Toni Erdmann

ho00004310Toni Erdmann is a hard sale for a UK cinema audience but it absolutely rewards on an emotional level those who watch it. A German comedy with subtitles and a running time of 162 minutes that is about a father and daughter who struggle to connect might not seem worth your time but it really works thanks to two very good performances and a lot of moments that ring true.

Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is a divorced father who likes to play practical jokes and struggles to connect with his daughter. The death of his dog prompts him to go and visit her. The fear on her face when he explains he has taken a month off work is just as funny to him as it is to us.

Ines (Sandra Huller) is a high-powered business woman who seems unable to take her mind off work and is prone to pretending to be on the phone in order to ignore family at gatherings. Whilst in the middle of consulting on an outsourcing plan that would make hundreds of jobs redundant, she initially shuns her father only to warm to him.

Given that this is a European film though, the warming of their relationship is not an inspirational uplifting experience. It is a slow process, filled with difficult awkward moments. It only really starts to work when Winfried decides to no longer be himself and turns himself into his alter ego Toni Erdmann, complete with wig and false teeth.

The humour is understated and at times down right odd. Whoopee cushions, false teeth and ejaculating on petits fours all feature. What really works though is the relationship between the two. And the denouement does not suggest all is good in the world, it just shows that common ground has been found. As the film fades to black and Plainsong by The Cure swells up it sums up the melancholic, but uplifting nature of the film.

Fences

fences_posterDenzel Washington brings to the screen a play by August Wilson, filled with searing performances and meaty dialogue but hamstrung somewhat by its lack of cinematic quality.

Troy (Washington) is a middle-aged man working as a refuse collector trying to get through to Friday every week. He is filled with bitter regrets of not being able to play baseball in the major league because of the colour of his skin and his hard life. Those people around him seemingly trapped and crushed in his gravitational pull are his wife Rose (Viola Davis) and his son Corey (Jovan Adepo). The film is a series of character set pieces mostly set in his back yard where Troy talks about building a fence.

The 2hr 19m running time is filled with complex and eloquent dialogue with most scenes no more than 2 or 3 people discussing life and the things they have made of it. The actors are outstanding, as they should be, given that the 5 lead roles are all filled by the same actors who performed the play on Broadway 114 times. But, this is also the biggest flaw. This is a play put on film. It lacks any real cinematic quality and at times the lack of any kinetic energy makes it drag. These performances on stage would have been electric, but with the barrier of a screen, it feels admirable but sometimes staid.

The Great Wall

mv5bmja3mjazotqxnf5bml5banbnxkftztgwotc5oty1ote-_v1_ux182_cr00182268_al_William (Matt Damon) and Tovar (Pedro Pascal) are mercenary warriors searching for gunpowder. Chased by hill tribesmen they seek refuge at The Great Wall where they discover a vast army fighting off monsters. Will they stay and fight or escape with the weapon they seek?

Clearly, we all know what they will do, but it is a shame that the resulting film is quite so mediocre.

Director Zhang Yimou is known for spectacle, he directed Hero, House of Flying Daggers and more recently the Beijing Olympics opening ceremony. This flair for spectacle is most obviously present in the army atop the wall which is the most enjoyable and spectacular aspect of the film. All the different units are colour coded, wearing beautifully detailed armour and flowing capes. The battle tactics are unique and interesting, there is lots of wall rappelling and even some bungee jumping. Other than this, however, everything else is rather rote.

The monsters themselves feel unoriginal and their hive mind behaviour done before. The supposed tension of whether William will stay and fight or not is non-existent and Matt Damon’s Irish (I think) accent jarring.  Of course, characters will learn to trust each other and work together, which seems apt for the largest Chinese-Hollywood co-produced film ever.

John Wick: Chapter 2

johnwick2Keanu Reeves returns as the mythical John Wick in a blistering display of gun-fu action. Picking up straight from the end of the first film, Wick’s retirement is postponed again when Santino D’Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) calls in a “marker” that compels Wick to do a job for him. Mayhem ensues and fighting and action aficionados will be very pleased with the technical artistry on show.

Just before discussing the action though it’s worth pointing out a number of interesting story beats on show. The criminal mythology is expanded upon, you still can not spill blood in The Continental, but now there is talk of ‘markers’ and ‘The High Table’. There is a Matrix reunion with Laurence Fishburne and there is a new dog. Returning characters are plentiful too, if they survived the original they at least get a scene of screen time.

What most people will be here for though is the action, which is brutal and effective. And the only possible flaw is that the opening sequence, featuring a car chase, is so hard to beat that the remaining action scenes don’t quite match it. Keanu Reeves is clearly so technically proficient in both the fighting and weapon training it allows the action to be in long takes with no choppy editing and close-ups, making it almost beautiful to behold. Were it not of course for all the brains being blown out of course.

John Wick now sits alongside Keanu Reeves other great action films, Point Break, Speed and The Matrix and I’m confident we will be seeing a third outing for the stylish Wick.

Arrival (Extended Version)

ho00004225Arrival released in November last year and was a spectacular film. The “extended” version appears to be a misnomer however and is perhaps the poorest advertising strategy I have seen to get people to watch a Best Picture Oscar nominated film. This re-release is simply the theatrical cut with an 8 minute featurette at the end. It was so well advertised everyone in the screening I was in had left before this came on after the credits!

Here is my original review of a film that just seems to get better on repeat viewings…

A devastatingly good science fiction film that I would implore everyone to see.

