Sunday, 22 April 2018

Tomb Raider by Robertson-Dworet et al

Although I admire Angelina Jolie, the previous Lara Croft movies were a complete farrago (The Oxford English Dictionary defines a farrago as a "confused mixture" — perfect, eh?). 

But when I heard that a rebooted franchise was on its way with Alicia Vikander in the title role, I was frankly a little excited.

Vikander is a wonderful actress. I first saw her, with Mads Mikkelsen, in the splendid A Royal Affair and she was recently a highlight of The Man from UNCLE. And it turns out she's terrific in the new Tomb Raider, certainly the finest thing about the whole movie.

The film is directed by the Norwegian Roar Uthaug, a really cool name but not as cool as Geneva Roberston-Dworet, who co-wrote the first draft of the script with Evan Daugherty (Snow White and the Huntsman). She also co-wrote the final draft with Alistair Siddon.

(In the wacky world of screenplay credits "co-wrote" doesn't necessarily mean any of these people ever actually met...)

The movie begins cannily with Lara as an underdog. She takes a licking in the boxing ring and then we see her in her crappy job as a Deliveroo rider (okay, it's not called Deliveroo, but we all know what they're getting at).

The film's best sequence is probably one that takes place in this section — a bicycle chase with Lara as the fox pursued by a pack of other cycle couriers as the hounds, in an attempt for her to win a much needed cash prize.

There's another good action scene when Lara is at the docks in Hong Kong and some street punks rip off her rucksack. Naturally Lara isn't about to stand for that... 

And another particularly fine one involving rapids, a waterfall, and the rusting fuselage of a Japanese World War 2 bomber. Lara saves herself from plunging over the waterfall by clambering onto the remains of the bomber... and it immediately begins to fall apart. ("Really?" says our disgusted heroine.)

Now, you might notice something about all of these action scenes... They're all pretty down to earth. They are not hugely fantastical far-fetched special effects extravaganzas. Those come in the tomb raiding section of the picture, which is for my money absolutely the worst bit of it.

I was also peeved about how the production design ruined a plot point. Lara receives a clue which involves checking out the "first letter" on her father's tomb. The way the tomb has been built, the carving on it reads "In the memory of Lord Richard Croft" — so the intended first letter, the ""R" in Richard, is actually the 18th...

But, like I said, Vikander is the best thing here. Gamine, gutsy and gorgeous, she is endlessly watchable.

In contrast, a distinguished supporting cast seem oddly like underpowered clones of themselves — I wasn’t even sure that Dominic West was Dominic West or that Walton Goggins was Walton Goggins. I thought they were look-alikes. 

However, there is a good bit where Goggins, as the ruthless, murderous bad-guy-in-chief Vogel, reveals that he really just wants to get home to his wife and kids. (The photo of them on his desk is a particularly nice touch.)

Similarly the sequence where — spoiler alert — Lara discovers her dad (West) is still alive takes the movie out of the action rut briefly, thank god, and provides the opportunity for a bit of human drama. But that's underpowered, too. And at the end the filmmakers commit this terrible sin of killing the father off after all, and as part of that crappy tomb raider sequence. (Lara to her dad: "I haven't come all this way to see you die."... Unfortunately, you have, dear.)

After Angelina Jolie, the less statuesque and less spectacularly pneumatic Alicia Vikander is a good choice. Her smaller physical stature and her carefully established underdog credentials elicit considerable audience sympathy. They also serve to tone down the inherent sexism of the character. 

And a bow and arrow instead of two hand guns is another vast improvement. Though I believe both these innovations were already inherent in the recent video game reboot. (The guns turn up at the end, anyway, though.) 

The new Tomb Raider is a mixed bag, but not a complete farrago. Alicia Vikander is so good that I actually hope there'll be some sequels. But they still have the problem that no one seems to know what the hell a successful Lara Croft movie should be about.

(Image credits: A surprisingly modest selection of posters at Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Thoroughbreds by Cory Finley

I was going to post about a high profile blockbuster movie this week, but I've postponed that so I can alert you to a little gem of a film, hopefully before it disappears from your local cinema.

Thoroughbreds sounds like it's a heartwarming movie about teenage girls and their horses. And, in a twisted way, I suppose you could say that it is...

They are teen girls, one of them has a horse (or, rather, did) and I guess it did warm my heart to find such a dark, distinctive and interesting film among the usual multiplex fare.

