Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (2018)

2019 #30
David Yates | 134 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English & French | 12 / PG-13

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

The first Fantastic Beasts movie felt like a standalone adventure, even though it was promoted as a five-movie series from the get-go. Not everyone liked it, but I thought it was an enjoyable adventure that also served to expand the world of the Harry Potter universe — or the Wizarding World, as we’re now to call it. Unfortunately, this first sequel can’t keep that up. Here’s where the five-movie arc really kicks in, and the film suffers for it.

Normally I’d explain the plot round about now, but, frankly, I can’t be bothered. It entirely spins out of what transpired in the first movie; having not seen that since it was in cinemas over two years ago, I frequently struggled to keep up, scrounging around in my memory for the ins and outs of a story I didn’t realise I needed to thoroughly revise. That’s to say nothing of all the other stuff it dregs up from the depths of Harry Potter mythology. As a fan of that series, who’s seen the films multiple times and what have you, I have a fair idea what it’s all about, but even I was frequently left feeling confused. I pity casual viewers.

Further plot details and where to find them

Sometimes movies can gloss over this kind of stuff — the mythology and backstory enriches it, but there’s still an adventure to be going on with — but The Crimes of Grindelwald doesn’t seem to work that way. The adventure is tied up in the previous film and the overall backstory, and that generates a lot of tedious exposition to explain how things are connected. But that exposition is sometimes rushed over, apparently to allow time for some empty spectacle — there’s still plenty of CGI-fuelled magic action here, it just doesn’t seem to have any weight in the story, or what weight it should have is unclear.

It doesn’t help that the film feels jumpy, like loads of little bits and pieces have been chopped out. I’m not surprised there’s an extended cut, which hopefully will smooth some of that out. It probably stems from the film having so many characters and stories to juggle. The downside of making the previous film feel standalone is that most of its characters need to be reintroduced and reconnected to each other; at the same time, there are new characters and storylines being introduced and set in motion; all while also trying to deliver an action-adventure movie.

Wizard Hitler

There’s stuff to appreciate here nonetheless, including likeable returning characters, some appreciable additions (Jude Law is good as a young Dumbledore), and some impressive effects (the spectacle may be empty, but sometimes it’s still spectacular). Fans of the world J.K. Rowling has created will appreciate getting to see more of it, too — in this case, it’s wizarding Paris, albeit briefly — although there are also some additions to the mythology that are of questionable value. Well, there are three more films yet to come that may reveal that Rowling has somewhere to go with them.

Indeed, I wonder if Crimes of Grindelwald will ultimately play better once it’s placed in context with the following instalments. Or maybe it really is a bit of a mess, with too much going on and not enough time or space to do it, which sometimes makes it hard to understand the significance or value of what we’re watching. I hope that it’s at least put all the pieces in place now, so the next three films can move forward with fewer problems.

3 out of 5

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald is released in the UK today on DVD, Blu-ray, 3D Blu-ray, 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray, and as an extended cut.

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Mandy (2018)

2019 #34
Panos Cosmatos | 121 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, UK & Belgium / English | 18

Mandy

Words feel inadequate to describe Mandy, the sophomore feature from writer-director Panos Cosmatos, the son of George P. Cosmatos, who directed the likes of Rambo: First Blood Part II and Tombstone — films which are not helpful comparisons here, I hasten to add. You could call Mandy an action movie, of a sort, but it’s unlike either of those. It’s not like a whole lot else, really.

Let’s start with the plot. I’m not sure Cosmatos did, but we will. Set in the mid ’80s, it centres around Red Miller (Nicolas Cage) and his girlfriend Mandy Bloom (Andrea Riseborough), who live happily in the back of beyond somewhere in the United States. One day a group of Christian cultists happen to drive past Mandy, and their leader, Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache), takes a shine to her. With the aid of a demonic biker gang, Sand and co accost Red and Mandy for some nefarious cult-ish purpose. Naturally it does not end well, sending Red on a nightmarishly surreal journey of revenge.

I said Mandy could be considered an action movie, which is true: Red’s revenge naturally leads to some violence, which in this case often come at the end of fights. But if you come just for the action you’re liable to leave unsatisfied, because Cosmatos definitely makes you wait for it. Some of it does satisfy on a visceral, B-movie level (there’s a showdown in a quarry I shan’t spoil by detailing), but its purpose is not to revel in combat.

Nic Cage gripping his huge weapon

Rather, it is very much a horror movie. Not in terms of the obvious connotations of the genre — there’s no supernaturally-powered serial killer, no vampires or werewolves, no jump scares — but in the unnerving atmosphere the film sets out to create. This is what I meant when I said I’m not sure Cosmatos started with the plot: there’s a definite story here, and characters and emotional arcs within that too, but the primary goal seems to be the mood that’s generated and the feelings that instills in the viewer. It’s possible Cosmatos may have bigger ideas on his mind beyond that — some reviewers seem obsessed with the notion that the film wants to explore philosophical concepts but doesn’t do it very well. Perhaps they’re right. I didn’t see it that way, however, taking the whole affair as simply an inescapable dive into a fever dream nightmare experience, where the aesthetics and the sensations they create are the point.

