Film review – Mindhorn (Sean Foley, 2017)

Julian Barrett and Simon Farnaby have come together to create a brilliantly British comedy in Mindhorn, with the pair co-writing and co-starring in a story about a washed up actor who can’t let go of his former glories.

Barrett takes the role of Richard Thorncroft, who is better known as the titular TV detective Mindhorn. Twenty-five years after his show was axed, disgraced Thorncroft is desperately in need of a fresh angle to kick start his career. The love of his life and former co-star Patricia Deville (Essie Davis) has now married Clive Parnevik (Farnaby), who was previously a stunt double for Mindhorn. When a police investigation into a probable murderer called Paul Melly (Russell Tovey) takes a bizarre turn, Thorncroft is brought on board to help talk to the man and discover the real truth.

The jokes come thick and fast, though many could be easily missed for those not tuned into this style of comedy. Plenty of the beats come from Alan Partridge and it does feel like a variation on the script for Alpha Papa. This isn’t a bad thing at all. Incidentally, Steve Coogan appears as a rival and former co-Star of Thorncroft named Pete Eastman.

The story is quirky, but comedies live and die on the amount of laughs they deliver. In this sense, Mindhorn soars. From the nuanced references to 1980s British television, to cringeworthy moments largely shared between Barrett and Farnaby, it is hilarious from start to finish.

Foreign markets are yet to experience the brilliance of the film. If I’m honest, I’m not sure how it will land. The humour is distinctly British, whatever that means. Mind you, it’s more accessible than the likes of Monty Python and The Mighty Boosh, which all enjoyed global audiences, so hopefully I am wrong on that front.

This isn’t the kind of film that rises to the top of the charts on its first week of release. Instead, I’m predicting it will follow the path of Anchorman and Hot Rod to become a comedy sleeper hit that people will talk about in a few years’ time.

Do yourself a favour and get in on the act now. You can’t handcuff the wind.

Advertisements

Film review – Their Finest (Lone Scherfig, 2016)

You may look at the premise of Their Finest and, coupled with the cast, assume that the film is a lighthearted romp with its aim directly at those to whom World War II is a trip down memory lane rather than a history lesson. It’s an assessment that isn’t wildly wide of the mark, but there’s more substance here than meets the eye.

The story is about a woman rising up against industry stereotypes and an oppressive partner to become a great screenwriter for propaganda war films. That woman is Catrin Cole (Gemma Arteton) and the film-within-a-film depicts two sisters’ efforts in the miraculous evactuation of stranded Allied troops from Dunkirk beach. Central to this film is the drunken Uncle Frank, set to be portrayed by Ambrose Hilliard (Bill Nighy), whilst the film is co-written with Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin). Other minor roles include Jeremy Irons as the Secretary of War and Richard E. Grant as a studio executive.

Claflin and Arteton

Despite a feeling that a romantic subplot was going to undo all the hard work put in by a female lead being expertly guided by a female director, it was a wise choice to make her feelings for co-writer Tom serve a purpose to inspire Catrin’s career rather than making her career integral to her romantic endeavours. In this way, her feelings towards her co-writer is simply a character-building device.

There was a brief moment where I felt they were throwing away a really interesting character in her faux-husband Ellis Cole (Jack Huston). This is a man who has been injured in a previous battle and thus cannot join the war effort, nor can he earn a consistent living to support himself and Catlin. His failings are that he cannot bring himself to accept his partner’s financial support. In 2017 this is likely to stir an element of frustration amongst the feminist cinema-goers, which is a perfectly reasonable response given this remains such a hot topic. However, if one really tries hard to imagine the emotions of a man suffering from inadequacy-related depression in the height of World War II, I can’t help but feel that his side of the story wasn’t explored enough. His eventual lack of faithfulness was the easy route out of a cul-de-sac.

Bill Nighy’s role was satisfyingly gripping. His portrayal of an older actor struggling to be taken seriously following earlier successes is something that must resonate with many in the industry. Nighy is consistently and effortlessly funny in every role he tackles and that must, in an unusual way, be quite restrictive for his role choices. Here he is very much light relief but he plays a pivotal role in the final act when it comes to reasoning with a depressed Catlin. It’s a heartbreaking scene that really stands out as a centrepiece for both character arcs.

For all the accuracies in the costumes, scenery, colour choices, music and tone, the whole film would be nothing without an excellent performance from Arteton. This is a role that is specifically targeted to resonate with women who have had to rise up against criticism from men at home and at work throughout their lives. 

From Gemma Arteton all the way back to novelist Lissa Evans, the women involved with bringing this tale to life have left their mark. Women creating high quality cinema was a surprising success in 1940 and it’s a shame that the industry still feels the same way almost eighty years later. 

Film review – Going in Style (Zach Braff, 2017)

Director Zach Braff’s latest comedy “Going in Style” might feel like a lighthearted caper on the surface, but there are some pretty real issues at its heart. Its three main characters are all men in retirement age who have been left without a pension fund due to a restructuring to their previous company. Willie (Morgan Freeman), Joe (Michael Caine) and Al (Alan Arkin) decide to step out of retirement and risk what lives they have left by plotting a daring bid to knock off the very bank that absconded with their money.

