As October draws to a close, it’s time for us to reconvene and pass judgement on an assortment of films: Blood Father, Bridget Jones Baby, Soy Nero, Inferno, The BFG, The Girl on the Train, The Red Turtle, and The Free State of Jones.
A worse man than I once famously said “****ing Jews… the Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world. Are you a Jew?” That man was Mel Gibson. Unfortunately for Mel Gibson he chose to broadcast his anti-semitic opinions loudly out of the window of a car which he was driving after drinking, directly into the face of a Sheriff’s Deputy.
Who was a jew.
Mel Gibson is a dick, and yet his influence across some three decades plus of filmmaking up to that eventful night in 2006 is undeniable. The road to recovery for Gibson has been fraught with many false starts and setbacks, not least of all allegations of domestic abuse and child endangerment in 2010, but there has latterly been a call for Gibson to be granted a reprieve, increasingly so now that his first directorial effort in a decade, Hacksaw Ridge, is gathering Oscar talk.
Regardless of your opinions of the man in his roles as father, husband, partner and…let’s say “Catholic Ambassador”, it is hard to deny that his career as actor and director has rarely been anything other than compelling and engaging, imbued as he is with no small amount of charisma and everyman appeal. Assuming of course that everyman is a racist, alcoholic bigot with $400m in the bank.
It is equal parts comforting and infuriating, then, that Blood Father, the latest film from Mesrine Parts 1 and 2 director Jean-Francois Richet, goes some way to reminding us why it is Gibson still makes a compelling case for cinematic if not social clemency.
Taking at least a couple of cues from 2012’s Get The Gringo AKA How I Spent My Summer Vacation, Blood Father sees Gibson channeling his inner recovering alcoholic ex-con divorcee as the character of Link, in what one presumes must have felt at least partly like a catharsis on his part. Estranged from his daughter Lydia who, he tells his recovery group, he only ever sees on the backs of milk cartons, Link is taken aback to receive a call from the teenager in a state of distress. As we witness in the film’s opening act, Lydia has killed her drug-dealing boyfriend Jonah (Diego Luna), a vague relation of a prominent Mexican cartel boss, and she needs a couple of grand to make herself scarce while the heat wears off.
Link duly obliges, but as his befuddled attempt at reconciliation with his daughter begins to look more like a rehab intervention in the wake of her own rampant drug abuse, the pair learn that Lydia’s ex boyfriend is in fact alive, and that he has unleashed a rather scary Sicario upon the teen in the hopes of hushing her before the cartel catch wind of a scheme which has seen Jonah skimming money from them.
What follows is a predictable enough sortee through the barren highways and motels of the Tex-Mex border states, with plenty of beard-trimming, hair-dyeing and soul searching amidst the sporadic outbursts gunfire. Bar one ludicrously OTT attack on a trailer park by the drug pushers things don’t ever reach the bafflingly inane heights of Dadsploitation poster child Take, and Blood Father is both the better and the worse for it. While any pretence at geriatric Rambo antics are suitably downplayed there is a feeling that something is definitely missing, and the movie’s final act comes as something of an anti-climax given the kinetic promise shown earlier in the movie.
Richet shows ample competency in handling the action, and there are moments where his regular cinematographer Robert Gantz adds real atmosphere to the proceedings. The cast are all uniformly fine, with solid support from Luna as well as Erin Moriarty as Lydia and William H. Macy as friend and AA sponsor Kirby. It is Gibson though who makes the biggest impact, his performance both bold and deferential in a way that would appear to belie the lessons both he and his character no doubt learned in recent years. There is none of the slapstick zaniness that was his Martin Riggs stock in trade, here instead replaced by a very real world-weariness, yet there is still a very real sense of danger to Gibson, some of it possibly bleeding in from the world outside the celluloid.
While things may tick over a little routinely there is enough to make Blood Father worth a watch, and it is far less generic and sporting of genre tropes than one might reasonably expect in these times of the Neeson Cinematic Universe. What lingers afterwards is that while he may well be a dick, I kind of want Mel Gibson back.
