Gemma Arterton – one of Their Finest on Talking Pictures

After a break for some seasonal chocolate, Talking Pictures is back this week with another stellar line-up.

British wartime drama, Their Finest, is in the spotlight, with its star, Gemma Arterton, answering the questions in The Big Interview.  Also out this week is modern day vampire story, The Transfiguration, and the film with the longest title – so far – this year.  The Happiest Day In The Life Of Olli Maki.

This week’s DVDs are based on true stories.  Tom Hanks takes the title role in Clint Eastwood’s Sully while Nate Parker writes, direct and stars in The Birth Of A Nation.

Plus there’s the new top five at the British box office and the latest movie news headlines.  All in 20 minutes!

Review: Fast And Furious 8

Look who’s back!

 

Directed by F Gary Gray

Certificate 12A

Starring Dwayne Johnson, Vin Diesel, Jason Statham, Charlize Theron, Michelle Rodriguez, Helen Mirren, Scott Eastwood.

Released on 12th April 2017

 

Hey, we all know what to expect from the Fast And Furious franchise – and it’s not plot or dialogue – but have we really reached number eight?  And is there any juice left in the tank.  Its latest director, F Gary Gray, seems hell bent on proving there is – so he’s not just thrown the kitchen sink at it, but just about anything else to hand, including a nuclear sub.

You might have read some recent media coverage about Dwayne Johnson and Vin Diesel having some sort of on-going feud.  I’m not going to speculate as to how true that is, but it makes a neat bit of publicity for this instalment, which sees Dom (Diesel) breaking away from his “family” and going rogue, under the influence of international terrorist Cypher (an ice blooded Charlize Theron).  And that means it’s down to the rest of the crew to bring him back to the fold, at any cost.

They have a bit of help as well. Jason Statham is back as Deckard, this time on the right side of the prison bars, and there’s new arrival Scott Eastwood who goes by the name of Little Nobody – Kurt Russell is Mr Nobody. Eastwood looks to be here to stay as he’s clearly intended as the replacement for the much missed Paul Walker, whose character Brian started out as a cop and proved to be more than a little adept at what the gang gets up to.  The set-up is the same for Eastwood, so not only have they used much the same storyline as before, they’ve picked an actor who isn’t exactly dissimilar to his predecessor.

It all gets off to a colourful start in Havana, with a race between Dom and local gangster Santos (Don Omar).  There is, of course, no doubting the outcome, it’s just a question of how the winner goes about crossing the finishing line first.  It’s as spectacular as you would expect – the usual car carnage – but that’s just the start.  Because there’s car chase heaped upon car chase, enough wreckage to keep the whole car insurance industry in business for years, explosions and plenty of bloodless violence.  There’s only one moment when somebody bites the dust that shows any sign of blood – and because of the nature of their particular death it has to.  Otherwise, it’s as sanitised as usual, both in terms of the violence and the language.

There was a point in the film where I was getting perilously close to thinking “not ANOTHER car chase!” and at that moment the antidote arrived.  It was Jason Statham, playing the hard man and winding up Dwayne Johnson like nobody’s business, but also giving The Rock a serious run for his money in the comedy stakes.  We all saw in Spy that he had comedy chops, but there he was sending up himself.  Here he’s just required to be funny – and he’s terrific.  His finest hour is decking at least 30-odd adversaries one handed: in the other hand is a baby carrier containing one insufferably cute gurgling tot.  Not that Johnson doesn’t show yet again that he has a neat line in comedy as well, only he does it earlier on.  Especially when he’s been coaching his teenage daughter’s soccer team – and has also taught them a haka, which scares the beejesus out of the opposition!

It’s preposterous.  It’s ridiculous.  And it’s massive slice of entertainment.  One that, thankfully, doesn’t take itself too seriously.  It daren’t.  It would look too silly for words.  You don’t watch a film like this for the acting, although Theron is good as the icy villain.  You can only assume that Helen Mirren isn’t taking herself seriously either as Mama Stath: she clearly wasted her money at the Dick Van Dyke School of Cockney Elocution.  And she only has a couple of scenes, so it’s not much more than a cameo.

It doesn’t matter too much if you’re not au fait with the rest of the series.  The moments that hark back to other episodes are so loudly telegraphed that they’re impossible to miss.  And it all goes to show that there’s plenty of juice left in the Fast and Furious tank.  It doesn’t look like running out of Diesel either.

