Category Archives: Watching

Film review: Paddington 2

Quad_Fairground_AW_[32622] Paddington 2

I’ll dollop on marmalade analogy early: this film is deliciously sweet, but with a gently tart edge, and if there were a cinematic equivalent of comfort food this would be it. But it would be unreasonably twee to spread it on too thick, given this is a film that wears charm on its sleeve, but never becomes sickly.

Once again voiced by the wonderful Ben Whishaw, Paddington is on a mission to buy a thoughtful birthday present – a unique book about London – for his Aunt Lucy (the voice of Imelda Staunton). This first requires getting a job (no mean feat for the delightfully naive little soul who seems to be a magnet for accidental trouble) but things take a turn for a elaborately worse when a thief gets his hands on the precious book and disappears in a puff of smoke – leaving Paddington to get the blame and the Brown family with the task of putting the clues together and clearing his name.

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Hugh Grant dominates a stellar cast in what is probably his finest, and certainly most hilarious, role. He spares no flourish for a barnstorming performance as ageing showman – and master of disguise – Phoenix Buchanan, who is busily switching accents and wigs as he plots to get his hands on a hidden treasure that could radically change his fortunes now he’s reduced to dog food ads and local appearances. The bulk of the remaining laughs come from Brendan Gleeson’s menacing prison inmate, who forms an unlikely alliance with our fluffy friend while they’re both behind bars. It’s testament to the quality of the film that it’s packed with big names and brief cameos  – no monstrous egos on show besides Buchanan’s.

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Everything is just so perfectly judged, with a brilliant blend of slapstick humour – largely piled on the unfortunate head of Tom Conti’s grumpy judge – and witty asides mixed in with lots of loveliness as the residents of Windsor Gardens come to realise how much better life is with a marmalade-loving bear in the mix. Paul King and Simon Farnaby don’t spare the undertone, with a showdown between Henry Brown (Hugh Bonneville) and mean-spirited NIMBY-ite jobsworth Mr. Curry (Peter Capaldi) about welcoming in strangers providing a little bit of a bite for the adults in the audience.

With the world as it is right now, this is the charming, open-hearted comedy audiences of all ages need to see and be soothed by – one where we can believe that with enough faith in the power of human goodness, all can be made right.

Paddington 2 goes on general release from November 10th.

Parents’ note: my rather sensitive 7yo really enjoyed this – a few belly laughs and she was genuinely moved at moments. It’s the kind of thing that tends to sweep kids of all ages along with it, but there’s nothing to alarm the youngest or more sensitive souls.

Tickets were kindly provided by ThinkJam PR on behalf of the production for us to see the film. Opinions are entirely my own, as ever. If you’ve seen the film or want to find out more, join Paddington on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram

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Four minute film review: Thor: Ragnarok

These are good times for comedy. Giving the most maverick wing of the MCU outside Guardians of the Galaxy – this one ripe for resurgence following a shaky sequel – to a reliably off-the-wall comedy genius managed to be both a brave and low-risk move from Marvel; fortunately, Taika Waititi doesn’t disappoint.

In his first work to involve massive budgets and existing characters, he effortlessly pins his intimate, wise-cracking style on the overblown, operatic drama of the Thor franchise. It gives Thor (Chris Hemsworth) ample opportunities to stretch his comic muscles while letting Loki (Tom Hiddleston in the best terrible wig so far) a little off the leash and channelling the dry wit in the latter’s constantly challenged dignity rather than the raw rage seen in previous incarnations. The plot is messy but fun, the set pieces full of opportunities to lovingly re-create comic book panels and the director’s fondness for pratfalls lampoons any moments that threaten to crumble under their own CGI. Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster is neon joy and Cate Blanchett’s death goddess utterly beguiling if a fraction underused; on the flipside Karl Urban will join Don Cheadle and Dick Van Dyke in bad accent purgatory and – the biggest shame – Tessa Thompson hasn’t hit her stride yet, largely lacking conviction. You’ll laugh, and then you’ll laugh some more as Waititi blends humour and warmth so deftly he ought to have James Gunn sharpening his pencils – and his wits. This is my Guardians – and I loved it so much more.

*written in four minutes. Because this.

BFI London Film Festival 2017: four-minute film reviews (The Meyerowitz Stories; Battle of the Sexes; Call Me By Your Name; The Shape of Water)

I’m taking a different approach to my festival filmgoing this year – a round-up rather than a post for each. I’m sure SEO experts will be shaking their heads and I’m certainly not winning on frequency or volume of content, but I’m hoping this will mean a distillation of quality – more useful stuff, delivered more efficiently, with less waffling.