This is terrific little movie straight out of left field. It has echoes of everything from Heathers to Equus to Stoker. 

Lily (Anya Taylor-Joy) seems to be the perfect teen, Amanda (Olivia Cooke) is her troubled friend. But is it really that way around? We are going to find out, as Lily’s hatred of her stepfather Mark (Paul Sparks) graduates slowly to a desire to plot a murder…

This is a tight, smart, low budget movie which really only focuses on four or five characters. 

There is also brilliant economy — and considerable audacity — in some of its staging. The final, bloody, climax takes place offstage while we slowly track in on a girl sitting on a sofa watching TV.

Amazingly, this is a debut feature by Cory Finley, a young playwright influenced by Harold Pinter. I'm very impressed by this guy.

The movie also features a diabolical and wild music score by Erik Friedlander — also making his feature debut! It is one of the finest I’ve heard in recent times. 
Indeed, the sound design is generally impressive, with great use being made of the oppressive noise of the stepdad’s rowing machine from upstairs.

You should gallop to see Thoroughbreds.

(Image credits: The all-pink background poster is from IMDB. The other three posters from Imp Awards. All of the latter three designs are by Arsonal.)

Sunday, 8 April 2018

Ten Novels and Their Authors by Somerset Maugham

I'm an admirer of the writing of Somerset Maugham, as I've mentioned before. Plus I'm always a sucker for top-ten type lists. But what really clinched this book for me was the cover art — it's part of the Penguin series with ravishing still-life photographs by the great Harri Peccinotti.

Once I'd finished admiring the cover, though, I got down to considering Maugham's list of "the ten best novels in the world". Here they are:

Tom Jones, Pride and Prejudice, Le Rouge et le Noir, Le Père Goriot, David Copperfield, Madame Bovary, Moby Dick, Wuthering Heights, The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace.

Okay, so what do I think of this list? Well, I've only read Madame Bovary, Moby Dick, Tom Jones and Pride and Prejudice. Tom Jones is a bit vague, I admit. In fact, am I thinking of Joseph Andrews instead of Tom Jones?

All right — let's say I've definitely read three out of ten. And Madame Bovary is an absolute masterpiece. I was stunned by how modern and vivid and gripping it was. It read like a 20th Century noir novel — something by James M. Cain perhaps, with its character in the grip of a ruinous passion. But far better written than Cain.

Pride and Prejudice I regard with a sort of mild fondness. I remember being impressed that Austen's prose sometimes recalled Raymond Chandler's in its succinctly evocative descriptions.

Moby Dick was an experience I don't want to repeat. I got through it, but it was a long, hard slog.

Of the ones on Somerset Maugham's list that I haven't read, I'm in no hurry to get to David Copperfield. Hard Times made me wary of Dickens. Wuthering Heights I took a crack at once, and maybe I'll try again...

The Brothers Karamazov and War and Peace are unlikely because I've got this thing about Russian novels... the characters have too many god-damned names, which are used indiscriminately and interchangeably. I can never keep track of who they're talking about.

But War and Peace has the Napoleonic wars going for it. So maybe...

That leaves the French novels. I'm such a chump I thought The Red and the Black was by Zola. But it's by Stendahl. And Le Père Goriot? What the hell is that? Ah, it's Balzac.

I might give that one a spin. I think of Balzac as being in the same school as Zola, and de Maupassant, whom I revere.

But what of Maugham's own book, about these ten novels? In his characteristically lucid introduction, he addresses  the obvious arguments about how any such list must be arbitrary and partial (in both senses of the word — incomplete and biased).

Then he says this astonishing thing:

"The wise reader will get the greatest enjoyment out of reading them if he learns the useful art of skipping"

Now, I suppose this explains why Moby Dick could make Maugham's list. Because for the all the brilliance of parts of that book, it's way too long and way too meandering.

But let me emphatically say two things here. 

If a book requires that you skip chunks of it to enjoy it — or worse yet, simply to manage to get through it — then it has no place on any list of the ten best. The books which do qualify are those which can be read, and enjoyed, in their entirety without skipping.

And, equally important, if you have skipped parts of a book you haven't read it. And you can't claim to have read it. You've only read a book if you've read every word.

I think both of these assertions are perfectly fair. 

But, to get back to Maugham and his introduction... 

