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Sunday, 11 June 2017

Wondering about Wonder Woman

Gender box office records broken, glass ceiling smashed, thousands of words written about the film’s wider impact: nothing’s impossible for Patty Jenkins’ Wonder Woman or so it appears. There may be spoilers ahead!

Before I give my witness statement, I need to set myself in context: yes, I’m a comic geek, but I’m not hugely into DC, outside of Bats and Supes; I don’t think I’ve ever read an issue of Wonder Woman, but I am a reader and watcher of Jessica Jones, Black Widow, Captain Marvel, Agent Carter, and Mockingbird from the Marvel comics, movies and TV series, and also a reader of more female-focussed works such as Bitch Planet, Saga, Black Magick and Velvet.

Like many, I wasn’t happy with Bats v Supes and was seriously underwhelmed by Suicide Squad. The only chink of light in BvS was Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman. I wasn’t entirely convinced by the first trailer, but as WW’s opening date drew closer, I became more hopeful.

And for the most part that hope was well founded. Aside from the bookends, the film is self-contained with no references to the established DC movie universe. Indeed, the film is probably even better if you haven’t seen BvS.

The film is comfortable in its own skin, even if the plot feels like a patchwork of Superman The Movie, Captain America: The First Avenger and Thor (the London backstreet bullet-catch sequence is a replay of Lois and Clark being mugged behind the Daily Planet sequence in Superman, for example). The film has an honest emotional core to it, not unlike Lord of the Rings, that lends the film gravitas and lifts it above its source material. It’s perfectly pitched, and the tonal shifts are well executed: the comedy to drama to tragedy absolutely works.

Indeed, it’s certainly the most romantic superhero movie since Thor and Spider-Man II. And that’s in part due to the natural chemistry between Gadot and Chris Pine as Captain Steve Trevor. There’s a whiff of James T Kirk in Trevor, but Pine takes his position in the drama and rolls with it: he’s world-weary, heroic, but flummoxed, embarrassed and by the end utterly smitten with Diana (just like every guy in the room, then!). It has already been noted by other observers, notably in Meg Downey's excellent analysis for CBR.com, that he declares his love for her and that she does not reciprocate.

I like that the film allows Trevor to maintain the gentlemanly code of conduct that’s correct for the period, which then paves the way for a delicate moment of power play: post-dance, Trevor escorts Diana to her room and moves to exit and close the door, not assuming he has the right to stay; with a subtle bow and turn of the head, Diana’s stare pierces him and invites him to stay. Like Michael Biehn’s Corporal Hicks in Aliens with Ripley, Trevor respects Diana from the off and swiftly accepts her power and her right to be the dominant force.

It would be fair to say that the challenge her empowerment provides to the film’s patriarchy emboldens the majority of men to be better, to think with their brains and hearts rather than with their cocks and anger – for the most part, Diana doesn’t emasculate the men around her.

With her part in ensuring the end of WWI a secret, there’s no chance for her efforts to galvanise the gender war. (Note: the script never refers to ‘goddesses’, just ‘gods’.) Indeed, the film rather raises the question of what Diana did for the 100 years or so between the Great War and BvS? Perhaps Justice League may offer us a clue when it opens in November.

While the film is effectively a star-making vehicle for Gal Gadot (it’ll be intriguing to see how her career develops: what roles will she be offered?), I’m not convinced she completely believed in some of her character’s ‘hero’ moments or maybe those set pieces were early in the shoot and she wasn’t fully confident in herself and the material.

That said, Diana’s almost graceful journey from ingénue to hero to wrathful and judging god to benevolent idol demands much and Gadot rises to the challenge. The film’s set piece in No Man’s Land, in which Diana draws the attention and the heavy fire of the German frontline, brings a lump to the throat, aided by Rupert Gregson-Williams’ stirring score.

The film’s and Diana’s gaze falls witheringly on man’s inhumanity to his fellow man and woman, specifically through war. The film is stridently anti-war and much is made of Diana’s compassion; there’s even time for a needs of the few versus the needs of the many debate before the No Man’s Land sequence.

There’s some giddy, Liberal wish-fulfilment in the finale that is counterpointed by our foreknowledge of the events to come in the ensuing 100 years and thus hints at the moral complexities and failings of mankind Diana will have to learn: she ends Ares but not jealousy, hatred and war.

The film has issues, of course. The finale launches the film backwards into a pitch-black Zack Snyder-style CGI-fest with maximum destruction for our viewing pleasure… This is a shame given how progressive the film is up to that point.

And briefly touching on technical points, the fight styles and effects in the DC movies so far are not a patch on Marvel’s work. Similarly, Marvel’s choice of cinematographers is a notch (or more) above DC’s. Those trends continue with Wonder Woman.

