Sunday, 29 January 2017

Jackie (15)

I had already been eagerly anticipating going to see Jackie before the news broke of John Hurt's death.

The passing of the man who brought 1984 to life before my teenage eyes was bound to add a certain poignancy top a film already centred on the former first lady's grief.

And, as one has come to expect, despite Hurt looking frail he delivers another fine performance - this time as the priest counselling Jackie.

But, obviously, this film isn't about Hurt.

This is about Kennedy's widow, and her days following his assassination leading up to his funeral.

Front and centre is Natalie Portman, giving one of the finest performances of her career and one that would be destined for Oscar glory if La La Land didn't exist.

From the opening scenes of her famous interview with Theodore H White for Life magazine - although, for reasons unclear, the solid Billy Crudup is only credited with playing The Journalist.

From a sober start, the film flicks between recreations of a TV special Jackie did, giving a tour of the White House, the assassination, the aftermath, the funeral and the interview.

Throughout it all, Portman delivers a performance of near-perfect balance, keeping you fixed and fascinated as Jackie's world falls apart.

Well, almost.

For despite Portman's best efforts, there are a lot of things wrong with Jackie.

While the cinematography perfectly recreates the 60s feel, the narrative is neither strong enough nor focused enough to retain your attention.

And the slow pacing is a massive problem. Around 90 minutes in, it came as quite a shock to find the film had only been going 40 minutes.

From that point on, things dragged.

Part of the problem are the interview sections.

While two people talking does not always make for a fascinating visual (although it didn't pose any problems for Frost/Nixon), the way the location switches during a seemingly linear narrative is off-putting.

The fact The Journalist is only a narrative device anyway raises questions as to why they bothered at all. It shows us nothing extra about Jackie, and the story could just as easily been told without him.

The cold, distant feel to the film also doesn't help. Other than Hurt and Crudup, the rest of the cast are merely going through the motions - almost as if they don't know much about who they are portraying.

Richard E Grant as a White House staffer and confidant in particular feels like an opportunity lost.

But where the film really falls down is the score.

A film like this really just needed a subtle, gentle feel - instead we are treated like idiots, with a heavy handed orchestra explaining how we should feel in any given scene by shouting slowly at us.

The periods without music are, frankly, a blessed relief.

The days after the murder of JFK - an event felt around the world - are fascinating and worthy of telling, especially through the eyes of the person at the centre of it all.

But instead of a sensitive, touching tale, we are treated to something more in keeping with the Hallmark channel.

Thankfully Portman saves it from being totally terrible.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Hacksaw Ridge (15)

Approaching a Mel Gibson film these days is, at best, tricky.

His apparent views on certain issues having been made very public, it's hard to approach a film of his without that knowledge adding a certain filter to what you're watching.

This is especially true with Hacksaw Ridge, his first directorial outing in ten years.

During his time away for reasons unspecified, we have come to learn certain things. To say making his return with a WWII epic is brave is an understatement.

Having not seen any trailers or wotnot before going to see a preview screening, I was delightfully unaware of what was in store.

To be honest, I'm not sure knowing would have made this any easier to watch.

The film centres on Desmond Doss (played beautifully by Andrew Garfield), a conscientious objector who decides that his unwillingness to handle a gun should in no way impede his desire to serve.

On the face of it, an interesting film about morals and circumstance.

And it is.

Once you get past the opening 10/15 minutes.

I remember a friend telling me, many years ago, about a screening of Saving Private Ryan he was at where the opening sequence silenced a group of rowdy teenagers with impressive speed.

I imagine had they been subjected to the opening of Hacksaw Ridge they'd have been treated for shock and trauma.

To say Gibson pulls no punches is an understatement.

Bodies are killed in a wide variety of ways - shot, burned, blown up, stabbed, you name it - and all is played out in brutal close up.

His desire to bring the brutality of war right into your face is both slightly disturbing and, given where the story takes us, very interesting.

Subtle this isn't.

That said, you can't fault the shooting (should probably find another term there...) of the sequences.

What could be messy and all over the shop has clarity and focus. At no point are you left wondering what you're meant to be looking at.

Quite the opposite.

