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Saturday, 30 September 2017

Victoria & Abdul

(PG) ★★★½

Director: Stephen Frears.

Cast: Judi Dench, Ali Fazal, Eddie Izzard, Tim Pigott-Smith, Adeel Akhtar.

The reboot of As Time Goes By had taken a different tack.
The pairing of director Stephen Frears and Judi Dench in a film about British royalty seemed inevitable (with the benefit of hindsight).

Frears was Oscar-nominated for the excellent The Queen (and worked with Dench on Philomena), while Dench has played Queen Victoria (in Mrs Brown) and Queen Elizabeth I (in Shakespeare In Love), attracting award attention both times.

Their powers combine in Victoria & Abdul, a sorta-sequel to Mrs Brown, with Dench back as Queen Victoria, this time sharing a "special friendship" with a humble Indian Muslim man named Abdul Karim.

Abdul (Fazal) was only meant to help present a coin to the Queen, but ended up becoming a servant, confidant, and teacher to Victoria - something that caused considerable friction among the royal household.

It's this friction that creates the central spark of Victoria & Abdul. After starting with a whimsical and lightly comedic tone, aided by the presence of Akhtar as Abdul's fellow fish-out-of-water, the film gets progressively darker and more serious. As a result it gets more interesting too. The first half runs too close to caricature and stereotype sometimes, and while the latter half can get a touch melodramatic the film steadily improves and engrosses as it progresses.

Dench owns this from the minute she appears on screen. She gives Queen Victoria a studied depth, reminding us that the Queen was a real person and not just a figurehead. In one fascinating (if slightly contrived) rant, she lays out the many flaws of Victoria (before pointing out that she is not insane) and its a key example of the film's attempts to paint the Queen as a complex human being, who mourns, laughs, snores, and wonders what the point of it all is.

Humanising the Queen is a key theme of Victoria & Abdul, but so is tolerance. As much as Dench rules supreme here, it's as much a film about Abdul Karim as it is Queen Victoria. It's impossible to do something artistic and creative involving Muslims without it becoming political these days, but the film quietly drives its points home about prejudice and acceptance, making this century-old tale pertinent and timely.

Surrounding the magnificent Dench is a strong cast, led by Fazal, who does a fine job. Akhtar gets some great quips and it would have been nice to see more of his character, while the royal household is filled with solid assistance from Izzard as the soon-to-be King Edward VII and the late Tim Pigott-Smith as house head Sir Henry Ponsonby.

Beautifully shot, Victoria & Abdul is an interesting look at a strange piece of royal miscellanea, and well worth watching for another regal turn from Dench.

Sunday, 24 September 2017

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

(MA15+) ★★★

Director: Matthew Vaughn.

Cast: Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Mark Strong, Edward Holcroft, Pedro Pascal, Hanna Alström, Halle Berry, Elton John, Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, Poppy Delevingne, Bruce Greenwood, Emily Watson.

Jason Bourne wouldn't be caught dead in orange.
Bursting onto our screens in a blast of blood and bad language back in 2015, Kingsman: The Secret Service was a stylish if frivolous divergence.

It was also a welcome counter-operation in the serious world of spy movies - amid the Bonds and Bournes, the exploits of Eggsy (Egerton) and Harry (Firth) were a burst of firework fun in the face of an increasingly gritty genre.

Not much has changed for the second outing of Eggsy and co. "Having a good time" is still the central motif, even if its at the expense of the film's ability to find any depth.

After proving his worth, saving the world, and getting the girl in the first film, Eggsy is riding high as the hard-doer-turned-super-spy - that is until an old rival returns to wreak havoc. But that's the least of his worries. A drug dealer named Poppy Adams (Moore) is on the scene, and Eggsy and Merlin (Strong) must turn to their American counterparts - the Statesman - to save the world (again) from her diabolical scheme.

The things that worked best in The Secret Service are the elements that shine in The Golden Circle - the hyper-stylised and crazily edited fight sequences, the ridiculous gadgets and set pieces, and the blood-and-bollocks attitude of it all. Having Firth back helps, Moore is a deliciously bonkers if under-used baddie, and Elton John (playing Elton John) gets some truly great moments.

