Film Review – I, Tonya (15)  

That girl is your enemy. You’re not here to make friends.

If you’d asked me what I knew about Tonya Harding, I would probably have replied, ‘Wasn’t she that American ice-skater who broke her rival’s leg, pre-competition?’ Which is precisely the kind of media misinformation addressed by this rough and ribald drama. I, Tonya centres on the incident in which Harding’s husband arranged to have Nancy Kerrigan taken out of the 1994 US Figure Skating Championships by nefarious means. The movie doesn’t defend Harding, nor does it pass particular judgement on whatever role she may have played in the attack (no leg was broken, but the injury to Kerrigan was brutal nonetheless). It presents the truth, in fact, as decidedly muddy – a strategy as frustrating as it is fascinating.

The film, it should be said, is about more than the so-called ‘incident’. It’s the story of an anomaly – a self-labelled redneck girl with a bolshy attitude, making her way in that most prim of sports, ice-skating. Her angst is fuelled by two relationships – with her pathologically ambitious mother and volatile first husband. The movie’s narrative is based on real-life (and mutually contradictory) interviews with Harding and her ex-husband Jeff Gillooly, both characters speaking regularly on camera to question the truth of what we have just witnessed. The result is a turbulent ride, as Harding’s astonishing talent does battle with both outside influences and her own fiery nature.

I, Tonya is more than anything a complex character study, and it thrives on the grit of its central performances. Margot Robbie (most recently seen in Goodbye, Christopher Robin) is truly impressive as Harding, well worthy of her Best Actress Oscar Nomination. She plays the eponymous Tonya from a raucous fifteen years old, through the turmoil of her years in competition to the sardonic thirty-something looking back at it all. Whatever level of ice-skating expertise she achieved, the scenes are edited seamlessly, Robbie capturing the zest and rebellious spirit that enthralled audiences and antogonised judges.

Sebastian Stan is also fine as the angry and bewildered Jeff, unrecognisable from his Bucky Barnes role in the Captain Americamovies (well I didn’t recognise him at any rate). There’s a shiftiness to both him and Harding throughout, so that we don’t entirely trust either of these unreliable narrators. And speaking of untrustworthy, The West Wing‘s Allison Janney is utterly transformed as Harding’s bitter chain-smoking mother LaVonda. Think a wildly over-zealous skating mom with a bitter redneck twist and you’re someway to visualising the kind of viciousness portrayed here. Again, her Best Supporting Oscar nom is a no-brainer. If this film is about anything, it’s about types of relationship dysfunction – and the mother-daughter dynamic here is jaw-dropping in its destructive nature.

This is a tough-minded film with an unflinching portrayal of domestic violence, both physical and psychological. It’s also full of grim humour, much of which stems from the relationship between Jeff and his deluded friend and co-conspirator Shawn. (Paul Walter Hauser sheds all dignity in an unflattering and painfully funny performance). If the movie has a flaw it’s the amount of time the story takes to wrap, once the ‘incident’ has played out. Since the screenplay is reluctant to pass final judgement on Harding, it would benefit from seriously tightening up the denouement.

Whatever the truth behind I, Tonya‘s conflicting accounts, this is a bleak tale with nary a flicker of redemption. Reports that Tonya Harding is treated too sympathetically are overstated; the film’s tone is far too frank for that, the story too laden with ambiguity. It cuts through the media bullshit surrounding the events, but leaves key questions unanswered. Nancy Kerrigan was demonstrably a victim of the whole affair, while her opponent remains inscrutable. The girl from the underclass background, who almost made good. Whether guilty or innocent, Tonya’s story is a kind of American tragedy.

Gut Reaction: Engrossed for the most part – alternately appalled and amused. And left feeling a bit tainted at the end.

Where Are the Women?: In the forefront and your face. As I post this review, Alison Janney is probably still celebrating her Best Supporting Actress Oscar.

Ed’s Verdict: 7.5/10. A successfully dark and edgy comedy-drama, with terrific performances throughout. But as a trawl through the murkier aspects of our humanity, it’s the very opposite of uplifting.


Film Review – Black Panther (12A)

It’s hard for a good man to be king. 

Cinema-goers first met African prince T’Challa, aka Black Panther, inCaptain America: Civil War. In that film he took on the superhero mantle (figuratively speaking – the costume is a body-fitting one-piece, not a cloak) to seek revenge for the assassination of his father. Now in theBlack Panther stand-alone movie, T’Challa – played once again by Chadwick Boseman – returns to his native Wakanda so he can officially assume his role as king of that mysterious nation. The result is without doubt one of the best Marvel movies to date, one that combines entertainment value with intelligence and thematic bite.

