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Saturday, 27 July 2019

Wild Rose

(M) ★★★★

Director: Tom Harper.

Cast: Jessie Buckley, Julie Walters, Sophie Okonedo, Jamie Sives, James Harkness, Daisy Littlefeld, Adam Mitchell.

"Jerry was a race car driver, he drove so goddamn fast..."
If you haven't heard of Jessie Buckley yet, you will soon. She's been making her name on the stage and in TV mini series such as Chernobyl, Taboo, and War & Peace, but Wild Rose is the kind of star-making turn that will, well, make her a star.

Her range, both vocally and dramatically, helps make this kitchen sink drama really sing. The story is not without its wobbly notes, but this is largely an energetic and well delivered look at how hard it can be to balance parental responsibilities with your passions.

Buckley stars as Glaswegian mother-of-two Rose-Lynn Harlan. Fresh out of jail after 12 months, she is trying to reconnect with her kids (Littlefield and Mitchell) while re-igniting her dream of being a country singer on the big stages of Nashville, Tennessee. Rose-Lynn finds a job and an enthusiastic supporter through Susannah (Okonedo), but battles with her own mother (Walters), who has looked after the kids for the past year and wants Rose-Lynn to get her life back on track.

Even if you're not a country music fan, you'll find yourself getting goosebumps when Buckley's voice soars. The musical sequences are mostly excellent, particularly her imagining a backing band while she performs a vacuum cleaner serenade, and a belter of a finale, courtesy of a song co-written by Caitlyn Smith, Kate York and actress Mary Steenburgen.

(Strange but true sidenote: Steenburgen wasn't musical until 2007 when she woke from general anaesthetic after a minor operation to find non-stop music playing in her head. “I couldn’t turn it off,” she said, so she began taking music lessons. Soon after, she had written a pile of songs and signed a record deal, despite having never had any musical inclinations for the 54 years of her life prior to the operation.)

Outside of the music, Buckley handles the dramatic and comedic extremes of her role beautifully. Rose-Lynn is a frustratingly impulsive character, and Buckley lets the love her/hate her aspects shine equally from the get-go. She brings this well written character to life with charm and swagger. A lot of credit for this also has to go screenwriter Nicole Taylor, and director Harper. While the story feels a little trite in places, it's predominantly realistic and well structured, keeping its emotions see-sawing.

The film is also buoyed by the ever-excellent Walters, who is fantastic as the put-upon grandmother desperate for her daughter to be a good mum, even at the expense of everything else. Her arc is a little compact and convenient, but the mother-daughter dynamic really helps drive the film. It's one of the interesting elements beneath the rough-and-tumble surface, along with the way Wild Rose examines how parenting, sacrifices, and goals intertwine, get tangled, and rarely become the beautiful bow you hope they will be.

As much as this is Buckley's film, it's on the back of a solid supporting cast, and nicely written screenplay, and some decent direction. Still, it's the Wild Rose herself that you'll really remember long after the last country song has finished over the credits.

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

The Lion King (2019)

(PG)  ★★★

Director: Jon Favreau.

Cast: (voices of) Donald Glover, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Seth Rogen, Billy Eichner, Alfre Woodard, John Oliver, John Kani, BeyoncĂ© Knowles-Carter, James Earl Jones, JD McCrary, Shahadi Wright Joseph.

Which animal is going to eat the other? The answer might surprise you. 
It's either incredibly daring or bafflingly stupid to remake a perfect film - after all, there's no improving on perfection. Obviously.

Sometimes a remake can take a great film's central concept into a different direction, but usually it's best to leave things be. Unless you're incredibly daring. Or bafflingly stupid.

It's always seemed to me to be a smarter idea to re-do bad films. Bad films brim with unrealised potential, and failings that could use correcting. Not so for classic movies. Filmmakers taking on the classics have a slimmer margin for success. That's not to say it can't be done (it can), but its dangerous territory for any director.

Yet in recent times, Disney has largely found success in covering its own greatest hits, particularly with Cinderella and The Jungle Book. The notes and melodies are largely the same, but the shiny new production and orchestrations added new tones. If nothing else, these do-overs have modernised the stories, oiling up some of the creaking joints that have come with age, and enhancing elements that may have been underdone in the past.

But there are no such creaks in 1994's The Lion King. It remains a masterpiece of emotion, character, music, structure and pacing. Which means all director Favreau (fresh from reworking The Jungle Book) can do in the 2019 version of The Lion King is re-tell the same story in the same way, just with stunningly photo-realistic CG.

