Ideal Home

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* * 1/2

There’s something uncomfortable, now, of watching famous straight actors play gay. It used to be the norm, then it was considered acceptable if “necessary”, but things have definitively shifted and times have defiantly changed. It’s taken over a decade for Andy Fleming’s screenplay Ideal Home to make it to the screen, and, ironically and challengingly, this most politically correct of stories has erred badly in the light of current political correctness.

Steve Coogan and Paul Rudd have been attached to the film for a long time, but they – and Fleming, and everyone involved – should have noticed the winds changing and stepped down before rolling camera. It’s not like their performances justify their position – that is, there’s no way anyone can say they give performances better than any gay actors could have given (can you imagine if anyone did!) Coogan gives a typically wry comedic reading, Rudd a typically warm-hearted one, but both of them, frankly, look, act and sound very uncomfortable – and wrong – whenever they’re playing it “gay” (which both do, often, Coogan the most).

They play a set-in-their-ways couple living a very urbane and privileged life in Santa Fe, where Coogan’s Erasmus is a celebrity TV chef and Rudd’s Paul his TV show’s producer. They shoot the show on their own ranch and retire to sophisticated, adult dinners on their patio with Santa Fe’s elite, gay and otherwise (the mayor plays himself). Then Erasmus’s grandson shows up, needing a place to live, and the boys have to parent up.

The film is a heartfelt plea for tolerance that simply pushes too much heart. There are some very, very funny moments – I laughed out loud at least four times, always thanks to Coogan – but the second and third acts are plagued by overt sentimentality. It feels very much like Fleming was worried we wouldn’t “get it”, so he bludgeons us with it, shooting himself in the artistic foot but subverting his humour with schmaltz. What could have been zippy is drippy, and what should have been gay is fey. Oy vey.

Foxtrot

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* * * 1/2

Zero Motivation, from 2014, was a light, frothy comedy about the boredom facing young Jewish Israeli women during their two years of military service. Now Foxtrot, a true satire rather than a comedy, examines issues around young men doing their service, but the humor is much, much darker.

Tonally, Foxtrot is extremely ambitious. Using a simple set of characters and locations but laser-sharp mise-en-scene, director Samuel Maoz takes tight control of our minds and emotions, leading us purposefully to look where he wants us to look and feel what he wants us to feel. It’s a magic act, a set of deceptions, manipulations and reveals, and it works.

It could easily not have; the twists and reversals in Maoz’s screenplay are bold enough to alienate or even anger. But his cast and crew are all on the same page, in on the same joke, and the strange engine hums. In particular, cinematographer Giora Bejach uses precise, formal framing and audacious – but always controlled – camera moves to play with our brains. He’ll show us one thing, then, with a subtle push in and pan, reveal something new that totally upends our expectations, and he does it again and again, the magician daring us to figure out his next move when he’s actually two moves ahead.

Likewise, the cast, headed by the suburb Lior Ashkenazi, nail every quiet, meaningful beat, dancing between comedy and tragedy eloquently and at times virtuosically. There are simple shots of Ashkenazi in silent repose that are some of the most heart-rending and memorable images of the cinematic year thus far. Indeed, even as the story – which is undeniably manipulative – fades in your memory, Ashkenazi’s performance, and his silent visage, will grow.

Upgrade

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* * (out of five)

Leigh Whannell hit the jackpot as a very young man when he and James Wan created Saw, and, subsequently, the Saw franchise, which has been very, very lucrative. Wan, who directed the first Saw, has become a highly successful director and producer of low-budget, high-profit horror genre fare, the kind of stuff that sells big on Friday nights (including the Annabelle and Conjuring franchises). Meanwhile, Whannell has pursued a less obviously successful acting career, and, prior to this, wrote and directed Insidious 3 (having written the original Insidious for Wan to direct). Now he makes his first non-sequel as a feature writer-director, with Upgrade, an Australian – American co-production shot in Melbourne, starring an American, Logan Marshall-Green, set in the United States, but utilizing a predominantly Australian cast.