Certainly, a good many elements are on board with this twisted perspective. The performances are certainly in the right space, with Nic Cage going full Nic Cage as he travels deeper into the nightmare, the impact of his barminess emphasised by him being fairly normal at the start. As the cult-leading big bad, Roache steps up to the plate of trying to equal Cage’s insanity, and I’d say he gets there — an impressive feat. Around them, Cosmatos lets thing unfurl at a leisurely, dreamlike pace. Some will say it’s too slow and succumb to boredom, but I think it’s very deliberate — though I will certainly allow that it does go too far in this regard at some points.

Crazy cultists, crazy colours

Further to that, he blends in a lot of surreal and fantasy-inspired imagery and visual flourishes, with Benjamin Loeb’s photography often pushing into extremes of colour (lots and lots of red), lens flare (so much more effectively than anything J.J. Abrams has ever been responsible for), and a deliberately-created haziness that, once again, the best descriptor for is “dreamlike”. That said, the shot-on-film, pushed-to-extreme aesthetic also helps evoke low-budget ’80s fantasy/horror films, in a kind of race-memory way — I couldn’t give you specific examples of what films I feel its emulating, but there’s something about the overall style that gives that vibe. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s eerie score also hits those same beats, in terms of both the era recreated and the film’s own unsettled atmosphere.

Mandy is today’s premiere on Sky Cinema, which feels like an ill fit to me. Maybe I’m being unfair, but I always feel like Sky Cinema (and by extension its viewer base) is much more focused around mainstream blockbuster kind of movies, especially for a Saturday premiere. Instead, it feels like Mandy should be making its TV debut on Film4 at about 11pm in the middle of the week (I won’t be surprised if that’s where it ends up getting its first network TV airing). I can see some tuning in expecting a violent revenge action-thriller and giving up after a few minutes of its particular weirdness. For those on its wavelength, however, it’s an experience (and it’s definitely an experience) that’s thrilling in very a different way.

5 out of 5

Mandy is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Triple Frontier (2019)

2019 #39
J.C. Chandor | 125 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.11:1 | USA / English, Spanish & Portuguese | 15 / R

Triple Frontier

Former US soldier Santiago ‘Pope’ Garcia (Oscar Isaac) is struggling to make a difference as a consultant to a South American police force when his informant (Adria Arjona) finally gives him the location of powerful drug lord Gabriel Lorea (Reynaldo Gallegos), who’s hiding deep in the jungle surrounded by ill-gotten gains to the tune of many millions of dollars. Deciding the cops are too corrupt to handle this, Pope reaches out to his old military buddies — commander and strategist Tom ‘Redfly’ Davis (Ben Affleck), pilot Francisco ‘Catfish’ Morales (Pedro Pascal), and brothers Ben and William ‘Ironhead’ Miller (Garrett Hedlund and Charlie Hunnam) — to take on one last ‘off the books’ mission: kill Lorea and pocket the money for themselves. But they decide it’s too immoral so stay at home and do nothing.

Not really! Of course they agree to do it, risking their lives and their moral code for a big payday they all desperately need.

On the one hand Triple Frontier is a standard men-on-a-heist actioner, and a lot of people seem to have dismissed it as such. On the other, however, there’s quite a lot of different things going on here. Almost too many, in fact, as arguably the film doesn’t have time to explore them all. There’s a distinct thread about the treatment of veterans in the US — that these guys have been used up and spat out, and now struggle with their mental health and/or to even make a living in regular society. It also ties this into some “warrior code” mentality, which I’ve heard said is quite a realistic depiction of the mindset these kinds of guys have in real life, but does come across as a bit macho bullshit at times here (there’s a scene where they’re camping in the jungle, bemoaning that they’re the last of their kind, etc).

Men mid-mission

As well as these themes, there’s some surprise genre mash-ups going on, too. Nothing too radical, but the film doesn’t play out as I expected (vague-ish spoilers follow). At the start, it’s has almost a Sicario vibe, particular in a sequence where Pope leads a violent raid on a gang hideout. Then it gets stuck into what the trailers promised: a bunch of military professionals pulling off a heist. Naturally, it doesn’t all go according to plan (no good heist movie has everything go according to plan!), and as the guys struggle to make their escape the film makes a hard turn into Treasure of the Sierra Madre territory, which I did not see coming. It doesn’t dig into the psychology of greed anything like as much as that film, but as the team trek through the jungle and feud amongst themselves, the film takes on a “jungle adventure” aspect I wasn’t expecting. This is where I think those claims of it being just a “standard” kinda military-men-on-a-mission movie are particularly wide of the mark.

