Review in Brief: Soni (2018/19)

The best thing about Netflix as a service is how it encourages the democratisation of cinema. So many promising new, diverse voices would not have an outlet without the streaming giant. SONI is a hidden gem, and you should all load it up on Netflix right now and watch it. Two female cops in Delhi encounter misogyny to different extents in their day-to-day and deal with it in very different ways. Soni (Geetika Vidya Ohlyan) and her superior Kalpana (Saloni Batra) are mesmerising, empathetic and relatably flawed individuals who refuse to let the bastards grind them down. Most of the film is just us bearing witness to how they handle a series of challenging situations at work and at home, and it’s captivating, thoughtful stuff. The key message, that “They will always try and get the better of you because they know you are stronger than them” is truly one to live by. SSP

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Review: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (2011)

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The art of stillness: Studio Canal/Paradis Films

Oddly enough, despite its 1970s setting, cold grey rooms and tweed, Tomas Alfredson’s adaptation of John Le Carré’s TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY feels more relevant and connective than ever. Maybe it’s because the modern world we live in is becoming as ridiculous and paranoia-fuelled as it was at the height of the Cold War. Talk about depressing.

The British Secret Service, known by the euphemism as the Circus, has a mole. An operation in Europe has gone very wrong and whoever has infiltrated the Circus is still sending vital intelligence back to Moscow. With every higher-up working in espionage under suspicion, George Smiley (Gary Oldman) comes out of retirement to flush out the enemy agent before any more lasting damage is inflicted.

Alfredson proved his talent for the creeping tension-build and maintaining a chilly atmosphere in his breakthrough LET THE RIGHT ONE IN, and this talent he puts to extremely good use here in bringing to life the emotionally dead world of Cold War espionage.

The casting is faultless, with Gary Oldman delivering the performance of his career as Smiley – he may not say much, but he doesn’t really need to when he’s got the art of communicating through sitting perfectly still and subtly altering his facial expression down to such a fine art. I don’t think I’ve ever seen someone taking off their shoes embody such fragile tension. If we’re being picky he’s probably a bit too in shape and full-haired to be Le Carré’s Smiley, but sometimes an actor is able to communicate a character’s essential essence. Others in the film’s huge ensemble cast all have their moments to impress over the course of the film, but the of particular note are Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch and John Hurt (the latter of which was once considered to play Smiley, but is much better suited as the cantankerous Control).

Though it’s undeniably an exceptional spy film, where Tinker Tailor really hits the mark is as a commentary on the futility of war. It takes Le Carré’s novel, and aside from a bit of streamlining presents things as they were on the page, with the spy-writer-extroadinaire’s treatise on dying superpowers intact. Every character is on edge as the investigation to find the Soviet mole within the British secret service progresses – the paranoia of the Cold War and threat of an enemy gaining the upper hand is perfectly communicated through subtle characterisation, with every member of the Circus looking as through they’re rotting from the inside out.

Alfredson’s directorial style highlights this near-constant sense of unease, keeping us at arms length from everyone we follow, never allowed to really know anybody. We just look on, helpless, at once-powerful men who sit slowly crumbling in bleak, cold offices and dingy hotel rooms. In a lesser film, denying the viewer to really get inside character’s heads would be a drawback, it would be considered shallow, but not so here. We are given just enough information to make our own judgements on which shade of grey the key players are operating in, about what may be going through the heads of this group of decrepit spies, but not quite enough to plot the exact course the film will take. Smiley is always one step ahead of the viewer in his investigations, and marveling at the way his mind works when all the pieces of the puzzle finally slot into place is part of the fun. I’ve seen this film a few times and read the book but I still always find myself struggling to keep up with his powers of deduction and his leaps in logic.