I have, I suppose, seen the previous Bridget Jones films. At any rate, the flashbacks seen in this film were familiar, so I have at least seen those sections of it. I assume. I really don’t have any firm recollection of anything that happened in them, so I wasn’t exactly chomping at the bit to see this, but it is, I must admit, a film. Thus fulfilling my one and only criteria for considering viewing it. And, do you know what, it’s not bad.
We join Bridget (Rene Zelwegger) on the cusp of turning forty, single again after splitting from Mark (Colin Firth) who was always too consumed by his work as a lawyer to make time for her. She’s now successfully producing a current affairs program and has largely made her peace with being on her own, belied somewhat by her wistful recognition that most of her original gang of friends have drifted off into family life, and running with the young team from her workplace is tough going.
However, after a run in with Mark at Hugh Grant’s funeral, she’s feeling a bit depressed, so her friend and work colleague Miranda (Sarah Solemani) resolves to cheer her up by taking her for a debauched weekend at an unnamed Glastonberry-a-like festival. Miranda insists that “the rules” dictate that Bridget must sleep with the first man she meets, which happens to be Jack (Patrick Dempsey), who fishes her out of the mud she inevitably, immediately falls in.
While she doesn’t instantaneously bump uglies with him, fate throws them together again later in the night and several sheets to the wind, at which point the magic happens. By which I mean sex. Sex happens. They do sex in a tent.
Happy to write this off as a ker-azy one night stand, she wakes up and makes herself scarce before Jack can even return with the coffee and doughnuts, or, y’know, tell her his name. She returns to her normal life, but at another social event she again runs into Mark, just separated from his wife. After a few drinks, the magic takes hold of them. By which I mean Mark inserts his penis into Bridget’s vagina repeatedly until ejaculation of seminal fluid occurs. Sorry if any of this is too powerfully erotic for you, listeners.
Anyhoo, some weeks later, Bridget’s busy trying to deal with a management changeover at work that sees the influx of a team of hipsters intent on turning their serious programme into Buzzfeed, but You Won’t Believe What Happens Next. With this one weird trick, Bridget discovers that she’s pregnant, but her two magical encounters were so close together there’s no clear candidate for the father’s identity. In case you’ve forgotten, by magical encounter I mean the thing with the penis and vagina.
Refusing an amniocentesis on the grounds that it could possibly harm the baby, and would most certainly harm the plot, Bridget somehow starts stringing both Mark and Jack, who it transpires is a famous dotcom billionaire, but not famous enough for Bridget to recognise, along with them both believing they are the father, until they eventually meet and the jape is exposed. After some adjustment, the two then attempt to passive -aggressively to active-aggressively jockey for “most suitable father” position. Hijinks of acceptable hilarity ensue.
Now, keen students of the artform of reviewing films may have noted my use of small distractions in the prior paragraphs. That’s right, all that dangerously erotic material was a trick to disguise the fact that there’s not a great deal to say about Bridget Jones’s Baby, and there’s not much point saying even that for the third film in the franchise. Even with the gap from the second instalment, I think everyone knows what’s on the cards for this film.
I’ve never quite made my peace with the accent Zelwegger’s using in these films, but that aside her comic timing and interaction with the two blokes is on point, and the supporting cast is full of (mainly) comic actors I like a great deal, such as Joanna Scanlan, Neil Pearson and James Calis. It’s gently amusing throughout.
Indeed, not much in the film is worthy of criticism, aside from an infuriating tendency in the final act to have characters otherwise established as sensible and capable people juggle the idiot ball like total morons in order to inject some drama into the conclusion, admittedly for comic effect, but still teeth-grindingly irritating, for me at least.
A fairly minor point, against an otherwise perfectly enjoyable comedy, albeit one that’s as unmemorable as its predecessors, on the basis of how few details I can remember from it about a month removed from watching. I can’t see it opening the franchise up to a new audience, but for those already appreciative of Bridget’s charms it will be a welcome revisitation.