 

Verdict:                     3.5

 

Fast And Furious 8 (USA title: The Fate Of The Furious) is out now.

 

Review: Kong, Skull Island

Looks familiar?

Looks familiar?

 

Directed by Jordan Vogt-Roberts

Certificate 12A

Starring Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L Jackson, John C Reilly, John Goodman and Toby Kebbell

Released on 10th March 2017

 

If the picture above looks familiar, then it should do.  It’s exactly what Jordan Vogt-Roberts had in mind in Kong:Skull Island and it’s just the first of many images that originally saw the light of day elsewhere.

Over the years, everybody’s favourite giant ape has moved around in time.  This time he’s pitched up in the 1970s as the Vietnam War draws to a close on the mainland.  An eccentric scientist believes he’s located the last unexplored island on Earth, containing secrets crucial to the human race and his expedition is approved.  So along with tracker, ex-army type Tom Hiddleston, and a military escort with Samuel L Jackson in charge, off he goes.  Except that the island in question is Skull Island, where Kong is in residence.

If you’re a fan of Kong and his previous incarnations, you’ll be looking for those familiar footprints.  Like his relationship with the girl.  He doesn’t abduct photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), but he does save her life.  Briefly.  And there’s definitely a connection between her and the ape.  Briefly.  It’s all part of Kong being sympathetic, protective of his territory, even if his methods seem brutal.  And there’s the obligatory run-in with aircraft.  On this tropical island, there’s no Empire State Building for him to climb, so he’s surrounded by a swarm of helicopters – and he swats them away without a second thought.

Director Vogt-Roberts picked up the characteristics of the Kong movies, presumably to keep the fans happy, but what won’t endear the film to them is that they very much take second place.  The ape’s relationship with Mason is under-developed, as is Kong’s more benevolent side in the general.  Instead of going deeper into his character, he immerses himself in a retro vibe, full of music and artefacts from the 70s, and constant references to other films.  There’s no Ride Of The Valkyrie to go with the helicopters in flight, but Deep Purple’s Paranoid is an acceptable second best.  There’s shades of M*A*S*H in the first view of the military with its tannoy announcements, a touch of Miss Saigon with Kong and the choppers silhouetted against the sunset.  And Predator rears its head as the expedition’s enemies pick them off one by one.  Sometimes we see it happen, others we just see spatters of blood.

Which makes for an adventure yarn in an exotic setting, but with limitations.  Kong is a fine creation, with his glowing red eyes, but the other monsters – christened Skull Crawlers by John C Reilly – are well below par and, worse still, bear a striking resemblance to the monsters in The Great Wall.  That’s no compliment.  And it’s not a film that demands much on the acting front, so Hiddleston and Larson don’t have much to do, except look good and look frightened on demand.  The likes of Samuel L as a crazy eyed senior soldier and John C Reilly as the film’s equivalent of Treasure Island’s Ben Gunn, stranded on the island since World War II, have much more fun, which rubs off on their performances.  Reilly’s especially.

Vogt-Roberts likes his slo-mo, panoramic shots and misty settings, so that monsters can emerge from apparently nowhere and cause havoc.  You get the distinct impression that he’s enjoying his move from TV to the big screen and the ending leaves the door just about open enough for a sequel.  He may get the chance to go it all over again.  But if he does, he’ll need to give the story and characters a lot more depth than here.  And that applies especially to Kong himself.

 

Verdict:                       3.5

 

Kong:Skull Island is released in cinemas on Friday, 10 March and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 9 March.

 

Review: Logan

The end of the road?

The end of the road?

 

Directed by James Mangold

Certificate 15

Starring Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant, Dafne Keen, Richard E Grant

Released on 1st March 2017

 

The X Men franchise has never really grabbed me.  Perhaps I just haven’t seen enough of the series to get into it, but those I have seen just made me shrug my shoulders.  OK, but nothing special.  Logan, though, is different.  It’s nothing to do with my affinity with Hugh Jackman because we share the same birthday.  We genuinely do, by the way!  If there’s a reason, it’s because it charts a different course from the other nine – yes, this really is number ten! – and it works.  Seriously well.

Wolverine, aka Logan’s (Jackman) final outing finds him in New Mexico in 2029, looking after an increasingly ailing Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart) while his own powers are on the way out.  He knows his body is falling apart, knows it’s nothing to do with age and believes he’s one of the only mutants left on the planet.  He finds himself looking after a young, almost silent girl, Laura (Dafne Keen) who turns out to be something of a chip off the old blade.  Which means that the possibility of a new generation of mutants could be a possibility after all.