Apparently the film has been struggling through development since 2010, presumably after screenwriter Mark Boal won his Oscar for The Hurt Locker. That film’s director, Kathryn Bigelow, was originally attached (she’s still credited as a producer), and the film also bounced around a couple of different studios (before winding up at Netflix) and churned through a long list of possible cast members (according to IMDb, they include the likes of Tom Hanks, Johnny Depp, Denzel Washington, Sean Penn, Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Wahlberg, Will Smith, Tom Hardy, Channing Tatum, Mahershala Ali, and Casey Affleck).

Ben Affleck, pictured with his ties to the DC Universe

I feel like it ended up in a pretty decent place, however. The five guys are believable as ex comrades, and it’s all very well put together, with slick but not flashy direction from J.C. Chandor, helmer of the excellent All is Lost, plus Margin Call and A Most Violent Year, neither of which I’ve seen but I’ve heard are good. Triple Frontier does nothing to besmirch his rep. It’s crisply shot by DP Roman Vasyanov — like the direction, not excessively flashy but still strong, including some great aerial stuff. Apparently this is the first film to use the full 6.5K resolution of the ARRI Alexa 65 camera, which is why it retains the camera’s unique aspect ratio of 2.11:1. In truth, it doesn’t make much difference, because it’s near as dammit the 2:1 that’s so popular among other Netflix productions, but that works for me.

Triple Frontier doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but I think some of the commentary dismissing it as mere standard fare has done it some disservice. As a heist/action movie it’s more than competent, with some turns and developments that keep it surprising and fresh, and visuals that reward seeing it on the best-quality screen you can.

4 out of 5

Triple Frontier is available on Netflix now.

Deadpool 2: Super Duper $@%!#& Cut (2018)

2019 #39a
David Leitch | 134 mins | Blu-ray (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English, Spanish & Cantonese | 15

Deadpool 2: Super Duper $@%!#& Cut

What’s an R-rated comedy without an “unrated” extended home ent version, eh? Well, the first Deadpool didn’t have one, but the sequel certainly does. Branded as the “Super Duper Dollar-At-Percent-Exclamation-Hash-Ampersand Cut”, it runs almost 15 minutes longer than the theatrical cut, with some alternate gags and music cues in the mix as well.

The Blu-ray’s scene selection menu offers an indication of which chapters feature new material, and the answer is “most of them” — those 15 minutes are spread relatively thinly throughout almost the entire film. There are a handful of wholly new scenes (as many as ten, depending how you count it), most of them quite short (one is under nine seconds), a couple of extended fight sequences, and then lots of added lines here and there. Plus, as I said, there’s a smattering of gags that have been changed for alternatives. The only thing that’s really missing is a fourth-wall-breaking gag about extended cuts — it’s uncommon for the Deadpool franchise to drop the ball like that.

As ever, Movie-Censorship.com has a thorough list of additions and changes. Their report reckons all the replacement gags are worse than the originals, but it’s certainly a matter of personal taste: there’s nothing so major lost, nor anything so poor gained, that it’s a crying shame. Personally, I think a fair few of the new and additional lines are at least decent. The added action stuff, on the other hand, is all neat, in particular a major extension to the Japanese bath fight that turns it a single-shot masterpiece, and a fun bit between Domino and Juggernaut. I also thought the way this cut incorporates Russell’s backstory earlier and more fully worked well, adding weight to his motives and actions later in the movie.

X-Force... kinda

The net effect of the changes and additions is minimal, however. At the very least, I enjoyed it just as much on a second viewing as I did on the first (which is more than I can say about Deadpool 1). With that in mind, I’d probably pick the Super Duper Cut as my preferred version of the film. I liked most of the additions, and didn’t miss enough of the subtractions for it to bother me, so on balance this version wins. Individual opinions will naturally differ (that Movie Censorship guy obviously wasn’t impressed by the new stuff), but for anyone that enjoyed the theatrical version, this is definitely worth a look. That’s more than most people would say about Once Upon a Deadpool, at least.

4 out of 5

The theatrical cut of Deadpool 2 is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Free Solo (2018)

2019 #36
Jimmy Chin & Elizabeth Chai Vasarhelyi | 100 mins | download (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Free Solo

Anyone can be happy and cosy. Nothing good happens in the world by being happy and cosy.

So says Alex Honnold, the subject of this documentary, when discussing the different approaches to life of his girlfriend, who he thinks wants to be “happy and cosy”, and himself, who seeks perfection in extreme endeavour. It’s as succinct a summation of his attitude to life as any in this Oscar-winning documentary.

