Monday, 28 January 2019

Stan & Ollie (PG)

And so we go from one biopic involving two great figures from history to another — this time, stars of the silver screen.

There are rivalries, power struggles and strained relationships, but this time it's more recent history as John C Reilly and Steve Coogan bring us the tale of Laurel and Hardy's tour of the UK in 1952.

And it's every bit as sweet and funny as you could wish it to be.

Starting from the point where Stan tried to get a better deal from the duo's film producer, only to get the boot, the film captures the trials and tribulations as the famous pair try and put the past behind them while facing an uncertain future.

Now, this was always going to be a tough gig, no matter how good the main pair are — while we only have portraits and notes to refer to for royal figures, the works of Stan and Ollie are still here for all to see.

So if a step is put wrong, or a phrase is out of place, the fans will know in an instant.

But there are no such concerns.

Coogan captures the mannerisms of Stan to a tee, switching between 'film' and 'real-life' characters with sublime ease, while Reilly — with the aid of brilliant make-up — fills the physical role of the larger-than-life Oliver like he's been playing the part all of his life.

But where with both The Favourite and Mary Queen of Scots the supporting cast is pushed a little too far into the background, here the wives (the superb pairing of Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda) are given their time to shine.

Nine's comic timing and Shirley's fretting and well-meant harsh words are the perfect foil for the men in their lives, adding a nice extra layer to the story.

And the story itself is wonderfully told.

Capturing the tensions lying under the surface, in themselves hiding the true affection the pair seemed to have for each other, this is as much a tale of human relationships as it is about two stars trying to shine again.

And yet, despite how strong the performances, how well told the tale, how well shot the story, the true star here is Stan's writing.

Some 60 years on, the audience in our screening were still finding the hat swapping sketch funny, the bell ringing bit, the hospital visit with eggs and nuts — this stuff is truly timeless.

Which is, well, heartwarming.

So much has changed over the years, comedy has gone through so many changes, sketch shows have come and gone — but to hear an audience in 2019 laughing at something written back in the '30s or '40s is so uplifting.

Especially in the current climate.

Stan & Ollie isn't edgy, doesn't have a message, doesn't have anything to 'say' — but what it does have is two people paying homage to their heroes and taking us along for the ride.

Not surprisingly, there is something quite old school about this movie, and that is really it's crowning glory.

We left the cinema feeling like we'd made new friends, and wanting to go home and watch their old films.

Mary Queen Of Scots (15)

You can tell it is award season by the films that are currently hitting the multiplexes and art houses up and down our fair land.

Period dramas and biopics are never far away, and it's been quite the last few days on that front.

First we had The Favourite, then Stan & Ollie (more on that to come) and now Mary Queen Of Scots.

And this film would actually make an interesting double feature with Olivia Coleman's awards juggernaut.

Both deal with women in power, both deal with women's bodies and both deal with the inner workings of the political court, albeit some years apart.

Perhaps the biggest difference is that Queen Anne's story was less well known, while Mary's story is ingrained into the fabric of this nation's history.

(If you don't know, Mary was Catholic and had a claim to the English throne while Elizabeth was protestant and those around her were very keen for the Pope to be kept out of the nation's business.)

The other difference is that, while not perfect, Mary Queen Of Scots is much the better film.

Standing proud, front and centre is Saoirse Ronan as the titular monarch.

And she owns this film.

Hers is a performance of passion and power, never once going over the top  with every action and look perfectly weighted and measured. She deserves all the acclaim heading her way.

She's helped by Margot Robbie, who underplays Queen Elizabeth beautifully and so allowing Ronan to fly.

The pair are an utter delight to watch.

However, the same can't be said for the rest of the film.

For a political drama, it lacks tension and at times just descends into random beardy blokes shouting. Which lacks any real impact.

And while the film manages to show the toxic male world both characters had to rise above, the first half of the movie lacks a certain clarity and focus.

Also, given how few people are referred to by name (and we are talking about massive figures from history here), if you suffer from any form of face blindness the number of beards on display will completely confound you.

But, to be fair, for every negative there's a positive.

Yes, it does drag slightly and could do with losing about 15 minutes, but the whole film looks lush and sumptuous and the use of the Scottish scenery is breathtaking.

Yes, certain areas of the plot could do with clearing up — but the scenes in the Scottish castles are so real, so visceral, that you could actually feel the temperature drop.