One question remains after watching the latest and best adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Where’s the followup? Come on, Alfredson, Oldman et al, free up your schedules – we’re waiting with baited breath! SSP

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Review in Brief: The Wandering Earth (2019)

THE WANDERING EARTH either needed to be a lot smarter or a little bit dumber to really land. It’s fascinating to see China enter the international blockbuster arena in earnest with the killer premise of building monolithic engines on the Earth’s surface to move the whole planet away from our dying sun. Jupiter being a one of the biggest obstacles in the solar system with a gravitational pull to match just adds to the world-ending problems and at a key moment prompts the line, “Come on, let’s ignite Jupiter!”. The sheer magnitude of the concept and the dazzling, terrifying astro imagery makes it worth a look, but can’t disguise the fact that really it’s just another disaster movie with generic characters and action beats. Director Frant Gwo clearly has a natural eye for this scale, though perhaps could be less inclined to crib Hollywood’s tiredest clichés. SSP

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May the Fourth Review: Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace

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They’re not small, Neeson is far away: Lucasfilm

Yeah, that’s right, for Star Wars Day 2019 I’m reviewing this one. It’s not that bad. Alright it’s bad, but it’s not that bad. George Lucas knew what he wanted to achieve with THE PHANTOM MENACE, his vision remains clear and striking, but he could have definitely done with someone to hold him back every now and then and limit his worst excesses.

A planetary blockade attracts the attention of two Jedi Knights (Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor) who by necessity become bodyguards to a teenage queen (Natalie Portman), find a chosen one (Jake Lloyd) along the way and battle sinister forces who have been gone for a millennia…

Qui-Gon Jinn has a lot to answer for. Yoda (Frank Oz) at least attempted to advise him and Obi-Wan against his risky course of action, putting all his faith in a powerful but untrained and potentially dangerous pre-teen. A lot of people forget that. Yoda saw the danger in Qui-Gon’s misplaced faith from the start, the one outlier on the Jedi Council who disagrees with Obi-Wan training Anakin at the end of the film. Unfortunately for the galaxy, Yoda was outvoted: “Agree with you the council does…agree with their decision I do not”.

It’s not the wooden line readings (which don’t help) or the over-expositionary dialogue (which doesn’t help either) that sucks the life out of this film. It’s all the relentless politicking. It’s people describing what’s going on, who’s where and why and on what side rather than just showing us in interesting ways. The plot lurches from one side of the galaxy to another, lacking the momentum and strong through-line that pretty much every other Star Wars film has. We move from one location or plot development to the next not because of any organic reason to but because we’ve spent enough time on this bit of the story.

Lucas for some reason decided to retroactively explain the Force. The concept of medi-chlorians is like trying to come up with a scientific thesis to support any religion, or spirituality in general. The influence this prequel had on almost all others to do the same, that now nearly every film that leaps backward in an established universe now feels the need to justify every ambiguity, is a lasting damage to the medium.

So, about Jar-Jar Binks (Ahmed Best). I understand Lucas wanting a colourful mascot character, someone to appeal to younger kids in the audience and break the monotony with slapstick humour; that’s a very Star Wars thing to do. What most everyone does understandably object to is his presentation and what that might say about Lucas’s politics. Yes, he’s a big orange space frog-giraffe thing, but pop culture doesn’t exist in a vacuum and the way he speaks, acts and effects the plot is clearly based on some outdated and offensive views of black communities. Let’s not even get started on the stereotypes employed for the other alien races…

Liam Neeson is much better than this material deserves and it’s a shame if he asked to be killed off and not come back as is rumoured, because Qui-Gon’s continued presence in the Prequel Trilogy, even in Force Ghost form might have added another layer, if could have witnessed the fallout of his greatest mistake and perhaps even atoned. Pernilla August absolutely kills in Anakin’s goodbye scene – crueller critics have had a go at her delivery (she’s Swedish and doesn’t generally do English-language films) but she still has that special extra something going on behind her eyes, because she’s a good actor. Senator Palpatine’s subtle sleight-of-hand that gets him well on his way to ultimate power is also extremely well-played. I think Iain McDiarmid got a kick out of playing this characterisation out without having to exert much effort on Shakespearean dialogue (which this isn’t).

The Duel of the Fates is still good. But it’s not great, not anymore. We’ve come a long way in action choreography in 20 years. For years I was convinced Ray Park’s Darth Maul was quite diminutive, forgetting that he’s nearly always fighting the towering Neeson. Judge me by my size, do you? The pod race has aged far better, it’s still exhilarating and fun, the hard work of the effects wizards at ILM and Ben Burtt’s peerless sound design still leaving an indelible impression.