There’s an element of tokenism to Trevor’s Scooby Gang: are they there simply to highlight to Diana man’s inhumanity to man and woman alike? Upon reflection and further viewings, Ewen Bremner’s PTSD-sufferer probably gets the best of the bad hands dealt here.

The bad guys are just too typically lazily drawn and there’s no getting away from the fact that great performers like Danny Huston and Elena Anaya are wasted here. Similarly, there’s little for Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright to do as Diana’s mother and aunt respectively.

And as intelligent as some of the material and the approach to it is, WW does not confront and debate the gender war with the same depth and analysis as Marvel’s/Netflix’s Jessica Jones (perhaps because, in pure narrative terms, Diana is at war with war whereas JJ is at war with the patriarchy).

Those caveats aside, I thoroughly enjoyed the film. It sets a high bar for the Captain Marvel movie (and the Black Widow solo outing should it ever emerge) and should comfortably pull in more than $600m worldwide – frankly it should do $700m-plus but that hinges on how good its domestic legs are and how the rest of the world takes to a character it barely knows.

Wonder Woman is a standard around which those who rightly demand Hollywood should produce more diverse output from more diverse creatives must rally (and in significant number). Nevertheless, the film represents victory in just one battle of a much longer and larger campaign.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

Logan: finally The Wolverine

I’ve waited until my second viewing of Logan before sharing my thoughts. Indeed, it’s taken a second viewing to ‘process’ the film. Be warned: there be spoilers here.

Let’s start with that trailer: its tone hints at what’s to come in the film, but it in no way prepares the viewer for its bleak, solemn and brutal approach. The trailer, backed of course with Johnny Cash’s cover of Hurt, suggests heroic redemption, Gladiator-style.

And while DoP John Mathieson, who shot Gladiator, brings an epic visual scope to Logan, there is little else about this film that matches Gladiator’s arc.

Logan is clearly closest in spirit to Clint’s Unforgiven, but even that had humour and crowd-pleasing moments. It shares the Oscar-winning Western’s set-up and themes, but in the hands of director James Mangold and star Hugh Jackman, Logan mines those with greater and discomforting intensity.

Logan is not a super hero movie – yes, there are super-powered characters, fights and some effects – rather this is a story of two old men, both of whom have had enough of life, facing up to the choices they have made and the choices that have been forced upon them. Live by the claw, die by the claw.

Key to the film’s success is this set-up: while both Logan and Xavier are powerful mutants, their abilities are curbed by old age. The idea of Xavier suffering from a degenerative neurological disorder and having to take medication that dulls his brain further is upsetting.

Logan appears to begrudge his role of Xavier’s provider and carer; indeed there’s an edge of care home abuse in his treatment of the Professor. Once we work out what happened to all the mutants, we realise that, in his grief, Logan is imprisoning and punishing Xavier.

Logan, clearly being poisoned by the adamantium grafted to his skeleton, finds his only escape from the pain and the tedium of caring for Xavier in beer and bourbon. With his healing power failing him, more recent scars stand proud upon his body – no chance of leaving behind a beautiful corpse – and he walks with a pronounced limp.

He even seems to be suffering from erectile dysfunction of his claws: they don’t pop as quickly and as far as they used to.

Nevertheless, when he does pop those claws, boy does he… The first fight against some would-be car-jackers is shocking. Logan wearily asks them to back away, but then the shots start and before you know it, Logan’s limo has got marks on it – and that drives this tired, old white man over the edge. The ensuing fight sees him kill most of the hoodlums with crunching, graphic claw attacks – more often than not he goes for the kill-strike immediately (up through the chin, from the base of the back of the skull, etc), not because they’re the most expedient, but because he gets the most satisfaction that way, it’s the only way to sate the anger and blood lust.

As the story progresses, Logan gets ever more violent and ever-more dehumanized by his own actions. His violence stands on the same ground as sex in Cronenberg movies: it’s a headlong dive into self-loathing, and, like a junkie, he just can’t give up.

By the time we reach the final battle, Logan is running on little more than pure, animalistic rage: at this point he is The Wolverine. And this is uncomfortable to watch, as Jackman utters guttural animal noises – he’s no longer human.

There’s so much violence and it’s so graphic that the viewer is left bloodied and broken like Logan’s enemies, unwillingly complicit in the dearth (and indeed death) of humanity in a beloved screen hero.
Wolverine, hero no more: that could have been the film’s alternative title. There’s nothing heroic here, what redemption there is for Logan is depressingly fleeting.