She says, waffling.

Anyway. This is what I saw, and these are my thoughts – written in four minutes or fewer.

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Writer / director Noah Baumbach turns his lens on notions of success and failure in life and art, with the help of a gorgeously restrained performance from Dustin Hoffman bookended by smart takes from Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller – who are given specific set-pieces to channel their usual energetic performances into so they don’t overwhelm the all-important quiet. Strikingly edited and deftly constructed, it’s warm, witty and truthful – and Baumbach nails quirks so much more invitingly and incisively than his sometime collaborator Wes Anderson. Its weakness is in its women; less well-developed than the men around them – and at times almost uncomfortably drawn as the maiden, the would-be mother and the crone – there is a strong whiff of missed opportunity as Emma Thompson feels miscast and Elizabeth Marvel underused. That said, it’s unquestionably a lingerer with some beautifully written and cannily observed family conversations that make it well worth a shot – and it’s on Netflix any day now, so there’s no excuse not to.

Battle of the Sexes

Oh, how terrible this could have been – but blissfully isn’t. Filled with energy and an assured lightness of touch from Simon Beaufoy’s sparkling script, the story of young and ambitious Billie Jean King taking on the ageing but still potent self-styled chauvinist pig Bobby Riggs, could have been beset by stumbling blocks: a living subject, a known outcome and a watered-down message. They’re all neatly brushed aside in a funny, smart and even-handed take which allows both Billie’s and Bobby’s stories to breathe before building to the climactic match with genuine tension. There could have been a little more explanation of Larry King (who in every particular resembles Fred from Scooby Doo) and Alan Cumming’s well-meaning ‘flamboyant fashion designer’ seems to be the voice of LGBTQ+ politics with a direct line to the future, but it’s all ultimately forgivable in a message film that avoids queasy moralising in favour of simply pointing out how right it so obviously is. Emma Stone blends steely and breezy apparently effortlessly, Steve Carrell deftly sidesteps any mawkishness to make Bobby occasionally even sympathetic – while Sarah Silverman steps in to steal the odd scene with maybe the best 70s hair ever seen on screen. A feel-good winner for sure.

Call Me By Your Name

The pinnacle of the festival for me, this dreamy take on André Aciman’s book from Luca Guadagnino is suffused with Italian summer sunlight and is every inch a James Ivory adaptation. If it has a flaw it is this tendency to cast everything in soft focus – a queer love story for straight people like me – but it stays so resolutely on-the-nose about first love and burgeoning sexuality that it’s hard to hold that against it for too long (that’s what he said, etc). Timothée Chalamet is outrageously good and Armie Hammer outrageously charismatic; while there’s little room for anyone else to command the screen, Michael Stuhlbarg gleams in the supporting role of the benignly yearning outsider. I could watch the end credits for hours.

The Shape of Water

A gloriously evocative mood piece that ultimately favours style over substance. Intended as a fairy tale period piece with a very modern sting in the messaging – absolutely a commentary on our current crises – it sings most powerfully when the wildly captivating Sally Hawkins leads us deftly through the pattern of her mundane days and then the incredible positive disruption that the arrival of an intriguing underwater specimen causes. When it centres on Michael Shannon – commanding but inexplicable – it loses some of its subtlety and depth, and yet again it is Michael Stuhlbarg to the rescue as the voice of the outsider in a moving subplot that I wanted more of. Sadly, Octavia Spencer is wasted on a character that skirts around the edges of stereotype as she gossips endlessly about her husband while occasionally Del Toro gives in to his ghoulish side to deliver some gratuitously grim thrills; one particular stunt with a cat feels like a cheap trick. Still, for all of this – and despite granular plot points that don’t stand up to close examination – the naming of the mysterious facility housing the ‘creature’, Occam, reminds us that we might as well have faith. And what The Shape of Water lacks in depth, it delivers in both faith and heart, making it a flawed but still compelling offering.

 

BFI / Radio Times TV Festival – The Crown & a TV writing masterclass

A few weekends ago saw my first visit to the BFI & Radio Times TV Festival – and that’s hardly a surprise, because it’s a brand new festival.