Honnold is a climber with a particular interest in free soloing, which is climbing without ropes or harnesses — think Tom Cruise at the start of M:i-2. His feats have made him famous, as an opening montage demonstrates (though I’d certainly never heard of him before this). The film is ostensibly documenting his attempt to be the first person to free solo up El Capitan in Yosemite National Park, an extraordinary feat due to its height and difficulty.

In fact, the film is as much a profile of Honnold as a person — how he got into this hobby, what motivates and drives him, how his mind works — as it is about the physical task of climbing. I knew there’d be some biographical detail and whatnot, but I thought most of the film would be about the headline climb — it’s what the film is promoted as being about, at least as far as I was aware, and (minor spoilers, if you don’t know that, yes, he managed it (almost two years ago now, so, like I say, not really spoilers)) it took him 3 hours 56 minutes, so it’s not like you’d have to show it in full to make a feature-length film. As it turns out, the climactic climb is afforded just 13 minutes of screen time.

Alex vs El Capitan

That’s not particularly a problem because Honnold is an interesting individual. He’s not just a normal bloke who likes to climb, but has a very particular mindset and focus, which seems to stem from his upbringing and has affected his relationship to society and other people. He’s clearly not incapable of forming friendships, or even romantic relationships, but they don’t affect him in the way they do the rest of us. Whether you find his attitude to life admirable or perverse is down to you. The film arguably celebrates it, which seems to have turned some viewers off, but Honnold’s philosophies (such as they are — he’s not consciously a deep thinker, I don’t think) are contrasted with the views of his friends, who like him but maybe in spite of his monomania.

Aside from what it exposes about Honnold, one of the revelations I gained from the film was how much planning goes into these kind of climbs. Like, spending months or years choosing routes, knowing all the little foot and hand holds, the body positions required, climbing it with ropes to test it out, and so on. It’s not just like, “that looks possible, let’s have a go,” which is I guess what I thought they did. With climbs of this difficulty, it’s rehearsed in the way you might Shakespeare — every little hold (and I do mean little: sometimes surface contact is as small as half a thumb) is pre-decided and memorised, then repeated on the day. The challenging of free soloing (at least at this level) is not “can I manage to find a way up this cliff face?”, it’s “can I scale this near-impossible route without a safety net?” It’s about doing something that’s at the limits of human capability and doing it perfectly, because the difference between 100% and 99% is, literally, death.

Whether you find Honnold’s commitment to it admirable or self-centred and self-aggrandising, it’s a fascinating mentality to have. And, at the very least, the scenery is breathtaking.

4 out of 5

Free Solo is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

Serenity (2019)

2019 #27
Steven Knight | 106 mins | download (HD) | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

Serenity

Sorry, Browncoats — this has nothing to do with Joss Whedon’s sci-fi classic. But if you’re instead worried this might supplant that in the general consciousness, never fear: despite coming with the pedigree of a cast headlined by Oscar winners Matthew McConaughey and Anne Hathaway (plus Jason Clarke, Djimon Hounsou, and Diane Lane), and a quality writer-director in Steven Knight (the man behind Locke and Peaky Blinders), this Serenity is a dud of epic proportions. I mean, the fact that, even with those names involved, it’s being dumped in the UK as a Sky Cinema Original should tell you something…

On the remote tropical paradise of Plymouth Island, Baker Dill (McConaughey) is a fisherman mostly taking tourists out on his boat, but eager to catch that one tuna that eludes him (a tuna isn’t quite as romantic a nemesis as a white whale, but I guess we’ll have to go with it). One day, his ex (Hathaway) turns up on the island with a proposition: she’ll pay him $10 million to drop her abusive husband (Clarke) in the ocean for the sharks. She has extra leverage in that hubby is beginning to get abusive towards the son Baker left behind, but who he still cares about. If that wasn’t enough of a moral quandary, there’s more to Plymouth Island than meets the eye, including a fishing equipment company rep who’s desperate to meet with Baker, but keeps just missing him…

An indecent proposal?

Serenity pitches itself as an island noir, and on the surface it ticks many of the right boxes, especially once Hathaway turns up, looking every inch the part of a classic femme fatale. You can tell she’s hamming it up a little too, playing into the role (with McConaughey, it’s harder to be sure…) It’s also beautifully lensed by DP Jess Hall, capturing both attractive sunny climes and a more overtly noir-ish vibe once a dramatic storm rolls in. But concurrent to that it’s clear some other mystery is going on, and here things get a bit more awkward, the film fumbling not to give too much away too soon. Personally, I think it fails — I guessed the twist pretty early, which I’m pretty sure was not intended, but if you don’t then it’s not cleverly built up to, it’s just muddled.