Yes, there's a tad too much trekking about on horsies — but did we mention just how good Ronan is?

While some liberties may have been taken with the facts, the film itself is a perfectly good period drama with a stand-out central performance.

The period in history has been captured perfectly, and the cinematography is simply stunning.

Just, you know, it could have been a bit shorter. And maybe with name badges....

Saturday, 26 January 2019

The Favourite (15)

The plan today was a simple one — finish off the 2018 top 10 lists, and then finally get bang-up-to-date by pontificating about The Favourite.

Then the internet happened and we got accused of being racist for liking Black Panther and saying positive things about BlacKkKlansman (that'll teach us to read the comments).

I mean, really? Us? We've seen loads of Samuel L. Jackson films. We own a Jimi Hendrix album. How could we be racist?*

Sometimes humans really worry us.

Anyhoo, onwards. Olivia Coleman is a mad queen and we need to be talking about THAT far more than some white person (we're guessing) telling us racism isn't an issue any more.

Because with a cast of Coleman, Emma Stone and Rachel Weisz, and all of the Oscar buzz around their performances, this was going to be a cracker.

And it is. In places.

But man does this film have flaws.

At its core, The Favourite is a political drama, with Weisz's Duchess of Marlborough manipulating Coleman's Queen Anne in order to govern the country to her husband's benefit, and those of her political allies.

Thrown into the mix is Stone's Abigail, cousin to the Duchess and now fallen on hard times.

She decides to start working her way back to the top of the social pile by worming her way into the Queen's favour by any means necessary.

All of which is good stuff.


While a film with three strong female leads is always welcomed,  it would make those characters stand out even more if the supporting cast were also strong.

Instead, Nicholas Hoult and James Smith are left with very little to play with and so are reduced to nothing more than foppish caricatures.

(We will stress at this point, given idiots are out in force, that this is not to say the men should have better roles so don't even bloody go there — it is an issue with the writing, in that these characters are not well drawn and lack depth. Now behave and go have a biscuit.)

The film has some nice comic touches (mainly involving Stone) and Coleman steals every scene she's in, but behind that the film has problems.

Aside from the poor characterisation, there's the score.

Dubbed the Gout Theme, there is a really grating noise used for reasons — possibly to show how uncomfortable Queen Anne is at that point — that only serve to really wind up the audience.

It's use later serves even less of a purpose but does annoy even more.

Then there's the random use of a fish-eye lens.

I get that Yorgos Lanthimos likes to play with convention (he is, after all, the man who brought us The Lobster), but when the effect is to make those staring at the big screen feel seasick we think it's fair to say it hasn't quite worked.

If such tricks and tropes served any real purpose than it would be so much better, but the overwhelming feeling is that it is all affectation — attempts to play with the genre just for the sake of it.

We've had bawdy period pieces before, we've had endless swearing before — we've probably not had a naked Tory being pelted with fruit before, but have you ever watched a film and felt that was something that was missing?

Probably not.

Overall, The Favourite is a cracking idea that falls somewhat short on the big screen.

The central performances are cracking, but then they have to be because there isn't a lot going on underneath the surface.

Rabbits were nice, though...

*This review contains an element of sarcasm and satire because that person's post REALLY made the eyes roll and led to lots of muttering.

Albums Of The Year 2018

Looking back at 2017's Albums Of The Year post, we signed off saying we'd be back if the world hadn't blown up — and while it may feel like it has, it seemingly hasn't so here we are.

And while the film world was, at times, underwhelming, at least the music industry had some stand-out releases to keep our ears warm as we toddled to and from the cinema.

Things started well with Brian Fallon returning with his second solo album. More soulful than previous outings, Sleepwalkers showed ol' B maturing nicely.

Also making welcome returns to the fray were The Dogs D'Amour, with delightfully loose and raw album that can proudly cock a leg against their best outings, while Slash jumped off the GnR juggernaut long enough to produce his best solo album to date.

Stone Temple Pilots found themselves a new singer and, while no new ground was being stomped, showed they can still produce a solid rock album, and Jake Shears finally re-emerged — and gave the world the sort of joyous pop music that made us fall in love with Scissor Sisters in the first place.

There was also something of a trend for re-imagining back catalogues, with Levellers doing a range of new acoustic arrangements of old classics and Rise Against doing much the same, only with a cheeky orchestra on board.