It's a shame that the plotting falls down in the final stretch - unless I missed something, I have no idea how the good guys uncovered the bad guys' secret lair. There is also a half-hearted attempt to make a comment on the war on drugs, but the film can't decide what it wants to say, and then chickens out of saying anything anyway, and the whole thing plays a little loose with cause and effect and the secrecy of its secret services. Its regularly OTT tone also means the film struggles to sell its emotional crescendos, leaving a certain emptiness amid the fun.

There are plenty of interesting and enjoyable moments though. The opening car chase, the final raid on Poppy's hidden (and overly CG) hide-out, and a very Bondian diversion to a mountain-top lab are good fun and showcase Vaughn's stylistic flair. The subplots involving Eggsy's relationship with Princess Tilde have potential until they get lost amid the espionage and gunplay, while a detour to the Glastonbury Festival yields intriguing results (and a line of dialogue that is this film's equivalent of the bizarre "bum note" the previous movie ended on).

The cast all acquit themselves well (even if some of them - Tatum, Bridges, and Moore in particular - are under-used) and the whole thing is fun, and that's the main point of all this. While The Golden Circle lacks the wow factor of the original (Firth-in-a-church and the head-popping fireworks linger long in the memory), it still has a similar capacity to entertain, even if it's not as structurally solid as its predecessor.

If you're willing to overlook some of its dim-witted and nonsensical moments, this is a solid-enough return that doesn't totally disappoint and leaves enough goodwill (and room for improvement) for a third outing.

*Thanks to my amazing wife for helping type this review up while I recover from a lame journalism-related injury.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

It (2017)

(MA15+) ★★★★

Director:  Andy Muschietti.

Cast: Jaeden Lieberher, Bill Skarsgård, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Nicholas Hamilton, Jackson Robert Scott.

Just out of shot: me shitting myself.
IF you're looking for a review that tells you how this It compares to the old It, you're in the wrong place. Similarly, if you want to know this It is a good adaptation of the It book, I can't help you,

But having not read the book or seen the 1990 miniseries means I'm free to review this shorn of any preconceptions or the weight of expectation and nostalgia. So if you want simply to know if It is a good film (and a scary one), then this is the review for you.

The short version is yes, It is a good film, and yes, It is scary - repeatedly and insidiously. For the long version, read on.

This adaptation of Stephen King's 1986 novel is set in 1988-'89, where a group of seven bullied and ostracised kids find themselves the target of a fear-feeding clown (Skarsgård) who appears responsible for the abnormally high rate of kids going missing in their hometown.

Among those missing kids is Georgie (Scott), whose brother Bill (Lieberher) is the leader of this group of self-proclaimed "losers". Bill is prepared to lead his friends into battle, or at least into the town's sewers, to try and find his brother and bring this clown's reign of terror to an end.

This is an excellent horror film because, yes, it's scary, but it's also a solid film outside of its frights. At its core it's closer to Stand By Me than anything else in the King canon - it's as much a coming-of-age tale as it is a scare-fest. It offers a kids-eye view of its setting and of fear itself, taking a simplistic look at what scares us and how the world works. There are no conversations between adults in It, and despite there being an epidemic of missing people, the film's POV is kept within the group of focus of our Goonie-like heroes, who largely view grown-ups as creatures not to be trusted (some are almost as scary as Pennywise). These are kids on the verge of adulthood and as a result the film doesn't need to bother with the world of adults too much.

While I've heard some grown-ups lament that the film isn't scary, I would suggest that it will have younger audiences (who can legally see the MA15+ rated movie of course) quietly shitting in their pants. It seems aimed at being a rite-of-passage horror movie, much like its predecessor was for so many people around my age, with a mettle-testing level of gore and adult themes. Personally I found it frequently scary, and while it's heavy on the jump scares and intense musical crescendos, that is certainly not the full extent of It's bag of tricks.

On top of all this, the film is beautifully shot. It's summertime setting and the fictional town of Derry are given the warm glow of nostalgic holidays of misspent youth, which is frighteningly at odds with some of its scares, most of which take place in the comparatively darker parts of Derry. That it can still offer some horror in broad daylight is a nice feat too.