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It was, in all, a really fun day. We had only two events booked. The first was a panel / Q&A with four editors from the Radio Times – which, I admit, I’ve only bought at Christmas for years now, though I do keep a weather eye on the Facebook page / website and I have now signed up for a subscription out of curiosity – about the experience of writing about television. The other was a panel about Netflix sensation The Crown, with Suzanne Mackie, Philip Martin and the glorious Claire Foy (the last of whom I managed to walk straight past in the ladies without really registering this until  I’d swept past, gone in the cubicle and was mid-pee, at which point my brain kicked in – that’s pre-occupation for you).

Although the latter panel had the star factor and plenty to talk about in terms of both specific production (Peter Morgan’s apparent 7-season plan, how re-casting is going to work for season 3 and beyond) and general consumption (the Netflix all-in-one delivery model), it was actually in the masterclass with Alison Graham et al – and in some of the audience questions and introductions from Radio Times editor Ben Preston – that some of the really interesting themes emerged.

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In the masterclass panel it was obvious the youngest member of the panel was something of an odd one out; he was the only one who made regular set visits, as the soap opera specialist, and he was the only one who made videos or regular digital content. At one point Graham even commented that no-one knew where he was because he half-worked for the website – a snippet of insight into the print vs digital structure of the RT, and also a suggestion that digital is just… different from what was repeatedly referred to as “proper telly”. All used Twitter but, interestingly, only for work and only after the fact; two out of four grasped why people might make Twitter their second screen, but for one it was only for ‘event’ TV (talent shows etc); in this he was swiftly contradicted by the live TV specialist, who was horrified at the thought that you might look at Twitter before Strictly  was already over – what if you missed a move?

This, from a team of people who still exercise an enormous influence over the TV watching habits of a significant chunk of people, was fascinating. It’s easy to be dismissive and assume the RT‘s readers are older and might not second screen on social anyway, but I think that’s a narrow-minded assumption; plus the busy stream of digital content across social channels from the publication suggests that either they have a busily active broad demographic or they’re trying to woo one. Netflix et al do make an appearance in the listings, and if there’s anyone who understands a binge-watch it’s someone who has to review shows in advance of broadcast. Yet, more than once, those words “proper telly” – eg traditional broadcast, released weekly – came up, with the clear perspective that this was (should be?) still the approved way of consuming television. Shades, perhaps, of the paperback vs Kindle debate that never seems to quite go away.

Diversity of viewing habit wasn’t the only intriguing morsel to be winkled out of an hour of chat. A young woman of colour, who wrote for a smaller publication and raised the woes of trying to engage consistently with PRs if you have to give a negative review, also asked about diversity, and whether the panel handed off to writers with more direct experience if a programme was of a particular cultural niche. The panel awkwardly scraped for ideas of how this might work, giving examples of Welsh and Scottish programming; somehow I don’t think that’s what she was getting at.

The idea that television is something to be delivered in discrete doses certainly wasn’t unique to the panel – and even some digital-only services have sought to emulate it too (my festival pal, Alex Totaro, has written about The Good Fight as a network show in disguise). Several audience members spoke almost guiltily about binge-watching The Crown – as it if was something not quite proper and that the show’s exceptional quality made this a rare treat (the man who stayed up all night to watch all 10 episodes back to back with his wife, and who thought all television other than this and Our Friends in the North to be thoroughly inferior was a fascinating study all on his own). This might have also been impacted by Preston’s introduction to the panel, in which he detailed how he couldn’t possibly sit and watch more than a single episode at a time, since this simply didn’t allow him to savour it appropriately.

I watched The Crown in three of four episode clusters;  actually, it took me three goes at the first episode for it to grasp me, and had it been delivered in the traditional Sunday night format, I probably wouldn’t have bothered to give it the second and third goes (urged on by friends). There is still water-cooler, communal pressure to be had – and I can succumb to it with the best of them, or I’d never have got through the first three tedious episodes of The Night Manager and made it to the considerably more pacy pay-off.

I can’t very well think of a job I’d like more in the world than sitting in a room with blinds drawn and headphones on, succinctly summing up my thoughts so as to direct the viewing public in a helpful way. It is an immensely rich journalistic job to end up in – and the panel made it clear it does tend to be one you end up in rather than pursue; although, again, most of them came through a more traditional journalistic route than might the next generation who will be blogging their way through to digital-only publications, likely without first having a stint at Industrial Engineering Weekly or similar. What I’d love to see in the next BFI / RT festival is a panel that brings the print and digital teams of the RT (and, if they’re willing, other publications) together to discuss the similarities and differences of writing about TV on and offline, and for different audiences watching TV in different ways. Show us your future-proofing, RT – I’m ready to see it.