It gets worse. Much worse. He goes on to say how, after reading his comments about skipping, an American publisher approached him with a proposal. Why not reissue the ten books on his list, with the cuts done already, by Maugham? In other words, abridge them, and give each one an introduction by Maugham. The old word butcher himself.

And, horrifyingly, Maugham didn't tell the guy to get lost. He thought it was a perfectly valid idea. "There is nothing reprehensible in cutting," he says.

Though he does at least concede,"I cannot think that a single page could be omitted from so enchanting a novel as Pride and Prejudice, or from one so tightly constructed as Madam Bovary." 

"Some... will exclaim that it's a shocking thing to mutilate a masterpiece," he concludes.

Well I have to confess that I'm shocked, for that very reason. 

And I think considerably less of Maugham after reading that introduction.

(Image credits: The Penguin with beautiful Harri Peccinotti cover photo is scanned from my own copy. The Pan edition is from ABE. The green Heinemann hardcover is from My Maugham Collection, an interesting site which is well worth exploring. The other covers are from Good Reads.)

Sunday, 1 April 2018

Red Sparrow by Haythe and Matthews

This is a really terrific spy thriller starring Jennifer Lawrence (with bangs — I mean her hairdo. Not gunfire. Although there is that.  And not the other kind of bangs. Although there are those, too).

I'd heard disappointing reports about this movie, but went to see it anyway and I'm delighted I did. It started strongly and just kept getting better and better, finally concluding with a knockout ending. 

Jennifer Lawrence is excellent as Dominika Egorova, a successful ballerina. When Dominika's career as a dancer goes seriously off the rails, her sinister Uncle Vanya (no, honestly) conscripts her as a spy.

Dominika is a distinctive character, vulnerable but volatile. And, while we're on the V's, also violent and vengeful. 

Uncle Vanya is played by Matthias Schoenaerts, a wonderful actor with a chameleon quality, who in this role has been given an hilarious and somewhat disturbing resemblance to Vladimir Putin. 

The versatile Australian actor Joel Edgerton plays Nate Nash, a CIA operative running a mole in the Kremlin. Nate becomes romantically entangled with Dominika and apparently makes her a double agent.

But is Dominika a double or a triple?

This sort of plot is fairly standard espionage fare, but here it's been given a real freshness, edge and power.

The film benefits from gorgeous wintry photography by Dutch cinematographer Jo Willems who has a gift for bleakly beautiful urban compositions. 

It is outstandingly directed by Francis Lawrence who worked with Jennifer Lawrence (no relation) on three out of four Hunger Games movies (which were also photographed by Jo Willems). Francis Lawrence's directing debut was I am Legend.

The music is also memorable. James Newton Howard provides an edgy, insistent Bernard Herrmann style score. 

The story of Red Sparrow so strong and rich and inventive I wasn’t surprised to see it was based on a novel — a bestseller by Jason Matthews, a former CIA officer. Matthews also won an Edgar award for best first novel. The Edgar (Allan Poe) awards are nominally for mystery fiction but they also embrace spy thrillers.

The excellent screenplay was by Justin Haythe who wrote the oddball but memorable A Cure for Wellness and Snitch, a surprisingly good Dwayne Johnson movie. 

Red Sparrow has a tone of sexual violence and S&M which makes it distinctively dark and adult. This may be a turn off for some viewers. Otherwise, though, I highly recommend the film.

(Image credits: surprisingly, for such a big movie, only four posters available at good old Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 25 March 2018

Mom and Dad by Brian Taylor

I almost missed this because, from the anodyne title, I assumed it was a comedy. 

Actually it's an action thriller, or horror movie. And a comedy. A very dark comedy.

It's a flip on the conventional zombie movie — there's a whole sub-genre of films which aren't actually about the dead rising and eating the living, but are much the same set-up with a more plausible plot: like The Rage or Rabid, or perhaps even The Purge trilogy, in which ordinary humans are turned, en masse, into relentless killing machines and nowhere is safe.

But Mom and Dad has a uniquely inventive – some might say sick — twist on this. One day, for no explained reason, parents start killing their children. This gives rise to large quantities of the blackest of black humour and Nicolas Cage as the dad in the title really rises to the occasion. 

This is both horrifying and hilarious. It’s a fabulous conceit. There’s a terrifically disturbing and chilling bit where the camera just moves past a row of men staring with blank hostility through a window into the hospital area where all the babies lie in their cots.