Twenty years on (Jesus, that’s depressing) and I’ll still go back and re-watch The Phantom Menace relatively happily. There’s enough imagination and space opera spectacle to divert even if the dodgy politics, stodgy storytelling and below-par performances still understandably attract derision. We’d have to wait another three years for a truly terrible episode of Star Wars, and maybe next time I’ll tackle that one as well. May the Fourth be with us all. SSP

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Review: Missing Link (2019)

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Trust me, I’m an explorer: Annapurna Pictures/Laika Entertainment

By Laika’s incredibly high standards, MISSING LINK isn’t quite up there. Saying that, even bottom-drawer Laika is still top-drawer animation, so there’s still plenty to recommend here.

In an effort to prove himself to a stuck-up explorers’ society, noted man of action Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) journeys to discover the mythical Sasquatch. He only goes and does it, meeting and befriending “Susan” (Zach Galifianakis) and agreeing to guide him to find his Yeti relatives in the Himalayas. With the help of the headstrong widow of a former partner (Zoe Saldana) Sir Lionel and Susan embark on their great quest…

This feels like a movie from another time, like a tale of derring-do on an ambitious scale that a John Huston or a Michael Curtiz might have made half a century ago. It’s an adventure movie and a movie that visits far off and exotic locales and throws our heroes from one mighty challenge to the next. To be honest I thought it was really missing an old-timey “you have been watching” credits sequence at the end.

The level of detail in the far-ranging environments and the animal inhabitants of this world is awe-inspiring. This is a new high-point for combining stop-motion animated characters with CGI effects. From a mud-splattered Victorian London to the American dusty Old West, lush Indian forests and icy Nepal, every location is vivid and eye-catching. We’re only in some of these places for a matter of seconds as part of a traveling montage (months in a stop-motion animator’s life) so it’s a testament to the level of craft on show that we get an immediate feel for them through efficient visual communication.

The scene on the ship tossing and turning in a raging storm eclipses all others in the film by quite a way. The plane of action is inverted again and again and corridors, doors and portholes become unexpected avenues for creative, funny action, like the zero-g hotel fight in INCEPTION only with a funny bone and a clumsy ape-man who refuses to keep his trousers instead of a sharply-suited Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

It could have been darker. It’s the only Laika film thus far without actual, implied or attempted child murder. That’s only because aren’t any children in Missing Link, which is a bit messed up if you think about it. We all know the Victorians liked killing and stuffing new and interesting species, planting flags in countries that weren’t theirs and generally ruining the world in the name of progress, so I think they could have made the villains (Stephen Fry and Timothy Olyphant) properly nasty. Snobbery, pettiness and cheating to win wagers doesn’t really compare to Laika’s previous rogues gallery of child-killers, celestial enslavers and proponents of genocide to earn fancy headwear.

The script could have also been sharper and funnier. Jackman and Galifianakis and later Saldana make an appealing group to spend time with and do their best with the material, but the running gag of a character taking everything completely literally got old pretty fast in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY and that goes double here. Susan’s size, shape and capacity to make noise no matter how hard he tries not to admittedly yields a few giggles.

Missing Link is sorely missing that twisted edge of earlier Laika films, but it’s got a personality all of its own and is probably the best-looking film the Oregon-based animators have ever produced. Definitely worth a watch, and if it’s still in a cinema near you please see it there so Laika can carry on making many more twisted dreams. SSP

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Review in Brief: Unicorn Store (2017/19)

I don’t really care what more cynical viewers and critics think; I found Brie Larson’s directorial debut UNICORN STORE absolutely charming. Maybe it’s because it’s a story about a woman-child, and I relate to stories like that. Kit (Larson) is a frustrated creative who puts her dreams on hold to get a job…which will allow her to support her childhood dream of owning a real-life unicorn. Growing up to not grow up basically, which is a nice concept. The film could be considered any number of dismissive terms, like “quirky” or “whimsical” but it’s also incredibly heartfelt and a pretty clever take on any artist “adulting”. There’s an incongruous dance number at one point, because of course. Larson is solid in the lead and is well-supported by Mamoudou Athie and Joan Cusack, though I found Samuel L Jackson dressed in shades of candyfloss and a glittery Afro a bit much. SSP

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Review: Avengers: Endgame (2019)

Endgame

Tony’s had better days: Marvel/Disney

Eleven years ago the Marvel Cinematic Universe was born when Nick Fury turned up at Tony Stark’s house to talk to him about the Avengers Initiative. It’s been a long road to this point, but much like the three-hour AVENGERS: ENDGAME it’s passed in the blink of an eye.

