Wednesday 26 December 2018

My Most-liked Films of 2018

I'm coughing, wheezing, spluttering and dribbling copiously as I write this, with the additional inconvenience of a fever I've had which suddenly came over me on Sunday, since when most of my time has been spent under the duvet, only getting up to feed the five pussycats (at latest count) who are relying on me to satisfy their appetites, something I don't possess myself under current conditions.

I haven't been in appropriate frame of mind to spend time anguishing over my choices this year or their respective placings in the list so here are the ones which leapt out for me. Both choices and positions may well change tomorrow. Too bad if they do 'cos there'll be no updates! 

10. The Wife - Glenn Close shows again why she deserves the accolade of 'star'.

 9. Widows - Steve McQueen pulls off a thoroughly enjoyable heist romp with a spectacular twist.

8. The Post - lucid account of struggle between American newspaper and government. With Streep and Hanks leading the cast it could hardly have been bettered.

7. Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again - Many said that this was even  better than the original. I'll only say that it was at least as good, which is sufficiently handsome praise in itself.

6. A Quiet Place - one of those films, in this case a 'horror', which haunts the mind and will stay with me probably forever.

5. American Animals
Based on audac-ious, true story of stealing certain price-less library books, the film makes for a near-perfect entertainment which I wouldn't have thought could possibly have been real. Good stuff!

4. BlacKkKlansman
Spike Lee gives one of his punchiest films yet in this true tale of black American infiltrating the K.K.K.

3. Mary Poppins Returns
I reckon this might be my most contro-versial inclu-sion. I don't care, having had a whale of a time, and if I wasn't feeling so under the weather I'd have been to see it again. Still want to.

2. Three Billboards Ourside Ebbing Missouri
Profound, troubling story flawlessly brought to screen with casting that's perfection itself. 

And a drumroll, please, for...........

1. The Phantom Thread

Totally hypnotic from start to finish, though you do need to be a Daniel Day Lewis fan to appreciate it to its fullest. Even if this turns out not to have been his final screen appearance he's going to find it very hard indeed to top this. My idea of cinematic perfection.

My short list consisted of 32 films (out of 87, one less than 2017) but I don't have time nor inclination to argue why so many of them missed out on final inclusion. Gripe if you want to!

Oh, and my 'Turkey of the Year'? That goes to 'Stanley: Man of Variety' which you almost certainly won't recall or will ever have heard of, despite it virtually solely starring that dependable stalwart, Timothy Spall. But that's the way the cookie crumbles, is it not? 

Friday 21 December 2018

Film: 'Mary Poppins Returns'

Loved it - and I mean loved it! This had so much to live up to, being a sequel to one of the most iconic films of all time, one which everybody knows and knows well, yet it rose up to the bar and cleared it, pretty faultlessly re-creating the style, whimsy and exhilaration of the original, with fine casting, and embracing a clutch of big production numbers which I wished could have gone on and on. In fact none of the songs really outstays its welcome - music by Marc Shaimann [of 'Hairspray'] and lyrics by Scott Wittman with Shaimann - all uncannily close to the spirit of the Sherman brothers' creations, whether reflective ballads or infectious toe-tappers. (The surviving Sherman brother, Richard, is one of the consultants on this).
I'd been trying to avoid seeing or hearing any reviews of this but did accidentally catch a glance at one which carped that the film "never really takes off" (I beg to disagree) and that you won't come out humming the tunes (wrong again!). For the mountain of expectation it has to climb I'd say that it could hardly have been improved on.

Emily Blunt in the title role is a bit more convincingly stern and school-ma'amish than as portrayed by Julie Andrews. Her singing and dancing are not a jot less than impressive.
Lin-Manuel Miranda (whose name I hadn't known pre-'Hamilton'), in his first major film role, is a highly appealing lamplighter Jack, every bit as screen-stealing as Blunt, and enjoying with clear relish his song and dance numbers. To my ears he makes a good stab at a Cockney accent, not anything like as jarring as Dick Van Dyke's. Whenever the original Poppins film is mentioned it's been compulsory for the last fifty years, at least in this country, to mention Van Dyke's misfiring attempt at the accent. I trust that Miranda's much more honourable effort won't get the same laughing, dismissive reaction. 
Ben Whishaw plays (child) Michael of the earlier film a couple of decades further on, now widowed but with three young children, while Emily Mortimer plays his sister Jane who's moved in with her brother (subsequent correction: She's just popped in to help). - and Julie Walters as their maid appears again in one of those fill-in roles to which she seems to be consigned in her later years.
Whishaw (who actually has a song!) is a rather dour Mr Banks, not quite the martinet that David Tomlinson was as his father, but very staid, which is hardly surprising considering that he's only just lost his wife and discovers that he's about to lose his house, thanks to his deceptively evil bank boss Colin Firth. (Boo! Hiss!).
There's also David Warner as the Banks' neighbour, navy obsessed and roof cannon-firing on-the-hour - and in addition there are three other big names, only one of which appears in the opening credits. If you don't already know who these are (though I did) I'll hold it back as I wouldn't like to spoil the surprises.