Compare the fall of Maximus in Gladiator with the falls of either Xavier or Logan: Russell Crowe’s Caesar-killer is accorded a hero’s death, full of pomp and ceremony, while the dispatch of and burial of Xavier is exceptionally tough on the character, his legacy and the audience.

Logan can only articulate his sense of loss through rage and violence, unable even to summon any appropriate eulogy. His reaction in the immediate aftermath is momentarily amusing for UK audiences as it recalls Basil Fawlty attacking his car; however, the humour rapidly dissipates as he continues to attack the car before collapsing to the ground – it’s agonising to watch.

When he falls at the hands of his clone (echoing Superman III’s ego and id battle), Logan is at least accorded that fleeting redemption, a second of happiness in a lifetime of abuse, misery and shattered dreams.

The film completes its echoes of Unforgiven by affording Logan a fiery and naïve protégé, X23/Laura (Dafne Keen gives as strong and committed a performance as Jackman here).

It’s worth noting how Logan toys with Unforgiven’s meta aspect – the ‘man of letters and such’, mythologising the Wild West with the tales of the ‘Duck of Death’ who bears witness to William Munny’s own myth. When Logan finds the X-Men comics in X23’s possession, the myths of which she clings to, he flicks through the pages and decries the stories: ‘maybe a quarter of it happened and not like this; you don’t just pull on some spandex and save the day’.

Some writers have suggested that the primary colour visions in the comic panels rekindle the long-dead hero in Logan, but I’m not sure I agree. He’s not one to believe his own press.

However, it is worth noting that in the glimpses of the comics we get, the character who calls for Logan’s help is his original X-daughter, Rogue. Given that the comic revelation comes just after Logan has discovered the truth about X23’s ancestry, this is the turning point in his attitude towards her: if not her hero, he must become her father.

But the sins of the father have been passed on undiluted to this child: seeing her tear men apart makes for even more uncomfortable viewing than Wolverine’s berserker rage, her feral quality a result of years of abuse and captivity.

Logan’s final fatherly advice hints at despair and a mission impossible: “Don’t become what they made you.”

Using Shane’s departing speech as a eulogy, X23/Laura then completes Logan’s burial, fittingly and tellingly flipping the angle of the makeshift cross on Logan’s grave so that it forms an ‘x’. Weapon X is dead, long live Weapon X.

Wednesday, 4 January 2017

2016 box office review: of superheroes and animals

2016 was the year when animals and superheroes ruled cinemas worldwide: if you didn’t focus on those two archetypes, then your film had a limited box office scope.

The top 20 films worldwide feature six superhero movies and six films focusing on anthropomorphised animals. Leading the pack was Captain America: Civil War with more than $1.1bn (some $250m less than Age of Ultron but some $440m more than the previous instalment of Cap); it placed seventh in the UK, first internationally, third in the US and fourth in China.

Second, third and fourth were another trio of Disney hits: Finding Dory and Zootopia just clipping passed $1bn, with the live action Jungle Book falling just shy of that marker. Dory wasn’t as well reviewed as Nemo and its performance was hampered somewhat as it was the fourth and last of the major animal movies (preceded not only by Zootopia and Jungle Book but also The Secret Life of Pets) and did not perform well in China (perhaps because Finding Nemo was never released there), leading to an international take lower than its predecessor of 2003. Nevertheless, Dory was fifth in the UK, seventh internationally, and top in the US.

Zootopia was the second-most successful film internationally, aided by a second place finish in China with $235.6m. It was also the most successful film based on an original script. In the UK, it could only place 13th with £24m, nearly £12m short of Pets, £19m short of Dory and £22m short of Jungle Book.

Jungle Book was surprisingly well-reviewed, showed good legs and pocketed nearly $967m worldwide, including £46m-plus in the UK (good for fourth place), more than $600m internationally (third place), and $150m in China.

The fifth largest film of the year is the first non-Disney film: The Secret Life of Pets got close to $900m, making nearly £36m in the UK (ninth place), and more than $500m internationally (also eighth). It placed fourth in the US, just beating Jungle Book.

Supers v supers
Four of the next seven places are taken by superheroes, namely Bats v Supes, Deadpool (arguably the shock over-performer of 2016), Suicide Squad and Doctor Strange. While both DC entries were poorly received by the fanbase they were aimed at, they both finished clear of $300m and £30m in the US and UK respectively. Of the DC films, only Bats v Supes was released in the China, falling just shy of $100m. Deadpool came seemingly from nowhere to deliver his own Valentines’ Day massacre: counter-programming didn’t succeed quite as well as this in the rest of 2016 and Mr Pool was the most successful rom-com of the year. He was the most successful superhero in the UK (just beating Civil War) and doubled the take of his cohorts in the X-Men. In the US, the only superhero movie to beat him was Civil War. Mr Pool was also the most successful superhero movie in France, Germany, Australia and Russia. A crisp high five then to all those involved with Mr Pool!
Dr Strange opened well and showed good legs everywhere to finish 12th.

