NOTE: This is a “spoiler discussion”; ALL story elements of the film are discussed.

Ambient, unique tale about – literally – a heart.

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* * * 

Even more than 21 Grams, Heal The Living is the story of a heart transplant, and, uniquely to my knowledge, the protagonist is a human heart. It starts in one body and moves to another, and we are witness to its journey, which is fascinating, involving, as it does, not only ambulances and doctors, but ice-packs, police escorts, agencies, and serious emotional dilemmas. The film is an eye-opener if nothing else.

The procedure itself is fully rendered, to the extent that I wondered if the film’s director Katell Quillévéré had found an operation to film first and a subject and story second (I have no doubt we are seeing a real heart in a real procedure). But the film is based on a novel, by Maylis De Kerangal, so that particular chicken did come before the egg.

The film’s structure is very satisfying, even as it leaves the viewer without an entire lead human being to follow. Despite the highly emotive subject, the film has an emotional distance, which Quillévéré fills with long, poetic imagery set to intense, trance-like music. At times it strains a little too hard, but generally, and especially amongst the performances, there is clarity, precision and taste. I suspect that if you’ve ever given or received an organ you’ll find the film respectful and rewarding.

Impeccably, masterfully crafted; somewhat confusingly told.

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* * * *

Visually, sonically, thematically and tonally, Denis Villeneuve’s sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 sci-fi masterpiece is absolutely spot-on, mimicking the very particular look, sound and feel of the earlier film with eerie specificity. As with J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens, which felt like Star Wars: A New Hope, this absolutely feels like Blade Runner, including buying into that film’s more ponderous aspects, and certainly into its very lofty ruminations. It’s a serious cinematic work, Villeneuve’s best film, and generally hugely enjoyable.

This is the third major (read: expensive and Studio-backed), “hard” sci-fi, intellectually ambitious examination of cybergenetic A(rtificial) I(ntelligence) this year. As such, it trumps Alien: Covenant and Ghost In The Shell. Both those films were rather terrific in their own ways – and both certainly were not afraid to wade deep into questions of where real life ends and artificial life begins – but Blade Runner 2049 is simply a bigger, bolder work of art. This is the one of the three that will be nominated for Oscars, and it will win Cinematography for Roger Deakins. His work here is sublime, masterful, faultless, jaw-dropping, incredible. It’s the most beautiful film of the year bar none. (It will also be, a la Mad Max: Fury Road, a potential Oscar sweep winner in all of the design categories.)

It is not the easiest film to follow; the story-telling is its weakest aspect, and the long third act (of a very long, though never boring, film) has elements that are simply incomprehensible. It’s a big problem, or was for me, because despite the way the film had ravished me with its visuals, its phenomenal production design, and its uncompromisingly elegant mise-en-scene, I walked out of my screening confused rather than sated. One character – played by Jared Leto, sprouting some seriously fruity dialogue – had me flummoxed and frustrated. Blade Runner 2049 admirably raises big, big questions, but less admirably refuses to provide some simple answers.

Too much Bobby, not enough Billie.

RIGGS KING

* * * 1/2

This telling of the events leading up to, and including, the tennis match instigated by Bobbie Riggs versus Billie Jean King and billed as a Battle Of The Sexes is fun and extremely easy to watch. But by dividing the film’s focus 50/50 between both players, and by bending over backwards to make Riggs seem like a totally acceptable dude in his own right rather than the bad guy, we are robbed of an insightful film about Billie Jean King, who is so obviously a more interesting, and historically significant, person than Riggs.

Riggs (Steve Carell) is portrayed as “wacky” but not disturbed, incorrigible but not troubled, annoying but not disturbing, frustrating but not dangerous. He’s like a tiny insect, pesky but not powerful enough to ruin your picnic. And, often, he’s “loveable”, and way too much time is given over to scenes with his wealthy, dramatically inert wife to try and prove it. I don’t think I’d find him loveable but the movie wants us to.

The other half of the film – Billie Jean’s half – is far superior, with Emma Stone giving a perfectly modulated, low-key performance. The film’s three thematic strands are The Match, Feminism, and King’s Transition to Gayness, and all three are touched on well if not enough.

