to say is that director, Andy Muschietti, has been a lot more ambitious this time around, ramping up the terror content and aiming for a much more convoluted storyline. Sadly, he’s not reined himself in on the running time. Two hours and forty nine minutes, is, to my mind, about an hour longer than this material deserves. There are things here I like a lot and things that I really don’t. Too many scenes feel over-egged; starting off promisingly enough, only to be swamped by CGI-assisted ‘horrors,’ that diminish the fear quota simply by showing too much.

‘Less is more’ is a famous adage that Mr Muschietti clearly doesn’t subscribe to.

It’s twenty-seven years since the events of the first movie and in the little town of Derry, a horrible homophobic attack signals the return of killer clown, Pennywise. Mike Hanlon (Isaiah Mustafa), the only member of ‘The Losers’ to still live in his hometown, realises that all is not well, and summons the other members of his teenage club. All of them seem to be doing their level best to live down their old nickname. Bill (James McAvoy) is now a succesful author and scriptwriter, currently shooting a film with none other than Peter Bogdanovich. Ben (Jay Ryan) is a hyper-successful architect, Richie (Bill Vader) a well-known stand up comedian and Eddie (James Ransome), an accident risk assessor. Beverly (Jessica Chastaine) has the misfortune to be suffering through an abusive relationship, but still appears to be surrounded by the trappings of great wealth. And as for Stanley (Andy Bean)… well, those familiar with the novel will know what to expect on that score and I won’t spoil it for the others.

Anyway, the old team reunites back in Derry, to honour the promise they made twenty-seven years ago…

Incidentally, the film continually cuts back and forth between present day and the characters’ teenage years and I have to say that the matching of young actors to adult ones is superlatively done. If only the film’s internal logic had been approached with such care. There are things here that simply don’t add up, which makes for frustrating viewing. This is a curious rag bag of a film. There’s plenty to enjoy but every time I start to settle into something close to pleasure an incongruous development steps out of the woodwork to smack me in the face. Also, there are fat-shaming comments; outmoded ideas of what a psychiatric institution looks like and the exoticisation of Native Americans. Not all of King’s tropes have aged too well.

Watch out for a neat cameo from Stephen King, visual references to The Shining and a direct quote from John Carpenter’s The Thing, amongst others. And be prepared for a long sitting. Somewhere in this labyrinthine film, thare’s a cracking little horror movie screaming to get out.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney

 

Downton Abbey

23/09/19

Oh dear. Admittedly, I wasn’t expecting to like this film, but neither was I expecting to despise it quite so much. I hadn’t realised I could feel simultaneously bored and irritated,  that something could rile me so much while sending me to sleep.

I guess I’m not the target audience: I’ve never watched a single episode of the television series. But I enjoyed Gosford Park, the Julian Fellowes-penned movie that laid the foundations for the whole Downton edifice, and no one can deny this is a stellar cast. So, despite the dreadful trailer, I decided I’d give it a go.

I wish I hadn’t. This is a dreadful film. It’s like an interminable Christmas TV special, but I’m not lying on a sofa full of festive food and wine. I’m sitting in the cinema sipping water, wishing I were somewhere else.

Perhaps fans of the series will experience this differently; they’re already invested in the characters and understand their histories. For an outsider, the cast list is bewilderingly vast, the development sketchy. The plot revolves around a royal visit, which sends the household – both upstairs and downstairs – into a tailspin.

It’s not a bad premise, but it’s so artlessly drawn. The servants, it seems, are angry that the king and queen are bringing their own staff. They’re angry that they’re not allowed to toil and strive in ‘their own house’ (it’s NOT their house); furious that they’re to be prevented from skivvying for a few days. Quite aside from the obvious fact that the royal retinue cannot be a surprise to them – they work for the landed gentry; they know how these things work – it’s hard to believe that they wouldn’t be relieved to have the chance to rest up for a while, to peek at the monarchs while others do the donkey work. It’s comforting, I’m sure, for Baron Fellowes to believe the hot-polloi love nothing more than serving their masters. Whether it’s true or not is another matter completely.

The film purports to address this issue, by the way, as ‘revolutionary’ kitchen maid Daisy (Sophie McShera) rails against the need to pander to royalty. Still, she feels the imagined slight as deeply as anyone, and – apart from a few grumblings – fails to upset any apple carts. Likewise, formidable matriarch Violet Crawley (Maggie Smith)’s rousing speech about the changing times fails to address any issues of unfair privilege, coming down in favour of the status quo. Of course, this is absolutely in keeping with her character, but its placing in the film (at the end, after much soul-searching, as the answer to the family’s worries) means that her avowal that the building will be integral to the family – no matter what social changes happen outside – seems like an authorial voice, a pronouncement that landowners are somehow deeply connected – and thus entitled – to their wealth.

Grr.

And – apart from the brief strand about the illegality of homosexuality back in the day – it’s a boring story too.

1 star

Susan Singfield