Review: Onward (2020)

Committed family LARPers: Disney/Pixar

Haven’t we been here before? SHREK, BRIGHT, DISENCHANTMENT and many others all present us with a fantasy world that operates by the rules of the world today to some extent. Pixar’s latest, ONWARD, might not be the sharpest or most original animated family adventure, but it is one of the most heartfelt.

In a fantasy land, magic has been abandoned in favour of the far easier electricity and the world has continued to evolve to present day with much less wonder. Meek teenage elf Ian Lightfoot (Tom Holland) is gifted a wizard’s staff on his sixteenth birthday and together with role-playing game obsessive older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) they try and cast a spell to bring their dearly departed dad back to life for one final day. Things of course do not go according to plan, and so the brothers depart on a dangerous quest…

This world is populated by, according to director Dan Scanlon, “everything that would be on the side of a van in the 1970s”. Think Prog Rock, Dungeons & Dragons and authors who thought they could be the next Tolkien, all dumped in sitcom America. So you get suburban elves, biker gang pixies, trolls in toll booths, centaurs as beat cops and a manticore running a family restaurant, not to mention unicorns going through the bins.

Ian and Barley’s shoddily resurrected dad appearing for the majority of the film as a disembodied pair of legs (their spell went a bit wrong) is a thing of genius, Pixar’s best running sight gag in a long time. What the brothers do to the legs to make him blend in a bit better is even funnier, especially for the reactions of passers by.

We get not one, but two explicit INDIANA JONES references in this quest. There are as you’d expect plenty of winks to fantasy and adventure tropes, and blink-and-you’ll-miss-them sight gags, my favourites being a drive-thru “now serving second breakfast” and the way in which they visualise Barley’s rustbucket van making a heroic charge. It’s a dazzling film to see in IMAX though the larger format probably isn’t the best for spotting all the jokes in the background. Now it’s coming early to Disney+ I’m sure there will be many, many pause-worthy moments.

The supporting players are arguably not given enough to do except react to the progress or lack thereof of the Lightfoot brothers, and an interesting cast aren’t served well enough by the script. We’ve seen single parents and step-parents go on these journeys to understand their children before – giving them pointy ears, horns of hooves doesn’t make their stories automatically stand out. Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Octavia Spencer give appealing performances as Mrs Lightfoot and the entrepreneurial Manticore respectively, but you want them to show a little more growth to go with the jokes at their expense as middle-aged fantasy women.

This is also a world where the internal logic doesn’t quite add up if you pause to think about it for any length of time. It’s a convenient storytelling shortcut to have the film world the same as ours is now but with fantasy creatures, but it might have been more interesting to see what else might have changed in a world formally powered by magic, or to tell us exactly how a centaur driving a car works…mechanically.

It may take a while to find its feet, to realise what it is, but when the pieces move into place Onward becomes another classic Pixar tear-jerker. It’s not quite the classic fathers-and-sons tale and the slightly divergent path taken is pleasingly refreshing. So Onward is new, but not new enough to be really special. That said, even mid-level Pixar is pretty great animation chock full of honest emotion, visual invention and amusing adventure hijinks. SSP

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Review: The Lighthouse (2019)

THE LIGHTHOUSE is an experience, and no mistake, but it’s an experience I’d struggle to sell. Much like director Robert Eggers’ previous film THE WITCH, it’s fascinating, but it’s an acquired taste.

Two lighthouse keepers (Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson) must spend a month together tending their light on a spur of land in inhospitable New England waters. But what will drive them to madness first, the tedium, the merciless weather, the hypnotic quality of the light, or each other?

The relentless soundscape digs right into your internal organs from the off. Before we see anything we hear a chugging engine and foghorn. In a cinema with a good sound system your teeth rattle. This opening salvo of sonic buffeting is the most peace you’ll have on this journey. You quickly find yourself getting in the same headspace as the two men losing their grip on reality.

They actually had to build a lighthouse for this, and its presence looms effectively. They had the unforgiving weather and the inhospitable location for real, but it had to be accessible, filmable. The filming too is making a real statement – Jarin Blaschke’s bleak black-and-white, square framed and claustrophobic cinematography, shot using period lenses because they hadn’t already made their lives difficult enough. Willem Dafoe lived in a cabin for the duration, so there’s that as well.

Pattinson’s character (who may or may not be called Ephraim Winslow) is trapped in an eternal cycle of exhausting routine. He scrubs floors and polishes metal and quicklimes the water supply, and maintains the and powers greasy mechanisms the purpose of which is a bit of a mystery. Don’t expect answers, only further questions.

Willem “save some cheekbones for the rest of us” Dafoe in particular mesmerises as Thomas Wake (pronounces “wick” in his accent), like an enigmatic beam of light. He’s like when (one for the British reader) they made Captain Birdseye sexy all of a sudden, but with more farting. I’ll admit to understanding less than half of what he says in his thick seadog brogue, but the impenetrable dialect and rhythm of his voice certainly adds authenticity to the “Poseidon’s Curse” scene.

