Tuesday, 31 May 2016

Money Monster (15)

The financial crisis has, if nothing else, given us quite a lot of new culture to get to grips with.

From the vast array of books covering all the angles we have been flooded with films - both documentaries and dramas - detailing who did what to who and when.

So, you may have lost everything and the rich may have got richer - but at least you've been entertained...

Now to the assembled masses of a genre we really could have done without creating we can add Money Monster - but is there anything left to say about the whole shitstorm?

Well, apparently so.

Because instead of dealing with the bankers or the officials or the politicians, Money Monster deals with the real people who got hit.

OK, real people is a bit of a stretch when one of them is a TV finance guy, but you get my point.

Money Monster tells the tale of Kyle (the ever excellent Jack O'Connell), a man who managed to lose everything after following the advice of Lee Gates - the disenchanted star of a TV finance show.

Gates (played wonderfully by George Clooney) is not to blame for the stock plummeting or Kyle's dumb misfortune, but he's the public face of a problem so that's where the gun gets pointed as Kyle shouts for answers.

From here, two films kind of emerge.

There's the straight thriller, as Gates is strapped in a bomb vest and Kyle waves the trigger about like a flag at a rally - and there's the mystery thriller, as show director/producer Patty (Julia Roberts clearly having a great time) sets about finding out how a company's stock went south so fast.

The two strands are deftly woven by Jodie Foster, once again stepping behind the camera to remind you she's as good a director as she is an actor.

And that's just one of the many strengths of this film.

It has a star director. It has star names. Huge, huge star names.

And yet, the real star of the show is the story. The drama unfolds naturally and you are taken on a tense rollercoaster littered with chuckles to allow you some respite.

And nothing is overblown. All performances are measured, the story is kept taut and, bar one unsubtle shot, the film is as tight as a tight thing that's been thoroughly tightened...

It's almost old fashioned.

And that's it's greatest strength.

The characters, the narrative, the plot twists - they're all allowed to just 'be', to unfold, to do their job.

There's no car chases, no running about (OK, apart from that one guy), no endless explosions and shoot-outs. It's just... Oh what's the word...

Entertaining! That's it!

It has laughs, tension, plight, a baddie - and for 90-odd minutes, you can just relax and have a great time.

Everyone knows their job and delivers to perfection. It looks great, the soundtrack is wonderfully understated and well used, Clooney is doing proper acting - it's simply a bloody good film.

Which, in a world of superlatives, seems like a somewhat underwhelming thing to say.

But it's true.

Money Monster has things to say about the financial crisis, but it also has something to say about how we live our lives today - how we react to things, how the news covers things, how quickly we move on.

Money Monster won't change your life. It won't answer the questions you probably should be asking about how the markets work (or don't).

But what it will do is entertain you.

You'll be gripped, you'll chuckle, you'll enjoy yourself and you'll have something to talk about on the way back to the car.

And then you'll forget all about it. Because, well, you're human and it's what we do...

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Our Kind Of Traitor (15)

John Le Carre is on something of an up-swing at the moment.

Since Gary Oldman put on a mac and brought George Smiley to the big screen, his works seem to be back in demand.

With several projects already in various states of production, now that Le Carre and his family have taken control of his output we are being treated to some quality adaptations of some quality books.

First we had Tom Hiddleston tearing it up on Sunday night TV as The Night Manager, and now we have Ewan McGregor and Damian Lewis bringing Our Kind Of Traitor to the big screen.

Not a book I've read yet (I've only just finished The Honourable Schoolboy - there's a whole list thing going on, don't ask. Oh, you didn't...) so I went into this not knowing anything about the story or characters.

Which, it turns out, is the best way to see it. Because you can just wallow in the action as events unfold in front of your eyes.

And for that reason, I'll sum up the plot thus: Paths cross, people meet, things happen, you don't move for the second half of the film.

Central to the story are McGregor and the brilliant Naomie Harris, a couple trying to rebuild their relationship while all the shit goes down around them.

Shit caused by Stellan Skarsgard who doesn't put a foot wrong as a Russian hood trying to negotiate his way out of a hole.