The film looks great – it even has a 70s grain, and uses camera moves of the period, such as zooms – and the match itself is brilliantly re-created and, incredibly, tense as hell. But the movie feels like a massive missed opportunity. Emma Stone’s “Billie” would have been – potentially – a far richer film.

Incidentally, the portrayal of Margaret Court – given her current newsworthiness – is fascinating. Seems she was ever thus.

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* * * * (out of five)

Since you asked, yes, The King’s Choice is kind of a cross between The King’s Speech and Sophie’s Choice. It’s about a largely ceremonial king who must rise to the challenge of guiding his nation, while forced to make a choice imposed on him by Nazis. It’s also an extremely well made and compellingly emotive historical drama, bleeding beautiful craftsmanship from every pore.

The King in question is King Haakon the 7th of Norway, and the choice he must make, over the course of three days in April, 1940, is whether to resist or accept German occupation. It’s a big, difficult decision, the kind that no training in the world prepares you for, because the Nazis were playing by new rules: their own. To resist would almost certainly result in Norwegian casualties; to “bend over” and let the Nazis walk in, as his brother the King of Denmark does hours before, would be a betrayal of, as he sees it, everything he stands for as a sovereign. Tough one.

As a history lesson, the film is exemplary; it certainly plugged gaps in my knowledge not only of Norway’s entry into the war but also many aspects of Scandinavian monarchy. But it’s also a deeply affecting story on a personal level, not only full of suspense and tension but also emotion. If Dunkirk is this year’s Big World War Two film about the planes and the boats, this is the one about the people.

* * * 1/2 (out of five)

John Denver’s Annie’s Song was used very prominently in this year’s Free Fire and Okja. His song Take Me Home Country Roads was used very prominently in Alien Covenant and Logan Lucky. Now, Kingsman: The Golden Circle uses both, very prominently. Channing Tatum was in Logan Lucky and is now in Kingsman. Co-incidence? I don’t think so. I think Matthew Vaughn, director and co-writer of Kingsman, is having a sly joke, and it’s perfectly in keeping with the tone of his unexpectedly mega-successful Bond-parodic action franchise.

I wasn’t a fan of the first instalment, The Secret Service (2014). At the time I wrote, “There’s a lot of spitfire razzle-dazzle but barely any wit, panache or charm in this huge bloated misfire of a movie that sits like a spew stain on the impeccable jacket of Colin Firth’s body of work.” My main issue with that film essentially goes uncorrected here: the dialogue is simply unfunny but thinks it’s funny, making everyone – cast and audience – uncomfortable. But the tone and, especially, the imagery this time around is much more fun; it may not be funny but it’s cheeky, and every single shot is bright, crisp, colourful, wittily designed and gorgeous to look at. It’s an action movie that’s actually easy on the eyes.

There is also a villainous plot – which doesn’t get going until an hour and fifteen minutes into the film, mind you – which wouldn’t actually be too horribly out of place in an actual Bond movie. The world’s most powerful drug lord Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore) taints her product with a nasty virus that infects all users worldwide – hundreds of millions of them – and sends them into paralysis, with death imminently promised, unless they legalise all recreational drugs worldwide, in which case she will release the antidote. It’s a nifty idea, and actually engenders a series of even niftier twists. And Poppy’s lair – a clearing in a South American jungle in which she has built a tiny replica of 1950s Americana – is very neat, killer robot dogs and all.

Killer robot dogs, you say? Really? Yes, this is a movie that is stuffed with stuff. It’s crazy long – two hours and twenty-one minutes, which is about the average running time of the Daniel Craig Bond films – and there are so many action set-pieces that I certainly can’t recall them all, and I’ve just seen the film. It’s so long, and there’s so much stuff in it, that the first hour or so becomes instantly forgettable, and when one major actor re-enters the film in the final act, it’s a jolt, because you’d forgotten they were in it in the first place. Like chocolate cake with chocolate sauce and chocolate ice-cream on a chocolate plate, it’s yummy and gets your serotonin pumping but also just too much.