Once we're over that, through flashbacks we're introduced to Doss and his family and his story is told. For about an hour.

And this is a very nice hour.

Hugo Weaving is nothing short of amazing as Doss Snr, while Teresa Palmer is note perfect as Doss' sweetheart Dorothy.

Sam Worthington is also worth his time on screen. Sure his character is slightly cliched and one-dimensional at times, but Captain Glover is never portrayed with anything less than total conviction.

There's even a guy who delivers meaty performance as Doss' Sgt. And it takes you a while to work out what's so disconcerting about the performance.

You see, they guy looks and sounds like Vince Vaughn. But he's acting, he's measured, he's playing a proper role, he's not in a terrible comedy, so it can't be...

...yet he looks a lot like..., it can't...

...bloody hell.

Vaughn is a revelation here. Not only is he not the annoying toxic presence we've become so used to, he's bloody brilliant.

How Gibson pulled that from him is anybody's guess.

Sadly, however, it is Vaughn's lot to deliver one of the first 'moments'.

The film is set in '45. I get that. It was a different time. I get that. There was a war on. I get that.

But it still jars to hear certain racial slurs.

And it's not just because of my lefty ,liberal sensibilities. It's because you know who the director is.

I've spent a lot of time dwelling on this - probably more time than is good for me - and I'm 99% certain that, under a different director, the words wouldn't sound quite so harsh and loaded.

In fairness to Vaughn, he doesn't look totally relaxed delivering them either.

The second half of the film is brutal. And relentless. To the point that you actually feel like you were up on that ridge with the American soldiers fighting the Japanese.

And not in a gung-ho nationalist pride way, but as in you can feel the mud and dirt, you can't unsee the slaughter and carnage (which is laid bare).

By the end, you feel exhausted and drained. And you were just sitting in a comfy chair in a darkened room.

It's to Gibson's credit that he creates scenes so vivid you feel physically affected by them, but at the same time it feels like he's almost revelling in it.

The film is almost two-and-a-half hours long, and while the first hour feels long, the rest of it feels endless.

Seriously, how many different deaths do we need to see?

In a "normal" war film, it might not feel quite so bad - but when we're dealing with a main character who feels he is obeying his God by not carrying a gun in battle, after a while certain questions start to bubble up.

On the one hand, he could be really labouring the point of what this very particular war hero did for his country - and in fairness, his efforts were almost super human.

But there's a part of you that can't help but wonder about the message of this being a Christian God Doss is praying to and working for (in his eyes), and these are foreigners that have to be killed.

It's an unsettling thought to have, and again under a different director it's possible the thought doesn't even arise.

And were it not for a few choice final scenes with the Japanese, I'm not sure the thought would even arise now.

Gibson saves Hacksaw Ridge right at the end with some touching closing moments, which is good because up that point I was preparing to get checked in to asylum and get treated for shell shock.

Away from the bits that make one squirm a smidge, Hacksaw Ridge is a well told, brilliantly acted, excellently filmed, compelling watch.

I'm not saying if "compelling" is a positive or a negative, because I suspect everyone will have their own take on that, but it is a compelling watch.

To make battle scenes feel that real is one hell of an achievement, just how necessary that is being another debate to be had outside. In daylight. With a beer or five.

But, with everything that is - and could be perceived to be - wrong with Hacksaw Ridge, Gibson has brought out a series of stunning performances from an already talented cast.

You go through Doss' journey with Garfield, caring about how he feels and the conflicts he faces and puts himself through.

And Weaving's portrayal of an embittered, alcoholic survivor of The Great War is just wonderful.

It's an important story that needs telling, and in some ways it restores your faith in humanity.

I'm just not sure we needed to feel like we'd all been through the entire battle.

La La Land (12A)

You may have missed the memo, but we don't live in the nicest of times - America is now governed by toxic Wotsit who swept to power on a wave of racist rhetoric, while Britain voted to leave the EU after those in charge decided blaming foreigners was preferable to actually solving any problems.

After watching worldwide protests against a man who thinks sexual assault is the right of the rich, and then reading comments from people who said protests were a waste of time because they were OK thanks, I really needed a dose of the warm and fuzzies.

So, what better than La La Land, a film lauded from all quarters for being a classic Hollywood feel-good film?