Then we have Lewis, a man I'm more familiar with as the hero/traitor Brody in Homeland.

And it's about 20/30 minutes in when you start to realise just how good OKOT is.

Because Lewis is brilliantly understated, McGregor is putting in one of his best performances in years (if not ever), Harris is quietly superb and Skarsgard is simply sublime.

Good actors putting in top performances is always going to make things more enjoyable, right?

But then you realise what you're looking at.

Every scene is warm and lush, cushioning you for when the bad stuff happens, and every shot clearly well considered.

At times, director Susanna White (on only her second big screen outing - the first being Nanny McPhee Returns) brings the sweeping vistas of the classic Bond era to mind, at others the close-up work of Greengrass' Bourne outings.

But at no point do you think she's being derivative, far from it.

White clearly knows her way around a story, and with OKOT (I'm not sure that will catch on) she paces things so perfectly you actually don't notice the moment when you become hooked.

You're enjoying the film, you're loving what you see on the screen, you're intrigued as to where things are going, and then, from out of nowhere, you suddenly become very aware of the fact you've not moved or shuffled for a long time and you've been holding your breath for the last five minutes.

And it's all done through those old-fashioned tropes - acting and narrative.

You care about the characters, you really care about where the story is going, and without so much as an action set-piece or a massive shoot-em-up-explosion-fest White gently holds your hand and doesn't let go.

And then grips even harder.

By the end you don't want her to let go, even though it's starting to hurt.

And yes, there are a few moments when you raise a wry eyebrow (she's really got a mobile signal out there?) but the whole film will have entranced you so much by the time they arrive you won't give a monkey's.

A monkey's what, I don't know. But you won't give one. Whatever it is.

In an age where thrillers seem to need car chases and shouting, it's both heart-warming and refreshing to watch a film that grips you without needing either.

A more complete, brilliantly acted, wonderfully scripted drama I've yet to see this year.

Saturday, 14 May 2016

Florence Foster Jenkins (PG)

Sometimes, it's the smallest of things that attract you to a movie.

Take Florence Foster Jenkins - not something I'd have rushed to watch until I saw the trailer, and specifically the tiny glance Simon Helberg gives the screen as Meryl Streep warbles away.

Hmmm, this has potential...

And so I find myself, one early evening, having finally got the Odeon scanner to read the barcode on my phone, sitting among a particularly chatty audience.

Thankfully, they shut up once the fun begins.

The story, such as it is, is quite simple - Florence Foster Jenkins (Streep) is a monied socialite who has dedicated her life to providing musical entertainment to the elite of New York.

Her husband St Clare Bayfield (Hugh Grant doing a fine turn as Hugh Grant) is supportive and loving, despite living somewhere else with someone else.

And all is well until Florence decides to return to the stage. To sing as she has always dreamed of singing.

Enter Helberg as the poor man picked to tinkle the ivories while Florence takes wild aim at the passing notes.

And it's a good job he's around, because it's the relationship between him and Streep that gives this film heart - and all the laughter.

Viewers of popular TV culture may recognise Helberg as Howard from The Big Bang Theory, something which has already given him plenty of room to showcase his fine physical acting.

But here, on the big screen and alongside one of its biggest stars, he really finds his niche.

He's got the skills to allow Streep and Grant to fly, to loom large across the scenes, while he just quietly and subtly fills in the gaps, his timing allowing him to shine and not be over-shadowed.

The film itself is, well, er...

It exists.

We can definitely say that.

And it's not without a lot of charm.

And at times it's damn funny.

It's just you come away from it not quite knowing what you've seen.

Streep's performance is exemplary - heaven knows it's not easy to sing badly well (if you see what I mean) - but director Stephen Frears doesn't quite seem to know what he's trying to say or do.

There are questions around Bayfield's motives, which could be sorted out with some better writing or a better performance from Grant, while Grant himself doesn't seem to quite know what he's doing.

At times he's drawing from Four Weddings, at others his performance in About A Boy reappears - and I'm pretty sure there was a bit of Bridget Jones kicking about.

All of which hints at a lack of depth to the character, like no one quite knew what to do with him.