When twelve domed vessels arrive on Earth, language specialist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) and scientist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) are brought to the craft in Montana to try to communicate with its occupants and discover their purpose.

As with all good science fiction, it takes this fantastic setting and uses it to ask us very human questions relevant to everyone. This is a story interested in characters and subject matter rather than special effects and explosions.

Director Denis Villeneuve English language films (Prisoners, Enemy, Sicario) have shown he is a force to be reckoned with and I am starting to anticipate his next film Bladerunner 2049 with excitement.

The Founder

ho00004119The true story of Ray Kroc (Michael Keaton), a salesman who stumbles upon a burger stand, run by two brothers called McDonald. What follows is a story about a family run restaurant which slowly succumbs to becoming a commercial behemoth.

Keaton is highly watchable when performing his sales patter, but it can sometimes be a struggle viewing a genuinely unlikeable man in virtually every scene. Kroc comes across as a highly driven and incredibly untrustworthy man. A man who ignores his wife and maintains friendships only when they propel his business.

The more interesting characters I wanted to know more about were the McDonald brothers. Nick Offerman and John Carroll Lynch are excellent at making Dick and Mac McDonald wholesome and likeable. The scenes where they whisk Kroc through their life story are the best in the film and the way they are slowly pushed out of their family business painful to see.

More intriguing than entertaining, twenty years in the making of McDonalds certainly undermines their wholesome family image.

Loving

ho00004111Based on the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, who were arrested and convicted by the state of Virginia for the crime of interracial marriage and banished from the state. Their case would find its way to the Supreme Court.

Written and directed by Jeff Nichols, the filmmaker behind Take Shelter, Mud and Midnight Special this bears all of his hallmarks and is not the sort of film you expect a civil rights drama to be. As with his other films, the story unfolds at a gentle pace, building gradually, relying on the looks and body language of the characters on-screen. There are no grandstanding court scenes, no stirring speeches, and no title cards signposting the passage of time. Arguably it is too sedate, but there are moments when it really works. Because what this film is really about is a couple who love each other. The fact that they changed the world around them is secondary.

Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton play the title roles and their performances are quiet, unassuming and in places beautiful. There is no need for us to see this couple meet and fall in love, or see any grand gestures of that love. The story starts with them as a couple and we see their love for each other in quiet moments through their body language and looks. Jeff Nichols talismanic actor Michael Shannon appears as a photographer for Life magazine late in the film and in one of the best scenes in the film seeks to capture these moments.

By the point the film reaches a close and the first title cards appear you will have been stirred by the love two people can have for each other. The fact they managed to hold together through such turbulent times is even more testament to that love.

Hidden Figures

ho00004134Hidden Figures manages a fine line between worthy award-bait grandstanding and feeling like something truly substantial. Set in the early 1960’s space race it tells the story of three pioneering African American women working for NASA.

The trailer worried me some what, appearing to be a saccharine sickly affair full of speeches from Kevin Costner about how we are all the same in the quest for space. But the film is much more than this. Costner is rightly a supporting character and what stands front and centre are three towering performances showing how these women overcame prejudice.

Taraji P. Henson (Katherine), Octavia Spencer (Dorothy) and Janelle Monae (Mary) are all equally good in a terrific ensemble. Katherine is a human computer using her skills to edge into the white male inner circle, Dorothy has the foresight to see changes coming and make herself invaluable in computer programming and Mary challenges the status quo to allow her to seek out the NASA requirements for an engineer at an all white school.

The film is at its best when showing how prejudice is ingrained into the smallest facet of life and how much harder each of these women have to work to get the tiniest reward. Making yourself a cup of coffee is something to cause disdain. It is all perfectly summed up when in response to a character saying they have nothing against them, Dorothy replies “I know you probably believe that”.

It’s drawbacks, those Costner speeches are still there and it sometimes feels like it’s struggling to pack in these three stories into one film. But these are minor quibbles. Go and see how stunned you should be that these were our attitudes less than sixty years ago.

The LEGO Batman Movie

ho00004123Will Arnett was so ludicrously funny as Batman in The LEGO Movie that he gets his very own spinoff. And whilst the creative leaders of that film have left to make the Han Solo Star Wars spin-off film, those brought in to replace them have an equally good grasp of what made the LEGO movie so much fun.

The Joker (Zach Galifianakis) is a little upset that Batman (Will Arnett) will not admit that he is his greatest enemy. So his next scheme is to see how Batman fares without his villainy. Madcap antics ensue along with huge amounts of family and geek jokes.

There are moments of genius, such as the voiceover at the beginning, “all important movies start with a black screen”, a huge array of both Batman and other “geek” franchise characters, songs and enough jokes happening that repeat viewings would be needed to pick them all out.  Another thing that makes it so much fun is that it seems to reference every Batman film and comic made. The Nolan, Burton and Schumacher films are all referenced, as is the tv show and 75 years of comics. They have all happened as far as this film is concerned.

There is one thing that looms over it though and that is its predecessor. The LEGO Movie is just slightly better and that always comes into mind. This is not quite as funny and the songs are not quite as good. It spends a little too much time hammering home the point that you need to let others into your life to be truly fulfilled, but these are small gripes for what is a brilliantly entertaining romp.

My final thought is that if the idea of Billy Dee Williams finally getting to play Two-Face means something to you, then you have to watch this film.