Film review: Beauty and the Beast (live action)

It doesn’t feel an overstatement to suggest that Howard Ashman was absolutely key in transforming the lumbering beast that Walt Disney Animation had started to resemble in the mid-80s into the fleet-of-foot animation royalty that dominated the 90s and heralded an era of musical hit after musical hit. He did it through the gift of song – his artistic vision and a lyricist’s pen dripping with inspiration that was at its most passionately effective in partnership with his long term creative collaborator, Disney Legend Alan Menken. The 14th of March marks the 26th anniversary of his sadly premature loss, so it seems a fitting moment to return to some of his very finest work with the company as Disney indulges in its latest project to reinvent its back catalogue into live action for fun and profit.

If Bill Condon (Twilight: Breaking Dawn 1 2, Mr Holmes) attempts to tighten up the more dated elements of the tale as old as time by developing its independent and intelligent heroine’s back story, there’s no need to lift a finger to invigorate the music: it’s aged perfectly.  The sole bum note is the Beast’s new number, a rather pedestrian lament penned by Sir Tim Rice (who also completed Ashman’s work on Aladdin) – though it’s good to see the cursed Prince get his due with a bit more character development. Downton Abbey’s Dan Stevens brings a note of gruff sarcasm to his performance which is warm and welcome; he’s also provided with hints of a more complex story than simply ‘petulant child’, and this helps with what has always been a tough sell of a romance – even more challenging with live action characters and hard-working CGI and prosthetics than it is with animated protagonists.

The supporting cast is stalwart and solid; Ian McKellen’s Cogsworth is reliably…McKellian. Ewan McGregor can safely be counted on to belt out a rousing tune; his Lumiere’s Be Our Guest might lack the tongue-in-cheek suaveness of the sorely missed Jerry Orbach but taken as its own performance is still a Busby Berkeley extravaganza in which the running joke of Belle failing to actually get to eat anything remains. Audra MacDonald’s Mme Garderobe gets a fuller role and injects necessary notes of both pathos and jollity as a result of her continuing love affair with harpsichord husband Mastro Cadenza- a newly-created character and gleeful cameo from Stanley Tucci and his spectacular dentures. The challenges here are largely of realisation rather than performance; where Cogsworth and the Maestro’s household objects lend themselves to mimicking facial expressions, Lumiere’s tiny face, Mrs Potts’ flat surface and the wardrobe’s unnerving facelessness are at times slightly unnerving. While this doesn’t prevent national treasure Emma Thompson from being bumblingly charming and pretty much pulling off that crucial titular ballad, she’s one of the few characters that is preferable in her briefly-observed human form.

But what of Belle herself? Emma Watson’s is a very cool and reserved take on one of Disney’s more fearless heroines. In many ways she’s a more realistic introvert, and there are some touching moments, such as a small bubbling up of glee at being given the library to explore and in the richer relationship with the delightful Kevin Kline’s Einsteinian Maurice. Still, this interpretation leaves some of the high drama sadly lacking; for one, her Fraulein Maria hilltop moment is oddly muted. It perhaps doesn’t help that Watson is well nigh steamrollered by an absolute barnstormer of a performance from Luke Evans on full-bodied form as Gaston, rolling effortlessly from high camp to cartoonish villainy with a genuine note of unhinged violence. Where Be Our Guest and Beauty and the Beast should dominate the score, it’s actually tub-thumping tavern jig Gaston and menacing rabble-rouser Kill the Beast that lead the way as the film’s most engaging musical moments. There’s been much press coverage of Josh Gad’s Le Fou being the first obviously gay Disney character, though this is rather more disappointingly blink-and-you’ll-miss-it than advertised; still, he’s an able enough foil for his puffed-up partner in crime, even if his conflicted moments are a little lacklustre.

Condon’s Beauty and the Beast is a beauty but a funny film; just a touch too paint-by-numbers to attain the high standards set by Jon Favreau’s lavish and loveable take on The Jungle Book and certainly not about to replace the near-perfect Ashman swansong from which it took its cue. But it’s an affectionately crafted and solidly enjoyable family night out; the lights of its most stirring numbers remain undimmed and that wickedly effective Gaston is possibly even an improvement on the source material. If, being honest, it wouldn’t be included in the bookshelves of the mind where my most prized treasures rest together, I wouldn’t refuse to include it in the library.

Beauty and the Beast is on UK general release from Friday March 17th. Many thanks to @disney_uk for two press preview tickets. All opinions my own; more blog-based movie reviews here; even more film stuff on my Letterboxd profile.