In theory, it’s a comic book movie – but is it really?  OK, it’s based on comic book stories, but it certainly doesn’t feel like one.  Fantasy action isn’t on offer here: instead, what we get is gruesome, bloody, grim and unapologetic.  Decapitation comes as standard.  It’s a meaty adventure yarn with a hero at the centre whose first word is an f-bomb and who’s less than loveable on the surface – but his heart, though well concealed, is still most definitely in the right place.  The closest the film gets to the original comic books is the ones that we actually see in the movie.

James Mangold, who directs the film, makes his vision clear early on.  For him, Logan is an old fashioned western hero, the strong, nearly silent type, protecting the vulnerable, aka women and children.  Clips from classic western, Shane, with Alan Ladd as the mysterious stranger who protects a family under threat, spell it out for us.  Mangold’s camera lingers on the final scene from the film, when Shane rides off into the sunset, probably mortally wounded, with a tearful Brandon De Wilde calling after him to come back.  Now, Logan doesn’t exactly ride off into the sunset, but he most certainly has a final showdown, this time against X-24, a new and especially ruthless version of himself.  He’s also played by Jackman, but this time with shorter hair and those familiar mutton chops, all of which makes him look more like Sabretooth, his adversary from X Men Origins:Wolverine.

Knowing his time is limited, Logan is darker and more brooding than we’ve seen him before. But, regardless of his future, he has a chance for redemption in the shape of his young charge, Laura, a ferocious child who, for the majority of the film, lets her mini mutant manicure do her talking with utter savagery.  She’s merciless, although her lack of awareness of the ways of the ordinary world does create some amusement.  In her first major film role, Keen just goes for it and lets rip in spectacular fashion.

But, despite all the darkness and the gore, Logan has a beating heart and it belongs to the titular mutant himself.  There are some genuinely moving moments, some involving Patrick Stewart’s ailing Xavier and others involving the new generation of mutants.  And there’s the bond that develops between Laura and Logan so that, even though the film is meant to mark the end of an era, the door is left open for the youngsters to pick up the torch and carry it forwards.

Don’t go expecting a typical X Men movie because you won’t get one.  But you will get a film that doesn’t just hit the emotional spot but seems to be remarkably in tune with all the uncertainties in today’s world.  Ultimately, it’s Wolverine’s last stand.  And he stands tall.

 

Verdict:                     4

 

Logan is released in cinemas on Wednesday, 1 March and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 2 March.

 

Review: Shut In

This isn't going to end well ....

This isn’t going to end well ….

 

Directed by Farren Blackburn

Certificate 15

Starring Naomi Watts, Charlie Heaton, Oliver Platt, Jacob Tremblay

Released on 24th February 2017

 

Shut In isn’t getting a cinema release, it’s going straight to PVOD – Premium VOD.  So, given the label, you’d be entitled to think that you’re getting something extra special.  You’re not.

In fact, the film should be shut in somewhere.  Here’s just one line to give you an idea of just how bad it is.  “Please just put the axe down and we can talk about this.”

Frankly, I’d rather not talk about it and wish that somebody had taken an axe to the project long before it got the green light.  However, if you really want to know more, it centres on therapist Mary (Naomi Watts), who lives in an idyllic house in the Maine countryside.  Her husband died in a car accident a while ago and she’s now carer to her son who was paralysed and suffered brain damage in the same incident.  One of her patients is a little deaf boy (Jacob Tremblay) who looks angelic but has an aggressive streak.  After what looks like being his last visit to her, he goes missing and an extensive search starts for him as a storm rumbles in the distance.  But Mary’s hearing strange noises in the house and can’t differentiate between dreams and reality.  Could he be hiding in her house?

This aims to be a suspense thriller, but it’s precious short on anything that’s going to jangle your nerves.  It probably wouldn’t know where to find them in the first place.  And it’s very much by numbers.  Remote house.  Tick.  Vulnerable woman on her own.  Tick.  Brewing storm.  Tick.  Nightmares.  Tick.  Somebody coming to help who you know is going to come to a sticky end.  Tick.  Tick, tick, tick.  Just about every trope of the genre is there, but none of them are done anything like well enough to create even the mildest of expectations, let alone anything suspenseful.