But it wasn't all about the old guard. Star Crawler slithered out of America and took the rock world (and Download festival) by storm with their New York Dolls-esque debut.

Tina Dico and Kacey Musgraves also had a good year, with Dico's sublime grown-up pop and Kacey's slow shift into more poppie realms both being good enough to almost make the top 10, almost being joined by Laura Jane Grace's wonderfully raw solo debut.

So what kept three fine albums such as these out of the top 10?

Glad you asked...]

10) A Star Is Born OST

Now you wouldn't normally have a soundtrack in a top 10, but this is here for a couple of good reasons — first they're all original songs, and second this is a proper old school soundtrack with snippets of dialogue peppered through out. The latter should be mandatory for all soundtrack albums, but the former is something of a delight. Gaga and Bradley Cooper sing their hearts out, and the album is so good it actually gave us a new appreciation for the film.

9) Therapy — Cleave

It's wrongly thought that Therapy? peaked with their seminal Troublegum album way back in the mists of time, but nothing could be further from the truth. Their latter-day period has produced some fine stuff, but with Cleave they really took it up a notch. Searing guitars, catchy choruses, the venom of their early stuff, Cleave has got the lot. It's also the closest they've come yet to replicating Troublegum's drum sound. Oh, and it clocks in at a little over 30 minutes, making this beautifully brutal and compact to boot.

8) Stone Broken — Ain't Always Easy

Sometimes, all you really want is a solid rock album. Something you can just crank to the max and sing along to at the top of your voice as the guitars and drums smash your ears to bits. This year, Stone Broken kindly provided the necessary. With gravelly vocals, pounding rhythms and choruses that lodged in your noggin for weeks (just check out Let Me See It All and Heartbeat Away), this lot provided gave hope that all is not lost in the Brit Rock scene right now.

7) Walking Papers — WP2

Before Axl saw sense and got the band back together, Duff McKagan was having a high old time hanging out with the man with the sexiest voice in rock, Jeff Angell, The result was Walking Papers, one of the finest bands and albums to surface in some time. That it took them six years to come up with a second album is nothing short of criminal, but on the bright side at least it was worth the wait. My Luck Pushed Back, Death On The Lips and I Know You're Lying are all bona fide classics worthy of sticking on repeat.

6) Ducking Punches — Alamort

OK, I'll admit that I know these guys. Have been a fan and a mate for a couple of years now, but that doesn't interfere with the fact this is a cracking third album from Norwich's finest. Raw, emotional vocals over acoustic punk guitars, the band have grown and matured with each release. Dan's songwriting is as honest and personal as ever (I Ruin Everything and being a perfect example), while the band have never sounded so tight and focussed. This has pretty much been on repeat all year.

5) Ginger — Ghosts In The Tanglewood/The Pessimist's Companion

As die-hard fans will know, Ginger has been having a hell of a time of it of late. First his mental health took a dive, and then his relationship joined in. As he started to put himself back together, Ginger did the only thing he knew — he grabbed his guitar, got the guys round, and put all of his emotions and experiences down in a song or 12. Twice. When Ghosts came out at the start of 2018 we discovered that Ginger was in a country frame of mind, and so we got tales of his breakdowns set to acoustic and slide guitars. And it's as beautiful and poignant as you would imagine. The Daylight Hotel and Paying It Forward tell you all you need to know about what's been happening so far.
But then, because he wanted to and could, he got the guys back together and recorded Companion. Due out in hard copy this year, pre-orders were gifted the advanced downloads, and it's every bit as good as its predecessor, only slightly more focussed, now that the band know what's needed. I Love You So Much I'm Leaving and You Will Let Me Down Again tell us what's still on his mind, and the songs are as fragile and beautiful as the first batch. Any artist would be delighted to have produced one of these albums. Only Ginger could do it twice in a year...

4) The Wombats — Beautiful People Will Ruin Your Life

Many moons ago, we were at a thing called a V Festival (apparently it's still a thing) and decided to go and see some random band just because they had a daft name. Turns out The Wombats were OK. Good little bunch of kids. Good debut album too. But then life moved on, we checked in occasionally, they seemed to be doing OK, and we both carried on as before. Then we caught the last album, which was a bit good. Then we heard the new one, and were blown away. It's a near-perfect slice of indie pop — quirky lyrics (Lemon To A Knife Fight), catchy choruses (Out Of My Head), super-sexy bass lines (Ice Cream), this has got the lot. As the weather carries on getting hotter, this will be the perfect album for driving around with the windows down for years to come.