In the United States there is a law, called the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act which allows the children of illegal immigrants who were raised in the US to gain citizenship by serving in the military. Except, of course, when it doesn’t, forcing applicants to jump through all manner of hoops, and still deporting more than 3,000 people after they had done their part and served in the military. It is this unfair treatment of veterans, and themes of immigration and borders in general, that prompted Iranian director Rafi Pitts, and Romanian screenwriter Razvan Radulescu, to collaborate on this story.
Raised, but not born in, southern California, Nero (Johnny Ortiz) went to school in Los Angeles until he and his family were deported from the United States to Mexico, since when he has tried many times to cross the border back into the USA, the USA, understandably, being far more home for him than Mexico (so Americanised is he that he makes a point of calling his half-brother Jesus, instead of Jesús). On his most recent attempt he decides to take advantage of the DREAM Act and become a ‘Green Card Soldier’.
While there are a number of interesting ideas in here – frontiers, violence, class, belonging, the film really isn’t very interesting, and when the deeper themes are explored, they’re not exactly done subtly – when we first see Nero, he is running from the US Border Patrol wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the logo “Enemy”. Tonally it’s all over the place, too. Sometimes this is intentional, for example when, after leaving his brother, we are whipped to a checkpoint in the middle of the desert where Nero is now serving in the Army (alongside black soldiers “Compton” and “Bronx”, names that the writers presumably worked for a good six or seven seconds to create). Other times there’s an extended sequence where Nero is picked up while hitch-hiking by a father and his daughter, which at first seems like it will serve as a way to explore the attitudes of some US natives while allowing Nero to advocate for why he feels American, not Mexican. Which, to be fair, it does at first. Right up until it turns out the father is a conspiracy nut, who explains to Nero that wind farms actually burn oil and that they exist to keep the axis of the Earth off-kilter. It has nothing to do with anything else in the film.
Other sections are more successful, notably once the story moves to the Middle East, where,ironically, Nero is now tasked with guarding a border. Despite being a serving member of the military, Nero is treated with suspicion and as an outsider, the clear inference being that he will never, or will never be allowed to, fit in, though, Even here, though, the film has issues, as the two-dimensional nature of Nero’s character (he is played quite well by Ortiz, who is a reasonably engaging presence, but the actor is given so very little to work with in the script) is highlighted, and then dispensed with as for a while he becomes a secondary character in his own story as the focus moves to his comrades and the firefight they find themselves in.
The desert landscapes and LA sprawl are both captured well by Greek DP Christos Karamanis’ camera, his visual assuredness and style being one of the few highlights (Daniel Iribarren’s sound work is another), but it’s polish on an ultimately vacuous shell.
In the end, Pitts and Radulescu have a far more interesting premise than their paper-thin story and characters can support, a pity as, in this current US political climate, and with the immigrant drum that Donald Trump in particular keeps beating, this could have been a timely and hard-hitting drama.
The latest adaptation of bafflingly popular garbage-merchant Dan Brown’s series of books starring problem-solving, art history loving Professor Langdon return with a familiar feeling scavenger hunt, this time with clues based around Dante’s Inferno, and depictions thereof, in the hopes of stopping a mad billionaire from releasing a virus that will kill half of the planet’s population. Tom Hanks and Ron Howard return and have enough talent between them to produce something that’s watchable, although the plot is nonsense on stilts, stuffed with improbable twists, shifting alliances and Brown’s trademark abominable dialogue. Ludicrous, which is probably what you expected from the film.
Despite selling in the hundreds of millions, and having been favourites amongst children for decades, the books of the inimitable Roald Dahl have had mixed (and usually poor) results when being translated to the screen (the inexplicably popular Gene Wilder version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory being a prime example).
So can Steven Spielberg succeed in successfully bringing a compelling Dahl-ian world to the mainstream screen where most others have failed? Look away now if you don’t want to know the results…
Expectations 1 – 0 Spielberg.
No. No he can’t.
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Let’s start at the very beginning (a very good place to start, according to that nun who would not stop singing). It’s London, 1851… Well, despite actually being set in the 1980s, as per the book, what with all of the helicopters and whatnot that appear later, it very much looks like Dickensian London (this is the first of what will turn out to be many odd choices that are to the film’s detriment). In a decidedly Victorian orphanage, young Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) can’t sleep, and is waiting for the witching hour, that magical time of night when all of the humans are asleep and the night belongs to… others.