Once the twist is confirmed — and I say “confirmed” rather than “revealed” because, even though I guessed it, it seemed so loopy that I thought I must be wrong — the whole affair takes on a different light. But it’s not a well thought-through one. It’s the kind of twist that changes your perspective on everything you’ve seen, which is usually a neat development, but here it raises way more questions than it answers. To go into them would be spoilery… so, spoilers follow throughout the next paragraph.

So, we’re supposed to believe this kid has programmed a fishing game starring his dad — not wholly implausible. But it’s one where his dad frequently gets his kit off and shags around for money? I guess we could excuse this as the kid’s been playing too much stuff like Grand Theft Auto and thinks that’s what happens in games, if we’re being kind. But one day he decides to rewrite this game to make it about his dad committing murder, which the character in the game then objects to, and the game turns its own existing rules into an NPC to fight back? What, did this kid accidentally just program a full blown AI? Or several AIs? Or are we going with a Toy Story-esque notion where video game characters are actually sentient? And then somehow his dad actually doing it in-game encourages the kid to murder his real-life stepdad, which we learn thanks to some cheap news voiceover?

So far so noir

Serenity is such a ridiculous mess of a movie that it almost swings back round to being entertaining in its audacity. For me, though, it would need to be better constructed to pull that about-turn off. If it had fully considered the twist and its implications, thought it all through and played by all the necessary rules, some of the people who are laughing at it would still be laughing at it just for the basic concept, but I’d admire it at the very least for committing to its bit. Because it doesn’t, the only reason to consider watching is to marvel at its bizarre eccentricity.

2 out of 5

Serenity will be available on Sky Cinema from midnight tonight, with a limited UK theatrical release from tomorrow.

Green Book (2018)

2019 #26
Peter Farrelly | 130 mins | download (HD) | 2.00:1 | USA / English, Italian & Russian | 12 / PG-13

Green Book

Oscar statue2019 Academy Awards
5 nominations — 3 wins

Won: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Mahershala Ali), Best Original Screenplay.
Nominated: Best Actor (Viggo Mortensen), Best Editing.

White people tell black people all about racism (again) in this year’s surprise Best Picture victor. Well, a surprise to some people — Roma was considered the frontrunner, but some of those with their finger on the pulse of Hollywood had already predicted Green Book’s success. One such pundit was Deadline’s Pete Hammond, a very pro-Green Book voice, although his post-show analysis seems to suggest it only won because of efforts by some Academy members to rig the vote against Netflix…

The reaction to Green Book has been an odd one. It was initially well received, winning the People’s Choice Award after its premiere at TIFF, and racking up acclaim from both critics (a Certified Fresh 79% on Rotten Tomatoes) and audiences (8.3 on IMDb, which places it 128th on their Top 250 list). But the more widely it’s been seen and discussed, the more the tide has turned, especially as a more diverse audience has come to it. On its surface, the film is about overcoming racism — it’s the true story of a bigoted Italian American (Viggo Mortensen) serving as a driver for talented African American pianist Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) as he goes on a concert tour of the Deep South during segregation — but it’s told entirely from the white guy’s perspective.

Coming at it from the perspective of a white guy also, I can see why people have liked the movie. It’s decently entertaining, with likeable performances from Mortensen and Ali, who have good chemistry. Their chalk-and-cheese relationship is funny without tipping over into outright comedy; and, naturally, the way they come to get along is Heartwarming. But it’s also a completely unchallenging movie. There’s just enough racism that you get to go “ooh, weren’t things unpleasant back then!” and be joyed when the characters overcome it in various ways, but not so much as to convey the actual outrage and horror of the era — or, indeed, the way it continues today. You’d think racism was more or less solved by this pair getting along back in ’62.

Admire the white guy

And that is a big part of the problem with the film. If you’d made this 20 or 30 years ago, that level of discussion might be alright — beginning to make old white men face up to what happened by softening it a little, by letting them see themselves in the white guy. Now, it all looks kinda naïve and simplistic. The more you dig into it, the more you realise Green Book has some casually racist elements of its own. I mean, the white guy even helps the black guy to become a better black guy! That’d be offensive in a fiction, but when these were real people it seems distasteful. I guess the counterargument might be that the black guy helps make the white guy better too, improving his ability to write love letters, as if that was some kind of mutual beneficial exchange. But it’s not equal, is it? Plus it’s again all from the white guy’s perspective: he’s fundamentally fine but, hey, a bit of a polish wouldn’t hurt, whereas the black guy needs a character overhaul that apparently only this straight-talking white guy can give him.

But hey, don’t just take it from this white guy. For instance, check out this piece by Justin Chang at the L.A. Times about the film and its reception in the wake of its big win. It digs into the film’s negatives and controversies better than I ever could.