A good question.

I'm still working on the answer, and the list is growing.

That's not to say La LA Land isn't a good film, I'm just not sure it's the film people keep saying it is.

The story, such as it is, is a simple one. Boy meets girl (or girl meets boy, depending on your point of view or where you want to say it all began), jazz is discussed, romance ensues.

And people sing and dance.

It has been sold as a return to 'classic' Hollywood, and while some great films of yore had singing and dancing, others didn't.

Both were good, but which do you want to see as the 'classic' era?

Well, you kind of get both here - with the dancing and the singing and the sweeping panoramic shots and some attempts at proper, meaningful dialogue.

But then you get fleeting moments of very fast cuts, which are so modern you think they've wandered in by mistake.

And there are laughs too, which help. A bit.

But underneath the gloss and the sheen, there really isn't a whole lot going on.

It's an homage to Hollywood (something Hollywood itself is always keen on) with jazz bits thrown in - and the weird thing is, the jazz bits are far more 'real' than anything else.

And that takes some time to get your head round, because to begin with they almost jar.

And this being written and directed by Damien Chazelle, you can't help but draw comparisons with Whiplash.

If for no other reason than it feels like the jazz scenes belong in that film. As do the fast cuts.

You see, in Whiplash, all that made sense. Jazz is off-kilter, frantic, almost feral. Done right it's hot, sweaty and passionate. Almost desperate at times.

A musical is none of those things.

Even Sweeney Todd, which is about as nasty and dirty as musicals get, follows the same tropes and gentle pacing of the genre.

La La Land is a far more eclectic beast.

The opening sequence is, as generally seems to be the accepted view, beautifully done. It's bright, sunny, fun. It's almost theatrical, stage-like, Broadway-esque.

Then there are Emma Stone's audition scenes, or Ryan Goslings piano noodlings. Again, brilliantly done, but they also feel like they're from a different movie.

And that's where I start having a slight problem with La La Land.

For everything I like about it, I can't shake the feeling that Chazelle decided to chuck the whole of Hollywood into a blender then throw it at the screen.

You get comedy, music, drama, heartbreak, whimsy, quirk, dance, fantasy - pretty much everything bar thriller and horror.

The singing's OK, the dancing is good, the story is fine - but by the end, I probably had more questions about this film than I did at the start.

Tuesday, 3 January 2017

Albums Of The Year 2016

We may have mentioned this before - last year, in fact - but we love music as much as we love films.

And with the sad news of Classic Rock's demise late last year, it's more important than ever to spread the word on what's worth your buck in these austere times.

And, to be honest, it was quite a good year on the music front. Helped in no small part by the last-minute discovery of a new Poli├ža album. Sadly, United Crushers arrived to late to make the 10, but has been on heavy rotation since it's arrival.

Dragonette's newie Royal Blood is also worth your attention, if the more poppie, elctronicy stuff is your bag.

Speaking of which, Kaiser Chiefs took a bit of a left-turn this year. Took us a while to get in to it, but it's repaid the effort with some cracking tracks. And the Chili Peppers have continued with their new found 70s funk vibe to great effect.

At the rockier end of the spectrum, Metallica returned with an album that not only had the good grace to not be St Anger but also managed to feel far more like the band we fell in love with. Which was nice.

Megadeth and Anthrax also continued their recent good form, while Sixx:Am (twice) Soul Asylum, Cheap Trick, The Mission, The Cult, Sum 41 and Panic! At The Disco all came within a gnat's crotchet of making our top 10.

So what was so good that it kept all those out, we hear you ask. Well...

10) Brian Fallon - Painkillers

Not only does this album provide further evidence that Fallon is one of the finest songwriters of his generation, but the stripped-down groove translates perfectly to the stage. Not a million miles from his Gaslight home, sure, but this is more thoughtful, more poignant and - dare one suggest - more grown up.

9) Black Foxxes - Black Foxxes

It was cold, wet, muddy and miserable at Download this year, but for half an hour or so none of that mattered because our ears were being torn off by Black Foxxes. Think Nirvana crossed with Placebo, this three-piece are an anger-fuelled bunch who are equally at home screaming the place down or being quietly melancholic. As debuts go, it's not too shabby...