As much as It is about coming of age, the power of fear, the importance of friendship, the loss of innocence, and the challenges of youth, it's also about a fucking clown named Pennywise who is the stuff bed-wetting nightmares are made of. In the hands of Bill Skarsgård and some brilliant costume and make-up design, he becomes the ruffle-wearing lovechild of Heath Ledger's Joker and Ridley Scott's Alien. He is a wonderfully scary creation.

If you weren't scared by It, maybe you're too mature or too battle-hardened by horror films or the travails of adulthood. But if you can tap into your youth (or are still young), then It is the horror movie for you.

*Apologies for the delay in posting this review and any mistakes in it, as it was painstakingly typed with one hand due to a wrist injury.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

REWIND REVIEW: The Queen Of Ireland

(PG) ★★★★

Director: Conor Horgan.

Cast: Rory O'Neill.

"And then he said, 'grab them by the pussy'. And he's been married three times!"

As Australia dives into a very expensive non-binding postal vote that allows straight people to pass judgement on the worthiness of gay relationships, there is no better time to watch this fabulous and heartfelt documentary about Ireland's own path to legalising same-sex marriage.

It's tempting to use this review as a platform to extol why I think Australians should vote "yes", but the reality is this review is not going to change people's minds about marriage equality. And sadly, despite how heartwarming and beautiful it is, this documentary is unlikely to change people's minds either.

Because the fact of the matter is most people have already decided, one way or another, where they stand on the issue of letting two grown adults in a loving relationship who happen to be the same sex enter into a binding legal agreement that is exactly the same as other grown adult couples are allowed to do.

And as great as The Queen Of Ireland is, it's not going to suddenly persuade a bunch of homophobes and bible-bashers into understanding why allowing same-sex couples to marry is a good and necessary thing.

I wish it did though. The story of Rory O'Neill AKA drag queen Panti Bliss is a surprising and fascinating one that passionately illustrates what marriage equality means to the people it actually affects (ie. no one except for the homosexual people who want to get married).

O'Neill and his frocked-up alter-ego became a bewigged figurehead in the debate leading up to the historic public vote in which a majority of Irish folk agreed marriage equality was something that needed to happen. In a way, O'Neill comes to symbolise every gay person who's ever been attacked or insulted for their sexuality, or who has had to change who they are to fit in or avoid being targeted by homophobes. A truly powerful moment comes when he makes a speech about this subject that goes viral. This speech, as well as a national TV interview he gave, inadvertently made O'Neill/Bliss a lightning rod in the marriage equality debate.

It all works because as much as O'Neill may strike some people as an "irregular" guy, he really is just a regular guy. His enthusiasm, passion, fragility, humour and humanity shine through, and it all peaks when we get to see his hometown, including his parents, turn out to watch one of his drag shows. It's a joyous highlight that demonstrates the theme of acceptance at the heart of both the film and the marriage equality debate.

The way the film touches on how gay people have endured in the face of incredible adversity, how gay culture has risen from being literally underground in some cases, and how the slow road to tolerance and understanding makes The Queen Of Ireland an important document. More of this kind of stuff would have been welcome, as well as more details about the historic vote on marriage equality. The only real downside to the doco is the inescapable sense that it was a film about O'Neill/Bliss first that stumbled on to the marriage equality vote stuff as an almost accidental second.

But what it gives us is an inspiring and enjoyable look at the life of a man whose fabulous lifestyle inadvertently made him a key figure in an historic moment in Ireland.

I watched The Queen Of Ireland at a screening hosted by F Project Cinema in Warrnambool, Victoria, Australia. Here's what's coming up at future FPC screenings at the Mozart Hall (all screenings are at 7.30pm):

I Am Bolt - September 27

The Bicycle Thief - October 11

Amy - October 25

Closed Circuit - November 8

Marina Abramovic - November 22

Metropolis - December 13

The Princess Bride - January 10

Waltz With Bashir - January 24

*Apologies for the delay in posting this review and any mistakes in it as it was painstakingly typed with one hand due to a wrist injury.