The worldwide top 10 also features Rogue One, which in the final fortnight of the year hauled in nearly $800m. Its performance so far is weighted towards the US, but  it didn’t open in all major international territories before the end of the year. It gatecrashed the party in the UK, just scraping ahead of Fantastic Beasts in the final days of the year to top the chart. It should finish on $1bn or more worldwide (depending on its legs internationally). Of course, 2016 was bookended by Star Wars, with The Force Awakens dominating the start of the year. It took a further $732.5m in the first few months of the year (including $125m in China and £35.9m in the UK) on top of its $1.3bn in 2015.

Also making the top 10 was another franchise spin-off (which launches a new franchise), namely Fantastic Beasts. If not quite in the HP and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 league ($1.3bn), it’s got a shot at passing the $800m mark.

Huge Chinese hit The Mermaid generated 95% of its $553.8m worldwide take from China.

The X-Men suffered their own Apocalypse, coming in 27% down on their Future Past adventure. Kung Fu Panda suffered similarly, down 22% on its predecessor, with its largest territory being China.

More than half’s Warcraft’s worldwide take came from China, placing it 16th overall.

More adult fare, Jason Bourne and The Revenant, finished in a tight pack with the fifth (and presumably final given its take was 53% lower than its immediate ancestor) Ice Age movie. It's worth noting that just two movies in the top 20 were star-driven: Bourne and Revenant.

Enter the flops
The Independence Day sequel got bumped from the top 20 list in the final days of the year, overtaken by Moana (which had not opened in all major territories before the end of the year). ID2’s near-$390m take came off a production budget of $165m. Its predecessor took more than $800m 20 years ago; if you inflation-adjust that figure and note that there was no Chinese market then, it would appear about that only a quarter of the number of people that saw the original saw the sequel.

2016 was a crowded year and it’s no surprise that other films failed to find a large audience. Notably missing from the worldwide top 20 are such heavily marketed films as Star Trek Beyond (it fell more than 25% short of Into Darkness), Ghostbusters (it failed to cross the $300m barrier on a production cost of $144m), The Huntsman: Winter’s War (Chris Hemsworth, Charlize Theron, Emily Blunt and Jessica Chastain wasted in a $115m production that pulled in nearly $165m, less than half of its predecessor’s haul) and Alice Through The Looking Glass (it fell just shy of the $300m barrier, but finished with a take 70% lower than the original’s take).

The third Divergent instalment, Allegiant, brought in less than $180m, which compares poorly with the near $300m totals of the first two parts. It emerged all-too swiftly that the fourth and final part would screen as a TV series. Whether this kills off the YA fantasy/sci fi adaptations remains to be seen.

Particularly dishonourable mentions should also go to Inferno, which finished with less than a third of the Da Vinci Code’s final result, and Ben-Hur. The latter epic cost $100m and generated just $94.1m worldwide. For reference, the inflation-adjusted US box office only figure for the Charlton Heston variant is $843.8m!

The British bit
In the UK, Bridget Jones’s Baby played like a traditional British movie: number three at home with £48.1m, but with only low-level success elsewhere. Nearly one-third of Bridget’s overall box office came from the UK.

Other notable over-performers in the UK include The BFG, which crossed the £30m barrier (that figure accounts for about a fifth of its overall total), and The Girl On The Train, which crossed the £20m barrier  (the UK was pretty much the only territory where it performed like the film its marketing and release pattern aped, Gone Girl).

The Revenant also crossed the £20m barrier, which just goes to show how much a brilliant trailer can impact a film’s performance: it was all about that bear attack.

2017 offers a similar number of superhero movies (including the first female-led example, courtesy of Wonder Woman), remakes (Tom Cruise’s The Mummy), and sequels (Wolverine 3, Guardians 2, Kingsman 2, Alien Covenant, Despicable Me 3, Cars 3, Thor 3, Paddington 2, Blade Runner 2049, and Pitch Perfect 3). There’s also the small matter of Star Wars 8: will records be broken again?