3) Meg Myers — Take Me To The Disco

This may only be Meg's second full album, but news of its release was cause for much excitement here at Chez Popcorn. Her debut was searing, raw and wonderful, so more of the same would be lovely. Only that's not what we got. Taking her time, Meg went off and started experimenting, and came back with a dark, atmospheric, hauntingly beautiful collection of proper, grown-up, adult pop music. From the From the eerie title track to the pounding Tear Me To Pieces and the raw emotion of Funeral, this is the sound of a woman growing into her music and barely putting a foot wrong.

2) Tom Morello - The Atlas Underground

Tom Morello is, I can think we can agree, something of a legend in the guitar world. First he was at the cutting edge of rap-rock, then he was at the cutting edge of the supergroup, then he taught Bruce Springsteen how to play his own song — and now he's stepping out again, collaborating with the world's top *checks notes* electro artists.... Because if there's one thing you can say about Morello is he does like to change things around a bit and confound expectations. First we had The Nightwatchman, now Atlas Underground. And it's as brilliant as it is unexpected. From the opening pounding beat of Battle Sirens we're treated to driving rhythms, atmospheric soundscapes, catchy choruses and incendiary rapping. Joined from across the genres by Knife Party, K.Flay, Gary Clarke Jnr, Steve Aoki, Tim McIlrath and, erm, Marcus Mumford, The Atlas Underground is an electic mix of brilliance.

1) Mike Shinoda — Post Traumatic

As you may have heard, in 2017 we lost Linkin Park frontman Chester Bennington. And while the world mourned, the rest of the band were left to wonder what they did next. Then in June of last year, we found out what Mike had planned. Fuelled by the twin losses of both his mother and his best friend, Mike had been pouring everything he felt down on to tape. The result is a passionate, raw, heartfelt collection of songs about grief, loss, coping, not coping, and at one point being stuck in traffic. It's also strangely uplifting, and in almost every case catchy as all hell. Crossing A Line, Nothing Makes Sense Anymore, Ghosts and personal favourite Holding It Together show a man trying to make sense of what has gone on while also being at the absolute top of his creative game. Guest stars swing by, but at the centre of it all is Shinoda, standing tall, singing his heart out and sweeping is all along with him.

Til next year....

Friday, 25 January 2019

Films Of The Year 2018

Funny story - figured I'd do this between Christmas and New Year as I had some downtime. Then I was a bit snoozy, so figured 'tomorrow' was fine.

Tomorrow gets away from you if you don't pay attention, doesn't it? Especially when there's cake...

Anyhoo, we're here now — and it's not like we've got memory issues or anything. Recalling all that we saw will be a breeze.

There was....

....erm.... was a bit of a duff year, wasn't it?

I mean, sure, Avengers blew our socks to pieces (well, a sock), and Ant-Man was back with an even better film than the first one, and we started the year well with Three Billboards and The Post, but there was some dross.

We're still not sure how The Spy Who Dumped Me got made, or how Finding Your Feet for that matter — a film so tedious we couldn't even be bothered to write about it.

Then there's the Jurassic franchise. They are getting worse with every outing and yet they still appear on the screen and people go and watch them.

At least The Meg knew how bad it was, which actually made it quite good.

Sadly the same couldn't be said for M:I Fallout. While many proclaimed it the best yet, and in one case "Tom Cruise's Swan Lake" we were left picking at the massive plot holes and wishing it was at least 40 minutes shorter.

There was time for one hidden gem, though. Dark River is a dark, tense little drama starring Sean Bean and Ruth Wilson and set in a Yorkshire farm house. Light on laughs, but proof that if supported British Cinema can pull a rabbit out of the hat.

Even if, in this case, it's then skinned and put in a pot....

Still, that's enough about that. Onwards!

10) A Star Is Born

Not a film we were particularly enamoured of upon leaving the cinema, Star has quietly crept up on us — helped in no small part by the soundtrack. Fine performances and well directed by Bradley Cooper, the ending might still irk but the film as a whole works really well and the songs are just brilliant.

