Film review – Wonder Wheel (Woody Allen, 2017)

I’ve been a fan of Woody Allen since my late teenage years, when I chanced upon a film called ‘Everything You Ever Wanted To Know About Sex* (But Were Afraid To Ask)’, following the release of a similarly-titled compilation album by record label Twisted Nerve. It was a vignette film that made a huge impression on me, utilizing comedy in a way I wasn’t really familiar with at the time.  The final short ‘What Happens During Ejaculation?’, which featured Allen as a sperm ready for deployment but nervous about his chances, was a masterclass in absurdist comedy.

There’s still a lot of his work that I’m yet to see, but his most recent films are always a welcome joy and haven’t failed to impress me in recent years, even when they have been poorly received by critics.

‘Wonder Wheel’, Allen’s latest feature, is a solid entry into his filmography with all the charm you’d expect from a master of his craft. It’s inevitable that a pairing him with Kate Winslet in a lead role is a success. This is only improved by a brilliant supporting cast of Justin Timberlake, Jim Belushi and Juno Temple.

Set in the 1950s on Coney Island in New York, the story revolves around Ginny (Winslet), who works in a cafe on an amusement park. Her husband Humpty (Belushi) is a recovering alcoholic with anger issues. She is secretly having an affair with Mickey (Timberlake), a lifeguard on the Coney Island beach. The film opens with a 4th-wall-breaking monologue from Mickey, and we’re soon after introduced to Carolina (Temple), Humpty’s estranged daughter who has shown up because she is on the run from her mobster husband.

This certainly feels like a play that’s been turned into a film, and with a few tweaks you’d only need three settings to stage this with no compromise to the story. It’s a classic four-person play, with each  getting plenty of character development. Bu in reality this is Winslet’s film and she is on top of her game from start to finish. Her character is desperate for her life to change and sees her affair as her way out. When this is compromised, the film starts to really draw you in and it allows Winslet to yet again prove she is one of the finest actors of her generation.

A recurring effect Allen utilises is in the colour washes used to reflect Ginny’s changing moods, reminiscent of a technique used by Kiyoshi Kurosawa (notably in 2015’s Journey To The Shore). Her emotions towards her husband tend towards a blue wash, whilst her dealings with Mickey are paired with brilliant oranges and blues to signify the hope and warmth she feels around him. It’s a simple technique that isn’t used subtly, but it’s very effective.

My only reservation is that it lets itself down with an ending that fizzles out rather than resolving itself either way, and the final scenes feel compromised somehow, like they rushed the writing and filming to meet a deadline. This doesn’t make it a terrible film, it just means it isn’t an excellent film.

This may prove to be the last regular entry into the Woody Allen filmography, with continued controversy discouraging actors to take part in projects headed up by Allen. His next, ‘A Rainy Day in New York’, is yet to have a release date. It appears unlikely that any more films will see the light of day. He has just celebrated his 83rd birthday.

I’m able to separate the allegations from the art, which is something I am aware sits uncomfortably with a great many people. For me it’s a shame that the final film may never be released and will inevitably serve as a tainted bookend to an illustrious career.

Film review – Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (Martin McDonagh, 2018)

A film about a family in mourning following the murder of one of the children really shouldn’t have as many laughs in it as Three Billboards. That’s not to say it’s a hilarious comedy romp, but Martin McDonagh’s smart script contains so much humour that its fictional setting is brought to a more realistic place.

Frances McDormand is Mildred, a mother determined to seek justice following the rape and murder of her daughter Angela (Kathryn Newton). Seven months have passed and the local police have still failed to unearth the killer, which means her mourning has changed to anger. The focal point of her frustration is the leader of the local police, Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), a sympathetic but headstrong man suffering from pancreatic cancer.

She decides to take out the rent of three disused but prominent billboards on the outside of town. The rent is to last for one year and contains a targeted message towards the police force: “RAPED WHILE DYING”, “AND STILL NO ARRESTS?”, “HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?”

Her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) wants to return to normality, whilst racist policeman Dixon (Sam Rockwell) takes every opportunity to prove right the townspeople’s suspicions that he’s incompetent.

As a whole the film is extremely powerful, not least because of Frances McDormand’s tour de force in the leading role. It’s a dream of a role for an actress like McDormand, who is given free reign to be as offensive and hostile as she likes. It’s easy to get immersively lost in her delivery. She does comedy extremely well so when she needs to turn it on the black comedy is as uplifting as the shocking reality is devastating. For those used to her playing softer roles, be prepared for a pleasantly shocking surprise.