After winning hearts and minds with his excellent turn in Room, everybody wondered what the obviously talented and very endearing Jacob Tremblay would do next.  The small horror, Before I Wake, came and went last year, he’s done a TV movie and a TV series and now there’s this.  But we do know that he’s going to be in The Predator, so let’s keep our eye on that prize – because this isn’t worth a second thought.

It’s a complete waste of the cast.  Watts and Tremblay do what they can with what they’re given, and that’s not a great deal, while Oliver Platt takes the money and runs by doing his usual kindly doctor shtick, but this time via Skype.

I won’t spend any more time on it.  And neither should you.

 

Verdict:           1

 

Shut In is released on PVOD on Friday, 24th February – but there’s no end of far better things to watch.

Review: Fences

They look happy ......

They look happy ……

 

Directed by Denzel Washington

Certificate 12A

Starring Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Mykelti Williamson, Jovan Adepo

Released on 17th February 2017

 

Fences is based on the original play of the same name by August Wilson, first produced in 1983 and set in the 1950s.  Wilson also wrote the screenplay for this film version film, based on his original, while its director/leading man and leading lady, Denzel Washington and Viola Davis, both appeared in the play’s Broadway revival in 2010, playing the same roles.

Washington plays Troy, in his youth a promising baseball player but, because of the colour bar in major league baseball, he could never progress beyond the Negro League.  Now a bin man, he’s married to the loyal and loving Rose (Davis).  They have two sons and he a taste for gin and a mouth like an express train.  But underneath the non-stop talking is a bitter man who resents what life did to him and whose anger eventually alienates him from his own family.

Let’s get the stage background out of the way.  Basing a film on a play can have its downsides: all too frequently, the screen version looks constrained and stage bound by the original.  Yet sometimes it can be an advantage if intensity is the goal, which is pretty much what happens here.  You can see the stage sets in your mind’s eye – the backyard is the perfect example – and the majority of the action takes place either there or in the house.  Limiting the locations in that way certainly helps intensify the many and deep emotions on display.  There is a downside, though.   From time to time, the screenplay sounds as if it’s been written for the stage as well, and the acting follows the same style.  There’s a little bit too much declaiming, some reactions are a touch too big for the screen.  But, thankfully, this doesn’t happen enough for it to become a problem – because there is a huge amount to enjoy and appreciate in this film.

This is Washington’s third feature film as a director and easily his most successful to date, with four Oscar nominations and Viola Davis gathering a mighty collection of Best Supporting Actress trophies.  Let’s not get into the “what’s the difference between a supporting and leading role?” debate, even though this is one of those instances where her part is clearly the female lead.

The story brings Arthur Miller to mind – the father with the critical character flaw, his estranged relationships with his sons, the devoted and strong wife who has to carry everything on her shoulders.  Wilson, however, concentrates on the African American community, documenting the barriers placed in their way in the 50s.  He has another thing in common with Miller, and that’s the deeply emotional, often distressing, nature of the narrative.  Here, it’s a father physically fighting his youngest son, while Troy’s brother, Gabriel (an impressive Mykelti Williamson) is a veteran of World War II with a metal plate in his head that has severely affected him as a person.

It’s a very wordy piece – there’s little in the way of physical action, apart from the fight between father and son – which makes it not just an actor’s piece, but more of an acting masterclass, especially from Davis and Washington, who are both excellent.  Davis’s Rose is under no illusions about her husband, but it doesn’t stop her loving him – even when she discovers a shocking truth that she never suspected and which blows their whole relationship apart.  Washington’s Troy is so fond of the sound of his own voice that you wonder how he finds the time to do anything but talk, but he does.  Some of it is off screen and some is to do with the fences of the title, surrounding the house and yard and constructed to protect the family, him in particular, from death.

A strong, thought-provoking film with stellar performances, you can’t help but wonder about its appeal at the box office.  If it hadn’t attracted so much attention this awards season – and, indeed justified it, in Davis’s case – would it be getting substantial distribution in the UK?  Would it have made in excess of $32 million in the States?  Possibly not, because on the face of it, Fences is an unlikely box office hit, but it’s also a reassuring one, showing there’s rooms for films like this alongside all the re-boots, superheroes, animation and general blockbusters.  And that’s something of a relief.

 

Verdict:                     4

 

Fences is currently in selected cinemas and is released nationwide on Friday, 17 February 2017.  It’s reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 16 February 2017.