A side note regarding the film’s title: it’s taken from The Negro Motorist Green Book, a guidebook to help African Americans travel in the segregated South by listing establishments that would accept them. They do use it in the film… briefly, about three times total. You feel like a movie depicting how and why the volume came into existence might’ve made for a more novel story.

Write this instead...

In the end, I find Green Book a little difficult to rate. Coming to it as a white viewer, it’s an enjoyably safe trip into history, with charming characters on enough of a personal journey to give it a story arc, but not so much of one as to ever make it challenging. Similarly, it has a simplistic but not fundamentally negative theme (“racism is bad, yo”). In that mindset, it’s a pleasant, feel-good two hours. But, considering it’s 2019 not 1989, I can certainly see why some are clamouring for more nuanced engagement with these issues. I wouldn’t call it a bad movie, but it is an old fashioned one, and certainly not the best of what 2018 had to offer.

3 out of 5

Roma (2018)

2019 #25
Alfonso Cuarón | 135 mins | streaming (UHD) | 2.39:1 | Mexico & USA / Spanish & Mixtec | 15 / R

Roma

Oscar statue2019 Academy Awards
10 nominations

Nominated: Best Picture, Best Foreign Language Film, Best Director, Best Actress (Yalitza Aparicio), Best Supporting Actress (Marina de Tavira), Best Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Production Design, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing.

Drawn from writer-director Alfonso Cuarón’s memories of growing up in the Colonia Roma neighbourhood of Mexico City, Roma is the story of what happens to a middle-class family’s housemaid, Cleo (played by newcomer Yalitza Aparicio), over the course of ten months in 1970 and 1971. It’s also one of the best-reviewed films of the year, winner of BAFTA’s Best Film award (amongst others), and a frontrunner for the same at tonight’s Oscars. No pressure, then.

Roma has already attracted a reputation for being slow and difficult to engage with for ordinary viewers — the very definition of an arthouse movie; and it’s in black and white with subtitles, just to compound the stereotype. There’s no doubting it has a measured pace, and the viewer needs to be prepared for that. It sets its stall with the opening credits, which fade in and out slowly over a static shot of paved flooring being washed by soapy water that flows across it like waves on a shore — and that’s all we see, for several minutes. From there, much of the move unfurls in wide shots, with slow pans or no movement at all, inviting the viewer to search the frame for details and significance. Note that it’s not nominated for Best Editing…

Cleo the maid

At first it’s difficult to see the point of all this, which is where accusations of it being boring stem from. Nothing seems to be happening, just people going about their lives and jobs; a “slice of life” narrative taken to the extreme. What’s missing from that view is context, and as the film goes on we get that — looking back at earlier scenes with the knowledge of what happens later, it’s more possible to see what Cuarón was going for. For example, there are two scenes side-by-side which are barely notable in themselves and certainly have no immediate connection — the father of the family going away on a business trip, and Cleo going to the cinema with the guy she’s been seeing — but when you know what happens later, these scenes are clearly back-to-back for a reason, with a clear connection. One might say juxtaposed, but they’re less being contrasted, more mirrored. There’s quite a lot of that kind of subtle, often exclusively visual mirroring throughout the film — it’s no coincidence that opening shot looks like waves.

This is a film that rewards perseverance, then. It doesn’t work for everyone, but for some the way it slowly inducts us into this family’s life builds to great emotional payoffs come the events of the final act. After a whole lot of very little, it suddenly gets very dramatic and heart-wrenching. You’d have to be pretty cold not to feel anything for the characters given some of the things that transpire, but how much of a connection is developed between them and the viewer is, I think, very much a matter of personal experience. Based on online comments, some find the finale emotionally cathartic, and end up sobbing their heart out; others find Cleo’s silence to be distancing, making her true character and feelings inaccessible, and by turn neutering the film. I find myself sympathetic to both points of view. The film, and the characters, are certainly understated, but I don’t think they’re wholly shut off. Put another way, I wasn’t in tears by the end, but I felt I understood something of these people and their reactions to what had occurred.

Departures

One thing I wasn’t prepared for by anything else I’ve read about the film (which, admittedly, wasn’t much) was how much… slightly odd stuff there was. Not full-blown Lynchian weirdness, just things you don’t really expect to see. A surprising focus on dog shit, for example. A martial arts display with some very, er, jiggly full frontal male nudity. A Norwegian New Year’s Eve song performed in front of a blazing forest fire. Walls of pet dog’s heads mounted like hunting trophies in a macabre display of affection, but with the sheer disturbingness of that seeming to go uncommented on. Cuarón has said 90% of the movie comes from his own childhood memories, so I guess he had an interesting time of it…

At the very least, Roma is a technical masterpiece. Shot by Cuarón himself (because Chivo was unavailable), it looks thoroughly gorgeous — crisp, textured, always perfectly lit, be that by the nighttime glow of a city or misty morning air, with some shots that look like molten silver caressing the screen. Cuarón is the frontrunner for the cinematography Oscar, marking the first time it will have gone to a director lensing his own film (assuming he does win, of course), and it seems to be very much deserved (in fairness, I’ve not yet seen any of the other nominees to compare).