There are several key reasons why it succeeds so profoundly. First is the fact that Black Panther stands alone as a story. Yes there are references to other films in the Marvel canon, but like Ant-Man or Doctor Strangethere is nothing to jar or confuse, if you come to it fresh. Both Andy Serkis and Martin Freeman pop up in previously established roles, but ultimately this is all about the Kingdom of Wakanda – and that’s a whole other reason to get excited.

The country to which T’Challa returns is a hidden phenomenon – a civilisation literally founded on vibranium, the extra-terrestrial metal that has made Wakanda the most technologically advanced place on Earth. This is an El Dorado, whose royals have decreed to keep vibranium a secret from the rest of the world. But that secret is under threat from South African mercenary Ulysses Claue (Serkis and pronounced ‘Claw’). Nor is Claue the kingdom’s biggest threat; working with him is so-called Erik Killmonger (Creed‘s Michael B. Jordan), a black-ops-trained terrorist with a deeper and darker purpose underscoring his actions. From there the plot developments are swift and unpredictable, another of the movie’s major plus points. Suffice to say the new Black Panther should expect no honeymoon period as King, forced instead to confront some tough truths about both his royal heritage and his country’s place in the wider world.

Wakanda itself might be the most ingenious Marvel landscape to date, a glorious creation that merges ancient tribal culture with astonishing tech. The film makes the most of rolling African grassland and precipitous waterfalls, while introducing a CGI city that perpetually dazzles. And if some of the computer graphics prove not quite on point, it’s thankfully not enough to distract. What the movie does successfully is to immerse you in a unique culture, so that you truly get to absorb it. Yes there are some jet-setting James Bond-style escapades along the way, but most of the action is proudly Wakanda-centric – and it’s a fascinating place to hang out for two hours.

The wholly new story introduces a roster of well-drawn characters, too, of which the regal and self-contained T’Challa (Boseman embodies the role to perfection) is but one. Killmonger is a noteworthy villain, one of greater psychological complexity than his name suggests, and whose motivations provide the movie with a real political edge. Then there are the women in T’Challa’s life. Take Okoye, commander of the royal guard (katana-wielding Michonne from The Walking Dead). Or his ex-lover and international spy Nakia (12 Years a Slave‘s Lupita Nyong’o). Or his precocious sister Shuri, a junior tech-genius played by British Guyanese actress Letitia Wright. Each is a distinctive and spirited creation, whose presence in the narrative really matters. Nor does the cast stop there – Angela Bassett and Forest Whitaker both provide gravitas among these bright young things – for this is a true ensemble, populated with great characters so that T’Challa is merely first among equals.

Director and co-writer Ryan Coogler deserves kudos for adding a true original to the Marvel canon, and for helming a blockbuster that carries real cultural significance. Much has been said in the media about Black Panther‘s status as a superhero film with a black lead, a predominantly black cast and a broadly African aesthetic. But none of that would count for much, if it wasn’t any good. Happily it’s better than good. This fantasy sci-fi adventure is genuinely thrilling, with a more challenging subtext than your average comic-book movie. Even if you’re not a genre fan, go see it. You might be pleasantly surprised.

Gut Reaction: I think I was actually bridling with enjoyment (if that’s a thing) during this one. And there are some laugh-out-loud moments too.

Where Are the Women?: See above. The girls are all over this one.

Ed’s Verdict: 8.5/10. Black Panther is adrenaline-fuelled and unique entertainment, that lands punches both ideological and emotional. It sets out to be fun, but also to be a movie that matters. Job done on both counts.

Film Review – The Shape of Water (15)  

He sees me for who I am. As I am.

The key to Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water is his own description of the film – as an ‘adult fairy-tale’. ‘Fairy-tale’ in that it’s a whimsical story reminiscent of Beauty and the Beast, and ‘adult’ in its unabashed eroticism and flashes of gruelling violence. It’s also a homage both to ’50s Cold War B-movies and to the golden age of Hollywood romance. In other words, this movie is in love with movies. If you’re ready to embrace all of that, you’re likely to fall in love with The Shape of Wateritself.

Sally Hawkins (the adoptive bear-mother in Paddington 2) plays Eliza, a mute cleaning woman who works at a 1950s military laboratory. Her almost invisible presence there provides her with privileged access to a new delivery that lives in a huge tank of salt water. It’s mysterious, scary and referred to by Strickland, the facility’s ruthlessly ambitious director, as ‘the asset’. But Eliza’s response is more wonder than fear, sparking a connection with the creature that will put her at odds with its captors, and lead to a remarkable development in her life.