The two men really come across as losing their grip on everything – sanity, willpower, humanity. The tired trudging, terrifyingly tortured grimaces, jerkily dancing out of nowhere. Of course there’s bodily expulsions of all types and animal tormentors both real and imagined, because it’s that kind of psychological drama.

I loved how their relationship grew from animosity to tolerance to old married couple passive aggression over the course of the story. They finally strike up a pleasant conversation over a meagre dinner after a few days of hostile sniping and abuse. Then they get into a routine of getting absolutely sloshed every night thereafter. When provisions run low, so do tempers. Drinking lamp oil can’t be good for you. One curses another for a careless action bringing bad luck down upon them, but perhaps their biggest scraps happens when the truth comes out about the cooking “Yer fond of me lobster ain’t ye?”.

The Lighthouse won’t be for everyone, in fact it probably won’t be for the majority, but you can’t say it’s not interesting. If you like a certain weird tone, ambiguous plotting and theme and oil-black humour wrapped in an all-consuming soundscape then its for you. It’s only the latest in a series of eclectic and interesting roles for Pattinson, so long may that continue in and among Batman movies. SSP

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The Invisible Man (2020) Review SSP

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Review: The Personal History of David Copperfield (2019/20)

If there’s an adjective you don’t tend to associate with Armando Iannucci, it’s sincere. Witty and incisive, sure, but not sincere. But that’s the way he and regular co-writer Simon Blackwell play THE PERSONAL HISTORY OF DAVID COPPERFIELD, Charles Dickens’ most personal of tales.

The remarkable story of a remarkable young man who has a remarkably inconsistent lot in life – David Copperfield (Dev Patel) seeks to make a name for himself, but it will not be an easy journey, even to keep the right to use his own name.

Following LITTLE WOMEN last year, this is another great adaptation that is a story about storytelling. Reality weaves in and out, David Copperfield living his life and telling his story with artistic embellishments aplenty. He is witness to his own birth, comments on key events of his life both bad and good as they pass by and actively edits his own story as he tells it.

What a lot of Dickens adaptations make the mistake of doing is sapping the story’s world of colour. Unless we’re talking a musical like OLIVER! brown and grey seems to be the order of the day. David Copperfield’s costumes by Suzie Harman and Robert Worley are brightly coloured, intricately detailed and well lived-in. There are little details to savor everywhere. Even the more muted colour palette used when David confronts some of the untruths in his life is more eye-catching than the majority of stories set in this period.

While it’s visually distinct from the usual Dickens adaptations, the big, exaggerated characters and all the go-to archetypes of Dickens are still all present, correct and unaltered. Good men trapped in a cruel world, beguiling manipulators, monstrous step-parents, good-natured fops and naive young women who are all but seventeen. If you’re a British Radio 4 comedy listener, it really won’t help if you’ve recently listened to Bleak Expectations because that loving spoof is only slightly exaggerated from Dickens’ page.

The ensemble are sublime across the board. Colour-blind casting has been in theatre for decades and it’s about time film, especially a committed theatrical film, made use of it. This is, after all, not professing to present reality but a reality. Dev Patel completely inhabits the lead role as an idealistic dreamer who nonetheless has to be tough and isn’t above sly manipulation and back-stabbing to further his own ends and to survive. Ben Whishaw, Aneurin Barnard and Daisy May Cooper all impress, but it is Hugh Laurie and Peter Capaldi who really vie to steal the show with the former bringing pathos and nuance to the potentially ridiculous Mr Dick and the latter having the time of his life as the kind-hearted scoundrel Mr Micawber. Tilda Swinton doesn’t get any bonus points for turning up and being Tilda Swinton.

I would say the film does run a little on the long side – it’s a long-feeling two hours, perhaps due to the measured pacing or the sheer amount of ups and downs David is put through time and time again. I don’t know what you’d cut, though, and still stay true to the piece, but you may feel exhausted at the film’s close (uplifted, but exhausted).

I wouldn’t be adverse to seeing Iannucci and Blackwell try to adapt other works of classic literature. They clearly have an eye for it, making the most of inherently comic moments but not shying away from the dark or the tragic. The Personal History of David Copperfield is a refreshing new direction for Iannucci and a cracking, colourful and emotionally connected new take on Dickens. SSP

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Kiki’s Delivery Service (1989) Review SSP

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A Brief History of the Director’s Cut SSP

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Review in Brief: Eighth Grade (2018)