Worldwide (1 January 2016 to 1 January 2017)
Civil War $1,153.3m
Finding Dory $1,027.6m
Zootopia $1,023.8m
The Jungle Book $966.6m
The Secret Life Of Pets $875.4m
Batman v Superman $873.3m
Rogue One $786m
Deadpool  $783.1m
Fantastic Beasts $775.5m
Suicide Squad $745.6m
Star Wars 7  $732.5m
Dr Strange $657.6m
The Mermaid   $553.8m
X-Men: Apocalypse $543.9m
Kung Fu Panda 3 $521.2m
Warcraft $433.5m
Jason Bourne $415.2m
The Revenant  $409.4m
Ice Age 5 $407.7m
Moana $399.1m

UK (1 January 2016 to 1 January 2017)
Rogue One £52.1m
Fantastic Beasts £51m
Bridget Jones’s Baby £48.1m
The Jungle Book £46.2m
Finding Dory £42.8m
Deadpool  £37.9m
Civil War £36.9m
Batman v Superman £36.6m
The Secret Life Of Pets £36.5m
Star Wars 7  £35.9m
Suicide Squad £33.6m
The BFG £30.6m
Zootropolis £24m
The Girl On The Train £23.5m
Trolls £23.4m
Jason Bourne £23.3m
The Revenant  £23.2m
Dr Strange £23.2m
X-Men: Apocalypse £18.3m
Alvin & The Chipmunks: The Road Chip  £16.8m

International (1 January 2016 to 1 January 2017)
Civil War $745.2m
Zootopia $682.5m
The Jungle Book $602.5m
Fantastic Beasts $551.4m
The Mermaid  $550.6m
Batman v Superman $542.9m
Finding Dory $541.3m
The Secret Life Of Pets $507.1m
Star Wars 7  $449.3m
Dr Strange $427.5m
Suicide Squad $420.5m
Deadpool  $420m
X-Men: Apocalypse $388.5m
Warcraft $386.3m
Kung Fu Panda $377.6m
Rogue One $361m
Ice Age 5 $343.7m
The Revenant  $331.3m
Independence Day $286.5m
Now You See Me 2 $269.8m
Jason Bourne $253.1m

US (1 January 2016 to 1 January 2017)
Finding Dory $486.3m
Rogue One $425m
Civil War $408.1m
The Secret Life Of Pets $368.3m
The Jungle Book $364m
Deadpool  $363.1m
Zootopia $341.3m
Batman v Superman $330.4m
Suicide Squad $325.1m
Star Wars 7  $283.2m
Dr Strange $230.1m
Fantastic Beasts $224.1m
Moana $210m
The Revenant  $181.9m
Sing $166.5m
Jason Bourne $162.2m
Star Trek Beyond $158.9m
X-Men: Apocalypse $155.5m
Trolls $150.3m
Kung Fu Panda 3 $143.5m

China (international releases only in 2016)
The Mermaid $526.8m
Zootopia $235.6m
Warcraft $220.8m
Civil War $190.4m
Kung Fu Panda $154.3m
The Jungle Book $150.1m
The Great Wall $148.2m
Star Wars 7  $125.4m
X-Men: Apocalypse $120.8m
Dr Strange $109.2m
Now You See Me 2 $97.1m
Batman v Superman $95.8m
Fantastic Beasts $85m
The Angry Birds Movie $75.9m
Independence Day $75.4m
Jason Bourne $66.9m
Ice Age 5 $66.5m
Star Trek Beyond $65.1m
TMNT 2 $58.9m
Alice Through The Looking Glass $58.8m


Data sourced from Boxofficemojo.com and the BFI

Tuesday, 27 December 2016

Golden Stans 2016

I saw 93 films in 2016 overall, but removing repeat screenings and rewatching classics, there are 75 films left pitching for the Golden Stans.

It is traditional for me to open with awarding the Cone of Shame to the worst movie of the year. While I managed to avoid dogs this year, Batman V Superman was a mess, but rather than give the award to the film, it goes to DC director Zack Snyder on behalf of the DC and Warners management for overseeing the unholy mess. Surely someone in the hierarchy realised that trying to combine elements of The Dark Knight Returns and the Death of Superman, plus the introduction of Woman Woman and a new Lex Luthor, and lay the foundations for the birth of the JLA would be too much for one film? Oppressively dark and oppressively shot, BvS shortchanged movie fans everywhere, whether they were comic geeks or not.

Moving on to the good stuff, many films had fantastic soundtracks this year, in particular:
  •  Brimstone - Junkie XL
  • Hell Or High Water - Nick Cave & Warren Ellis
  • The Childhood Of A Leader - Scott Walker
  • The Ghoul - Waen Shepherd

In each case, the scores added to the overall experience of the film, however the winner of the Golden Stan for Best Score goes to Scott Walker. I’m prepared to admit that the score may have too much of its own personality, that it’s too prominent, that just maybe the images are just there to support the music, but it absolutely blew me away.