9) Black Panther

Amazingly now up for an Oscar (which has, quite brilliantly, annoyed half the world), Panther is here ahead of Avengers because it was both an unexpected delight and just so much damn fun. "Oooooh, but it's all just CGI innit" oft went the cry, and yes there's a huge number of pixels at play (spoiler alert: battle rhinos are not a real thing), but it's a Marvel film. It's not a documentary. And most importantly, it was damn fun. Gags, car chases, fantastic female characters — it was Marvel at their most Marvelist.

8) Bohemian Rhapsody

A film that seemed to be creating a whole new story in just trying to get to the big screen, Bo Rhap (as all the cool kids are calling it) was a stupidly over-the-top overblown piece of nonsense with a massively inflated sense of it's own worth and importance. Basically, it was Queen. In a film. If you were expecting anything else you really haven't listened to many of their albums. But more importantly, it took you on a journey you knew, towards an ending you were already aware of, and made you grin like an idiot while bawling your eyes out for the final 20 minutes.

7) Sorry To Bother You

A recurring theme last year was the issue of race — hardly surprising given what seems to be happening around the world right now — and while Sorry To Bother You announced its intentions from the off in the trailer, they kind of lied. An off-beat, quirky comedy that at times is perhaps trying to say too much, it's 90 minutes of enjoyment. With the added bonus of being two films bolted together. If the first two-thirds aren't for you, all the horsing around in the final third might well float your boat.

6) A Quiet Place

Sorry, what? Yer man from the office has written and directed a sci-fi thriller? Well this won't be any goo...... oh. Yup, with the discovery that Emily Blunt is actually married to John Krasinski being just one of the shocks this film had in store for us, A Quiet Place managed to deliver tension, jumps, scares, tragedy and the odd smile in a near-perfect way. Yes, there were some plot issues (How do you give birth quietly? How do you conceive quietly? Actually, don't answer the second one), but overall A Quiet Place delivered more bang for its buck than many of its big budget rivals.

5) Widows

A film so good, Liam Neeson couldn't spoil it — what more do you want, eh? With stellar performances from all four of the female lady persons who were reduced to doing crime stuff to make up for the crap their dead other halves had led behind, Widows was a wonderfully dark, gritty nasty piece of work that did what it set out to do. Sure, it wasn't perfect, but it had some cracking little touches (the way the car journey is filmed for example) and Viola Davis delivered another wonderful performance.

4) Bad Times At The El Royale

Now yes, we know this went a little south in the final third, but before that (and after, actually) Bad Times was a wonderfully nasty crime mystery that announced its intentions early doors when one of the main characters is done away with. From there you know all bets are off, and over the course of one night we get to find out how all the different characters got there. At times brutal, at times sweet, there's not a bad performance on screen and the whole thing is a wonderful reminder that sometimes the best thing to do is just tell the damn story.

3) The Shape Of Water

A film slightly ruined the minute you realise it's basically Abe Sapien up there with Sally Hawkins, Shape was a simply beautiful fairy story that stole everyone's hearts as well as the Oscar for Best Picture. Del Torro might not have been able to get Hellboy III funded, but at least he's finally managed to show the rest of the world what all the cool kids and film geeks knew already — that when it comes to magical fantasy films, no one does them as well as he does.

2) Dead In A Week (Or Your Money Back)

Now, some of you will probably be wondering how a small British comedy can be this high up a top 10 list, especially when at least half of you still won't have managed to see it yet (Amazon seemingly only has a German language version available) — but this film was pretty much perfect. It's 90 minutes long. It's laugh-out-loud funny. The central couple are brilliant together. Tom Wilkinson is on top form. The soundtrack is great. And it's got something to say about mental health and suicide. To be honest with you, it was going to take something really special to keep this off top spot...

1) BlacKkKlansman

....something like, say, this. As mentioned earlier, we live in an age and a time where race has never been a bigger issue. And I say that not to trivialise events of the past, but because we should be way past all this, we should have dealt with all this crap — but humans be stupid, and a certain section of society (nasty old rich white men, mainly) has decided equality is a bad thing and should never have been allowed, so here we are. Thankfully, Spike Lee has never been someone to sit quietly on the sidelines, which is why we got the most important film of last year (and, arguably of recent years). Taking on the true story of a black guy who infiltrated the KKK in the 1970s, BlacKkKlansman is both a tense drama and a great comedy. It shines a burning torch on today's issues by showing us how much things haven't changed, and if that doesn't deliver the message strongly enough then the end-credit sequence will have you in tears.

Right, quick cuppa then it's on with the albums...