Having finally seen this awards contender, I’m not surprised that it picked up those thirteen Oscar and twelve BAFTA nominations. Del Toro is a film-maker of vast imagination, with a remarkable and continually evolving visual style. In The Shape of Water multiple elements combine to create something truly gorgeous. The military elements have that fantastical Creature from the Black Lagoon element (del Toro cited the 1954 creature feature as his primary inspiration), while Eliza’s cramped but adorably quaint apartment – two storeys above a classic ’50s movie emporium – is home to her Hollywood-inspired romantic dreams. When home and work collide, these two worlds fuse into something as magical as it is bizarre (even if one creature-related moment made me wince).

The cinematography and lighting design capture it all magnificently – from the aquatic greens of the creature and the warm Valentine reds surrounding Eliza, to the murky shadow of the espionage sequences. Some plot twists may be ugly, but on a visual level every frame is stunningly lovely. Alexandre Desplat’s score is haunting and otherworldly at points, full of quirky romance at others. And the cinematic influences are abundant, as if they’re all distilled through Eliza’s imagination and reproduced in the world around her. (You don’t have to be movie buff to enjoy this film, but if you are, get set for a treat.)

And then there are the performances. Hawkins conveys more through her physical responses to the world around her than many actors do through spoken performance. The director’s advice that she channel the work of his silent-movie heroes pays off to sublime effect; Eliza is a classic romantic heroine with added sexuality and spirit, and the effect is mesmerising. But she’s not carrying it alone. Richard Jenkins is touching as Eliza’s artist friend Giles, another soul lost in life, while Hidden Figures‘ Octavia Spencer proves worthy of her Best Supporting nominations in her no-nonsense role as a fellow-janitor at the laboratory. Doug Jones rounds off this band of outsiders as the bizarre amphibian itself, his lithe performance overlaid with state-of-the-art graphics to create this feature’s memorable creature. And Michael Shannon (terrific in Nocturnal Animals) is a worthy nemesis as Strickland, malevolence virtually carved into his stony face.

If the film has a flaw it’s that the plot runs too predictable a course in the latter stages, its beats a little too obvious to take you by surprise. But then this is ultimately a fairy-tale (albeit one meshed with spy thrillers and monster movies), so the romantic conventions of the genre were always going to be its guide. And when there’s this much verbal and visual poetry washing about, a bit of convention is a small price to pay.

Gut Reaction: Charmed, appalled and moved, depending on the scene, and won over pretty much wholesale. And yes – I now have a big old crush on Paddington’s mum.

Where Are the Women?: Hawkins is so good I need to track down her back catalogue, and Spencer is feisty support. Kudos also to co-writer Vanessa Taylor, for her sublime work on the dialogue.

Ed’s Verdict: 8/10. It’s proved a bit Marmite-y, but the sheer depth of movie-love on display, along with Sally’s sexy-romantic luminosity, kept me enthralled. Del Toro’s weird love-letter to cinema is truly wonderful.

Film Review – Phantom Thread (15)

I’m certain I was never meant to marry. I’m a confirmed bachelor. I’m incurable.

Phantom Thread is the new film by Paul Thomas Anderson, whose 1999 epic of human emotion Magnolia still claims the number-one position on my all-time list of favourite movies. Phantom Thread is also the final film performance (unless he someday changes his mind) of Daniel Day Lewis. In other words, this is an event. It’s not to be ignored. It’s a film reviewer’s must-see. Which doesn’t mean I have to unambiguously love it.

Day Lewis plays Reynolds Woodcock, a couturier in 1950s London, who designs bespoke dresses for an elite clientele. Running the business with his all-seeing sister (Lesley Manville), he is an artist and a perfectionist, whose obsessive work ethic plays havoc with any woman who threatens to get close to him. Once the initial thrill of an affair has subsided, the muse in question finds herself surplus to the designer’s requirements. Into his life comes gauche but life-embracing waitress Alma (Vicky Krieps), a young woman dazzled by the world of high-end couture and by her sophisticated new lover. But Reynolds’ pathological reaction to those who fall in love with him threatens to doom their relationship from the start.

All of this we absorb in the opening twenty minutes, the film devoting the same obsessive attention to character as Reynolds does to his designs. It also revels in the fashion world of post-War London, Anderson taking time to explore the protagonist’s resolutely pre-rock-and-roll existence in minute detail. The style is a far cry from Magnolia‘s swirling camerawork and rapid-fire editing. This is a film about ripples being sent through the calm of one man’s fastidiously arranged life, by a force he truly underestimates. Much of the action is internalised, the romance and tidal passions suggested by Jonny Greenwood’s compelling and genuinely beautiful classical score.