Previously on the MCU, The Mad Titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) united the six reality-altering infinity stones and with a snap of his fingers wiped half of life from the universe, including most of the Avengers. The survivors, Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Captain America (Chris Evans), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), War Machine (Don Cheadle), Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) and Captain Marvel (Brie Larson)  must overcome grief, assemble anew and somehow achieve the impossible.

If there’s a single criticism I’ll give the MCU thus far, it’s that you’re seldom given chance to take stock. The Avengers are always keen to avoid collateral damage, but when they make terrible, damaging mistakes like in AGE OF ULTRON or CIVIL WAR they dust themselves off and move on. Endgame’s extended runtime allows the luxury of a whole first act of registering what Thanos did, what his victory and universal genocide meant for the surviving 50%. Cap now runs a counselling group, Hawkeye goes on a vigilante rampage and Thor becomes a pathetic recluse. Those who were not deleted from existence are the victims more than those who were, because they have to live with it.

Downey has rarely been better than he is here, bringing the raw edge of some of his indie performances to a broken and angry Tony, not to mention finally growing up and living a little outside the Iron Man armour. In MVP contention are Evans who brings a rare note of vulnerability to Cap’s previously infallible persona and Rudd who gets all the funniest one-liners plus getting to have the most human reaction to the cataclysm.

Fear not, the film is by no means a downer. In fact, once the remaining Avengers band together and work out what they need to do to save the world, it becomes deliriously fun. The gag-rate is just as high as in any other Avengers outing and mounting action on this scale and so flawlessly quite frankly makes earlier MCU movies look a bit amateur. Never before have we seen such a perfect recreation of the central splash page of an event comic as in Endgame’s climactic, titanic battle.

It’s almost impossible to talk about how completely the extraordinary team of the Russo Brothers and their writers Christopher Marcus and Stephen McFeely stick this landing without talking about what actually happens in the film, but I also accept its opening weekend and plenty of people want to go in cold, so I’ll hold off on my detailed analysis for later. Suffice to say our journey takes us to some familiar places and everyone gets their moment, whether in a single shot or an extended action sequence, to do something cool.

Some characters admittedly go on more compelling journeys than others and some players are sidelined even in a film where your principal cast has halved compared to the preceding film. I also didn’t think every joke hit its mark, some are mis-timed to undermine a moment of pathos and others (particularly relating to one key character) just drag on for too long.

I don’t think I can recall another movie that’s so unashamedly fan-service-y and yet doesn’t feel the least bit manipulative. The MCU, and we their audience have earned these final bows and air-punching payoffs to setup from movies ago. Even the cameos are rather well-judged and service, rather than distract from, the larger story.

Avengers: Endgame is without doubt Marvel’s magnum opus, their crowning achievement, the opportunity for every fan to say goodbye. This is the definitive conclusion for some of our heroes, but only the beginning for others. See Endgame in a packed house of Marvel fans and the gasps of awe, the giggles of appreciation and the throaty sobs of hearts breaking will complete the intended experience of an already quite stunning superhero finale. SSP

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Review in Brief: Triple Frontier (2019)

TRIPLE FRONTIER boasts some of the hottest talent around, plus Ben Affleck who really needs a hit. It sort-of ends up being the kind of thriller SICARIO 2 should have been. It’s got momentum, a beautifully hostile environment and a fair few heart-in-your mouth moments. Nothing profound is left to be said about manly men with guns being manly men with guns, but greed giving way to survival instincts and the team being forced to ditch stupider and stupider amounts of money to get over a mountain intact is a pretty good thematic drive. The in-the-moment chemistry between characters works well enough, but it would have been nice to have felt a bit more of their history. It would have also been nice if Charlie Hunnam hadn’t left his American accent behind a rock somewhere about halfway through, but Oscar Issac and Pedro Pascal pick up the slack no problem at all. SSP

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Review: Wild Rose (2018/19)

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No place like home for a country girl: BFI/Creative Scotland

WILD ROSE is the feel-good movie of the year, and that’s not damning it with faint praise. There’s just so much passion evident in this project from start to finish, and plenty of lively crackle along the way, it’ll leave your heart soaring.