And the new take does look remarkable. It's nature doco worthy - you half-expect David Attenborough to start narrating. But basically this is the same emperor, just with some very, very fancy new clothes.

In case you missed the plot in the past 25 years, Simba the lion (voiced by McCrary as a cub, Glover when he's older) just can't wait to be king, but the machinations of his evil uncle Scar (Ejiofor) force Simba into exile, allowing Scar to usurp the throne. And along the way, we laugh, we learn, and we discover that hakuna matata means "no worries".

If there's one major takeaway from the new version of The Lion King, it's how right Disney got things the first time.

And that's not to say the 2019 take gets it wrong, but rather that everything about this remake that works does so because it worked back in 1994. That original script by Irene Mecchi, Jonathan Roberts and Linda Woolverton spun its archetypal characters and story inspirations (from Hamlet to, allegedly, Kimba The White Lion) into storytelling perfection. It resulted in the peak of the Disney Renaissance, and not only one of the finest classically animated movies of all time, but one of the greatest movies of all time.

But unlike the other recent CG-heavy remakes of Disney classics, there is little to update here. Aladdin, Cinderella and Beauty & The Beast enjoyed welcome tweaks that modernised their viewpoints and broadened key characters. The Jungle Book (also directed by Favreau) had its weaknesses strengthened and teased out new and exciting story elements from the source material. Dumbo got the biggest makeover of them all, overcoming some of the original's ageing shortcomings, but unfortunately creating all new problems in the process.

But Lion King 2.0 finds no such failings in its predecessor. Whole lines, shots and scenes are reproduced, and any alterations are superficial. Which makes you wonder why they bothered.

The second major takeaway is that this looks astounding. It is visually stunning - there is no denying this. And its schtick of real-looking animals singing and talking works surprisingly well. It's believable and beautiful and a technological marvel to think that everything in the film is ones and zeroes.

But emotionally, the 2019 Lion King doesn't hit as hard as the 1994 version. This could be due to the lack of surprises, or even a personal fault that comes from not being able to watch it and feel it the same way that 13-year-old me watched the original 25 years ago. But I suspect the photo-realistic approach means the CG animals don't emote like their cartoon counterparts did. This lack of anthropomorphism is noble, but the realism undersells the emotion.

It's certainly no fault of the voice cast. Ejiofor is magnificently malevolent as Scar, swapping Jeremy Irons' pantomime villainy for something truly disturbing and unsettling, which suits the mangy flea-ridden character design. His turn is the highlight in a killer line-up.

Glover is also great, not just in the musical numbers, but in the way his vocal approach to the character shifts from Hakuna Matata-singing wastrel to legitimate heir to the throne. Knowles-Carter brings a great fire to the grown-up version of Simba's childhood friend Nala, while Rogen and Eichner fill the large shoes of Pumbaa and Timon with ease (even if Rogen's singing leaves something to be desired).

The excellent cast certainly prevents the film being heartless. It still packs a punch in places, but not as much as the original. And ultimately that is the only yardstick upon which this film can be measured - how does 2019 stack up against 1994?

By this scale, The Lion King 2019 is beautiful yet unnecessary. It's stunning and majestic to behold - unlike anything you've really seen before - but its story has been told better and with more power and finesse by its predecessor.

Thursday, 11 July 2019

The Secret Life Of Pets 2

(PG) ★★★

Director: Chris Renaud.

Cast: (voices of) Patton Oswalt, Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, Kevin Hart, Tiffany Haddish, Harrison Ford, Nick Kroll, Bobby Moynihan, Lake Bell, Ellie Kemper, Dana Carvey.

Marvel's reboot of Lady & The Tramp was weird.
The first Secret Life Of Pets movie ran a long way on very little fuel. A less interesting retelling of the original Toy Story (with pets in place of toys), the film devolved into one long chase sequence (Mad Max: Furry Road, if you will). It was mostly fun and funny, but beyond that, it was short on depth or themes or anything hugely memorable beyond its cackling yet cute supervillain Snowball the fluffy white bunny.

The second one at least digs deeper with its themes, and tries harder with its plotting, weaving three weirdly separate stories into a loose bow at the end. It's a stretch, but they're trying, and it all moves at an enjoyable-enough rate to keep the little ones from fidgeting for most of its brisk 86 minutes.

A third of the film focuses on Max (Oswalt, stepping in for Louis CK who was #MeTooed out of the role) and Duke (Stonestreet), the foes-turned-friends from the first movie. These odd-couple dogs (and their largely anonymous owners) now have a little human in their lives, which causes Max to stress endlessly about the child's welfare.