Just as many films ‘sounded’ great in 2016, so as many again ‘looked’ fantastic; indeed, cinematography this year was not only of high quality but also prominent in quantity. The not-very-short shortlist looks like this:
  • The Revenant - Emmanuel Lubezki
  • Son of Saul - Matyas Erdely
  • The Childhood Of A Leader - Lol Crawley
  • Hell Or High Water - Giles Nuttgens
  • Nocturnal Animals - Seamus McGarvey
  • Manchester By The Sea - Jody Lee Lipes
  • La La Land - Linus SandgrenBrimstone - Rogier Stoffers

Brimstone, to my eyes, looks better than Hateful Eight, while Hell Or High Water had a bleached, barren quality befitting the film’ locations. Sandgren is a key part in La La Land’s immense success (not least that opening shot), while Seamus McGarvey seems to delight in the stylistic challenges thrown at him by Tom Ford. Lipes achieved a level of intimacy yet with objectivity on Manchester, while Crawley’s work on Childhood was all about objectivity, inviting you to gaze in horror. Erdely’s and Lubezki’s work helped to create the intensely immersive Saul and Revenant.
No doubt each of the nominees faced their own challenges, but there’s no getting away from the enormous obstacles that Lubezki faced, so he gets the gong for Best Cinematography.

The Golden Stan for Best Adapted Screenplay can only go to one script, and that script is The Big Short by Charles Randolph and (crucially) Adam McKay. They made the unfilmable massively enjoyable without losing the detail and context that gives the film its meaning.

The shortlist for the Golden Stan for Original Screenplay is:
  • Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester By The Sea
  • Alice Low for Revenge
  • Taylor Sheridan for Hell Or High Water

Each of these writers have distinctive voices and clear, particular concerns. Sheridan followed up Sicario with another modern Western, positively reeking of the here and now and the great unwashed who put Trump into power. The success of Low’s pregnant serial killer movie springs from her elegant script, where text and subtext seem to swap places from scene-to-scene. While Lonergan has been a little dismissive of praise for Manchester (“if it had been released in the 70s, you’d just say that it was good”), his script and plotting is the initial foundation stone of the film’s emotional impact. For making the unwatchable so compelling, the award goes to Lonergan.

And now on to the acting awards. First up is Supporting Actress; here’s the shortlist:
  • Kate Dickie for The Witch
  • Julianne Moore for Maggie’s Plan
  • Hayley Squires for I, Daniel Blake
  • Adriana Ugarte for Julieta
  • Alicia Vikander for The Danish Girl
  • Michelle Williams for Manchester By The Sea

Kate Dickie is arguably cast a little too with type in The Witch as the frustrated and troubled wife and mother, but is utterly convincing. Hayley Squires is similarly convincing in Daniel Blake. Adriana Ugarte is a Spanish star of the future if she can maintain the form she showcases in Julieta. Alicia Vikander finally arrived as far as I’m concerned with her best performance to date, stealing the movie from Eddie Redmayne. Julianne Moore’s performance teetered on the edge of farce but the truth was always there in her eyes. While I note her lack of screen time in Manchester, Michelle Williams gets the Golden Stan (her first win after this her third nomination) for her part in delivering one of the most powerful scenes ever committed to film. I’m steeling myself in preparation for seeing that scene again when Manchester goes on general release.

Next, it’s Supporting Actor. Here’s the shortlist:
  • Steve Carrell for The Big Short
  • Willem Dafoe for Dog Eat Dog
  • Lucas Hedges for Manchester By The Sea
  • Ralph Ineson for The Witch
  • Bill Nighy for Their Finest

Great roles for men were in short supply in 2016. Lucas Hedges is adept at the trauma and the unforced comedy at play in Manchester and helps ensure the unwatchable is entirely watchable. Ralph Ineson is just as compelling as Kate Dickie in The Witch, while Dafoe and Nighy deploy their comedy chops with elan. However, the Golden Stan goes to Steve Carrell, the emotional and moral anchor at the heart of The Big Short.