But while everyone talks about the photography, very few people seem to mention the immersive sound design, and I think that’s just as worthy of attention. Roma is also nominated tonight for Sound Mixing and Sound Editing, categories that are often dominated by blockbuster-type films due to their energetic soundscapes — its competitors include the likes of Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody, First Man, and (somewhat ironically) A Quiet Place. I doubt Roma will overcome their bombast, but in its own way it’s just as effective, generating a world around you with its enveloping audio. I guess this is partly the problem of it going direct to Netflix, though — most people who see the film will listen to it through TV speakers, or, at best, a stereo sound bar. However, it’s proof that surround sound isn’t just for action movies, and that it’s worth having a system in your home, if you can.

Journeys

On the whole, Roma exudes the feel of a quality piece of Art, with a capital ‘A’ — it’s beautiful to look at, slow and heavy and opaque in its storytelling, with (perhaps) some deep message about human experience that’s left for the viewer to discern. Is it the best picture of 2018? Well, I mean, if you like that kind of thing… Should it win tonight? That depends what you think the Oscars should be rewarding, I guess. It’s not an unworthy champion in an artistic sense, but is something else — something artistic in a different way, and also more accessible — even more deserving of being crowned The Best? That’s always the tug-of-war when it comes to Best Picture, I suppose. It’s certainly not my favourite movie from last year (and I wouldn’t necessarily expect it to make 2019’s list either), but I still admire much of it.

5 out of 5

The 91st Academy Awards are handed out this evening. In the UK, they’re on Sky Cinema Oscars from 12:30am, with highlights on Sky One tomorrow at 9pm.

Ocean’s Eight (2018)

2019 #23
Gary Ross | 110 mins | download (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English, German, French & Hindi | 12 / PG-13

Ocean's Eight

This somewhat belated spin-off from the Ocean’s trilogy of all-star heist movies (it came eleven years after the last one) introduces us to Debbie Ocean (Sandra Bullock), the sister of George Clooney’s eponymous character from the trilogy, and also an experienced con artist. Recently released from prison, she sets about assembling a crew for an audacious heist: to lift a near-priceless necklace during the prestigious Met Gala.

Said crew is all female — well, the crews in the previous trilogy were almost exclusively male, so why not? And just as those casts were full of big-name stars, so too is this. If Bullock’s in the Clooney role then Cate Blanchett takes over the part of Brad Pitt: the cool, in-control ‘sidekick’ who really makes Ocean’s grand plan happen. Fortunately, the film doesn’t slavishly map everyone else onto roles from the previous movies. One of the key parts is a fashion designer, played by Helena Bonham Carter — not a job that’s normally required for a heist, I don’t think. Here, it’s their way to access the mark who’ll be wearing the necklace, played by Anne Hathaway. The rest of the titular crew is rounded out by names of varying degrees of famousness, depending on your exposure to their previous work: Rihanna, Sarah Paulson, Mindy Kaling, and Awkwafina.

As a gang, they’re quite likeable, fun to hang around with, and the cast seem to be having a good time. They’re somewhat hampered by a screenplay that rarely gives them the sparky material the previous bunch had to work with, though, so I’d suggest if there’s a Nine they get someone to punch up the dialogue and give this lot the text they deserve.

One, two, three, four, five, six, seven... yep, eight. There's eight of them.

Having said it doesn’t wholly map onto the previous movies, Eight massively lifts one plot thread from Eleven, which is that Debbie’s plan is secretly a way to get back at an ex boyfriend (Richard Armitage). Okay, in Eleven Danny Ocean is trying to win back his old lover and/or punish her new boyfriend, whereas here those characters are kinda combined as Debbie Ocean is trying to punish her old lover, but, well, the basic conceit is the same, right? The film does nothing to acknowledge that fact, just leaving it hanging there — awkwardly, if you’re au fait with the first movie. Conversely, whereas Danny was obsessed with his revenge to the point it risked derailing the main heist, for Debbie it seems to be a side benefit.

That isn’t necessarily better, mind: it lowers the stakes of both the subplot (because she doesn’t seem that bothered) and the main plot (because she’s not in danger of getting sidetracked), so why include something so familiar? Indeed, the whole plot is relatively light on stakes, with the team carrying off everything with nary a hitch — barely any need to improvise or change the plan here, they’ve just got it covered. The one potential problem that does arrive is solved instantly, even before the heist begins, with such a straightforward fix that they don’t even need to modify the plan to incorporate it. It’s not even fake jeopardy, it’s just non-jeopardy.