 

Review: Hidden Figures

Some are more equal than others …..

 

Directed by Theodore Melfi

Certificate 12A

Starring Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Kirsten Dunst

Released on 17th February 2017

 

On paper, the story of three women mathematicians who played key roles in getting the first American into space doesn’t sound like much.  But that’s just half the story.  Because this is 1961, the setting is Virginia and, as we saw in Loving, a segregated state at the time.  That meant all manner of humiliating restrictions for African Americans, including separate washrooms, water fountains and seats on the bus.

Hidden Figures portrays three black women blazing a trail both for themselves and for all the women, both white and of colour, that came after them.  Being female made things difficult enough in the workplace, where they were regarded as subordinates and their abilities overlooked.  Being black quadrupled their disadvantage, so much so that when they walked in the room, there was silence, with all eyes trained on them.  And not friendly ones either.  Because just about everybody else in that room was a man – in NASA in the regulation white shirt and dark tie – and women were, at best, taking notes at the back of the room.  Playing an active part in a meeting was unheard of.

The hidden figures of the title are all based on real women: Katherine Johnson (Taraji P Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monae), three friends who all worked for NASA.  Katherine is a maths genius, who was the first black woman to graduate from her university, Dorothy the temporary supervisor of the black ‘computers’, or maths specialists – all black, all women and who work in a pool in a separate building from the whites – and Mary is another member of the pool, who decides she wants to be an engineer.  They all have their struggles, all have responsibilities at home and all have to overcome sexual and racial prejudice to achieve their personal goals.

It’s a story which appeals to any group which has experienced prejudice, the proverbial glass ceiling or any other form of inequality.  One that gives us three powerful examples of how to overcome those barriers through determination and ability.  One that tells its story with intelligence, understanding without shouting the messages too loudly.  And one that inspires.

It’s also a feelgood film which, given its subject matter, comes as something as a surprise.  And, at times, it’s just a bit too feelgood.  But that doesn’t prevent you leaving the cinema with a smile of satisfaction on your face, knowing that you’ve watched something good, something that ticked all the boxes.  Without overdoing the maths analogy too much, the Hidden Figures equation goes something like this: inspirational story + intelligent script + strong acting = a winner!  Katherine would make mincemeat of my maths ….

It genuinely has the lot, from its ensemble cast to a storyline with tension, confrontation, success, romance, humour and, oh yes, some maths as well.  Although it doesn’t matter very much if that’s not your strong point.  In the effective ensemble cast, Octavia Spencer quietly stands out as Dorothy, who masters Café Fortran from a library book and goes on to be the first black woman supervisor at NASA.  She’s a whizz when it comes to repairing cars, as well as having a natural gift for computers (both the machines and the people) and a quiet way of asserting herself.  When yet another conversation with her boss, Mrs Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst) ends in her not being considered for the role of supervisor – again – Dunst assures Dorothy that she has nothing against her.  What she’s saying is clear: she doesn’t just mean Dorothy, but black people.  And what Dorothy is saying is equally clear when she inoffensively responds “I’m sure you don’t think you do.”  It resonates.

It comes complete with set pieces, such as Katherine showing a meeting room full of men how to calculate the go/no-go for John Glenn’s (Glen Powell) landing site – and getting Glenn’s complete backing.  The morning when she goes to get a coffee from the communal pot and finds she’s been allocated another one marked ‘colored’.  When she comes back from the half mile trek to the only restroom for black women on the site and her boss, Harrison (Kevin Costner), wants to know why she keeps disappearing for so long.  Soaking wet, she loses her rag and explains at the top of her voice – which leads to the next scene, when he demolishes the sign for the “colored ladies’ washroom” so that the problem doesn’t exist.  He’s senior enough, so he can do that.

But the real reason why this so fascinating is that, until now, it’s a story that’s never been heard.  At the end, we see what the real trio looked like and what they went on to do, both professionally and personally.  Taraji P Henson actually met the real Katherine, who saw the finished film, gave her approval to Henson’s portrayal of her and then wondered why anybody would want to make a film about her story.  Says a lot about her and we see some of that self-effacing attitude at the start of the film.  That the three women outwardly seem to accept their place, both as women and black people.  Inside, however, it’s a very different matter – and that’s what comes to the fore.

 

Verdict:                     4

 

Hidden Figures is released in cinemas on Friday, 17 February and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 16 February.