If this is indeed Day Lewis’s swansong, he makes the most of it. Reynolds is as fully realised as any role he has ever played – seductively charming, yet fussy and effete, and totally a man of the fading pre-war era. Every word and action is precisely observed, creating a portrait that both amuses and infuriates. His response when he witnesses the disreputable behaviour of a woman wearing one of his dresses is priceless.

Thankfully the character does not overwhelm, due to the women in Reynolds’ life. Krieps plays Alma with subtle conviction, the girl’s spirit gradually asserting itself as she adjusts to her new position in life. And Manville provides a masterclass in understatement as the imperious sister, who manages her brother’s eccentricities and affairs (both business and personal) with brisk efficiency and a disapproving eye. The only performance oddity comes from the House of Woodcock’s dressmakers, a group of ladies clearly employed for their on-camera couture skills rather than because any of them were trained in acting.

Exquisite is the word that best describes Phantom Thread as a whole, in everything from its production design to its score to its precision performances. This is all about needle-fine detail rather than sweeping drama, to an extent that might well test some viewers’ patience. The plot twists when they come are audacious, however, and it’s fascination to watch the path down which Reynolds and Alma take each other. Also who can resist watching Daniel Day Lewis immerse himself in a unique character creation one final time? For that reason alone it deserves watching.

Gut Reaction: Quietly absorbed, particularly by the acting and all the breakfasts on display. And staring at one point late on in complete incredulity.

Where Are the Women?: Both Krieps and Manville have room to shine. And look out for Harriet Sansom Harris (Frasier Crane’s deplorable agent Bebe) in a memorable cameo.

Ed’s Verdict: 7.5/10. One of those films you maybe admire rather than out-and-out love, Phantom Thread is daringly divisive Anderson and a worthy final bow from Day Lewis. Oh, and it includes some really pretty party frocks.

Film Review – Winchester (15)

Do you believe in ghosts, Doctor?

There’s an intriguing true story behind the film Winchester, one which was news to me. In 1884 Sarah Winchester, widow of the firearms tycoon who had established the Winchester Repeating Arms Company, funded the building of a mansion in San Jose. Inspired by a spiritualist she had visited, she continued to expand the build randomly over several decades. By the time of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake the sprawling residence had grown to seven storeys, although after that devastating event it remained at a mere four. The so-called Winchester Mystery House remains a tourist location to this day, due to its reputation as America’s most haunted location. And the spirits – well they’re all victims of the Winchester rifle. It’s a splendid piece of Gothic folklore, one worthy of a scintillatingly spooky horror movie.

This is not that movie.

It’s not for want of a good cast, for the film draws on a clutch of talented performers. Helen Mirren plays the grieving widow Winchester, obsessively pursuing the endless construction of her spirit-house. Dependable actor Jason Clarke (EverestDawn of the Planet of the Apes) is Doctor Eric Price, the analyst employed by the Winchester company to ascertain how mad she actually is, with a view to removing her; he of course don’t believe in ghosts, whatever his laudanum addiction might tell him to the contrary. Meanwhile Clarke’s fellow-Australian Sarah Snook is Mirren’s niece, a fraught young woman with a deeply troubled son. Put them all together in a rambling spook-house and it should provide a deliciously unsettling cinema experience.

The problems kick off shortly after the doc arrives at the house. The period location is suitably imposing, but any tension is quickly squandered by cliched storytelling and a chronic dependency on jump-scares. The first couple of these work effectively enough, but the next dozen (and I’m not exaggerating here) result in seriously diminishing returns. This is not helped by a score that basically consists of ‘creepy-music-creepy-music-creepy-music-BOO!’. There are only so many cheap frighteners a story can take at the expense of all atmosphere. From there the potentially fascinating scenario descends into a muddle of ludicrous I-see-dead-people shenanigans delivered with a lump-hammer level of subtlety. It’s daft, it’s derivative and it’s a sad waste.

On the up-side (and I am the glass half-full reviewer after all) Dame Helen seems to be enjoying herself and turns in a nicely understated performance, much like a diamond floating on sewage. The others to give them credit, show similar levels of commitment, undeterred by the script’s insufficiencies. There are some good ideas and neat plot developments struggling for room, and the movie is too short to get genuinely boring. In fact it retains a rubbishy form of entertainment value to the end. And it’s good to come out the other side having discovered a whole new nugget of American lore.

Seriously though – in this era of US gun-toting madness, this is an opportunity wasted to combine a genuinely spine-chilling ghost story with some pointed social commentary. Winchester opts for superficial thrills over the kind of atmosphere that seeps into the viewer’s bones. And the latter is what this subject really deserves.