There are a number of outstandingly powerful scenes in Martin McDonagh’s Oscar-worthy drama that stuck with me weeks after I viewed it. The one-shot of Rockwell that follows him from the police station, across the road, up to the billboard rental film’s offices and back again is a bold statement in filmmaking and is executed perfectly. A confrontational scene between Willougby and Mildred turns to intimacy in an instance when he coughs up some blood. The scene when Mildred finds the billboards on fire is devastating.

These are punctuated with moments of pure comedy gold. Right after Mildred drills a hole in a dentist’s thumb after he speaks out of line to her, she returns to her job with a face full of anaesthetic. Few scenes in cinema this year have been as funny has her flatly denying she was at the dentists despite being unable to speak.

Three Billboards has come under some backlash following its initial rave reviews and unanimous praise. As the dust has settled, a second wave of opinion has spread that aims criticism at the film for being overly sympathetic to the character Dixon. Some have noted that Dixon gets redemption by the end of the film, despite his character. In an article on Entertainment Weekly, McDonagh addressed the criticism. “I don’t think his character is redeemed at all – he starts off as a racist jerk,” he reasoned. “He’s the same pretty much at the end, but, by the end, he’s seen that he has to change. There is room for it, and he has, to a degree, seen the error of his ways, but in no way is he supposed to become some sort of redeemed hero of the piece.”

The current climate of filmmaking seems at times to work as a response to the social collective conscious that is so quickly opined online. If a film isn’t intended as such, then it is judged that way nonetheless. There has been a shift in the landscape for the better in recent times, with lead roles going more frequently to women, people of colour and  homosexuals. We are not at the end game for this – whilst one of the Power Rangers in 2017 was portrayed as a lesbian, a move to make Tessa Thompson’s Ragnarok character Valkyrie bisexual was quashed when the critical reveal scene was cut from the movie.

That said, not every film can tackle every angle of criticism every time. In the case of Three Billboards, we have a film centred around a woman seeking justice for the rape and murder of her daughter. She’s standing up for her rights and opinions and forcing a male-dominated police force to try harder. It features McDormand as the lead with every other character serving as a supporting device to her own progression.

In this instance, the focus is on the sexual assault of young women by men and the subsequent covering up by authorities, often with men at the top. It is about men hoping that a woman standing up for her beliefs will just go away quietly and forget about something that’s easier to sweep away than it is to pursue a solution to. It is a deliberately provocative film. That Sam Rockwell’s Dixon is a racist, in this instance, is relevant only to his character (a supporting character), but it is not centrally relevant to the plot itself. Dixon is an imbecile and being a racist bigot serves to support and enforce this in him.

As McDonagh concluded in his statement to EW, “It’s supposed to be a deliberately messy and difficult film. Because it’s a messy and difficult world.” Social commentary aside, he’s created his first real masterpiece and it’s a wonder to see it unfold for the first time. It is every bit deserving of the praise and accolades it has received and should not miss out on a fair run at the Oscars as a result of the backlash.

 

Film review – Phantom Thread (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2018)

Following the completion of filming for Phantom Thread, Daniel Day-Lewis announced that he would be retiring from acting and that his role as 1950s London high-society dressmaker Reynolds Woodcock would be his final role. This can be considered both a figurative and literal bowing out in style. Oozing elegance and beauty in every aspect, it is an absolute triumph of a film.

The story centres around Woodcock, head of the House of Woodcock, a well-regarded craftsman who is seeing his popularity diminish by the beckoning of new fashion from around the world. He baulks at the word “chic”. He is a meticulous and silent worker, unforgiving of those who have the audacity to interrupt his genius in flow. His obsessive nature flows over to his personality, and those close to him are dictated to by his need for control. His closest ally is his sister Cyril (the brilliant Lesley Manville), who manages his business affairs and the staff and running of the house. Their world is flipped upside-down when a chance encounter leads Reynolds to fall into infatuation with a young waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps), who quickly moves into the house and thus begins her strange relationship with Reynolds.

In 2018, a cinematic year defined by an uprising of oppressed and attacked women finally being given a platform to voice their views on oppressive and controlling men in the film industry, it seems almost perverse that I enjoyed Day-Lewis’s performance so much. I felt at times like he was on the cusp of bursting into tears of laughter, such was the audacity of his character’s actions. In one of the best lines of the film, as shown below, he delivers the cutting “The tea is going out, but the interruption is staying right here with me.” Brilliant.