8) Elizabeth Cook - Exodus Of Venus

Cook's been around a while now, but this was our first experience of her - and what an introduction. Sultry, smoky vocals laid over an album infused with a Louisiana swamp blues vibe, Exodus Of Venus is a work of stunning beauty. It also contains our song title of the year with Broke Down In London On The M25.

7) Suzanne Vega - Lover, Beloved: Songs From An Evening With Carson McCullers

The title's not one of Vega's snappiest, but behind the punctuation lies one of her best albums in years. Centred around the life of McCullers (who, we suspect, not everyone has heard of), Lover switches between swing, jazz and Vega's more known pop style with ease and aplomb. Ear worms abound, and you'll be humming at least half the album after just a couple of spins.

6) The Virginmarys - Divides

Sometimes, all you want is a nasty, gnarly, snarly slab of rock n roll. Something that sounds like it's crawled out of the gutter and is thoroughly pissed off about it. For that, you need Divides. From the opening drive of Push The Pedal, the Virgins smack you round the head for a good 40 minutes. And then you press 'play' again because it's just that damn good.

5) Billy Talent - Afraid Of Heights

Somehow we'd managed to never hear this lot before hitting Download. Now we have all their albums, got to interview the drummer about his MS and have played Heights so much it's a miracle we haven't needed to replace it. From the opening Big Red Gun to the closing, slower version of the title track, everything about this album is big. The production is big. The choruses are huge. The songs immense - and there's not one track on here you'd even consider skipping. It could easily have been our album of the year, but for a couple of things...

4) Public Service Broadcasting - Live At Brixton

The band that gave us last year's album of the year return, this time with a live album. In fact, a live double album. Which can't work on so many levels it's untrue. For a start, no one buys live albums any more, right? And a live album from a band who are all about the visual spectacle? Yeah, that's never gonna work. Especially when they're taking two finely curated concept albums and slicing them up. How's that going to work, eh? A bit bloody brilliantly, actually...

3) David Bowie - Blackstar

Even if you try and remove the emotion that surrounds this album (which is near impossible), or ignore all the retrospective reviews which suddenly claimed that people knew he was dying all along, Blackstar is still one hell of an album. Off kilter beats, obscure lyrics, a jazz spirit flows through the whole thing. It sounds like Bowie having fun and pleasing himself. It's as if he knew...

2) Kate Bush - Before The Dawn

To save time, everything that we said about Live At Brixton stands here too - only add an extra disc. Yup, that's three discs of an overly-visual live show, two discs of which are focused on conceptual pieces of work (from Hounds Of Love and Ariel respectively). Yeah, that'll never work etc. But what this album does is showcase just how good that show was. Take away the drama and theatre and it still stands up as nothing short of fantastic. It's almost as good as being there.

1) Marillion - F.E.A.R

I can already here the mutterings and mumblings about an over-the-hill prog band being thought of as better than Bowie. Listen carefully and you'll hear the tutting and shakings of heads. But screw 'em. This is our album of the year for many, many reasons. Not least because in a digital age where people just grab the one track they like and ignore the rest of the album, concept albums are commercial suicide.
But Marillion have been pioneering the fan-funded model for some time, fans who want to whole thing, so that's one bullet dodged.
Then there's the title - Fuck Everything And Run. Not going to get much play on Radio 2 there, are we? Then there's the fact the shortest song around here comes in at around seven minutes. In an age where attention spans are on a par with goldfish? Are they mad?
Well, yeah, they are a bit. But the whole thing works. It's epic, it's cinematic, the lyrics dark and forboding. It's their best album since Brave. And the fact they sold out the Albert Hall in under an hour suggests we're not alone in thinking it's a stunning piece of work.

Right then, on to 2017...

Films Of The Year 2016

Funny old year, 2016 - celebrities dropping like flies, idiots running riot at the polling booths... and somehow, we managed to not get to the cinema as much as we wanted/needed/should have.

Granted, part of that was down to the dross that was kicking about - but you try moving yet again, changing jobs and trying to keep up with all the new releases and then finding the time to actually write about them.

It's not easy.

