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.

 

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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.

 

Review: Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Hail to the hero

Hail to the hero

 

Directed by Ang Lee

Certificate 15

Starring Joe Alwyn, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Vin Diesel, Steve Martin

Released on 10th February 2017

 

Cast your mind back to that scene from Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) when the uniformed soldier has a drink at the bar.  He angrily refuses to talk about serving in Vietnam.  His spirit lives on in the latest from director Ang Lee, Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk, his trauma now re-lived by the Billy of the title and his comrades in arms, known as the Bravo Boys, who served in Iraq.  But, this being an Ang Lee film, it poses a bigger cinematic challenge.

Based on the best seller of the same name, the story is told through the eyes of young private Billy Lynn, an Iraq war hero who returns home with the members of his squad for a victory tour.  He spends time with his family, especially his sister to whom he’s particularly close but, as the culmination of the tour approaches, we come to understand what happened to the squad.  It’s all shown through Billy’s memories, flashbacks and reactions to what’s happening around him, against the gaudy background of the Thanksgiving ball game.

Lee has chosen this story to throw down a gauntlet to the entire movie industry – makers, distributors and cinemas themselves – because he’s made a film that, strictly speaking, cannot be shown in the way he wants it to be.  Not yet, anyway.  Bear with me while I get techy for a moment.  The industry standard for shooting films is 20 frames a second – nothing, according to Lee himself, with quality or creativity but simply because it’s the cheapest.  This film is shot in 60 frames per second and 3-D and the director knows that there isn’t a cinema anywhere equipped to show it in that format.  The best available is 30 frames per second 3-D.

All of which doesn’t mean much on the page, but when even seeing the best available rocks you back in your seat.  It’s astonishingly good, way beyond your average and often superfluous 3-D, making the audience feel they’re participating in every scene, every frame, be it at the ball game, at the family dinner table or under a hail of bullets in Iraq.  Lee has said publicly that he wanted to make a film that was completely immersive, taking you inside the mind of the characters.  And it does exactly that.

In fact, it’s such a startling achievement, one that holds your fascination throughout the film so much that it almost becomes a distraction.  The film’s lukewarm reception from American critics and film-goers has nothing to do with pushing technical boundaries, but is more of a reflection with current politics and attitudes towards both war and the military.  It wears its anti-war message loud and proud on its sleeve and just about everywhere else, showing the heroism of the soldiers – Billy, especially, who is just the sort of person you’d want in your corner when the chips are down – and its lasting after-effects.  But what is most striking is how he and the rest of the boys are expected to be on parade against a backdrop that, compared to what they’ve been through, is just pure fluff.  Not only does it resurrect some of their worst memories, it trivializes it.

That may not be such an issue for British audiences, but the film does let itself down in its storytelling.  Using such an immersive technique means everything on screen has to be authentic, but there’s a scene at the ball game which is transparently fake.  The half time act is Destiny’s Child – this is 2004 – and, at one point, we’re behind Beyonce as she waits in the wings to go on.  Except that we never see her face, just the back of her head, and it clearly isn’t her.  It jars.  Badly.

Some of the characters don’t fit with the style either, as some of them are designed to be caricatures or the product of Billy’s fantasies.  The Bravo Boys themselves are credible enough, but cheerleader Faison (Makenzie Leigh), who attracts his attention, is beautiful, feisty and far too perfect for words.  Steve Martin’s businessman is as slippery as an eel, an amalgamation of other wheeler-dealers we’ve seen in other movies.

The weight of the film rests on the young shoulders of British actor Joe Alwyn in his film debut.  He was still at drama school when he was cast and for a first timer he’s impressive, handling his Texan accent with ease.  He’s hardly off the screen and the fact that he’s an unknown face is a definite advantage as you’re even more likely to believe in his performance.

I fear this may end up being tucked away to gather dust because, technically, it’s ahead of its time.  With any luck, cinemas and film goers will, once again, catch up with Lee’s vision so that it can be shown as he intended some time in the future.  For now, if you can get to see it in 3-D, then do: you’ll at least get a very strong flavour of what he’s created.  But if you can’t, leave it for the time being.  Because you won’t see the film that it really is.

 

Verdict:                     3

 

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk is released in selected cinemas on Friday, 10 February and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 9 February.

Review: Loving

Devoted couple ......

Devoted couple ……

 

Director Jeff Nichols

Certificate 12A

Starring Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Michael Shannon, Will Dalton, Sharon Blackwood

Released 3rd February 2017

 

Seeing films well in advance of their release is just part and parcel of being a film critic.  In the case of Jeff Nichols’ Loving, I saw it back in November last year – just hours after watching Nate Parker’s Birth Of A Nation.  Aside from their obvious similarities, they made a thought-provoking double bill, especially when it came to the treatment of their subjects.

Nichols has left behind his usual fictional territory to bring us the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, a multi-racial couple who, in 1958, drove out of their home state of Virginia and got married in Washington DC.  Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924 meant they had no option.  On their return, they were arrested, imprisoned, but also told they could avoid more jail time by staying out of the state for the next 25 years.  Back in Washington, their case was taken up by a civil rights lawyer and it went all the way to the Supreme Court.  They delivered their verdict in 1967.