The film starts off a little meek, with a bank heist that feels soft and with some forced humour. Fortunately Caine’s Joe is there to ferry us through a scene that is there out of necessity rather than for great cinema.

It doesn’t really start to make any impression until the three legends are on screen together. These are actors that have shown countless times throughout their respective careers that they can handle a rich gamut of acting styles and there is a sense of playfulness amongst them. Seeing Alan Arkin’s ridiculous run replayed on CCTV had this viewer, and the rest of the screen room, in fits of laughter.

If the film feels sharp, it is partly due to an intelligent screenplay from Theodore Melfi. He has shone a light on members of the older generation previously in his debut screenplay for St. Vincent, in which Bill Murray is forced to come out of a figurative retirement from life (he is spiralling in alcoholism and gambling addiction) to refocus on looking after a young neighbour. This was achieved with a deft touch that allowed the humour to eminate from an otherwise dark script, which itself was adapted from the screenplay of a film of the same name directed by Martin Breft in 1979.

This is not the film that any of the stars will be remembered for, but that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film.

The plot left me feeling angry about the way older people are treated by society. So, whilst the jokes and humour are forthcoming, there is always a sense that the film has a lot more bubbling under. It’s credit to Zach Braff that he got the balance just right.

Film review – Free Fire (Ben Wheatley, 2017)

Ben Wheatley returns this month with his latest feature film Free Fire, which blends brutal action and sharp humour to create a roaring success of a film that will keep audiences entertained way beyond the 90 minute running time.

The premise of the film for Wheatley stemmed from Wheatley reading online of various police stand-offs throughout history. He found one that lasted 45 minutes because neither party could hit their targets, despite years of training to do precisely that (sadly I can’t find the article to link to). This tickled a nerve with Wheatley, who thought it would be brilliant to see it on the big screen – especially since most stand-offs in films last no more than a minute.

Set in the 1970s, the story revolves around two gangs meeting in a warehouse to make a trade for some arms. One group includes Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), both presumably sourcing their weapons for IRA-related activities (though this is never explicitly mentioned), along with headstrong Justine (Brie Larson), idiotic junkie Stevo (Sam Riley) and even-more-idiotic Bernie (Enzo Cilenti). Providing the weapons are a group including bearded negotiator Ord (Armie Hammer), the sharp-tongued South African Vernon (Sharlto Copley), the intelligent Martin (Babou Ceesay), driver Harry (Jack Reynor) and Gordon (Noah Taylor) alongside a handful of support characters.

Speaking after the film at a preview at Broadway Cinema in Nottingham, Wheatley offered a brilliant insight into some of the production decisions on the film.

Hilariously, to get a feel for the environment and ensure the people were in realistic positions throughout to communicate properly, he had the entire set built in video game Minecraft. This allowed him to walk around the factory and get a feel of where he’d be once production started. A simple but brilliant solution, but also necessary as he stated this is the only 3D modelling tool he knows how to use.

On a similar note, the shoot-outs themselves were partly inspired by Wheatley’s experience of playing video games, a medium he is a fan of enjoying even though he is yet to be involved with the creation of one (sadly his comment about writing an adaptation of 1980s video game Gauntlet was probably tongue-in-cheek).

One issue they could have faced was in the continuity for the bullet shots. Clearly with 1000s of bullets flying around, there was a risk of wounds being out of place, or disappearing and reappearing between shots. The simple solution was to film it in sequence, which also plays into the building of tension at the start and exhaustion for the characters as the story plays out.

Learn from Vern

Of the many great performances here, the highlight is Sharlto Copley as Vern. Initially annoyed about his Savile Row suit getting damaged, his whitty one-liners had the audience in creases. He’s a complete jerk and Copley plays it brilliantly, his irritating mannerisms making the heightened-tension all the more believable. 
The result is a film that consists almost entirely of a shoot-out that feels far more realistic than anything we’ve become accustomed in Hollywood films. People aren’t simply experts in shooting guns and it takes practice and skill to be any good at it. The characters in this film aren’t experts and that’s why the film plays out as it does. It’s grim, gritty, exhausting and hilarious.

Seek it out and watch it.

Film review – 20th Century Women (Mike Mills, 2017)

To mark 2017’s International Women’s Day, I dropped into the cinema to catch 20th Century Women, a film with three powerful and independent women at the heart of its plot. A triple Bechdel Test passer, the film indeed avoids the usual cinematic tropes and instead explores how men are often defined by the women around them.

In 1979 in Santa Barbara, California, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumman) is a 15-year-old boy who is lacking a father figure in his life. His mother Dorothea (Annette Bening) has been long-single, but lives in a luxuriously huge house that she has converted into a sort of commune, in which lives a young female photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and an emotionally-detached carpenter and handyman William (Billy Crudup) who is renovating the house for her. Julie (Elle Fanning) is a girl with whom Jamie is unrequitedly besotted; she wishes for him to remain as a friend only whilst she has a series of never-seen male sexual partners.

Mike Mills has cultivated an intelligent film from his own original script, describing it as a love letter to the women who raised him.