Gut Reaction: I actually began to laugh when the jumpy moments hit double figures. But the character interactions provided a bit more to enjoy.

Where Are the Women?: Mirren walks away with her dignity and reputation intact and Snook similarly builds hers by giving better than the material deserves.

Ed’s Verdict: 5/10. Winchester is the definition of a half-marks movie, with enough plusses to show what it might have been with better execution. Daft fun at best, shored up by A-grade acting. Not unlike the later Carry On films, come to think of it.

Film Review – Early Man (PG)

The Age of Stone is over. Long live the Age of Bronze.

I’ve loved Nick Park’s work with Aardman Animation ever since the thirty minutes of comic perfection that is The Wrong Trousers. Since then Park has delivered full-length features Chicken Run and The Curse of the Were-rabbit, both of them achieving unalloyed magnificence through the resolutely old-fashioned technique of stop-motion. So when I say thatEarly Man doesn’t match up in my affections, you’ll understand that’s not a condemnation. There’s a lot to like in this merrily ridiculous stone-age tale – just not as much as usual.

The hero of the piece is Dug (voiced by Eddie Redmayne), youngest warrior in a loveable but useless tribe of bunny-hunters. Led by Chief Bobnar (Aardman stalward Timothy Spall), the oafish group find their valley overtaken by an advanced civilisation, which has discovered both the wheel and the forging of metal. The Bronze Age has officially commenced, and Dug’s people must flee for their lives, so that the valley can be mined. Dug, however, is swept by fate and a big net into the City of Bronze, where he discovers what takes place within their gladiatorial arena – a game called ‘football’, one that has around for longer than anyone realises. And in football, he realises, may lie his tribe’s salvation.

In technical terms Early Man is Park’s and Aardman’s biggest venture to date – the prehistoric vistas are impressive, with the pre-credits sequence providing the story a multi-millennial sweep. The sets are gloriously elaborate, created with the production team’s usual attention to detail, while the stop-motion stunts (incorporating numerous clay-mation stone-age critters) are more elaborate than ever before. All that’s needed, with that measure of talent on board, is a sharp, consistently funny script. Sadly – and I say this with a pang of sorrow – that’s where the efforts are lacking.

It’s not that the writers take liberties with history – the central anachronism of a bronze-age football league is potentially great fun. But there’s a jumbled sense in the plotting, everything cobbled together from multiple time periods, so that none of it quite coheres. All of which wouldn’t matter so much, if there wasn’t such a reliance on too many bad, old jokes. And when I say bad, I mean substantially worse than in Chicken Run. I mean jokes that make your heart sink. Ultimately the central idea, while smacking of inspiration, ends up seeming like an opportunity to crowbar in as many Brit-friendly football jokes as possible.

The characters and their antics are realised with the team’s customary genius and there are real moments of slapstick joy, made all the more wonderful when you remember it’s all hand-crafted, one shot at a time. Dug and the tribe are endearingly goofy, and Bronze Age pan-seller Goona (voiced by Maisie Williams), who sides with our gang, is an appealingly modern heroine. Meanwhile French-accented villain Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) is probably the most fun, rendered ridiculous as he is at every turn. And there’s a very lovable sidekick pig named Hobnob (hashtag Britjoke), who steals many of the best scenes.

If Early Man suffers, it’s from the high expectations that come with an Aardman film. Wallace and Gromit blazed quite a trail, with chickens, pirates and sheep all shining in their wake. This film is a technical triumph and boundary-pushing on those terms. However the deficiencies come in the form of an under-baked script, for which no amount of animation know-how can compensate. It’s undoubtedly good. But when you’ve come to expect fabulous, good is a bit of a let-down.

Gut Reaction: Marvel at the state-of-the-art craftsmanship. And a constant state of liking what I’d hoped to love. There were laughs, but not as many as I’d hoped.

Where Are the Women?: Maisie Williams and Margolyes head up the feisty female representation. Go Bronze Age girls.

Ed’s Verdict: 6.5/10. It would be churlish to label Early Man as anything less than great fun, and the young target audience will adore every exquisitely crafted frame. I’ll try to be happy with that.

Film Review – Downsizing (15)

Something very big is happening.

Downsizing is suffering from what might be called the Mother! effect. It’s nothing like that crazy film in content, but both have marketing campaigns that lead audiences to expect one type of experience, before delivering something radically different. On first glance Downsizing looks like a high-concept science-fiction comedy – The Incredible Shrinking Man done as a suburban sitcom. But this is written and directed by Alexander Payne (SidewaysThe Descendants), and gets into some heavy existential wrangles before the story is done. It’s much more than a Friday night diversion.