This isn’t the first time that the Lovings have been committed to film.  The 2011 documentary, The Loving Story, has provided Nichols with much of his source material – some of its footage makes an appearance in the film – so his film is already hallmarked with accuracy and authenticity.  And it goes without saying that their surname was something of a gift, getting to the heart of this story of defeating discrimination.  Yet the tone is quiet, dignified and modest.  There’s only limited confrontation, no physical battle and everything is seen through the eyes of the couple themselves.

Richard (Joel Edgerton), is a bricklayer who loves to tinker with cars and whose use of words is nothing short of spartan.  Yet his taciturn nature means he also gets to the heart of any matter in just a few words.  Why should they be allowed to marry?  “We ain’t hurting nobody,” is his reply.  Neither he nor Mildred are going to the Supreme Court hearing, so what message should his lawyer take with him?  “Tell the judge I love my wife.” For him it’s that simple.  Mildred isn’t quite so reticent and, in her quiet way, is the bolder of the two.  It’s a letter from her that starts the legal ball rolling and she’s more willing than Richard to talk to the press – but only just.  But she’s also the more afraid of the two.

Edgerton and Negga are both outstanding, with Negga receiving a Best Actress Oscar nomination.  Edgerton has a remarkable knack for playing inarticulate men – his role in Nichols’ Midnight Special is on similar lines – but he’s not a man without feelings or emotions.  And Negga’s Mildred is wide eyed, vulnerable at times, but with nerves of steel underneath that slight frame.  But at the heart of their story is their complete devotion to each other.  In her last interview, Mildred’s description of her husband was profoundly moving in its simplicity.  “He took care of me.”  They were just another couple, who loved each other, wanted to be together and raise a family.  Except, for the first nine years of their marriage, it was against the law.

No barnstorming, no big speeches – this isn’t the courtroom drama you might expect.  And that’s because Nichols has allowed the characters to dictate the tone of the film.  Their ordinariness and simplicity made them special and their story isn’t ordinary, but inspirational and deeply moving.

I wrote this review in 2016 and felt at the time that Loving could easily make my top ten of 2017.  I haven’t changed my mind.

 

Verdict:                     4.5

 

Loving is released on Friday, 3 February 2017 and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 2 February 2017.

Review: Denial

Pantomime villain .......

Pantomime villain …….

 

Director Mick Jackson

Certificate 12A

Starring Rachel Weisz, Timothy Spall, Tom Wilkinson, Andrew Scott

Released 27th January 2017

 

These are the days of “alternative facts” – we’ve moved on from “post truth” and “fake news” in a matter of weeks.  And, while the distributors of Denial may have been savvy enough to time the film’s release to coincide with Holocaust Memorial Day, they could never have envisaged it would have been so topical, so in tune with one of our current biggest concerns.

Based on Deborah Lipstadt’s book History On Trial: My Day In Court With A Holocaust Denier, the film depicts her battle for historical truth against historian David Irving.  He sued her for libel when she declared him a Holocaust denier and the result was a high profile court case that hit the headlines.  And, because it went through the English courts, it was up to her and her legal team to prove that the Holocaust actually occurred.

All of which makes it a film about truth, how it can be manipulated and twisted to fit a certain point of view.  And about the difference between opinion and fact and how the two are often interpreted as one and the same thing or, at the very least, the lines between them substantially blurred.

So when there’s such an important and relevant message at its heart, it’s a genuine disappointment that the film itself falls short of its subject.  Admittedly, court cases come with inevitable built-in staginess, but here the entire movie feels stage bound, with some of the scenes outside the trial feeling like bolt-ons.  It’s as if it’s been adapted from a play rather than a book: perhaps a stage play would have been a better – and more successful – idea.

Some of the performances are better suited to the theatre as well, looking overblown in front of the searching camera.  Timothy Spall, who plays Irving, is the main culprit.  I have a lot of time for Spall, one of our finest character actors, but in recent years he’s developed two default settings.  Brilliant, such as in Mr Turner, and hammy, as he is here.  As he peers menacingly from behind his curtains, or makes ingratiating gestures towards the trial judge, all he lacks is a moustache to twirl and a booing and hissing audience.  Thankfully, Tom Wilkinson’s barrister fares much better.  Outwardly apparently out of touch and more interested in the quality of his red wine, once he gets Irving in the witness box, he shoots him down in flames and has a superbly simple way of putting his adversary on the back foot.  He never, ever looks him in the eye.

The film also suffers from the way it treats its lead character, Lipstadt herself (Rachel Weisz). It may be truthful to the book, but dramatically it doesn’t work.  She and her legal team are constantly at loggerheads: she wants to testify, they won’t let her.  So we’re watching her, in effect, being shut down and the narrative being weakened as a result.  It’s rather a waste of Weisz’s committed performance.

Denial is sincere, determined that its important story should be heard and diligently researched – the dialogue during the trial was taken verbatim from court transcripts.  It certainly lives up to its own principles, but in being so truthful it manages to leave the film wanting when it comes to real drama or intensity.  And the irony is that the real story is more interesting than the film.

 

Verdict:                       2.5

 

Denial was released in cinemas on Friday, 27th January and reviewed on Talking Pictures on Thursday, 26 January.