Jonny Greenwood, one of Paul Thomas Anderson’s most frequent and reliable collaborators, provides the score. It is mesmerising, fitting beautifully with the visuals. In a recent interview with Adam Buxton, Greenwood stated that he wrote it in order for it to be performed along with the film. “I wanted to do it with six or seven players and make it all playable and send out the scores to cinemas and say ‘get some local players to play it live’ and it be a really regular thing. I love the idea of the film arriving and then the book of music arriving and these are the two things you put together and make it quite easy, but Paul kept on asking for bigger and bigger string section sounds to build the romance.” Indeed, this decision was probably the correct one, with the enduring stay-ability of the film benefiting over what could have been simply a nice touch at release. I challenge anyone to find a more perfectly romantic piece of film music this year than ‘House of Woodcock’. [1]

A film that is centred around a celebrated dressmaker almost inevitably has a wonderful display of costumes on show. Mark Bridges is another frequent Anderson collaborator, having worked with him on The Master, Inherent Vice and There Will Be Blood. The costumes here are absolutely stunning, perfectly capturing the essence of 1950s London high society. It is a costumier’s dream of a film, with the intricate efforts of making such beautiful dresses captured in great detail.

The film culminates in a most unlikely ending that absolutely works with the film, underlining the nature of Alma and Reynolds’s relationship to one-another and their desire to stay together. Their dinner table stand-off with a mushroom omelette may not have the intensity of the “I drink your milkshake!” scene in There Will Be Blood, but it swaps intense for tense as the scene plays out. It’s just one of those scenes in cinema that hangs perfectly together. Script, acting, cinematography, lighting, score – everything is just right. A masterclass in filmmaking.

Whilst Day-Lewis may be unlikely to receive an Academy Award for this film, it certainly ranks up there with his most celebrated performances. He is one of this generation’s greatest actors and it is a real loss to the industry that he is walking away. However, it’s a noble decision to leave a profession whilst you’re at the top of your game. He could probably deliver a further three or four top performances, but his decision is clearly based on a balance between his enjoyment of his life as an artist and his enjoyment of his life outside of the industry. If Phantom Thread does prove to ultimately be his final role, then he is definitely leaving us on a high.

[1] Note: Jonny performed an exclusive version of this song on the Adam Buxton podcast (EP.63B, 9th February 2018) alongside a 30-minute interview backstage at the Royal Festival Hall prior to a live performance of the score on 30th January 2018. It’s well worth a listen and can be found here.

90th Academy Awards nominees – Documentary Feature

Fifteen films remain in the race to win the Documentary Feature prize at the Academy Awards. The remaining five features will be announced on Tuesday 23rd January 2018.

Abacus: Small Enough to Jail
Chasing Coral
City of Ghosts
Ex Libris – The New York Public Library
Faces Places
Human Flow
Icarus
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power
Jane
LA 92
Last Men in Aleppo
Long Strange Trip
One of Us
Strong Island
Unrest

Those in the UK with access to Netflix can watch Icarus now.

Top films of 2017

Here’s a list of my top ten films of 2017.

20th Century Women

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“20th Century Woman avoids the usual cinematic tropes and instead explores how men are often defined by the women around them. With characters this believable and brilliant performances across the board, this is a film well worth seeing.”

Read the full review here.

Baby Driver

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“There aren’t many moments in cinema where you start to watch the opening scene and an uncontrollable giddy smile engulfs your face, such is the joy of what is unfolding on the screen. It needs to be a brilliant idea, executed to perfection and in a language that speaks to you. Baby Driver, Edgar Wright’s latest cinematic masterpiece, achieves just that. But the moment I knew it was a truly great film was when I realised the credits were rolling and my smile hadn’t left.”

Read the original review here

Dunkirk

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“Dunkirk is a film you have to see right now. It is the film you have to see right now.

Read the original review here

아가씨 / The Handmaiden

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“Park Chan-wook’s latest release is a twisting psychological thriller steeped in eroticism and oozing class that works its audience brilliantly. The only drawback was that I didn’t have time to see it a second time.”

Read the original review here

La La Land

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“Every once in a while you will go into a film knowing almost nothing about what you’re going to see and get absolutely blown away by a surprisingly perfect masterpiece. As you get further into your film-watching life, enjoying these moments becomes increasingly rare, so when a film like ‘La La Land’ comes along, you can’t help but be overcome by giddy excitement.”

