Sunday, 18 November 2018

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald (David Yates, 2018)

The milking of the Potterverse continues with Eddie Redmayne now charged with tracking down Johnny Depp's escaped Grindelwald in Paris. The FX-laden images are undoubtedly spectacular once more, with the 1920s cityscapes particularly stunning. But the beasts of the title are sidelined this time to adverse effect by a cast that has grown quite too large, all given their own agendas, some of which are frankly indecipherable. Depp's villain is obviously meant to channel Hitler, with his creation of an army of wizards to be set against mankind, but in truth he doesn't get much to work with except looking a bit scary and making speeches about his vague plans for the future of the world. Rowling simply cannot do political metaphors, and the film doesn't manage to sustain a sense of drama because of all its digressions. Then the realisation that we won't see any conclusion here because it's just meant to lead to a third part sinks in, and that's somewhat depressing.


The Infiltrator (Brad Furman, 2016)

Bryan Cranston moves to the other side of the war on drugs as agent Robert Mazur, seeking to bring down Pablo Escobar's cocaine organisation in the 1980s. He duly sets himself as the got-to-guy for money-laundering on a massive scale and survives numerous close calls where his real identity is nearly exposed.
The disadvantage of fact-based stories is always two-fold: firstly, we are likely to know the end result, and yet secondly the awareness that it is a representation of actual events can be intrusive, in that any more extreme moment can raise a nagging doubt about how much the drama or violence have been souped up for effect. Nevertheless, Cranston's performance is as good as his Walter White, all smooth topshow covering barely-contained panic, and the menace surrounding him is quite palpable at times.


Allied (Robert Zemeckis, 2016)

Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard star as allied spies in World War 2, who fall for each other and then have a child together. It's a splice of Casablanca, where the first half plays out under high tension, and, eventually, Pitt's previous actioner Mr. & Mrs. Smith when to moves to London. Pitt and Cotillard are dependably fine, but it all feels somewhat derivative, with all the standard wartime elements thrown in, including the Blitz, the doughty French resistance and even slimy August Diehl from the nerve-racking bar scene in Inglourious Basterds as a cunning Nazi again. And despite a concerted effort to make the second part, when doubt is cast on Cotillard's character, a proper psychological thriller, it falls as flat as the chemistry between its otherwise charismatic leads.


Sunday, 21 October 2018

Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012)

Carax's return after 13 years of hiatus brought out a wave of critics genuflecting before a prodigal auteur, but why? Granted, his go-to-guy Denis Lavant has bags of range, from acrobat to emotive drama to out-and-out loon, and this is very much a vehicle to let him show absolutely all of that as we follow him through nine different acting jobs in a day across Paris in the course of a day, covering everything from dying old man through motion capture artist for a pervy CGI fantasy film and gibbering troglodyte from the sewers to professional assassin and former lover of Kylie Minogue. Then, in the end, a father to chimpanzees.
This is all for an audience that we're repeatedly told doesn't actually exist, because there are no cameras, and it's clearly meant to say something about the nature of performance arts and their purpose. But the point remains irritatingly, wilfully unfocused. It seems to be enough for Carax to chuck enough dissonant weirdness at the screen in the hope that the viewer will make some of it coagulate into a personal meaning. It's a tremendously lazy and self-indulgent presumption and Carax is hardly the only artist to have tried this, but not too many in the cinematic field have the sheer audacity to chance it. If that still sounds like a lure or virtue, it shouldn't.


Friday, 19 October 2018

Red Sparrow (Francis Lawrence, 2018)

How makers of spy films must miss the Cold War. Since it's clearly too difficult to sell the indecipherable threat of China as the foremost rival to America in the modern espionage world and the Muslim terrorist groups lack regimented global reach, it becomes necessary to turn again and again to Russia as the sinister ideological nemesis. Doubtless Russia in its current form is a corrupt force for evil, as evidenced by any amount of recent news, but depicting its apparatus as merely a continuation of the Soviet KGB-led system, as here, is an unhelpful oversimplification and just leads to a recycling of the established tropes of the genre. Hence, Jennifer Lawrence starts out as a ballerina for the Bolshoi, is coerced into being trained into a dehumanised honey trap-come-superspy to root out a mole and then goes through a cycle of being suspected by both sides and sexually humiliated while trying to play her spy masters and the Americans off against each other. Lawrence is fine, but doesn't get much to do besides show a lot of skin and act hard. Meanwhile, a host of British acting stalwarts such as Jeremy Irons and Charlotte Rampling are used just to add their trademark opaque gravitas as her calculating bosses.
The film has been criticised for both sexism and extreme violence, but these aren't really the problem, since it's quite plausible that the world she moves in is still that crude and brutal. The bigger problem is the muddle that the plot gets into with its double-dealings and fuzzy character motivations, including a U.S. official who we're led to believe is prepared to sell top-level military secrets for an Austin Powersesque $250,000. The sheer lack of focus and realism ends up detracting quite badly from the tension that it seeks to build up.


Thursday, 18 October 2018

Bottle Rocket (Wes Anderson, 1996)

Wes Anderson's first feature already set the pattern for the flights of gentle whimsy that were to follow, including, of course, the presence of Owen Wilson and his brother Luke too, who's hardly a stranger to Anderson's films. They don't actually play brothers, but their relationship as close and bickering loser buddies is akin to the same thing as they go through the time-honoured tradition of the comically failed heist. It skips along breezily and amiably, but there isn't more than a napkin's worth of script to it and hence struggles to hold your attention, something you certainly couldn't accuse Moonrise Kingdom or The Grand Budapest Hotel of, once Anderson had got to stretch his wings.


Monday, 15 October 2018

Lady Bird (Greta Gerwig, 2017)

Nominated for multiple Oscars, it's at once easy to see why the U.S. audience loved it and why it doesn't quite travel intact across the pond. Saoirse Ronan, as the independent-minded teen who insists on being called Lady Bird for reasons only known to herself and Gerwig (because it's loopy, and that underlines her freedom of spirit?), puts in a compelling performance as she navigates the tribulations of teenage and young love. Laurie Metcalf is also solid as her mother, perpetually at loggerheads with her, and the film is to be applauded for having the courage to avoid cheap, overly-dramatic plot twists. However, as anyone who had the patience to sit through the Gerwig-scripted navel-gazing Frances Ha may recall, the dialogue is also very much Marmite, with everyone constantly bombing each other with dry witticisms, which can be quite suffocating. The unhistrionic plot just about outweighs this source of irritation.