But, there were some absolute gems released last year. Eye In The Sky saw Alan Rickman leave us with a gripping thriller, while Pride And Prejudice And Zombies was every bit as much fun as it sounds.

And Room was excellent, if only for not being the film the trailer said it was.

Even Star Trek Beyond wasn't terrible.

Of course, there was some utter doo-doo too. Jane Got A Gun bored rather than thrilled, while The Neon Demon failed to do anything other than look nice. Then there was Tarzan.

Let's agree to never talk of Tarzan ever again. Or Batman V Superman for that matter. Or X-Men Apocalypse. Or Suicide Squad.

They never happened. Agreed? Good.

Now on to the good stuff.

10) Zootropolis
Nope, didn't get a chance to write the review - but that doesn't change the fact that a cartoon tackled adult themes in a grown-up way on a level children could enjoy. Laugh-out-loud funny in places, gripping in others... Why can't all cartoons be this good?

9) Doctor Strange
We got lambasted for our intro to this review by someone who didn't bother reading the rest of what we said, but that's not the only reason this is in the top 10. In a year when the apparent big-hitters missed by a country mile, Doctor Strange managed to deliver with great action and humour. Not perfect, but we've already ordered the blu-ray...

8) Midnight Special
Along with Stranger Things on that there small screen, Midnight Special (which had to be watched on the small screen for reasons already discussed) was another love-letter to 80s sci-fi films. No, the story didn't hold up to close scrutiny. Yes, the references were writ large on the screen. Did any of that matter when you found yourself holding your breath, jumping out of your skin and being mesmerised by a small boy's compelling performance? Did it hell.

7) Green Room 
This one seemed to pass a few people by, to the extent that catching this on the big screen proved tricky - especially when we were already having issues on that front. But once we got hold of it, we were hooked. So tense it almost brought on an anxiety attack, Green Room just builds and builds and builds. And when you think you can't take it any more, it goes up another notch.

6) The Nice Guys
In a year light on laughs, thank feck The Nice Guys came along. Shane Black's script as dark and hilarious as you'd hope, Ryan Gosling and Russel Crowe buddying up a treat, people getting shot in ways that made you laugh out loud - this was just a boatload of fun.

5) Bone Tomahawk
We're not allowed to mention this film at home, or watch it in company, or play the soundtrack - certain people reacted rather badly to the horror and violence that unfolds. But that was what made this film. Like taking all the classic westerns, adding Predator and chucking the whole lot in a blender, Tomahawk was brutal, nasty and nothing short of brilliant.

4) Ghostbusters
It's easy to forget the storm and hysteria that surrounded Ghostbusters - both in the run up, and upon it's release. "No," wailed the fanboys. "Girls can't do this stuff, boys should be doing it. And you can't have a man being pointless eye candy, that's a woman's job." And, to a boy, they were wrong. Ghostbusters is a very, very faithful reimagining of a classic. It has all the references and nods you want. It has the strong leads it demands. And it has more jokes than you can shake a Ghost-catching gizmo at. Simply brilliant.

3) Arrival
Some films are too clever for their own good. They try too hard. Then there's Arrival. A very clever film that we still can't quite believe actually got made. There's no car crashes, no explosions, no sex, no linear narrative - the audience actually has to concentrate, pay attention, piece everything together themselves. And it clearly worked, because it's was around for a fair few weeks, proving that if you make a film that is clever and intelligent, people will happily go and see it.

2) Spotlight
The second film in the Top 10 that made us livid this year, Spotlight - which hoovered up many an Oscar - tells the story of sexual abuse in the Catholic church and the ensuing cover-up. Pulling no punches, the film gently and quietly takes your hand and then refuses to let go. Squeezing more firmly as each layer is quietly revealed. No shouting (yes, apart from that bit), no big action scenes, just great, compelling drama.

1) I, Daniel Blake
And so we come to the other film that got our blood boiling. And, in this case, tears flowing. On the face of it, a film about the UK benefit system as told from the side of a claimant doesn't sound all that - but thanks to Ken Loach's gentle direction and Davy Johns' compelling, spellbinding performance, this film had us raving and ranting for weeks afterwards. And still does now. A must-see for absolutely everyone.