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BFI London Film Festival 2016: Their Finest (review)

I have never read the source material on which Their Finest is based, Lissa Evans’ 2009 novel Their Finest Hour and a Half. However, I’m going to make a leap and blame the disappointing third act of this adaptation on the fact that it is an adaptation. A cataclysmic event that one cannot reveal for fear of spoilers could be a devastating twist leading to a richly emotional coda on paper; on screen it happens at precisely the wrong moment, melodramatic rather than moving, and a it’s a crying shame because until that moment there was a great deal of promise.

For a start this is a staunchly feminist offering by design, not just because it’s a heavily female-led production. The Second World War offered opportunities to women to step into male-dominated industries in the absence of their menfolk; we think of these largely as mechanical, physical: factories and food production, Rosie doing her riveting. But in 1940 the propaganda machine was also in full flow, and this tale focuses on Catrin Cole, whose facility with the written word leads her into the world of patriotic film production – first on awkward shorts and later on an ambitious, big budget production to win the hearts and minds of the general public and keep them behind the war effort. It’s a film about films, often wry and funny, using a talented and treasured cast to round out the thinner aspects of the characterisation.

Gemma Arterton brings gutsy warmth to Catrin, an approachably genuine mix of hesitance and growing independence. Rachael Stirling’s acerbic and openly lesbian producer and Helen McCrory’s canny agent manage to sidestep excessive stereotyping and steal the show from the sidelines, and it is female characters and female stories that largely drive the action. Sam Claflin is perhaps a little wasted in the mildly unconvincing arc of initially churlish screenwriter Tom Buckley, who spots Catrin’s potential and – occasionally grudgingly – supports her efforts while becoming a complicated potential romantic interest. His curtness is balanced by Bill Nighy’s deliciously hammy declining star with a Norma Desmond ego – a more genteel rehashing  of Love, Actually‘s Billy Mack, but no less watchable for it – who is given an unnecessary but moving subplot involving an ancient bromance with a dog-obsessed struggling agent.

Their Finest has more than that small whiff of Richard Curtis about it; a wartime setting offers ample opportunities for gallows humour alongside genuine tragedy. Director Lone Scherfig (Riot Club) keeps it light as often as possible, and were it not for the sadly uneven final act, this could be added to the list of rousing British romcoms – something I think we do almost excessively well. The development of the potential love triangle should be the emotional core of the film, and given the full space it needed to breathe it could have been a rollicking one. Sadly as things stand, the big bang rather forces the film to go out on a whimper.

Luckily there are still reasons to watch –  the insights into film production of the time, some light relief around a hopelessly wooden war hero pressganged into a patriotic performance to woo American audiences. It’s galling but also satisfying to hear small references to feminist struggles still being overcome (“of course we can’t pay you as much as the chaps…”). And speaking of chaps, the supporting cast is a small galaxy of national treasures – Richard E. Grant, Eddie Marsan, Henry Goodman and even an amusing cameo from Jeremy Irons quoting Henry V; it’s almost distracting in its embarrassment of riches.

Uneven pace and flaws aside, I’m glad Their Finest was made; thematically it’s a story worth telling. I would have liked to love it, but I’ve filed it away for Sunday afternoon TV viewing with one of those cups of tea every other character kept mentioning. I can’t mend its problems, but I can certainly make do.

Disclosure: privately bought ticket for the London Film Festival as a BFI Member. No PR / freebies involved.

BFI London Film Festival 2016: Paterson (review…ish)

How do you make a film compelling

Without conflict, drama or action“?

When a man goes to work every day

And loves his girlfriend

And she loves him?

When a notebook full of gentle poems

Stashed in a pocket as he drives the bus

Is all that he needs to be

Himself?

When the surroundings are suburban

Washed out, simple

Just about real?

When cereal is eaten from a water glass

(No plums in the icebox)

And every morning starts the same

More or less?

When simple symbols repeat themselves

Regularly for two hours

(Circles, twins, circles, twins)?

When he sees things in black and white

(Him and the world, together but separate)

And she makes everything black and white

But sees everything as grey

As possible

(Cupcake queen, country singer)?

When an event of enormous personal significance

Is a broken bus

A toy

A chance conversation

Some paper?

You cast Adam Driver

On whose face the tiniest twitch

The most subtle reaction

Is everything you need to know

And who is capable of being blank

Without being empty.

And to make doubly sure

That everyone is paying attention

You add a bulldog with just enough personality

(Personality goes a long way)

And a wobbly postbox.

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