Matt Damon and Kristen Wiig play Paul and Audrey Safranek, a financially struggling couple who consider a medical procedure of literal downsizing. A Scandinavian scientist has perfected human cellular reduction, whereby anyone can be shrunk to a size of around five inches in height. ‘Small’ communities are being encouraged globally, since tiny people produce a fraction of the waste produce, thus helping salvage the environment. But it’s also sold as a shrewd financial move, modest savings stretching much further when you start life in a model-sized town. So Paul and Audrey agree to take the plunge, securing themselves a place within a plush downsized community called Leisureland. The consequences are instant and extraordinary.

Downsizing is a story told in distinct acts, each one moving somewhere utterly unexpected. There’s the journey into the miniaturised world, the adapting to the norms of this apparent Utopia and then a whole other journey of discovery (one that puts the ‘odd’ into odyssey). The opening sections have all the quirky visual humour and sharp wit you’d expect from a Payne movie; the actual downsizing sequence is a comically surreal tour de force, accompanied by Rolfe Kent’s beautifully-judged score. (Overall the music is as tonally varied as the movie.) Leisureland is cleverly realised in its feel and texture, so that it looks miniature even when there’s nothing big in the frame to remind you of its scale.

Payne’s sense of the satirical is in place from early on and only sharpens as the plot unfolds and the small communities’ utopian ideals are put – as it were – under the microscope. The broad comedy of the big/little premise gradually gives way to something much more weighty, as the movie strives to support some ironically huge ideas. It’s here that you’ll either be captivated as a viewer, or do as several audience members did at Chatham Odeon and hit the exit.

Damon is a great everyman, one who you truly root for if you stick around, and Wiig is nicely understated, but in truth the most surprising performances come from elsewhere. Christoph Waltz plays a louche and connected neighbour in the downsized community to great comic effect, while Thai actress Hong Chau (TV’s Big Little Lies) is a big-screen revelation as a house cleaner with a turbulent past. Both help steer the drama in those unpredictable, arguably frustrating directions.

Downsizing is a film with ambitions as grand as its central characters are miniature. What begins as an off-kilter comedy, with a concept that’s gleefully bananas, turns into something with real gravity, raising issues of environmental responsibility and how we struggle to create meaning in our lives. It also proves that in terms of human behaviour, whether good and bad, size simply doesn’t matter.

Gut Reaction: Regular chuckling for the first two thirds, then growing fascination in the final one. It didn’t occur to me until the end that those guys had walked out!

Where Are the Women?: Wiig is good, but Hong Chau is the movie’s surprising emotional core. (She didn’t get a Best Supporting Actress Nom for the Oscars. This is a shame.)

Ed’s Verdict: 8/10. I loved its comic weirdness, its ambition, even its perpetually evolving tone. This one will polarise opinion, but I’m fighting its corner. Go see it and then we’ll talk.

Film Review – Coco (PG)

I’m proud we’re family.

Pixar is the animation company that made it okay for grown-ups to enjoy films made ostensibly for children. I mean really enjoy them. It isn’t just the craft that goes into their work. It’s the sophistication and thematic depth of their storytelling (and the way they make you plain weep). These computer-generated features work beautifully on dual levels, often creating fully-realised new worlds. Finding NemoWall-EInside-Out. And now… Coco. Their new title is up there with the best of them.

Set in a vibrant Mexican village, Coco centres on Miguel Rivera, a young lad whose dream is to play guitar like his movie-star hero Ernesto de la Cruz. The rest of his shoe-making family, however, are resolutely set against him doing anything even vaguely musical. The boy’s great-grandmother Mama Coco was abandoned by her no-good musician father, and Miguel’s secret guitar-strumming is viewed as an act of shame. The dispute comes to a climax on Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos, its celebration of familial ancestors, when a rash action on Miguel’s part crosses him over into the actual Land of the Dead. Here, surrounded by its cheerful skeletal occupants, he must try to find his way back to the living with the help of his own dead relatives.

Those are the (advanced apology) bare bones of the story, for this is a satisfyingly complex and ingenious tale, tying together themes of childhood ambition, family loyalty and the emotional links between living and departed into a deeply satisfying whole. And if any of the subject-matter sounds sombre, the absolute opposite is true. The film’s primary emotion is joy – in music, in family and in life. It’s also frequently very funny, right from the moment the Universal Studios theme is blasted out by a mariachi band.

To call the visuals stunning doesn’t even capture the eye-popping colour on display here. The relatively restrained Mexican village scenes still buzz with life and movement in every frame. (The view of the candle-lit village cemetery is a gorgeous high-point.) But the Land of the Dead is almost overpowering, beginning with its entrance bridge – a great arch of cascading orange marigold blossom, over which the dazzled Miguel can walk. The entire after-world is a fluorescent marvel, constructed with near-ridiculous attention to detail, and bustling with an ironical degree of life.