Read the original review here

Lady Bird

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Lady Bird is, simply, a joy to watch. From start to finish the balance between humorous dialogue and well-paced plot progression is very fine indeed. The result puts it as a frontrunner for awards season next year.”

Read the original review here

Logan

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“A wisely-timed and fitting ending to the franchise and Jackman’s input into the character. It’s hard to believe it but this is the tenth time we’ve seen the character – seven X-Men films have now been made, along with three Wolverine-focussed standalone films. It seems impossible to think anyone will fill the role, meaning this could be the last time we see the character for many years, possibly ever. It could well be the best superhero/mutant-hero film ever made.”

Read the original review here

Okja

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“Given so many people have Netflix and can watch this film at no extra cost, it’s a no-brainer to seek it out and watch it. It might be the start of a new era of high quality original cinema heading first to home streaming platforms. Given the state of the year-to-date box office, it’s a movement everyone should be supporting.”

Read the original review here

レッドタートル ある島の物語 / The Red Turtle

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“A genuine triumph. For anyone with a passing interest in the future of the planet, beautiful animation or engrossing stories, this is a must-see.”

Read the original review here

Thelma

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“The culmination of the film hits like a crescendo, and Trier plays the audience perfectly with a balanced build up to the final pay-off.”

Read the original review here

Film review – Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Rian Johnson, 2017)

CONTAINS SPOILERS – ONLY READ AFTER WATCHING THE LAST JEDI

Well, it’s finally arrived. After an almost-two-year wait, we finally got to see what happens on Ahch-To immediately after the infamous closing sequence of The Force Awakens. The highly-anticipated interaction between Luke and Rey was anything but grandiose – Luke simply tosses the lightsaber over his shoulder and walks away.

This may not have been the first thing we see in the film, but it certainly set the tone. There are some serious plot developments going on here, but they’re always delivered with a smattering of humour. Indeed, The Last Jedi may be one of the best examples of a script being so well-written that the overarching plot’s many loopholes can be forgiven.

In many ways, the tone of the script is essential to ensure the entire spectrum of potential viewers stays on board. Those expecting to see the darkest of dark sides of the force will certainly be pleased – it gets very dark –  but there’s a lighthearted feel to this film that means no fan will feel alienated.

The basic plot is split into three threads, essentially focused around the three main new heroes introduced in The Force Awakens: Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega) and Poe (Oscar Isaac).

Rey is wrestling with the dark and light sides of the force – a development that clearly has ramifications for the future of the galaxy. She spends the early parts of her journey with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), before taking off to see Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Our heroine is a truly engaging character and Ridley is the perfect actor to take on the role, taking us on a journey to find out more about herself at the same pace as the viewers.

Elsewhere, Finn wakes up from the coma we left him in at the end of The Force Awakens, before a chance happening sees him forming a bond with resistance mechanic Rose Tico (newcomer Kelly Marie Tran), herself mourning the death of her resistance fighter sister.

Poe Dameron is busy on the main resistance fleet ship attempting tactical dogfight missions to attack the First Order, before attempting a rescue/escape plan with Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern).

If great films are remembered so for their show-stopping visual moments, then The Last Jedi delivers them in buckets. The dogfights are absolutely real, comprehensible and exhilarating, clearly showing the influence of the film ‘Twelve O’Clock High’, which director Rian Johnson cited as a key reference point. The final fight sequence on the salt land of Crait contrasts the crystalline white of the ground with the kicked-up red chalk as the fighter vehicles slice through them towards the enemy.

A surprising and memorable fight sees Rey and Kylo team up together to wonderful effect. It’s a sequence reminiscent of ‘Three Outlaw Samurai’, with very few cheat editing or confusing cuts. It’s delivered masterfully. There are two specific deaths that really caused some great whooping and fist-pump scenes at the midnight screening: one involving a lightsaber-in-the-head death for a Praetorian Guard, and one involving the brutal death of a major character.

The McGuffin for Finn and his new partner in crime Rose allows them to develop something of a romance. It’s a romance that remains almost entirely unkindled by the end of the film – allowing plenty of  scope to further develop or completely nix their relationship before episode IX. The cynic in me believes this will probably depend on how popular Rose is as a character.

