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Wolverine and Mini-Me
This is Hugh Jackman's widely announced 'swansong' as Wolverine/Logan, the mutant with adamantine knives in his knuckles. As the movie opens, he seems more mortal than super-hero, care-worn, drinking too much, driving a stretch limo near the Mexican border to pay for the meds desperately needed by ailing Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart). A young girl, Laura, arrives in their lives, pursued by mutant- hunters: she's a Mini-Me version of Wolverine, possessed of similar talons and talents. Logan gets his 'mojo' back and he and Laura fight off the first wave of hunters. But there are more where they came from, directed by a Frankensteinian doctor (Richard E. Grant) in whose lab the girl was created, along with a Terminator version of Wolverine. The rest of the movie is chase and run, fight and run pretty much the standard fare of the X-MEN franchise. The fight scenes, of which there are many, are fairly visceral with now four sets of blades chopping up the baddies.
The world-weariness and a certain elegiac quality raise this above the mainstream of Marvel adaptations. Jackman and Stewart, two very charismatic players, give more nuanced performances than the genre normally allows. Stephen Merchant makes his mark in a cameo as a kind of super-albino. We may see more of Laura (Dafne Keen) if she takes over Logan's role in the next X-MEN instalment: will she be 'Wolverina'? And will there be another Final Chapter to usher Magneto into the Twilight Home?
Viceroy's House (2017)
Gone with the Soap
This is a slightly 'potted' version of the events of 1947 when Lord Louis Mountbatten was sent to Delhi to preside over India's transition from unruly colony to full Independence. Mountbatten and Nehru wanted a single nation of two faiths, but Whitehall - for reasons which the movie attempts to explain, briefly and simplistically - preferred the option of Partition, creating the new Muslim nation of Pakistan, with a down-sized India populated mostly by Hindus. As we know from our schooldays - and other (better) movies like Richard Attenborough's GANDHI - millions of citizens died in clashes and massacres as Muslims migrated to Pakistan and Hindus to India. This new movie chooses to show the carnage of Partition via newsreels rather than reenactments.
Gillian Anderson gives a vivid portrayal of Lady Edwina Mountbatten, terribly 'posh' but genuinely concerned for the displaced natives during the violent transition. Hugh Bonneville, still trapped in his Downtown Abbey character, is rather wooden as Lord 'Dickie' (who was probably a bit wooden too). There is no hint of the much-gossiped- about affair between Lady M and Mr Nehru and likewise no hint that his lordship may have been an acquaintance (if not quite a Friend) of Dorothy. We see enough of Nehru and Jinnah to understand what was at stake in 1947 but for some reason Gandhi is largely written out of this screenplay.
To give the movie a bit more box-office appeal there is a Mills & Boon romance between two of the staff in the Viceroy's House, a beautiful Muslim secretary and a Hindu valet (also rather lovely). This soap-opera element brings unavoidable echoes of the (enormously superior) Jewel in the Crown and a dash of Upstairs, Downstairs which was one of the many addictive pleasures of Downton.
There's not a lot that's wrong with Viceroy's House and much to enjoy: the costumes, the spectacle, the splendour that is colonial Delhi. The movie does offer a 'History-lite' version of the birth of a nation. I remind myself that this is exactly what GONE WITH THE WIND did with the American Civil War - but (forgive me, please) I've never been a great admirer of GWTW.
A Cure for Wellness (2016)
Homage to Hammer and Roger Corman?
Pretentious title for a pretentious movie. Part psychological thriller, part horror flick, it falls between two stools and falls a bit flat. Pushy young office junior Lockhart (Dane DeHaan) is sent to a luxury spa in the Swiss Alps to bring home his company's CEO who's badly needed in New York. A car crash on his arrival turns Lockhart into a reluctant patient of Dr Volmer (Jason Isaacs), the clinic's director. The other 'guests' seem to be happy if slightly zombified, all of them old and rich apart from teenager Hannah (Mia Goth), a protegee of Dr Volmer's with a mysterious past. Treatments include immersion in a vast water-tank teeming with giant eels. Eels feature strongly in the movie, although some of them - Spoiler alert - behave like piranhas!
The horror element is a lot less horrific than recent ghost and slasher movies have accustomed us to (the 18 certificate may be due to a nasty scene at the dentist's) and involves borrowings from (or perhaps homage to) fondly remembered yesteryear 'classics' of dubious merit from Hammer Studios and Roger Corman. The château- style clinic has strong echoes of Castle Dracula. Hammer would have cast Peter Cushing or Donald Pleasence as Dr Volmer, although credit where it's due Jason Isaacs brims with creepiness until the movie's predictably daft climax.
The film I kept recalling was Stanley Kubrick's THE SHINING which similarly substituted pretension for the knuckle-chewing scariness of Stephen King's novel and, like A CURE FOR WELLNESS, was painfully slow and at least half an hour too long.