Coco‘s numerous characters, living and dead, are realised superbly on every level, starting with its earnest Spanish-guitar-picking hero. (Take a look at Andy in 1995’s original Toy Story and see how far Pixar has come in its depiction of humans over two decades.) Miguel’s family is chaotic, infuriating and endearing all at once, his shoe-wielding Mama Elena a stand-out. And his colourfully-clad but rattling ancestors have as much individual personality as their living counterparts. Hector, the ramshackle scoundrel befriended by Miguel, is a series of bone-related gags, each as visually inventive as the last. Oh, and there’s a dog called Dante (well of course there is), who can cross over to the other side, but keeps tripping himself with his own tongue.

The largely Hispanic voice cast is impressive too, with young Antonio Gonzales a terrific lead and Gael Garcia Bernal both touching and hilarious as Hector. They provide a whole lot of music, vibrant and celebratory, a perfect fit with the movie’s magnificent sense of spectacle.

Ultimately Coco is just that – a celebration, particularly of Mexican culture, folklore and family life. What starts off as a well-worn tale of a misunderstood boy trying to follow his dream turns into something much more imaginative. It’s a Day of the Dead miracle – and Pixar at its storytelling best.

Gut Reaction: Amused, entranced, entertained. And yes – the ending properly got me. It was the opening twenty minutes of Up all over again.

Where Are the Women? The matriarchs of the Rivera family are a force – none more so than Miguel’s deceased great-great-grandmother Mama Imelda (the sublime-voiced Alanna Ubach).

Ed’s Verdict: 8.5/10. It deals with art, passion, inter-generational conflict, life, love, loss, mortality, remembrance, even dementia – all of it with sensitivity, humour and warmth. And buckets of creativity. Just wonderful.

The Post

It’s just government secrets.

The Post is the fastest-made film of director’s Steven Spielberg’s career. By his own account he first read the script in early 2017. It struck him as so relevant, despite its 1970s setting, that he suspended work on another project and made the thing in nine months flat. The urgency has transferred to the screen, but not the rush. With Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks on board, this is A-listers bringing their A-game; the result is as gripping as it is timely.
The Washington Post of the movie’s title is a poor competitor in 1971 to the mighty New York Times. That could all change when military analyst Daniel Ellsberg starts leaking Vietnam War-related documents to theTimes. The government, it transpires, has been less than truthful regarding the progress of American troops, and the whole thing points to a decades-long foreign policy cover-up. Nor is the Richard Nixon’s administration going to abandon its secrets easily, slapping an injunction on the Times to shut it up. Soon Post editor Ben Bradlee (Hanks) is chasing the so-called Pentagon Papers, while the newspaper’s owner Kay Graham (Streep) frets over the legalities of releasing their details. War with the White House could damage the Post irrevocably…
Spielberg’s film works and succeeds on a number of levels. It’s a rattling good journalistic tale, once the plot truly kicks in, of a paper working against a crucial deadline. It’s also a strikingly contemporary story of news media taking on a mendacious US government, who would brush aside the constitution if it could to protect itself. And in Meryl Streep it’s the tale of a woman struggling to find her voice in a male environment that views her as irrelevant. Small wonder the director scrambled for a release date almost exactly one year on from the Trump inauguration. This is a movie on a mission.
Not that it comes off too preachy. (One or two of the directorial touches are a little obvious and John Williams’ score wells a little too loud to underscore one meaningful moment.) After a necessarily slow-burn set-up, this is a pacy and involving story full of news-hounds rattling small change at pay phones and printers setting type at cumbersome old-style presses. It’s realised so well you can almost smell the ink. The hustle of the news office is a vivid contrast to the cocktail parties where politicians curry favour with the publishers. This is a journo-thriller, with bundles of papers hitting driveways as the payoff.
The performances are quality like you’d expect, Spielberg maximising their potential with his trademark lingering close-ups. Hanks is every inch the seasoned editor and Better Call Saul‘s Bob Odenkirk is great as dogged hack Ben Bagdikian. But Streep steals it, not least because her character has the greatest distance to go. As Kay Graham she is the society hostess who never expected to inherit a family newspaper business, and who must now learn to run it on her own terms. Whereas I’d expected the steely newspaper boss from her opening scene, I got the slow transformation into that role. It’s compelling to watch, one ’70s-style conference call providing a beautifully-played highlight. For an ‘overrated’ actress Meryl’s really rather good.
This pre-Watergate story holds importance all its own. The Post 
is a movie for the moment, celebrating hard-nosed fact-checked journalism and its role in challenging political corruption. It may lay on its messages a little too thick at times, but that’s a small price for a fine piece of storytelling, one that espouses freedom of speech as a core American virtue. No wonder Steve wanted to get it out fast.
Gut Reaction: Relish as the stakes rose and the drama gained momentum. And a few fist-clenches at the characters’ fighting spirit.
Where Are the Women? Meryl gives the stand-out performance, but kudos too to writer Liz Hannah, whose original screenplay grabbed Spielberg’s attention.
Ed’s Verdict: 8/10. Comes damn close to All the President’s Men. I can pay it no higher compliment than that.