It must be said that the whole story thread for this pair of characters is mainly pointless. There is a largely disappointing sequence on the casino planet of Canto Bight that serves the sole purpose of introducing DJ (Benicio Del Toro). It is framed in a world that is wholly reminiscent of Final Fantasy on a plot level – casino-based planets are common in most games in the franchise, with Chocobo races being a clear inspiration for the Fathier creatures being forced to race for entertainment on Canto Bight. It’s also fairly identical on a visual level, suffering from a common issue in present-day cinema where physical sets and props are lovingly built and filmed, only to be touched-up in post with some less-than-realistic CGI, making for a wholly underwhelming result (see Unkar Plutt in Episode VII for a further reference point).. Fortunately there was no need to reproduce an entire human character a la Peter Cushing in Rogue One, but the visuals are so important after the failings of the prequel trilogy and it’s almost unfathomable that this can still go wrong.

As a side note, there is a wonderful tracking shot whilst we’re on Canto Bight that felt like a tribute to 1927 silent film Wings, which can be seen below.

Unfortunately, this Finn-Rose sideplot always feels like an unwelcome distraction from the Rey-Kylo thread. We were left hanging for two years and so most of the build up has been about what happens next to Luke and Rey, who Rey’s parents are (nobody, it turns out), how her training will play out and how she’ll defeat Kylo Ren. It’s frustrating that we keep getting the rug pulled from under our feet with unwelcome distractions from what is emerging as the main plot, and contributes to a sagging middle act. Indeed, should this have been missing from the film entirely, there would have been little impact on the outcome.

Poe’s character gets many of the best lines for laughs, but there are also big visual gags from BB-8 and some friction between Chewbacca and the furry little creatures called porgs. These porgs are destined to be something of a Marmite character for the franchise – I’m still trying hard to warm to them.

All is forgiven by the final act. If anyone was left unconvinced at any point, the film gets firmly back on track with a lovingly-balanced reintroduction of Yoda as a force ghost. It was surprising but absolutely welcome. Frank Oz provides the voice and yes, it is a real puppet operated by real people. This is how it’s done Mr Lucas.

This kick-starts a long stretch towards the end that is entirely satisfying, exhilarating and feels like a genuinely fresh take n the franchise. It sets up the Resistance in a perilous predicament that gives J.J. Abrams a meaty starting point for the final installation of this trilogy.

It makes the failings pale into insignificance and provides a perfect ending to a not-quite perfect film.

The clocks are officially reset and I’m now on countdown again for the next instalment.

Halloween Quiz – Just for fun (2017 edition) – ANSWERS

Here are the answers to the Halloween horror quiz I published yesterday. Hope you enjoyed it!

1. Dustin, Will, Mike, Lucas and Eleven are the lead characters in which supernatural horror TV series?
– Stranger Things

2. Richard Bachman was a pseudonym of which famous horror fiction writer?
– Stephen King

3. Which two actors portrayed Fox Mulder and Dana Scully in the TV series The X-Files? (1/2 point each)
– David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson

4. Bill Skarsgard and Tim Curry are both actors associated with which horror film character?
– Pennywise the Clown

5. Army of Darkness is the third instalment in which horror film franchise?
– Evil Dead

6. What is the nickname given to the killer in Scream, prior to finding out his or her true identity?
– Ghostface

7. The 2017 remake of ‘It’ is now officially the highest-grossing supernatural horror film of all time. Which 1999 film did it displace from the top of the list?
– The Sixth Sense

8. Which Hungarian actor is credited with originating the role of Count Dracula in the 1931 film Dracula?
– Bela Lugosi

9. Which dark British comedy series will return this Christmas for three episodes, allowing fans to glimpse Royston Vasey for the first time in fifteen years?
– The League of Gentlemen

10. Which TV event was watched by the must viewers in the US – the first episode of Lost Season 1, or the last episode of Lost Season 6?
– The first episode of Season 1 received 18.65m viewers, whereas the Season 6 finale received just 13.57m viewers.

INITIALS

1. Alfred Hitchcock
2. John Landis
3. Wes Craven
4. Sam Raimi
5. Clive Barker
6. Ivan Reitman
7. George A Romero
8. Ridley Scott
9. Guillermo Del Torro
10. Steven Spielberg

POSTERS

1. It
2. What Lies Beneath
3. Psycho
4. The Omen
5. Poltergeist
6. The Fog
7. Get Out
8. Frankenstein
9. The Amityville Horror
10. Dial M for Murder