In serendipitous juxtaposition, the leading roles for women were many and varied (at least to my eyes!): my initial longlist for Best Actress ran to 17 names with two featuring for multiple performances. In the end, this is the not-so-shortlist:
  • Amy Adams for Nocturnal Animals, and Arrival
  • Kate Beckinsale for Love & Friendship
  • Paula Beer for Frantz
  • Berenice Bejo for Childhood of a Leader, and After Love
  • Dakota Fanning for Brimstone
  • Rebecca Hall for Christine
  • Isabelle Huppert for Elle
  • Noa Kooler for Through The Wall
  • Brie Larson for Room
  • Alice Low for Revenge
  • Emma Stone for La La Land
  • Emma Suarez for Julieta
Picking a winner from these performers is tough. Kate Beckinsale delivered a timely reminder of just how good she can be when not dressed in skintight black leather. Rebecca Hall was brave and committed with her unflinching portrayal of the titular Christine. Amy Adams maintained her run rate, with Arrival less challenging than her role in Nocturnal Animals but allowing her to be the clear ‘hero’ of the narrative. Berenice Bejo offered two visions of troubled motherhood. Paula Beer, Dakota Fanning and Brie Larson all excelled as women overcoming conflict and oppressive challenges. Both Emma Stone and Noa Kooler are luminous in lighter roles that nevertheless have strong undertows of painful reality. Emma Suarez commanded the screen in Julieta. Alice Low served her twisted humour and vision well by being her own lead. Isabelle Huppert was mighty and brave in Elle, never just a victim.
A winner? I unapologetically give the award to Emma Stone: it’s been a long time since a camera fell so desperately in love with an actress.

As already mentioned in the Supporting Actor category, great roles for men were not overflowing, thus in contrast with the Best Actress category, here’s a properly short shortlist for Best Actor:
  • Casey Affleck for Manchester By The Sea
  • Leonardo di Caprio for The Revenant
  • Dave Johns for I, Daniel Blake
  • Tom Meeten for The Ghoul
  • Pierre Niney for Frantz
  • Guy Pearce for Brimstone
  •  Eddie Redmayne for The Danish Girl
  • Geza Gohrig for Son of Saul

There’s no doubting the commitment of the performers here. Guy Pearce delivered one of the greatest cinema villains ever as the vengeful preacher in Brimstone that fairly shook me to the core. The conditions di Caprio had to work in are well-documented and no doubt helped him to deliver a career-best performance. Tom Meeten threw himself into the maelstrom of madness at the heart of The Ghoul. Pierre Niney was perfect for Frantz, conveying the ever-shifting mystery and conflicted emotions that drive the film. Like his co-star, Dave Johns was utterly believable in Daniel Blake. Eddie Redmayne was genuinely excellent (remember, I haven’t previously rated Redmayne!) in The Danish Girl. However, the two outstanding portrayals of 2016 came from Casey Affleck in Manchester and Geza Rohrig for Saul. The latter had a hell of challenge: if I recall correctly, he’s in every scene bar two, mostly with the camera in his face or peering over his shoulder. The grace under pressure here is impressive, especially given Saul was his debut.
However, Casey Affleck takes the award for his natural, beautiful, nuanced portrayal of a man understandably deeply affected by grief. It takes two to tango and his part in ‘that’ scene with Michelle Williams must not be underestimated. I suspect that Caffleck’s performance will be remembered for decades to come.

The final acting award for Best Couple has two all-too-obvious recipients: Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land. Their chemistry fires the film up and ensures that no matter how challenging the filming set-up, the joie de vivre is always front and centre.

The Golden Stan for Best Director started with a longlist of 20, but I’ve managed to get down to half that for the shortlist:
  • Damien Chazelle for La La Land
  • Brady Corbet for The Childhood Of A Leader
  • Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester By The Sea
  • Alice Low for Revenge
  • David Mackenzie for Hell Or High Water
  • Tom McCarthy for Spotlight
  • Adam McKay for The Big Short
  • Laszlo Nemes for Son of Saul
  • Francois Ozon for Frantz
  • Ben Wheatley for Free Fire
Working backwards, Wheatley took delicious and delirious pleasure in his 80-minute shoot-out. Ozon continued to grow up, adding some real emotional engagement with his characters to his Hitchcockian observational position. Nemes’s conception and delivery created a holocaust movie that moves beyond victimhood. McKay crafted that rare thing: a funny but important movie that should be required vieiwing for anyone over the age of 18. McCarthy made up for playing one of the worst fictional journalists ever (in The Wire) by directing with reserve a tale of quality journalism, somehow making the work-aday utterly dramatic. Mackenzie’s direction of Hell Or High Water was assured, recalling past ‘modern’ Westerns without losing the film’s currency. Is Alice Low the next Ben Wheatley? I certainly hope so and look forward to whatever she chooses to direct next. The final trio then: Lonergan directs his script with great sensitivity, Corbet helms the most complete, singular and challenging vision of the year, and Chazelle seemingly trumps Whiplash. As much as I admire Chazelle for making me fall in love with a musical and applaud his audacity, the Golden Stan for Best Director goes to Kenneth Lonergan for Manchester By The Sea.

