Sunday, 26 August 2018

Séance on a Wet Afternoon (Bryan Forbes, 1964)

A delusional woman who believes she has psychic powers bullies her ineffectual husband into kidnapping the daughter of a wealthy man so that she can enter the picture to help them find the daughter with her supposed abilities. But this is a dark piece, with stylistic echoes of Psycho and an overall air of Tales of the Unexpected, so when their ill-conceived plan soon goes south, it comes with a crushing sense of inevitability. It then gets even more claustrophobic and barmy, but the strong performances of Richard Attenborough as the henpecked husband and Kim Stanley as the monstrous wife are utterly commanding.


Movement + Location (Alexis Boling, 2014)

An idiosyncratic woman living in Brooklyn is gradually revealed to have come from 400 years in the future, in search of a safer life. Her situation becomes compromised as she first encounters a wilful teenage girl from her era and then here husband too, who she thought she'd never see again.
Boling's film is a micro-budget affair without any technobabble or FX, albeit that you get the feeling that the director wouldn't know where to start if forced to explain how or why the characters got there. But, disregarding that, what we get is a quiet New York relationship drama, playing on the idea of the refugees from a bleaker future, trying to stay under the radar, equating to the situation of all lonely, guarded immigrants in an alien world.


Loving Vincent (Dorota Kobiela & Hugh Welchman, 2017)

By no means the first film to use rotoscoping, but certainly the first feature to paint over each individual frame, Loving Vincent tells the story of the circumstances of Vincent Van Gogh's death, incorporating flashbacks of his earlier life as Armand Roulin, the truculent son of an old friend of Van Gogh, is charged with delivering his final letter to his brother. When it becomes apparent that the painter's brother died shortly after the incident too, Roulin starts investigating what actually happened to cause his suicide at the age of only 37, and finds a host of complexities that make him suspect foul play.
It's a painstakingly-crafted labour of love, having employed a total of 125 artists from more than 20 countries, and the visual end result, bringing the landscapes and personages of the paintings to vivid life, is quite stunning. But it's also a tad flat dramatically, as the image and our awareness of what effort it took to create constantly overpowers the acting and slender plot, with the inevitable urge to identify the big-name actors behind the paint also a distraction. It is undoubtedly meant to educate, and does bring Van Gogh's work to light in a whole new way, but doesn't quite engage the emotions, meaning that it falls somewhat short of being a complete cinematic work.


Monday, 20 August 2018

Avengers: Infinity War (Anthony & Joe Russo, 2018)

Fight, fight, fight; fight, fight, fight, as Itchy & Scratchy taught us. And so with MCU 19, which is now forced to cram in all its stars in a top-heavy self-styled epic as the Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy and Doctor Strange. plus assorted hangers-on, attempt to avert mega-supervillain Thanos (a CGId Josh Brolin who curiously looks more like himself than the real version) from killing merely a randomised half the population of the universe according to some half-baked personal code of his.
Of course, this would be to suggest that we're just dealing with a cynical market-tapping superhero blockbuster to end all blockbusters here. Which naturally it is. But an effort towards a workable film is actually made, even if that too is necessitated by having to preserve the individual selling points of all its zillions of characters, not all of whom have had their own films yet (though that will most likely come), so there's one-liners through the Guardians, manly grieving through Thor, bitchy superciliousness between Downey Jr. and Cumberbatch and teen geekery through Spider-Man. And that serves to make it watchable despite the endless cycle of each big hitter being put in a queue to have their go at the uberbaddie, just enough that when the end comes at last and it's actually surprising, it's a fair reward for the slog. Just don't expect too much from the sequels when the world gets rectified again. 


Sunday, 19 August 2018

The Shape of Water (Guillermo del Toro, 2017)

At the height of the Cold War, a mute cleaner at an American government laboratory encounters a humanoid water creature captured to be studied and weaponised, and falls in love with it. Unsurprisingly, the military are more interested in vivisecting the creature than nurturing it, and she soon hatches a plan to get it out of their hands.
Del Toro has built his career on far-fetched premises like this, and the conviction with which he pursues them is almost essential to make them work. But here, he may have gone a step too far. As good as Sally Hawkins is as the delicate but determined heroine, with sterling support by Richard Jenkins as her gentle closest friend and Michael Shannon as the irredeemable soldier-villain (akin to the evil captain played by Sergi López in Pan's Labyrinth), a seething mass of prejudice and loathing, and as fabulous the whole of the production design and soundtrack are too, it has to rest on the feasibility and charm of the premise of spontaneous interspecies erotic love, and that's asking a bit much.
It picked up a plethora of accolades and awards, including the Best Director and Best Picture Oscars, and it's easy to see the in an age of big-budget kids' animations with something always included to placate the grown-ups, and droves of sci-fi and superhero films watched by all and sundry, the time is right for romances which are also out-and-out fantasies. Hence the success of La La Land, and now this. They're both full of magical and delightful moments and lovingly made, but also heavily dependent on our surrender to their essential conceits. One wonders how much further we'll go down this road.


Sunday, 12 August 2018

The Limehouse Golem (Juan Carlos Medina, 2016)

Peter Ackroyd's source novel, Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, was as rich in historical flavour and detail as any of his other works, and there is an attempt to transfer some of this through to the long-awaited film adaptation, even if that means an overly familiar Victorian London of perpetual night and fog, populated by leering grotesques. The hunt for a psychopath in the Jack the Ripper mould by Bill Nighy's harangued police inspector cannot help but remind you, to somewhat unhelpful effect, of Johnny Depp tasked with the same job in From Hell, since the director has rather lazily fallen back on souping up the graphic details of each killing, and the saving, differentiating graces are limited to the knowing music hall numbers that punctuate the plot and the inevitable but nevertheless nifty twist ending. It suffers in comparison with other recent productions with a similar backdrop but more complexity, such as the BBC series Taboo, maybe just because we've reached breaking point with the scenario by now.


Friday, 10 August 2018

Ready Player One (Steven Spielberg, 2018)

Spielberg follows a pattern of output well-established over his career where a serious adult-themed film (in this case, last year's The Post) is immediately followed by a child-friendly adventure, by adapting Ernest Cline's science fiction hit novel. The computer game-addicted shantytown world of the near future is a dystopia, but it's dystopia-lite: the teenage heroes striving to win the ultimate competition in the online games world that most of mankind spends most of their time in, while a megacorp tries to stop them, are very much to be seen as cool and plucky: Spielberg young protagonist archetypes. Here, they are also calculatedly target audience-driven: there are the white American romantic leads, and their second-billing accomplices are black and Japanese, with layers of naff anime style and characters thrown in for good measure. Ironically, half the cast is actually British and the few real (as opposed to CGI) urban scenes shot in Birmingham.
As the Avatar-graphic quest progresses, we go through the most intense saturation of mostly 1980s pop culture references ever seen, at least what Spielberg was allowed to use, from Batmobiles and Duran Duran through to a complete recreation of The Shining as one of the challenges. This proves both daft fun and also as exhausting as the pace which is ramped up to beat even the video games that it reproduces, because it's clearly felt that it has to in order to retain the jaded audience's attention. Of course, both of these characteristics and the FX overload are conveniently justified by the plot.
On a base level, the message is that games-obsessed teens are good and adults are squares, and pop culture cannibalising itself is perfectly acceptable. It would have been nice if there was a more complex message in it, but you don't usually get that with Spielberg's kiddie products, so it was probably pointless to expect one. Compare this with Ender's Game, which was also built on a kid hero playing games to save the world, and yet managed to work in a morally ambiguous resolution.