The other two strands of plot revolve around Snowball (Hart) and a shih tzu named Daisy (Haddish) trying to rescue a circus tiger (yes, really), while Gidget the Pomeranian (Slate) attempts to retrieve a toy from an apartment full of cats.

These disconnected plot threads are as strange and disparate as they sound, and it's only in the last 10 minutes that they get tied together. Even then, it's an unconvincing knot. It leaves you with the feeling of having just watched three TV shows edited together.

The saving grace is that each of the plots is interesting and brings something important to the table. The Duke-Max arc contains the heart of the film, Snowball's subplot has the action and tension, and Gidget's story is the most comedic. They don't gel together, but individually they're solid.

Hart is once again 'best in show' as Snowball, but he gets a good run for his money from Ford as a farm dog named Rooster (and if there's one important question to take away from Pets 2 it's "why the hell doesn't Harrison Ford do more voice acting?"). Oswalt is an improvement on Louis CK, Slate is again great as Gidget, and Haddish is a strong addition to the cast.

As per the original, there's a strong Looney Tunes vibe in the action, and once again, many of the best laughs come from the animals-as-humans gags. The action sequences aren't as strong this time around, and Snowball's growth from supervillain to superhuman is cool (even if it feels a little like a "superheroes are so hot right now" cash-in).

Overall, it's not a terrible film, but it's such a weird mix of pieces that it you can't help but wonder if this is a couple of scripts mashed into one. Where one subplot is dealing with life and death at the hands of an evil Russian, another is about looking after a small child. Where one is dealing with a room full of cats, another is learning to stress less and confront your fears. It's a bizarre mix of stakes and priorities, and the film can be jarring as it moves from one plot strand to the other.

Writer Brian Lynch and director Renaud come close to pulling it all together, but it falls short. Yet even while it fails to be a linear and layered story, The Secret Life Of Pets 2 still manages to be entertaining, humourous, and it doesn't outstay its welcome.

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Spider-Man: Far From Home (no spoilers)

(M) ★★★★

Director: Jon Watts.

Cast: Tom Holland, Jake Gyllenhaal, Zendaya, Samuel L. Jackson, Cobie Smulders, Jon Favreau, Jacob Batalon, Martin Starr, J. B. Smoove, Marisa Tomei.

"Have you considered wearing a fishbowl on your head?"
Spider-man has always been the most relatable Marvel superhero. Even with his radioactive spider-given superpowers, his alter-ego Peter Parker has still had the same issues a normal person has. He's got girl problems, he's got money problems, he's got work/life balance problems. Hey, look - he's just like us!

It's something the previous Spidey movies have known and used to their advantage too, but somehow, in the hands of Holland and the MCU, the real and foibled Peter Parker shines through stronger than ever. Even here in Far From Home, where the webslinger faces a threat well above his pay grade, the fact that Peter is just "a kid from Queens" stands out more than ever.

This pimples-and-all humanity is part of what made Homecoming great, and it's a key factor in Far From Home's brilliance. In the face of the most OTT and large-scale villain the wallcrawler has ever faced in one of his own celluloid adventures, Spider-man is more human, more vulnerable, and more real than ever before. In fact it's Peter's human flaws that drive yet another great entry into the near-impeccable MCU catalogue.

After the events of Avengers: Endgame (referred to as 'The Blip' here), Peter is desperate for a break and plans to leave his Spidey suit at home for his upcoming European school trip. But Nick Fury (Jackson) has other plans, and the one-eyed spy ropes Peter in to help new superhero Mysterio (Gyllenhaal) deal with a new threat - a series of city-smashing big bads called The Elementals. But all Peter wants to do is be a normal kid, enjoy his holiday, and tell his crush MJ (Zendaya) that he has feelings for her.

Firstly, do not see this if you haven't seen Endgame. Far From Home does a pretty great job of catching you up on the things you need to know, but this clever opening round-up is full of spoilers. Also the effects of Endgame play a big part in Far From Home. It's impacts on Peter leave him grappling with what is expected of him, and whether he's up to it, and the divide between his duties and his desires. It's the whole "great powers, great responsibilities" thing, but no one says it - the film just shows it, like all good scripts should. 

The script from Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers (who worked on Homecoming) is largely great. It's occasionally a little too-self aware and too goofy, particularly when dealing with the teachers on the school trip, but for the most part the film balances its humour and heart nicely. Things move at a good pace and it's surprises are well managed, although the villain's plan is overly elaborate (although their motives are still interesting). There are also a few cliched travelogue moments, but that's probably to be expected.

One of the best elements of the screenplay is a subtle thematic subtext about not believing everything you read in the media, which is not only timely, but a new one for the MCU. It plays nicely into many of the characters' agendas, as well as providing a nice twist in the mid-credits scene.