Darkest Hour

You have the weight of the world on your shoulders. 

There’s a tangible sense in Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour of encroaching darkness. The greatest success of this noteworthy (if flawed) film is nailing just how high the stakes were in May of 1940, as the British War Cabinet wrestled with how they should respond to the threat from Adolf Hitler’s approaching forces. It’s a story  – Britain bracing itself as Nazism relentlessly advanced towards its borders – that’s been told before in multiple ways, but never with a heavier feeling of of dread. Twenty minutes in I leaned to my cinema-going partner and muttered ‘My parents lived through this.’ In all my life I don’t think it’s hit me quite so powerfully.

The film centres on Winston Churchill’s first twenty-five days in office as Prime Minister, following the resignation of Neville Chamberlain. Selected as a compromise to appease the opposition parties, he finds his instinctive resistance to Nazism at odds with those who would strike a deal with Hitler in order to prevent invasion. As European nations fall in rapid succession, the War Cabinet is locked in an impasse, Foreign Secretary Viscount Halifax insisting with Chamberlain that negotiation with Germany is the only reasonable option. Will the country appease a monster to survive, or risk incalculable loss in taking a stand?

To the film’s credit you see Halifax’s viewpoint as clearly as Churchill’s. Wright’s stunningly imaginative direction provides a sense of the the shrinking odds – gliding aerial views staring down on the ravaged surfaces of mainland Europe and fraught faces poring over pin-studded maps of the Cabinet War Rooms. Not a single shot is wasted. The enemy is closing, with Britain’s soldiers hemmed on the French coast, and the claustrophobia is palpable. Dario Marianelli’s score piles on the tension and you grasp what these men were wrestling with. Without benefit of hindsight, the implications of their decision-making are truly terrifying.

Much praise has been heaped on Gary Oldman for his performance as Churchill, all of it deserved. It’s not simply that his appearance and voice are transformed, it’s that he channels so many aspects of the wartime PM’s personality – the bullying and bluster, the sharp humour, the humanity. But aided by the screenplay he also makes Churchill vulnerable, as friends run short and even the US President cannot much help him.

His scenes with wife Clemmie (Kristen Scott Thomas in loving no-nonsense mode) brim with tenderness, and those with Lily James as secretary Elizabeth Layton portray a touching connection with the young woman who comes to believe in him utterly. Meanwhile his altercations with Halifax are explosive, Game of Thrones‘ Stephen Dillane providing the other half of an epic political match. And with Ben Mendelsohn as George VI (remember how evil Mendelsohn was in Star Wars tale Rogue One?) he is part of a comically awkward and ultimately quite affecting double-act.

The major issue I have with the film stems ironically from its honesty in portraying the inordinate pressure on Churchill. By showing the PM’s resolve nearly buckle (Oldman is particularly brilliant in these moments), the screenplay then searches for a way of shoring up his spirits. The dramatic device to which it resorts seems both trite and at odds with the rest of the film. I know what writer Anthony McCarten is aiming for, but it’s infinitely more convincing when we’re sweating away with the Cabinet members in a fog of moral uncertainty. The drama is way too convincing in its gravity to then resort to a sequence that seems like a cheap trick, one that jars with the film’s overall tone.

That (admittedly major) misstep aside, this is an impressive and powerful movie – filtered steely-grey and rich in detail that plants you firmly in London, May 1940. More specifically it thrusts you in the rooms of power at a moment when, due to one horrendous threat, power seemed to be running out. And that’s a very scary place indeed to find yourself.

Gut Reaction: Utterly locked in – for 90% of the running time.

Where are the Women? 1940s Whitehall was a solidly male environment, but Scott Thomas and James invest significant roles with spirit and steel.

Ed’s Verdict: 7/10. Sadly I can’t reconcile myself to one aspect, or the score would be higher. But this is still a must-see – for Wright’s imagination behind the camera and Oldman’s genius in front of it.