Aspiring Glaswegian country singer Rose-Lynn Harlan (Jess Buckley) is released after a year in prison to find two young children who don’t really know her and a mother (Julie Walters) with no time for dreams. Can Rose-Lynn find a road to success in Nashville without sacrificing her family?

I remember Jesse Buckley when she was on a TV singing competition to cast a new Nancy in OLIVER! Astoundingly, she only came second. Playing the polar opposite of her previous mesmerising turn (BEAST‘s sociopathic Moll) as Rose-Lynn she’s an electrifying presence; funny, empathetic and determined, not to mention a powerhouse when singing on stage or to herself. Let’s be honest, Julie Walters could play a role like Rose-Lynn’s pragmatic working-class mother Marion in her sleep, but she’s the warmest, most loving obstacle to success Rose-Lynn could hope for. There’s this great shot early in the film where Marion leaves Rose-Lynn alone with her children for the first time shortly after her release from prison and all three of them give her exactly the same terrified and bewildered expression. They don’t know the first thing about each other and none of them are in a place to start now.

This the latest in a long line of highly affecting musicals-that-aren’t-really-musicals. THE COMMITMENTS, ONCE, last year’s HEARTS BEAT LOUD. They’re all about the frustrations of the creative process, how you’d give it your all and be worth remembering if you were just given that chance, and if real life stops intruding for a stretch. Rose-Lynn’s story is of coming-of-age as well as breaking through in the right circles; she has to grow up and take responsibility at home before she can find her dream out in the world.

We’ve had films about talented artists trying to strike a difficult balance with their personal lives, but they’re rarely presented thus matter-of-factly. Every time you think everything’s lining up too neatly and we’re in dreamland territory something will bring you crashing back to the tarmac. Rose-Lynn getting her big break then losing all her belongings on the way to London is the least distressing of these, and her unflinching honesty (to everyone but herself) always keeps it real.

The film has, for me, the line of dialogue of the year so far, summing up how Rose-Lynn saw herself before and after her spell in prison: “I wasn’t an outlaw, I was a fanny”. The world would be a better place if a few more people would admit to that.

There’s a touch of magical realism to Rose-Lynn’s journey, exemplified by her impromptu performance while vacuuming her employer’s mansion as an imaginary band appears from behind furniture to back her. Rose-Lynn seems to be listening to her own future performances in her ever-present headphones even before her breakthrough; indeed it is Buckley performing this glossy, fully produced covers of country music classics (on a loop in my house since I saw the film). She has always known where she wants to be, just not how to get there.

I don’t think I ever thought I’d see a fade between blue-skyed Nashville and grey-skyed Glasgow, but here it is towards the end of this film, and it’s effective. Rose-Lynn’s eventual, perhaps inevitable homecoming isn’t even all-that bittersweet, because she’s coming back for all the right reasons, stronger and wiser. Wild Rose is a towering achievement that strikes just the right balance, a hopeful, heartfelt sort-of-musical with both feet planted firmly on the ground, and further proof that Jesse Buckley is a born star. SSP

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Review in Brief: The Highwaymen (2019)

THE HIGHWAYMEN is solidly made, but you’ll struggle to stop it melting away in the back of your mind the moment it’s over. Kevin Costner and Woody Harrelson are both on form (moody and wisecracky, respectively) as the men who tracked down and shot Bonnie and Clyde. The glamorous bank robbers here are fleetingly seen ghosts with no romance to their brutal violence whatsoever, which is probably the way it should be. More of a discussion about the pair’s amoral allure would not have gone amiss. While the romance has been taken out of the crime and the chase, it has been put back into the scenery elegantly captured dappled in sunlight by DP John Schwartzman. Thomas Newman even gets to a little self-referencing in his very ROAD TO PERDITION-esque score, but the measured pacing and grumbly mumbly dialogue could have used something extra to make it all stick. SSP

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