Gay and black - a tough call
This is the movie which (along with MANCHESTER BY THE SERA) has the best chance of blocking LA LA LAND from garnering a record haul at the Academy Awards this weekend. I hope it does. It's not an easy film to sit through, but it rewards giving it your attention.
The life of a young gay black man in Miami is told in three instalments, with different actors playing him at three different ages (the lack of resemblance between the three is one of the movie's hurdles). We first see him as a boy, neglected by his crackhead mother (Naomie Harris on blistering form), bullied at school for being weak and 'different' but befriended by a macho drug-dealer and his girlfriend. In Part Two Chiron is a troubled teenager who briefly finds romance with one of the bullies and learns to fight back. In Part Three he is an ex-con with a bodybuilder's physique and gold teeth but still very much a loner and desperately lonely. A dark, bleak movie ends with a faint hint of hopefulness.
This is a very different movie from BROKEBACK MOUNTAIN but it addresses the same theme: the challenge of being gay in a gay-hating world. MOONLIGHT suggests that a black neighbourhood in Miami is more homophobic than anywhere else (ironical given that South Miami is practically a gay 'haven' if not a gay 'heaven'). The three actors who play Chiron are excellent, as are all the supporting cast. Much of the dialogue is unintelligible to a British audience and the mood of the movie is probably too bleak for many people, but anyone who admired BROKEBACK is sure to find MOONLIGHT a deeply absorbing experience.
Hidden Figures (2016)
Race and the space race
So soon after JACKIE we're back to the Kennedy era again, with this uplifting tale that puts a shaded meaning on the 'race' element of the Space Race. HIDDEN FIGURES the title is a clever pun is the story of three African-American women whose mathematical brilliance made a vital contribution to the effort to catch up with the Russians who'd rocketed the first man out of Earth's atmosphere.
The women were called 'human computers' we later see the installation of the clunky great IBM machine that would take over much of the laborious number-crunching these workers performed. The movie goes out of its way to show how tough black women's lives were in the workplace: 'colored' toilets, restricted prospects for advancement and constant daily humiliations from white co-workers (one of them is given her own coffee dispenser next to the one the white staff use). Writer/director Theodore Melfi shows us their home lives too, which are surprisingly similar to the lives of white folk. The number-crunching sequences are executed crisply enough not to overwhelm the audience with mathematics.
The script perhaps slightly over-eggs the three women's vicissitudes to heighten the drama, but the three actresses (Taraji Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monáe) give rock-solid performances with very few moments of 'grandstanding'. Kevin Costner is similarly 'solid' as the head of the Space Research Division.
This is another film, like last month's LION, that's bursting with the 'feel-good factor'. The feel-good factor is something HIDDEN FIGURES (if you'll excuse another very un-PC pun) delivers in spades.
Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
An American Hero without a gun
Wow. Mel Gibson's 'comeback' as a director is a war movie more savage, more visceral than anything I've seen since Hammer's CAMP ON BLOOD ISLAND in 1958, which probably wasn't as brutal as I remember it.
Andrew Garfield is a powerful central presence as the Christian boy from Alabama who wants to serve his country with a medical kit rather than a gun and who is viewed by his comrades first as a coward, then as a hero. As he did in SILENCE last month, Garfield continues to remind me of the young Montgomery Clift. Sam Worthington contributes a solid performance as the platoon captain, Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths as Garfield's violent drunken father and abused mother were presumably cast as a 'nod' to Gibson's Australian roots.
The end-credit 'portfolio' of photos and interviews with the real- life Desmond Doss and the men he served with clearly underlines the fact that this is a true story about an amazing true hero. Viewers may wonder if Gibson ramped up the battle scenes a few degrees. Was there really as much 'medieval' hand-to-hand combat between our guys and the Japanese soldiers on Okinawa as there was in the Crusades or the Wars of the Roses? Did our guys really torch the enemy with flame- throwers? Did Desmond Doss really single-handedly save so many wounded soldiers (some of them Japanese)?
As in BRAVEHEART and APOCALYPTO (and even in THE PASSION OF THE Christ), Mel Gibson focuses perhaps too lingeringly on gory death and dismemberment, but there's no denying that Hacksaw Ridge brings home the full horror of war and the outstanding heroism that can blossom amid the carnage.
Channelling Helen Mirren - and Marilyn Monroe!
I'd intended to pass on this, assuming it would be another soap- opera version of history, like the dire DIANA movie four years ago. But with Natalie Portman Oscar-nominated, it seemed worth seeing and it is. The scenes recreating JFK's assassination and the state funeral are as harrowing to view now as they were in 1963, and the moments Jackie shares with the children, John Junior and Caroline, are exquisitely poignant. The movie's other main focus is on an interview between the First Lady and a reporter (Billy Crudup) in which she intends to secure her husband's historical legacy. To hammer home the inextricable link between the Kennedy White House and Camelot (Jackie demands the credit for this), we get to hear Richard Burton singing the show's title song twice (a musical treat!).