Hearing something outside, Sophie creeps to the window, and observes a large, shadowy, figure in the street, far larger than any human. Making a noise which attracts the figure, she tries to hide, but is suddenly plucked from her open window by a gigantic hand, and finds herself hurtling at phenomenal speed along lanes, and across deserts, until she finally arrives in the Land of the Giants, and is confronted by her kidnapper, The Big Friendly Giant (Mark Rylance). The BFG, such as he becomes known to her, explains to Sophie that she is now in a very dangerous country, populated by people-eating giants, far larger than he, but that he loves human beans, and that he tries to give children pleasant dreams, rather than making them his dinner, and he exists instead on a diet of loathsome, foul-smelling, vegetables called ‘snozzcumbers’.
Shocked, and scared by these revelations, Sophie learns about the BFG’s dream-making work and his life, while avoiding the dangers of the other giants, and they soon become fast friends. Sophie then concocts a plan to visit the British Queen, and convince her of the existence and danger of the other giants, and enlist her help in ending the mencae.
Whenever I watch a film adaptation of a novel, I have an inner tension between the part of me that wants as literal and accurate a representation of the book as possible, and the more pragmatic part of me that recognises that film and book are different media, and that one must necessarily be changed to become the other. And the dream-catching scene in The BFG is a good example of where this is done well, and sensibly. In the book, dreams live wild in a land of mists, and the BFG uses his phenomenally acute hearing to track and capture them. This simply isn’t going to work well in a visual medium, so instead this sequence becomes one where the dreams are like living fireworks, fizzing and glowing, and it works well, and looks great. It’s well-handled. Good. But there are other parts of the film where I am left wondering if Spielberg and his screenwriter (the late Melissa Mathison, of E.T. fame) even read the book at all. If they did, they sorely missed the point.
While the names of the giants (Fleshlumpeater, Blood Bottler, Child Chewer) remain, they aren’t dwelt upon, and in Spielberg’s BFG, the tendency of the giants to eat people is relegated almost to an unpleasant character trait, like a propensity to pick one’s nose in public, rather than the horrific thing which it ought to be. In the book, Dahl revels in the giants’ favoured victims – when it’s warm, people from Chile are favoured, human beans from Labrador taste like dogs, and, in an example of the author’s signature wordplay, the Blood Bottler informs the BFG how he’s off to Baghdad to bag dad, mum and the baby. Dahl’s work is full of such things: malice, nastiness, and a gleeful ghoulishness, all of which kids love, and which makes Dahl Dahl. To leave this out, particularly the ghoulishness, is not only to neuter the story, it is also, simply, unforgiveable.
The BFG himself is a mixed bag. With a design based on the famous (and still shite) illustrations of Quentin Blake, he is given life by a motion capture performance from Mark Rylance, who worked so successfully with Spielberg on last year’s Bridge of Spies. Rylance adopts a slow, gentle, West Country accent for his giant, and there is a true wistfulness and melancholy present in his performance, which adds a note of sadness and depth to the character. It’s a double-edged sword, though, as the measured, quiet, speech tends towards the soporific at times, and the BFG’s characteristic muddled, malapropism-filled, dialogue seems to get lost in the slow-fire delivery.
Appearing alongside Rylance is newcomer Barnhill, and while I feel bad about criticising child actors (and I will allow, as with Neel Sethi in The Jungle Book, that it can’t be easy to act against so little except greenscreen at so young an age), young Ruby is, alas, terrible.
In action terms, its also a mixed bag: there are large lulls, for example a sequence which calls to mind Gulliver’s Travels, the Land of the Giants or, perhaps most closely, The Borrowers, all “wow, isn’t it weird to see these gigantic everyday things like forks and cups”, that goes on far too long, far too infrequently interspersed with more kinetic scenes like the dream-chasing or the BFG’s bullying by the other giants (the closest his human-eating kin actually get to menacing). Things pick up when Penelope Wilton is introduced as the Queen, and it’s a long time since I found fart jokes so entertaining, but while the final act is an improvement, it’s too little, too late.