The whole film veers dangerously close to blandness in this fashion. Director Gary Ross may be a friend and colleague of Steven Soderbergh, but he doesn’t seem to have picked up the trilogy director’s inventiveness. There’s some mildly flashy editing scattered about, and maybe one creative shot / bit of sound design (when the camera follows the necklace underwater, the non-diegetic music gets muffled like, you know, we’re underwater), but it lacks the sophistication and verve Soderbergh brings. It feels like it needs a kick up the arse, basically.

“Could you just give it a bit of a kick up the arse?”

I even began to worry it was going to end with no attempt at genuine twists or surprises whatsoever, aside from a few minor but not terribly exciting reveals, which is not good for a heist movie — part of the point, surely, is that they also pull off a kind of narrative heist on the viewer. Fortunately, Eight does have a trick up its sleeve, which is quite fun. But even then, the big plan is still a pretty simple heist, which the film tries to pretend is complicated by showing Heist 101 stuff in excruciating detail (there’s a whole scene devoted to Rihanna slightly changing the position of two security cameras, one… click… at… a… time…)

Yet for these faults, Eight still works as breezy entertainment. It’s not as perfectly slick and polished as Eleven — but then, that would’ve been asking a lot (as pure-entertainment capers go, Eleven is virtually flawless). It’s not as boundary-pushing as Twelve (a seemingly muddled film that gets interesting the more you think/read about it), but nor is it as aimless and derivative as I found Thirteen. It lacks the creative spark behind the scenes (either in the screenplay or directing departments) that could’ve elevated it, but it’s an easy way to spend a diverting couple of hours.

3 out of 5

Ocean’s Eight is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Attack the Block (2011)

2018 #231
Joe Cornish | 88 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK & France / English | 15 / R

Attack the Block

The directorial debut of comedian Joe Cornish seemed to become an instant cult classic on its release back in 2011 — I distinctly remember US geek websites urging people to see it and even arranging screenings, leaning hard into the kind of word-of-mouth promotion that is often how these small but dedicated fan bases are born. It has the kind of online scores that back up that status: as much as everyone who talks about it seems to love it, it only rates 6.6 on IMDb. I guess you’re either in a cult or you’re not. While I did enjoy it on the whole, I couldn’t quite see what all the fuss was about.

The film centres on a gang of teenage lads, led by John Boyega in what it turns out was a star-making performance. They roam their inner city London tower block and its surrounding streets, and we first meet them mugging a young nurse (Jodie Whittaker); and, when an alien creature falls from the sky, they savagely beat it to death. Hardly E.T., is it? Of course, murdering the little thing turns out to have been a bad idea, because soon more of the bastards are falling from the sky, and they seem to be particularly targeting our “heroes”.

I’ve bunged heroes in quotation marks there because this gaggle of protagonists are a right bunch of little so-and-sos (to be polite about it). The film sets itself a hurdle by making them so initially unlikeable, and then struggles to overcome it — frankly, I was cheering on the aliens to give the little chavs what for. You could certainly make a movie where the protagonists are unlikeable and the thrill comes from waiting for them to be slaughtered by the ostensible villains (I feel like someone has, probably something incredibly high-profile, but I can’t remember what it is right now), but I don’t think that was Cornish’s aim.

Thugs'r'us

On the brighter side, the boys eventually come across Whittaker’s nurse again, because she lives in the same block as them, and so we have her to root for. Her earlier experience makes her as non-disposed to the gang as I was, and it’s her connecting with them somewhat that comes to rehabilitate them. There’s also Luke Treadaway (that’s the one from Clash of the Titans and A Street Cat Named Bob and Ordeal by Innocence and so on, not to be confused with his brother Harry, who’s appeared in The Lone Ranger and Cockneys vs Zombies and Penny Dreadful and so on; although they’re twins, so, y’know, good luck) as a posh kid trying to score some drugs, and Nick Frost as the dealer he’s trying to get them off, to bring some comic relief. Not that the rest of the film is super serious (it’s about teenage chavs battling ferocious alien bears, c’mon), but their more direct humour is welcome too.

Despite my reservations about the characters, the film is a great calling card for writer-director Joe Cornish. Although tonal similarities between the movies invite comparisons to what Shaun of the Dead did for Edgar Wright (especially as he’s friends with Cornish and an executive producer here), I feel like Wright’s breakout film was even more assured. Instead I think of something like Guy Ritchie and Lock Stock: an imperfect film in itself, but which suggests a lot of potential from the man behind the camera. Quite why it’s taken eight years for Cornish’s second feature to come around is a mystery.

4 out of 5

Attack the Block was viewed as part of my Blindspot 2018 project.

Joe Cornish’s second feature, The Kid Who Would Be King, is in UK cinemas from tomorrow.