The movie begins with a wide viewpoint, as we see the entire community and (through television reports) the nation at large descending into this kind of mob bloodshed. Then it narrows down to focus on just one family, consisting of Cage plus Selma Blair as the mom and Anne Winters and Zackary Arthur as the kids Carly and Josh. 

And it becomes a tightly contained cat-and-mouse game in their home with the parents seeking to slay their offspring, who are understandably none too keen on the prospect.
Mom and Dad is written and directed by Brian Taylor, formerly of Neveldine and Taylor, the screenwriting partnership who wrote the Crank movies and Pathology. (As a solo act Taylor directed Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, which starred Cage.)  

Neveldine and Taylor were a writing team which specialised in lurid pulp adventures characterised by ferocious energy and unashamed excess. They were also, less appealingly, all too often characterised by a willingness to sacrifice their story concepts and logic for the sake of plot convenience and cheap thrills — as in the case of Pathology. And now Mom and Dad.

At the end of this movie there’s a splendid gag where Cage and Selma Blair are finally about to finish off their kids... and the doorbell rings. Mom and Dad look at each other. "It's your parents," says Blair. "They're coming over for dinner." "That's tonight?" says Cage, in a classic dismayed domestic exchange.

But of course, as soon as Grandma and Granddad are through the door they set about trying to kill Cage. Which saves the kids' bacon. Wonderful stuff, And very funny.

However, at this point Taylor loses sight of his own logic — or perhaps deliberately abandons it for short term gains. Because while granddad — Lance Henriksen — goes after Cage, grandma goes after Selma Blair, i.e. her daughter in law. 

Which makes no story sense at all. This murderous plague, whatever it is, only affects parents in regard to their own children.

Instead, while her elderly hubby is trying his level best to murder their son, Grandma should have been saying to Selma Blair, “Oh I tried that meat loaf recipe you gave me and it was wonderful.”

Nevertheless this is a standout black comedy/horror movie hybrid. As a social commentary it isn't remotely in the league of Get Out, but it's nevertheless an audacious, over-the-top, furious and bloodthirsty little gem. 

(Image credits: thank you Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 18 March 2018

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri by Martin McDonagh

Mostly I post about movies I like. Sometimes I dislike a movie so much that I feel have to post about it. Other times, I dislike one so much that I decide just to ignore it.

This was the case with writer-director Martin McDonagh's Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (a great title, by the way. Although henceforth it will be shortened to Three Billboards). 

But the movie has received such acclaim that I've become rather annoyed, and decided to state my case for the record.

Let me start by saying that I thought Sam Rockwell's performance, as dumb-ass deputy Dixon, was outstanding, and I was delighted that he won an Oscar for it.

What's more, throughout most of the film I thought I was watching a masterpiece. It was hilarious, disturbing, emotionally complex... But then towards the end it fell apart so completely that the entire enterprise collapsed.

And revealed that the movie was a big bag of emptiness. It pretends that it is serious and deep and profound. Only to betray the audience by turning out to be shallow, phony and nothing but a gimmicky show-off piece of junk.

And this betrayal is utterly fatal because the movie needs to be serious and deep and profound, since it is dealing with such grave material.

It tells the story of Frances McDormand as Mildred, a mother dealing with guilt and grief after the horrible fate of her teenage daughter ("raped while dying").

It also delves deep into human suffering elsewhere, tenderly depicting the terminal illness and suicide of Sheriff Willoughby (Woody Harrelson).

This is such serious subject matter that you can't afford to fuck it up. But fuck it up Martin McDonagh does, and pretty spectacularly, too.

The movie crashes off the rails when Deputy Dixon is apparently released from hospital a week after being admitted with serious burns. And it fails beyond redemption when Dixon and Mildred set off together on a cross-country revenge spree.

They're going to kill this guy who they know was not the attacker of Mildred's daughter. But they've decided he's a rapist — plus he beat up Dixon in a bar fight — so they're going to kill him anyway. 

Or maybe they won't. 

Who knows?

Certainly not Martin McDonagh who seems to have forgotten the first rule of screenwriting. Movies are all about endings.  
Indeed, some people believe that you should start writing a movie with the ending and work your way backwards.

That sure as hell didn't happen here.

What Three Billboards does succeed in doing — laudably and superbly — is setting up characters whom we expect to be unlikable and unsympathetic, and then utterly reversing our feelings towards them. It does it first with Willoughby and then, in spades, with Dixon.