As mentioned, Holland is superb in the role. Of the three live-action big screen Spideys to date, he's the best, hands down. And that's saying something, given Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield were no slouches in the role. Holland is not only a believable teen (he's 23?!?!) but he's imbues Peter/Spider-Man with the right mix of physicality, goofiness, charm, naivety, earnestness, bravery, selfishness and selflessness.

Jackson is his usual cool-ass self, it's nice to see Smulders' Maria Hill back on the big screen, even though (yet again) she's given very little to do, while Zendaya and Batalon are again fun and funny as Peter's classmates. A more fleshed-out role for Zendaya is particularly welcome. Gyllenhaal, who once famously came close to being Spider-man himself, is also solid, making Quentin Beck AKA Mysterio a fascinating character. He certainly one of the more interesting characters to join the MCU in recent times, and will leave a big mark on the franchise.

With these big-budget blockbusters, it's easy to become tired of the CG-driven action, but Far From Home has some new tricks. It's set pieces are increasingly cool, with the London-set final act busting out some mind-blowing sequences that are well-staged, well-filmed, and pretty dazzling, even in this day and age. 

While it feels more like a placeholder in the mega-franchise as opposed to signalling the start of the next equivalent to the Infinity Saga, Far From Home sends Spider-Man's arc into interesting new directions. And after the intensity of Endgame, it's a welcome return to some frivolity and fun. If nothing else, it's the most enjoyable European vacation ever committed to the big screen (sorry Griswolds), and amazingly, it's even better than Homecoming

Monday, 1 July 2019


(M) ★★★½

Director: Danny Boyle.

Cast: Himesh Patel, Lily James, Kate McKinnon, Ed Sheeran, Joel Fry, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Meera Syal.

"Number nine! Number nine! Number nine!"
What would a world without The Beatles really look like?

If we're being honest it wouldn't look anything like the one presented by Richard Curtis' script in Danny Boyle's new film Yesterday. In reality, it's too difficult of a concept to wrap your head around. The unravelling of the chaos theory involved in a Beatle flapping (or not flapping) its wing is unfathomable. So Yesterday boils it down to the high concept's simplest version.

And this is both the blessing and the curse of the film. Yes, the idea is fascinating and drives the film sufficiently, and yes, it has some marvellous and clever moments, most frequently when it focuses on the inherent humour hidden in its one-line synopsis and the music that comes with it. But it also feels surprisingly by-the-numbers, and somewhat bogged down by a frustrating romantic subplot that is less interesting than the Fab Four-related shenanigans happening in the rest of the film.

Yesterday is the story of down-on-his-luck musician Jack Malik (Patel), who awakens after a serious accident to find he is apparently the only person in the world who remembers The Beatles. Seizing an opportunity, Jack passes off John, Paul, George and Ringo's music as his own, and quickly finds himself trying to surf an out-of-control fame tsunami.

The problem with many high concept films is that the pivotal "what if" idea can wear off quickly, and we're left with nothing else. Yesterday's "what if only one guy remembered The Beatles?" runs through a seeming checklist of possibilities that are admittedly enjoyable but predictable. So it's to the film's great credit that it actually pulls off some beautiful surprises in the final act that help make the journey worthwhile and hold your interest. The power of music, especially The Beatles' music, is also a central point that keeps the film aloft.

The predictability is particularly frustrating in the romance between Jack and his long-time friend/manager Ellie (James), and unfortunately this part of the film has no such beautiful surprises to alleviate the familiarity or the contrivances. It's certainly no fault of Malik and James, who have believable chemistry (James is particularly good). The issue lies in the script from Richard "Love, Actually" Curtis, which stretches the will-they-won't-they tensions beyond breaking point.

It's weird for such an original idea to feel so run-of-the-mill in places. This comes from the fact that stripped of its high concept, Yesterday is a mash-up of two common plots - the "meteoric musical rise to fame" plot and the "living a lie" plot.

Yet the film is still entertaining, and frequently funny. The high concept is such a driving force that it propels things through the flattest spots, as does the music and some lively performances, particularly from McKinnon, James, and Fry. Patel is solid in the lead, and really shines in the musical moments. He's certainly well suited to the role, and his character is nicely flawed which also helps keep things interesting.

At its best, Yesterday flies free as a bird but at its worst it's troubles don't seem so far away.

Wait, that's not quite right. Let me try again.

At its best, Yesterday soars in the sky with diamonds, but its predictability is about as subtle as Maxwell's silver hammer.

Wait, ah... forget it.