Criticisms are few. The first song (from Miranda) appears before the opening credits and although it's fine in itself I think it might have done better by being an upbeat number to grab you by the lapels and draw you in. Then the second song is Whishaw's, rather nondescript and melancholy, especially when compared in hindsight with the jolly and fun moments to come. But once the film gets going there's no holding back, and it really is an unalloyed delight.

As in the first film, there are two musical sequences here where animation appears alongside live action, this time perhaps slightly less cross-involving than it was before, though nevertheless still immensely enjoyable.
Btw: There's no equivalent in this film of the 'Feed the Birds' song, which some may miss as I did, though that tune does appear briefly as background soundtrack towards the end.

Director is Rob Marshall ('Chicago', 'Into the Woods') who draws out perfection all round. I'm sure his contribution to the choreography was considerable and he does evince some breathtaking precision in some nifty movements, all completely in tune with the earlier film's conception.

If this is to be my final film of 2018, as looks possible right now, the year could hardly go out on a more positive note. A most happy experience which I'm delighted to push................8

(IMDb..................7.6 / Rott Toms...............7.3 )

Tuesday 18 December 2018

Film: 'Sorry to Bother You'

I found most of the first half of this really good, with a fair share of smiles raised plus a couple of chuckles. Unfortunately, somewhere towards the middle it all goes off-tangent bizarre, and, for some like me, very disturbing, as well as it floundering in a lack of directorial discipline.
There's also a strong resonance with one of my all-time 50 favourite films, viz Lindsay Anderson's 'O Lucky Man' (1973). Pity that though this present film has the aspiration and imagination to emulate it, it can't compete with the assured touch of the earlier, and it fatally lacks 'O Lucky Man's' neat (though admittedly over-self-referential) conclusion. 

In this, Lakeith Stanfield (from 'Get Out', 'Selma') plays a rookie telephone salesman (in Oakland, Ca.), or telemarketer, as apparently they're now called, who only took the job as he was desperate for anything. Tessa Thompson, with ghastly over-sized ear-ornaments and a co-worker, supplies his bed-interest. (Who she? Precisely). Working alongside dozens of others in large open-plan office, Stanfeld soon finds out that he can't make any sales (was it of insurance?) because when his voice is heard it sets up a resistance in the person being cold-called who'll then hang up on him or argue into being incapable of concluding a deal. A sympathetic work colleague of relatively advanced age (Danny Glover) advises him that he'd have more success if he spoke with a 'white man's voice', and he finds he has a ready aptitude to do just that. (We can accept that when he mouths words in this film [actually he and one other] it's really another white actor's voice on the soundtrack, but one goes along with the conceit). It's odd that having been shown several instances of him having been cold-shouldered on early calls with his 'normal' voice we are not given any examples of when his luck turns around and he starts successfully closing sales. But we are told this is so and as a result of his effectiveness he gains promotion to the prestigious position of 'power caller' with pay and status of which he'd never dreamed. So up to this point it's all been quite entertaining. Then during an encounter with his ultimate boss (Armie Hammer) who offers him a line of coke, a jarring jolt of weirdness takes over. Was he hallucinating? This surreal backdrop dominates the remainder of the film (also taking in workers' militancy and demonstrations) when he finds out that the firm is engineering a most disturbing societal shift in its workers, with sights on wider application. A couple of audience members managed to continue laughing through this remainder of the film, which I think we were meant to. 
Additionally, there's a highly popular TV show which will raise a few eyebrows, in which contestants get humiliated by being physically beaten up. 

At least one magazine review calls the film "hilarious" but I wasn't anywhere near as amused. In fact the whole experience left me with an unwelcome aftertaste.  

This is Boots Riley's first full-length feature and he's also the writer of this. He's to be congratulated on his imagination without doubt. Although there is the evocation for me of that British film of 45 years ago, Riley himself may well not be aware of it, and even if he is this new one is not overly derivative. I'm sure that he's achieved in putting on the screen very much what he had in mind. 

The film has generally been well-received (just look at ratings below!), even rapturously in some quarters. My own failure to go along with it is very much a personal reaction, and your own take may be 180 degrees different to mine. If I'd never seen 'O Lucky Man' and consequently not had such a high regard for that film I might have been more amenable to having had a positive view on this new release. Sadly, it's not so..................5.

(IMDb.....................7.0 / Rott. Toms...............7.7 )

Monday 17 December 2018

Film: 'Disobedience'

There's been no lack of what I'd class as 'quality' films in 2018 - and here's another one. 