Bo Burnham’s EIGHTH GRADE was one of the surprise highlights of last decade. Achingly truthful, deceptively insightful and connected to its teenage characters, it was the best coming-of-age movie in a decade of great coming-of-age movies like THE EDGE OF SEVENTEEN, MID90S and BOOKSMART to name but three. Elsie Fisher is transcendent as Kayla, her performance that really couldn’t be more grounded and exposed. It’s telling that a YouTube star makes the platform an essential aspect to the storytelling in his feature debut, that the latest generation see social media as their whole identity. The cross-cutting audio of confidently delivered vlogs with silent domestic/social scenes wracked with nerves is an effective trick to employ, and one of the few occasions where the screens are put away as Kayla and her father (Josh Hamilton) connect at their most emotionally vulnerable moment really packs a wallop. SSP

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Review in Brief: Mid90s (2018)

MID90s absolutely feels authentic, of a particular place and time. Any skater, or wannabe skater will see some truth here. You really grow to care for these kids, despite the often stupid decisions they make. They’re boys letting off stream and using skating as a rebellious outlet – of course they’ll jump off things face-first and go to booze at underage parties. You find yourself looking out for the Jonah Hill stand-in character, his directorial debut being at least party autobiographical, and I’m sure there’s something of who he was at that age in every one of these teen skaters trying to belong. Judging by his effortlessly natural performance here, Sunny Suljic has a bright future ahead of him. Speaking of futures, I don’t know what is more surprising, that Katherine Waterston is old enough to play a mum or that Lucas Hedges is now old enough to play an older brother. SSP

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Review: Birds of Prey (2020)

Girls night out: DC/Warner Bros/Clubhouse Pictures

DC now have their DEADPOOL. That’s the headline, that’s the tone of BIRDS OF PREY (AND THE FANTABULOUS EMANCIPATION OF ONE HARLEY QUINN) but it’s more than that on its own terms as well. For all the sweary shenanigans and breaking of limbs, this has real heart to it.

Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) is done with her abusive relationship with Mister J. But just as she gets out in the world to make a name for herself she crosses the wrong gangster (Ewan McGregor) and gets a target on her back. Now Harley and an eclectic collective of formidable women must protect a teen runaway (Ella Jay Basco) from Black Mask’s thugs.

First off, the action is killer – Cathy Yang needs an action franchise. My favourite sequence is Harley’s one-woman assault on the police precinct with her grenade launcher loaded with non-lethal (but colourful, and painful) ammunition. She then demonstrates more deadly tricks with her metal baseball bat than Baseball Bat Man in THE RAID 2, and he was called Baseball Bat Man! All the other Birds of Prey get the chance to kick ass too, and the sight of the team working together to take on wave after wave of bro goons is a sight to behold.

Robbie gets to inhabit Harley in the way she wasn’t given the room to in SUICIDE SQUAD. There she was window dressing, now she’s an interesting character. Why do so many people forget Harley isn’t stupid? She’s got a PHD! The film opens with a cartoon of her life story so far, and her being underestimated is a big part of that. She’s intelligent but a bit mad and with a really goofy sense of humour. She wants to finally follow her own path, do what she does because she wants to do it, from going down to a grimy deli for her favourite egg sandwich hangover cure to buying a hyena for company in her apartment.

Elsewhere Mary Elizabeth Winstead often steals the show as the deadpan vengeful killer Huntress, who you can really see squirm with discomfort whenever she’s not allowed to resolve a situation with her crossbow. The rest of Harley’s makeshift team do their best to make an impact but aren’t given as strong an arc as their loony leader, existing in her orbit and responding to her questionable actions. Jurnee Smollett-Bell impressively belts out a song and Rosie Perez gets to be more dynamic than a middle-aged female cop usually gets to be, but you’d hope for a few more layers for them all if they get another go around.

Ewan McGregor seems to be doing a Sam Rockwell impression as Roman Sionis/Black Mask, and while his accent occasionally wobbles, he really sells his character’s layers of monstrosity. He goes from spoiled rich kid not getting his way one scene to sadistic face-peeler the next and you really can’t wait for someone to take nasty revenge on him.

Every thrilling film worth its salt should have a funhouse finale. There have been some great ones over the years – ENTER THE DRAGON, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN, THE GUEST and now BOP joins that group. There’s just something about an environment designed for kids to have fun turning deadly.

If I had one biggish criticism it’s that the team don’t really come together until the final act. The first two thirds of the movie is Harley taking a long time to tell a simple story, before the others on the periphery make their way front and centre. I know they want to get across the unique way Harley’s mind works, but the constant back-and-forth, side-to-side editing of the tale does niggle after a spell.

Birds of Prey is a colourful comic book caper full of playful asides and ultraviolence – it’s basically everything Suicide Squad wasn’t. The surface-level stuff nearly always lands and despite the plotting being a bit blurry and some characters not given enough interesting things to do, there’s more than enough here to make you hope Harley and the Birds of Prey get another outing soon. You do not want to waste these vibrant characters a single movie, because it seems like they’re just getting started. SSP

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Bong Joon-ho Films Ranked SSP

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