Put all of this together in a 2 hour film, where, really, not an awful lot happens, and it is impossible for me to recommend this. Alas, another missed opportunity to bring Dahl to the big screen (and the worst for me as this was by far my favourite Roald Dahl book as a kid), it seems that still only Tim Burton approaches really getting the great author.
Another adaptation from a much-loved novel, this sees alcoholic divorcee Rachel (Emily Blunt), struggling to move on from her failed marriage to Tom (Justin Theroux), particularly as the train to work every morning routes straight past and affords excellent views of their home Tom now shares with new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) and their baby. She tries to divert attention by focusing on a house a few doors down, where Megan (Haley Bennett) and Scott (Luke Evans) seem to have an ideal relationship.
However, nothing is what it seems in these relationships, as we uncover as the film moves along catalysed by Megan’s disappearance, occurring during one of Rachel’s alcohol induced blackouts that puts her under suspicion, and she tries to work out what happened in the hope of clearing her name. The twists come reasonably thick and fast in the final reels, but you’d be forgiven for having lost interest by that point which early going that well produced, and expertly acted, but ultimately quite boring.
It’s nice to see more central roles for women, although it’d be nicer if they weren’t so close to the bunny-boiler archetype, even if it does get subverted in the final reel. These character touches implies that it was looking to be something like Gone Girl, but it rather misses the elements that made that film inventive, playful and funny. This is a blander, more conventional thriller, and all the poorer for it.
For all that, it’s a perfectly acceptable, but roundly middling thriller. A mild recommendation.
On screen the familiar outline of forest troll Totoro appears, but behind him is not the usual, soothing, blue, but rather red. What’s going on?
What is, in fact, going on, is Studio Ghibli’s first ever international co-production, and the first feature from British-based Dutch animator Michael Dudok de Wit. Dudok de Wit’s 2000 Oscar and BAFTA-winning short Father and Daughter caught the eye of Japanese legends Miyazaki Hayao and Takahata Isao, who approached him about producing a feature length animation. Not that Dudok de Wit jumped at the chance – apart from feeling it was too complicated an undertaking, he also thought someone was taking the piss.
Eventually convinced that the offer was genuine, and, crucially, being given free-rein, as well as support from Takahata (who served as the film’s artistic producer, and the influence of whose animation style can be seen in the finished article), Dudok de Wit began work, and a mere 10 years later The Red Turtle (La tortue rouge) made its debut at this year’s Cannes Film Festival.
During a violent storm, a man is washed up onto the beach of a desert island, surrounded by the broken remains of his boat. After recovering from this ordeal, and attending to the immediate necessities of food and drink, the man’s thoughts, inevitably, turn to escape, and he begins to construct a raft. But after reaching a certain distance from the island, his craft is destroyed by a mysterious force in the water. Subsequent attempts, in bigger and better rafts, meet the same fate, and the man eventually discovers that he is being prevented from leaving by the giant sea turtle of the title. But why doesn’t the turtle want him to leave? And who is this man – we know nothing about him – good, bad, undeserving, kind? Who knows? We are offered a few hints of his former life as he is tormented by dreams while he tries to escape from his island prison, but hints are all we get. Accepting his fate, the man begins to make a life, and a family, on the island, after the mysterious appearance of a woman.
I won’t say any more about the plot, partly to avoid giving away any surprises, and partly because, really, there is little else to say: the plot of The Red Turtle is very slight indeed, and wonderfully, and intentionally, open to interpretation, though, for the very same reasons, equally open to inducing restlessness in certain viewers, even though this film only runs for a slender 80 minutes. The key, I feel, to avoid any potential boredom brought on by the lack of a rich narrative, is to be aware of this and approach it in the right mood. The Red Turtle is a tone poem, and if you allow yourself to be swept up in it, to go with the flow, it is deeply fulfilling and rewarding.
To aid in this, you simply have to allow yourself to be lost in the beguiling animation, its simple yet expressive characters and its utterly beautiful use of chiaroscuro (light and shade). Such endeavour is also given support by wonderful sound design by Parisian outfit Piste Rouge, and a moving score by Laurent Perez del Mar (though if I have a complaint with this film, it is that, at times, it could be argued that the score is too prescriptive). And not one word of dialogue.