Portman's portrayal of the widow in the historical scenes is flawless, a woman forced to share her grief with the cameras and the Johnson Administration staff. In the interview scenes Portman alternates between insecurity and a kind of imperiousness that made me think she was channelling Helen Mirren channelling Elizabeth II. The tour of the White House renovations she did for television in 1961 is reconstructed, with Jackie all nervy and breathless and reminding me (how ironical) of Marilyn Monroe. Peter Sarsgaard makes a believable Bobby Kennedy, mainly required to be a shoulder to cry on. Caspar Phillipson is a good look-alike for Jack in the historical scenes, although Billy Crudup also has a degree of resemblance to the President, which I found disconcerting.
I'm going to be the Grinch of the Season and say that, although this film does considerable justice to its subject, I don't think it deserves to win awards, but then I feel the same way about LA LA LAND, which is clearly heading for glory.
As so often these days, the trailer for LION gives too much of the story away, including the ending, which robs it of any chance to surprise us. What did surprise me was how involving the story was. Sunny Pawar who plays the 5-year-old Paroo, marooned in Calcutta 1500 miles from his home village, is the most appealing and compelling child star since Joel Haley Osment. Both in India and in the early scenes in Australia after he is adopted by Nicole Kidman and her husband, he is gut-wrenchingly convincing as a lost little boy. Not just likable, this kid is utterly lovable.
Dev Patel is someone we already like thanks to the MARIGOLD HOTEL movies, and here as the 30-year-old Saroo he comes pretty close to being lovable as well. Ms Kidman delivers one of her best-ever performances as the Aussie mum with a heart of gold. The script slightly loses its edge and some pace as Saroo wrestles with his memories and with Google Earth before embarking on the trip to be reunited with his lost family. His brother in Tasmania, another adopted Indian but with behavioural issues, gets forgotten in the final scenes a careless oversight in a movie about abandoned siblings.
The postscript, offering us glimpses of the real Paroo and his two mothers, comes close to schmaltz overkill but this is a picture that sets out to warm the cockles of our cold cynical hearts and warm them it does (if your cockles aren't warmed you might want to think about a transplant).
La La Land (2016)
Zings ain't what they used to be
After rave reviews and the Golden Globes there's now an Oscar/Bafta buzz attached to LA :LA LAND. Sorry to rain on the big parade but I was not blown away. Yes, there's some charm here with all the homage to the Golden Age of romantic musicals, and Ryan Gosling remains the most charismatic of today's young stars, but the music simply isn't musical enough. Gosling and Emma Stone can just about carry a song and do a bit of amateur hoofing, but really the singing is nearly as ragged as it was in the screen version of LES MISERABLES and the dancing is about as far from Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly as the first round of 'Dancing With the Stars'.
OK, Kelly and Astaire (and Ginger Rogers and other co-stars of theirs) did not have great singing voices, but they were fantastic dancers and the song-and-dance numbers in their movies were never less than dazzling. The closest LA LA LAND comes to dazzling is in the final routine, a low-rent tribute to AN American IN Paris, but it just doesn't have enough dazzle. As musicals go, fings ain't what they used to be.
The jazz club scenes hit the only high spots. Gosling really looks as if he's creating magic on the piano, but there's no magic in his singing or his dancing nor in Stone's, who alas doesn't have her co-star's redeeming charisma. The love-story has a certain amount of charm but, like the music, it could do with a bit more 'zing'.
The Golden Age nostalgia also extends to a clunky tribute to REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. But nostalgia just isn't enough and there's too much clunkiness on display here. They say there isn't the money to create great musicals like we had in MGM's heyday. Surely it would take only a fraction of the budget for a CGI-heavy action movie or space opera to hire some first-rate dancers and singers who can act - or, if we must, actors who can sing (or mime to a better singer)? SINGIN' IN THE RAIN cannot have been a big-budget production, but it's still the greatest of the greats.
The critics have been a tad underwhelmed by this space opera, but I liked it. It's a love story with a few echoes of 2013's GRAVITY, including seriously stunning CGI, but there is better chemistry between Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt than there was between Sandra Bullock and George Clooney.
There's not a lot of plot: Chris and Jennifer wake from hibernation 80 years earlier than they should do on their universe-crossing starship and then have to cope with mechanical problems that threaten the vessel's survival. The pace is a bit slow until things start to go wrong with the nuclear reactor and with Michael Sheen, an android barman whom I found more than a little tiresome. The 'epilogue' is cringe-making but kinda charming.
A part of me kept hoping for something out of the ALIEN franchise to bust in and liven things up, but no, this is just a slightly soppy story about a pair of galaxy-crossed lovers and I'll say it again I liked it.