Indeed the characters in the film are excellent, and McDonagh's ability to write characters — and dialogue — are his great strengths. What's more, I entirely agree with McDonagh when he says (in this interview) "The character begins from the dialogue."

Which makes it all the more of a pity that the movie fails to live up to its promise. I think the problem is simply that McDonagh leaned too heavily on his skill at dialogue and character (honed in his stage plays) and did too little work on the plot.

Millions of people like, revere — even love — Three Billboards. I was about to make a crack that none of them are screenwriters, though...

However, I realised that I know this to not be true. My dear friend Rona Munro is an amazingly gifted screenwriter. And she adores Three Billboards.

So maybe I'm completely wrong.

But I don't think so.

(Image credits: Seven billboards at Imp Awards.)

Sunday, 11 March 2018

The Shape of Water by del Toro and Taylor

I've seen most of Guillermo del Toro's output: everything from his debut feature Cronos in 1993 through to Pacific Rim 2013. Then, after twenty years of disappointment, I pretty much threw in the towel.

That's a bit of an exaggeration. I really liked Blade II... But such widely loved and highly regarded works as The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth just left me cold. And I particularly detested the Hellboy movies (what a waste of Ron Perlman...).

I mention all this so you will know it was by no means a foregone conclusion that I'd love The Shape of Water. But love it I did.

The movie was written by del Toro in collaboration with Vanessa Taylor. Taylor has a background in television writing, ranging from Alias — an old favourite of mine — to Game of Thrones (which I currently think is the greatest TV series ever made). She also scripted Divergent, but we won't hold that against her.

Because The Shape of Water is terrific. It tells the story of... well, you know the story: basically a deaf female janitor at a secret government research facility falls in love with the Creature from the Black Lagoon, who is being held captive there.

It's like a super-deluxe, full colour, full length version of a 1960s Outer Limits episode, made for adult audiences.

The janitor is Elisa, portrayed by British actress Sally Hawkins with great subtlety and considerable courage. She unflinchingly appears nude, and performs, ahem, acts of auto-eroticism in the bathtub in scenes which cleverly set up the film's theme of associating sexuality and water.

Octavia Spencer is great as fellow janitor (janitress?) Zelda. And Michael Stuhlbarg, who was splendid in Steve Jobs, is good as a sympathetic scientist.

The bad guy is military stooge Strickland played by Michael Shannon, who is very effective but is basically reprising his uptight fed from Boardwalk Empire, right down to making love to his wife with his socks on.

However, besides Sally Hawkins, it is Richard Jenkins who really impresses as Elisa's kindly neighbour Giles, a commercial artist whose cat Pandora gets eaten (with hideous skull-crunching sound effects) after they help the creature escape and give him sanctuary.

Oh, and the creature, called Amphibian Man, is played by Doug Jones in a superb monster suit which is iridescent, with beautiful colours. He also has really cool feline eyes (you'd have thought he could have spared poor Pandora out of intra-species loyalty...).

The film is set in the early 1960s and nominally takes place in Baltimore, but it was shot in Toronto (the Toronto crew came in for particular thanks at the Academy Awards ceremony). 

It's visually splendid, with a nice period feel and a lovely score by Alexander Desplat — who won an Oscar for it.

The film also won — astonishingly — Best Picture. I say astonishingly because the Academy is notorious for its dislike of science fiction del Toro got Best Director and Paul Austerberry won for Production Design.

Sally Hawkins, Octavia Spencer and Richard Jenkins were all nominated for Oscars but failed to win. Spencer lost to Allison Janney in I, Tonya and Jenkins to Sam Rockwell in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. In both cases I'd go along with that.

Hawkins lost to Frances McDormand in Three Billboards, and here I beg to differ. Not least because Three Billboards is so much weaker than The Shape of Water.

And del Toro and Vanessa Taylor were also nominated for their original screenplay, but lost to Jordan Peele for his script to Get Out. And in this case I can't fault the academy. 

Both are wonderful movies, but Get Out is deeper, more important and profound and subversive.

The Shape of Water has moments which are silly and unbelievable, but this mattered not a jot because the movie was so appealing and won me over so completely. And I'm going to give you a soft spoiler here by telling you that it has a happy ending.

Grisly cat-eating scene aside, I enjoyed every minute of The Shape of Water. It's a lovely movie, touching, exciting and satisfying.

(Image credits: just a handful (with webbed fingers) of posters available from Imp Awards.)