Finally then, the big one: Best Film. This isn’t a shortlist as such, more a list of those films that enjoyed the most in 2016 in the order that I saw them:
  • Room: quite how all those involved in this managed to turn such an awful scenario into fairytale I don’t know, but I applaud them for doing so.
  • The Revenant: it had many issues, but when this was on fire, it was ON FIRE!
  • The Big Short: a timely and important film, refreshingly told.
  • Spotlight: unshowy depiction of the unshowy good work journalists can do; a despairing warning to the media and its audience in the free-to-air age…
  • Captain America: Civil War: The best superhero fight of all time. A new Spider-Man that had this fanboy at ‘hello’. Some small, beautiful moments of character interplay. One of top 10 best superhero movies. Quite how the Russo brothers top this, I don’t know.
  • Son Of Saul: immersive movie of the year? As it should be, this was uncomfortable, challenging and bleak vieiwing, but humanity in all its hues was evident.
  • Mustang: a great ensemble cast brought this tale of burgeoning female adulthood and its conflict with religious and cultural oppression to considerable life. A real eye-opener.
  • Julieta: another excellent work in the mature-Almodovar vein.
  • The Childhood Of A Leader: this knocked me sideways, aided by that score by Scott Walker. But this is Brady Corbet’s movie. Challenging and relevant.
  • Hell Or High Water: a great modern ‘American movie’. Watch this and it’s no surprise that Trump beat Clinton.
  • La La Land: I saw this on a Saturday morning during the London Film Festival. I don’t like musicals, I don’t ‘get’ them, but this one got me.
  • Frantz: in which Francois Ozeon continues to mature, emotionally engaging with his characters. Post-Brexit, this was a reminder of the potential horror now at the gates of every European state.
  • Manchester By The Sea: it’s already won four Golden Stans… I simply can’t wait to see this for a second and third time.
  • Mindhorn: achingly funny British comedy that meant my hanky was soaked with tears of laughter. Some of the best/silliest gags I’ve ever seen.
  • Arrival: the thinking woman’s Interstellar anyone?
  • Elle: if Ozon was less Hitchcock than usual, Paul Verhoeven and Isabelle Huppert went fully Hitch. In a year dominated by the gender and diversity debate, director and star cheekily leave no convention unchallenged, no base unloaded. Strong stuff no doubt, but it needs to be seen.
  • Brimstone: the gothic horror movie of 2016! Brimstone held me in its grip for 2.5 hours even as some people were leaving the cinema in disgust.
  • Prevenge: a film to watch with a crowd. Once seen, you’ll never look at a pregnant woman the same way ever again.
  • Free Fire: 90 minutes long with 80 minutes of gunplay, Wheatley’s Free Fire ripped every action movie of late a new one. Teaches Tarantino a lesson too. Exhilarating and hilarious.
  • I, Daniel Blake: austerity Britain dissected. Loach and Laverty’s anger at the system is treated with a light touch: rather than shout at you, the film builds your emotional connection to its very real characters, its anger building inside you through osmosis.
  • Rogue One: the best Star Wars movie yet? For once, studio heads did the right thing: allowed all the heroes to die! I’m looking forward to watching Rogue One and New Hope back-to-back.


Ultimately, two films stood head and shoulders above all others. My emotional reaction to both was intense. In a year dominated by death and broken dreams, it is only just that Manchester By The Sea and La La Land share the Golden Stan for Best Film.

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Best of the London Film Festival 2016: Prevenge

In which Alice Lowe comes of age and reveals herself to be a distinctive new voice in British cinema that should be embraced and encouraged.

Having apprenticed with Ben Wheatley, here Lowe writes, stars in and for the first time directs. She is clearly from the school of Wheatley: this is a jet black, gory revenge comedy with a shocking impetus at its core – Lowe’s ‘heroine’ is heavily pregnant and is compelled to kill by her unborn child. She directs with verve, aided by Ryan Eddleston’s camera forcing its way into the action and Matteo Bini’s editing.

Revelation of the tragedy at the heart of the film is worked seamlessly into the narrative, the visual image of that tragedy echoing and reflecting in the story’s key metaphor.

Lowe’s Ruth is perhaps not that different to her Tina in Wheatley’s Sightseers, that same doleful expression, that same sense of resignation, but mated to a greater fury.

Men do not fare well in Lowe’s deliciously twisted script, and some suffer much more than others. I shan’t spoil your viewing by revealing their humiliations, at least one of which has not been seen in such detail on film since the days of Video Nasties. This is not a film for those with weak stomachs: you have been warned!
Score: 8/10

UK release date: tbc