But this is a first-world complaint. Too much chocolate? When people tell me the Oscars are too long, I tell them to fuck off! It’s once a year, I want a lot of Oscars, if you don’t like them don’t watch them. So maybe too much Kingsman is a good thing. Part of the film’s shtick is that there’s just so much of it. It’s the relatively charming, incredibly well designed, friendly action comedy that keeps on giving. This really is a film that you can feel comfortable going to the bathroom when you need to, because, in the extremely grand scale of things, you can’t have really missed anything, because there’s so much more to come.

Taron Egerton returns as Eggsy, the young likely lad recruited into the British private secret service, Kingsmen, by Colin Firth’s Harry Hart in the first film. Harry was killed off pretty decisively in that one – shot through the eye by Samuel L. Jackson, which usually means you’re kaput – but he’s rather miraculously resurrected here, which, of course, instantly forfeits from the movie any rights to making us worry about anyone. When you bring back a dead character because the audience wants the actor back, there aren’t high stakes, just big paychecks (and, theoretically, big returns: I suspect this instalment is going to be a massive box office hit).

Firth looks almost as uncomfortable as he did in the first one, and his character is very strangely written; there is one major decision he makes, vital to the course of events, that still has me scratching my head. Egerton is more enjoyable than he was in the original, mainly because here he’s in the suit more and in his ‘hood clothes less – he was really, really hard to swallow as the cap-wearing lager lad in the origin story. Moore makes the best meal possible out of every one of her lines, and if those lines had actually been witty, we may have had, at least in Poppy, a very memorable villain.

The movie’s star performance is from Mark Strong, whose character Merlin operates as the “Q” figure of the franchise, the gadgets guy and tech wizard. Strong has been playing both tough guys and parodies of tough guys for a while now – his secret agent in Sacha Baron Cohen’s criminally under-seen Grimsby was an absolute hoot – and here he kind of does both, bringing, in every scene he’s in, some tonal coherence to the movie. His final scene is truly wonderful. It would have worked, with perhaps a ten percent alteration in performance, in a real Bond film, which is the vibe the whole movie – the whole franchise – should aspire to.

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* * 1/2 (out of five)

Steve Coogan is a really good actor, and he can nail drama. His introspective moments in the Trip series have been getting more and more intriguing (and they are tremendously subtle); he was phenomenal in Philomena, and his ability to portray real people, as evidenced in the masterpiece 24 Hour Party People and the pretty damn good The Look of Love, sits without many peers. That said, no actor – not Dustin Hoffman, not Daniel Day Lewis – should be saddled with the burden Coogan bears in The Dinner, an adaptation of Herman Koch’s successful Dutch literary novel from 2009 from writer/director Oren Moverman (Time Out of Mind, Rampart, The Messenger).

Besides donning an American accent (which he does admirably), Coogan has to contend with an incredibly serious impairment, an almost ludicrously difficult moral quandary, and long, long speeches, all of which could have been trimmed and many of which could have been cut. It may well be that Moverman was absolutely entranced and moved by Coogan’s excellent performance, but, in leaving it all in, he’s unfortunately left his leading man out to dry.

15797938The movie would have been better too, had those cuts been made, because it’s too long, and collapses under its intense dramatic weight. It has often been said that simple, “airport”, mainstream, easy-reading potboilers make the best move adaptations – a shark terrorises a beach community! – and that complicated literary novels are devilish to adapt. This proves the case here. Watching the film, I kept thinking, “I bet this really works in the book”.

As Coogan’s brother, Richard Gere slides too easily into a high-status role (he’s running for Governor!); Laura Linney is fantastic as Coogan’s wife but the late Sir Peter Hall’s daughter Rebecca stumbles often, lumbered with the film’s weakest dialogue, as Gere’s younger partner. There is a terrific turn from Michael Chernus as the unflappable Maître D of the ludicrously expensive restaurant where these four wretched souls are thrashing out their problems, but unfortunately The Dinner, like the extravagant dishes he’s describing, is over-sauced, over-stuffed, too rich and heavy.