It’s the sort of quirky and intimate story that can only be crafted from ones own experiences, with two fingers up to the notion that boys need fathers and girls need mothers in order to be raised properly. Interestingly, whilst there are innumberable films that explore fathers being thrust into the role of both mother and father figures to both boys and girls, the concept of a group of women creating a support network for growth of a teenage boy feels wholly fresh and quite important.

The standout performance in a solid cast comes from Greta Gerwig, who I have seen in several films previously and never been excessively impressed with. This time, she is absolutely mesmerising as a young woman who is recovering from cervical cancer. We learn that the cancer was probably linked to her mother’s Diethylstilbestrol (DES) drug treatment during her pregnancy. She has been effectively disowned by her guilt-stricken mother, unable to cope with the fact she feels responsible for causing her daughter’s cancer. As a role, this is no light task, and Gerwig is at times totally breathtaking in her performance.

It is strange that the boy whose life the story revolves around eventually turns out to be a supporting character to the three leads. It is a lovingly-created film that is as relatable to mothers as it is to sisters of brothers and as it is to sons. With characters this believable and brilliant performances across the board, this is a film well worth seeing.

Film review – Sing (Garth Jennings, 2017)

Good, harmless fun is how I’d describe the latest release from Illumination Entertainment. We don’t learn much about ourselves and we don’t get any kind of social commentary. The characters don’t stand out in terms of being inspirational, nor do they have the look of characters that will become favourites in years to come. But that doesn’t mean it’s a bad film and it doesn’t mean that the children it is aimed at won’t have a great couple of hours at the cinema if they see it.

The story follows Buster Moon (Matthew McConaughey), a koala who owns a theatre that is running out of money. As a last ditch effort, he plots to hold a singing competition, but his assistant accidentally advertises a $100,000 prize fund instead of $1,000. This sparks the interest of a range of hopefuls that make up our lead cast: shady mouse Mike (Seth MacFarlane) who specialises in Sinatra-style crooning; shy elephant Meena (Tori Kelly) who suffers from stage-fright and nerves; porcupine Ash (Scarlett Johansson), a goth-teen who is hampered by the fact she is performing in the shadow of her self-centred boyfriend and needs to shine herself; cockney gorilla Johnny (Taron Egerton), stuck in a family of mobster gorillas but wanting to follow his own dreams; and pig Rosita (Reese Witherspoon), a housewife who is so busy looking after 25 children and a hardworking husband that she has no time to pursue her dream of singing on stage. There’s also a group of cute, small Japanese dogs who evoke the worst of J-Pop culture to hilarious effect.

 

The universe these characters live in is a world of animals that looks like Zootropolis’s lazy and less charismatic younger brother. It’s a shame because if this had been released three years ago, the plethora of ideas would have brought the opening scenes to life, but in the wake of Disney’s triumphant film that is now almost a year old, it just doesn’t quite feel like it’s hitting the mark. It begs the question of which was storyboarded first and was there anyone involved in both projects that might have leaked information one way or the other.

One of the biggest flaws is the casting of McConaughey in the lead role. The character calls for a certain tone of charisma that simply isn’t delivered. This is surprising, because he has developed into a fantastic actor over the last decade, but it does highlight that voice-over acting isn’t something you can simply turn up and expect to be good at.

 

There are some hilarious moments in the film, which is what we’re looking for. One highlight comes from mouse Mike, who at one point sings Sinatra’s My Way – brilliantly – whilst a helicopter circles above, causing him to lift off the ground and then circle over the audience in a supremely stylish landing. It’s great setpiece, even if the build up is a tad protracted.

But that is what the film is about – big set pieces that will be fondly remembered, even if the overarching plot doesn’t deliver any great payoffs. A solid and enjoyable effort that is quickly slipping from my memory.

Film review – A Christmas Story (Bob Clark, 1983)

An infrequent but nevertheless joyous family tradition of mine is to catch up with the tales of nine-year-old Ralphie Parker and his family in Bob Clark’s adaptation of Jean Shepherd’s semi-autobiographical stories. It covers his pursuits in the lead up to Christmas to convince his family, teacher and a department store Santa to deliver him a Red Rider Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model Air Rifle for Christmas, despite the fact he will inevitably poke his eye out.

The famous tongue on the lamppost scene

The film was made in 1983, but is set in early 1940s USA. It is heaped in nostalgia for an era that many of us now can’t remember, but somehow feel represents our past. It is a past that is entirely more innocent: be it the kids crowding around the radio for their favourite show, or the punishment for swearing (the classic bar of soap in the mouth), the music and the cars. It sends a strange shot of emotion across me as it reminds me of growing up, despite the fact I was born after the film was released.

The script doesn’t really follow any real character development, instead taking on a mode of storytelling via a series of vignettes that dip into various tales. It works because each mini-tale is absolutely hilarious, and the actors are all clearly having a lot of fun with the material. I defy anyone to not find at least one part of the story they can relate to.

Above all else, it’s simply hilarious.

Please seek it out and spread the word. This film needs to be enjoyed by more people than are aware of it today.