Which is a massive problem given he's central to the story.

There also seems to be a lack of chemistry between Grant and Streep - which again, could be a writing issue.

Grant is also outshone by Rebecca Ferguson, who plays Bayfield's long-suffering other other half.

She's clearly got stuff to get her teeth in to, and delivers a performance of depth and clarity which sadly adds to the feeling that Grant is a little lost.

Then there are some of the odd choices in shot.

Frears is clearly a fan of Helberg - so much so you'll find him smack bang in the middle of the frame at odd moments and for no clear reason.

Then there's a scene in a steam-filled alley way, which has Bogart and Bacall written all over it - but feels completely out of place in what is, essentially, a gentle comedy.

All of which, I appreciate, sounds very negative.

But despite all of this, the film kind of works.

It's sweet, inoffensive, gentle and has a wonderful performance from Streep at its heart.

1940s New York looks lush and sumptuous and it feels exactly as you want it to.

Which, almost, makes up for its failings.

This film won't change your life, or give you much to dwell on, but it will tug at your heart strings and move you.

And it will make you laugh.

And sometimes, that is all you need from a film.

Monday, 2 May 2016

The Jungle Book (PG)

Sometimes, you hear about a planned remake of a much-loved classic and you just die a little inside - surely someone, somewhere has an original idea worth making?

I mean, what's to be gained?

You want to introduce a new audience to The Jungle Book? Clean up the old print and re-release it to mark an anniversary or something.

Did we really need a 'live action' version that wasn't all that 'live' given it's 99 per cent CGI?

Well, no. Not really.

Especially when some of us had to undergo a whole summer having a certain tiger's name yelled at them the last time it was sent round the world's big screens.

But have it we do.

And, to be fair, it's doing good business at the box office and all the feedback has been largely positive.

Which leaves us wondering what we've missed...

For the two of you who have no idea what The Jungle Book is about, a quick recap - boy is found in jungle, given to the wolves by the panther and raised as their own 'til the tiger rocks up and wants to kill him at which point he gets sent packing back to the human village only to get caught by a snake, befriended by a bear and kidnapped by apes.

Got that?


Based on Rudyard Kipling's classic tale, the original Disney cartoon is rightly regarded as one of their best - with perfect voice casting and great songs to match the feel-good tale.

This time around, we still have the songs and most of the feel-good factor.

So far, so good.

The star of the show is the CGI. All of the animals feel real, the jungle scenes are rich and lush and there's just the right level of cutesy to keep the really young audience members on board.

The voices, though, are a problem.

While Bill Murray rocks as Baloo and Scarlett Johansson makes your skin crawl as Kaa, Idris Elba jars as Shere Khan (why is my tiger from London?) and Christopher Walken is borderline laughable as King Louie.

Sometimes the big name is not the right guy for the role, you know?

The stand-out performer here is Sir Ben Kingsley, who infuses Bagheera with just the right level of warmth and gravitas.

He's so good, in fact, we only found out it was him during the closing credits. Never guessed. Was fairly sure it was Gambon...

But it's a fair measure of just how well engaged we were with this film that a lot of time was spent guessing the voices.

Which is a shame.

Because director John Favreau has done a good job bringing this jungle to life, and in Neel Sethi has found a child actor who can more than hold his own in a world of pixels.

And it really can't be stressed enough just how good the CGI is. It knocks Avatar in to a well-drawn cocked hat.

But there are things here that really aren't needed.

The songs don't sit so well in a "real world" environment, for example - especially when some lovely touches with the score work much better.

And who decided invoking a Raiders Of The Lost Ark/Planet Of The Apes mash-up was a good idea?

The fact such things are still niggling is a shame, because this film does manage to maintain the heart of the original - if not the warmth.

Having said all that, the young children sat in the row in front seemed suitably captivated and entranced - and, at the end of the day that's surely the point.

Yes, a cynical old sod who remembers the original and proudly owns the cassette single of The Jungle Book Groove might have niggles and nits to pick.

But if a new generation can fall in love with a bear and a jungle, then someone somewhere has more than done their job.