There is a tranquility to this, yet also moments of drama, tension and (thanks to, particularly, the Greek chorus of crabs) humour. It is enigmatic, and in avoiding imposing any strict meaning on it, Dudok de Wit ensures that we can each take our own meaning from it. Lovely stuff.
In Britain, we’re not taught a great deal about the American Civil War, or at least not when I was at school. So, while it’s surely impossible not to know the broad strokes of on e of the Former Colonies’ defining events, there’s a lot of detail left to uncover for the interested. One such intriguing detail is told in the supposedly true story of the Free State of Jones, although I feel it necessary to give the disclaimer that from a brief bit of fact-checking there appears to be no good facts to check on most of this, record-keeping apparently not being a priority here. No-one seems to be vociferously denouncing it, at least, so let’s just take this on face value.
It doesn’t seem like Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) has ever been particularly on board with the aims of the South in the Civil war, but he’s certainly not once they conscript his terrified, far-too young brother into the Battle of Corinth, where he promptly catches a bullet. He deserts and heads back to his family on a poor farm, only to find that Confederate soldiers are confiscating the lion’s share of their, and everyone else’s, produce as tax in order to feed their war machine. This offends Knight’s sensibilities, who believes you should have the right to the produce of your own land, and he starts to rebel against this.
He successfully stands the tax collectors off, but as a known deserter he’s forced to flee to the relative safety of the swamps, where no cavalryman dares to tread. There he meets Moses (Mahershala Ali) and a small contingent of runaway slaves, whom he quickly bonds with. He was guided to safety in part by Rachel (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), a slave who had previously cared for and perhaps saved his child’s life, with the town’s doctor called away on war duty. Rachel and Knight also form a relationship, eventually marrying, or as close as was possible in the dark-ages of race relations.
With the war becoming more brutal, this increases both the number of deserters finding their way to the swamps and the Confederate tax collectors demands, prompting Knight and his company of irregulars to take a more active role in defending poor farmers from the Confederate bully boys, in turn drawing more attention from the Army, and so on, and so forth.
The story doesn’t end with the Civil War, instead showing select events during the Reconstruction, and it’s also intercut with a court case of Knight’s great-great-great-grandson, which shows that the dark-ages of race relations lasted a lot longer than anyone would think possible in the South.
Now, to an extent it’s White Saviour narrative by the numbers, but I feel a little more comfortable with this when, firstly, it’s at least supposed to be a reflection of what actually happened, and secondly, particularly in the Reconstruction era Moses is shown as fulfilling more of a leadership role than Knight does, at least until his murder.
That aside, I watched most of the first ninety minutes or so of Free State of Jones in quiet bemusement at the generally poor regard in which this is critically held, and its box office bellyflop. McConaughey cuts an effective and sympathetic character, and the early battle scenes are really effectively handled. Knight is an interesting and compelling character, and he forges interesting relationships with Rachel and Moses. It all seemed to be going quite swimmingly.
It’s the final stretches where the film falls short, sadly. In ways I supposed constricted by reality, there’s no definite endpoint for Knight or any of the ideals that he was fighting for. This does rather mean that the narrative gets away from the film – it’s doing a reasonably enough job of truncating the civil war period while still giving what feels, at least, to be a reasonable accounting, but after the South’s surrender it turns into a series of vignettes strewn throughout the years, each somehow more depressing than the last.
It all feels a little hectic, a little whistle-stop, and a little desensitising -it tries to pack quite a lot into a small space of time, and it rather dilutes the message rather than concentrating it. It’s an unfocussed and rather anti-climactic end, particularly annoying given the good work it does earlier on. It just fizzles out and stops, rather than hitting an obvious end. I suppose that reflects the facts on the ground, race relations being something of a work-in-progress to put it mildly, but that doesn’t help its case as a film.
By no means a bad film, but feels rather like a missed opportunity.
Of our elaborate plans, the end. Only for a short period, though. Our fighting spirit does not crush that easily!
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