Rachel Weisz is the single, estranged, only child of her father, a recently deceased Chief Rabbi (Orthodox), and is recalled to London from New York by a best friend (Rachel McAdams) to pay her respects. It's not made clear what exactly had given rise to the split with her father. On arriving in London she finds that another childhood friend, Alessandro Nivola, now an aspiring rabbi himself (and desired successor to the deceased Chief Rabbi) and McAdams have, to her surprise, married. Weisz is, if not directly shunned by the Jewish community, made to feel uncomfortable in its presence, largely on the grounds of being seen as having deserted her father in his time of ill health. She is questioned about her being not yet married, and reminded of her 'duty' to raise a family.
One day when she and McAdams are out alone, a relationship between the two women which, one assumes, had been instigated some years previously, is resumed, to which, the husband, noticing his wife's absences grows suspicious, though unexpressed.

I found this an absorbing story, very well played by the three at the centre. There's much simmering emotion going on underneath for each of them so they have to show us what they're thinking through expressions and reactions. The services in the synagogue are also excellently handled.
As well as starting with questions that aren't answered the film ends on the same unresolved note, though I didn't find this in any way detracted from the overall satisfaction of the piece.

It's mainly filmed in Golders Green, the principal Jewish area of the capital.

I don't know much about Chilean Director (and co-writer of this) Sebasian Lelio's background, but he handles the subject matter with great sensitivity as well as sympathy for the situation in which the two women find themselves. I've no significant complaints there.

It's a story that drew me in and kept my attention throughout its close on two hours' length....................7.

(IMDb.................6.6 / Rott. Toms...........7.2 )

Tuesday 11 December 2018

Film: 'Three Identical Strangers'

I don't recall this story at all, but it was world news in 1980 when three 19-year old men in New York, looking uncannily alike, happened to discover each others' existence - and finding that they were triplets who'd been separated shortly after birth, each having been given to a different pair of foster parents to raise them with no knowledge of each other. After the joy of their simultaneous discovery they find they have, not only an extraordinary physical resemblance, but also matching traits, behaviour and mannerisms, and even history. They become national celebrities and they set up a restaurant business together. However, as one might suspect, it's too perfect to last. A cloud appears as they attempt to find their mother and to discover why they'd been treated so as babies. The story becomes unwholesome and bleak, though they themselves, it hardly needs saying, remain totally innocent. 

There's much archive footage of them appearing in TV chat shows, with present day interviews of friends and people who knew them both then and now, and talk with two of the triplets themselves. 

It's a fascinating, disturbing and unique(?) tale, some aspects scarcely credible, and rivetting throughout in its search for the answer to the question 'Why did it happen?'

This is director Tim Wardle's first cinema-screen release, though not his first documentary.  He puts the story together quite well in logical sequence though I did start getting the feeling of a few too many repetitions, not only of archive footage of both TV and domestic movie shooting (though I realise there'd be only a limited quantity available) but also in things that were said. Thus although the film is only 96 mins long I think there would have been no significant loss in having had it shorn by around 20 minutes. In fact it might have carried a greater punch by being slightly briefer.

A most interesting story which cries out to be better known - or maybe a lot of Americans in particular are already aware of it?..................6.

(IMDb.................7.8 / Rott.Toms................8.2 )

Monday 10 December 2018

Film: 'The Old Man & the Gun'

I was supremely impressed by the assuredly light touch of this film, not an easy thing to capture without conspicuous heavy-handedness,  but director and writer, David Lowery ('Ain't Them Bodies Saints?' of 2013 and the even more praiseworthy 'A Ghost Story' of 2017) has achieved just that with honours. 

Based on a true story (well, kind of!) of 70+ year old Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford) robbing a succession of banks in which his trademark style is courtesy with a smile, and an equally formidable and audacious series of break-outs. initially from various institutions when he was young, and from prisons later.

As many will be aware, the 82-year old Redford has declared this to be his swansong front-of-camera appearance, and I must say he could have done a lot, lot worse than with playing this entertainingly rogueish character on which to bow out. 

Beginning and ending in Dallas, 1981, we see him executing one of his later heists and, while fleeing the scene in his car, he stops to help a lady (Cissy Spacek - exceptional, but when is she not?)) whose own car has broken down. Giving her a lift a bond develops and when the time soon comes when she asks him what he does for a living he tells her, leaving her both perplexed and curious. Not knowing whether or not he's joking she goes along with his story without much censure on her part, though ever uncertain.
He is part of a trio of aged bank robbers (the 'Over-the-Hill Mob') working directly together and splitting the loot, the other two being Tom Waits and Danny Glover both of whom have little to do in this film, with the latter hardly having to utter a word.
The main cop on their trail is Casey Affleck, dutiful husband and father of three youngsters, ever frustrated by being outfoxed by the gang, in particular Redford's character, the one who actually physically performs the bank robbery acts. 

I also very much liked the slow, lingering camera shots right through this, as though the characters had all the time in the world, though the film itself is a respectably tight and painless 93 mins.

Even better than I'd hoped for, if you want to see something unusual which will keep you both amused and in suspense (like wondering how on earth is it going to end?) I can't recommend this too highly.........................7.5

(IMDb...................7.3 / Rott. Toms..................7.5)