The most generous reading of Upgrade is of a film lovingly paying homage to the original RoboCop and Terminator. The least is of a film blatantly ripping those films off. Whannell’s intentionality probably lies somewhere in between, but the result is a pastiche of other people’s good ideas while offering next to none of its own.

Marshall-Green plays a man in the near-ish future who, after an accident, receives tremendously heightened physical prowess due to a cyborgian operation, and uses it to pursue justice tinged with vengeance – a la RoboCop. Meanwhile, the low-budget design elements, tarted up with maximum stylised lighting and an intense, thumping, synthy soundtrack, honour the aesthetic of The Terminator, which was, lest we forget, a (relatively) cheap genre flick that outshone its constraints thanks to excellent craftsmanship (and Arnold Schwarzenegger).

Marshall-Green, a good actor, does his best, and, like Arnie in The Terminator and Peter Weller in RoboCop, manages to wring intriguing physical humour from the cyborg motif. But the rest of the film – particularly the dialogue – is juvenile; at times it really sounds like something a fifteen year old (male) would write. Some scenes, such as that at an “off-the-grid” bar for badass types, are depressingly, pathologically imitative – copies of copies of copies of copies, sad in their desperate lack of imagination. And one of the major characters, an Elon Musk type – called Eron! – is horrendously conceived and cast (I’ll spare the actor by not mentioning his name; I don’t think he stood a chance, given his dialogue, his blocking, the sets and props he had to work with, and the fact that he looks ludicrously too young).

On the plus side, there are some decent fight sequences, a couple of interesting design choices, and a story so simple you can easily have a big Friday afternoon at the pub first, or a few joints, and not miss a thing. It’s not too long, either; you’ll easily be able to get a Friday night meal afterward, and forget all about it.

Ocean’s 8

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“Well, this is boring.”

* * (out of five)

Unfunny, unexciting and unsuspenseful, Ocean’s 8 is an embarrassing and obvious misfire. Despite the much-hyped collection of A-List actresses, only one of them – Anne Hathaway – manages to capture your attention, let alone possibly bring a smile to your dial. Every other character is underwritten – how can Mindy Kaling deliver a performance when her scripted character does nothing? – in a lifeless, hand-me-down script featuring a dull, uninspired heist.

Gary Ross, who co-wrote the cookie-cutter (using the 2001 Ocean’s 11 template) screenplay with Olivia Milch, directs in the style of Steven Soderbergh – literally, using the exact same film grammar Soderbergh used for his Ocean’s movies – but without the magic. It’s an odd experience, watching a formula that has worked so well before not working at all. Somehow, and sadly, there is no chemistry between leading ladies Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett (who delivers her most charisma-free performance, like, ever) and almost each of the other “8” are simply bodies in a room. Again, one can’t blame these poor actors, for they have no material to play, or worth playing.

There’s a scene at about the beginning of act two where Helena Bonham-Carter gets one over on a Cartier representative, convincing him to go against his logical position and his professional expertise, simply by revealing that she speaks French. It is neither funny nor logical, but it’s there in the movie, inert, non-sensical, dumb, and emblematic of the whole film, which is composed, simply, of a whole string of similar scenes. When your comedy heist movie lacks comedy and an acceptable heist, you’re just left with a movie, and nothing else; a hundred and ten minutes of light on a screen.

Hereditary

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* * * * 1/2

Hereditary is the best American horror film since The Sixth Sense. The fact that Toni Collette is in both says a couple of things. That she can pick fantastic projects, and collaborators, absolutely. But also, that writer/director Ari Aster has impeccable taste along with a sense of history. To my mind, Aster knew, when he finished his screenplay, that he had written the best horror script since The Sixth Sense, and that – as when that film came out, revitalised the upmarket American horror film scene, and established M. Night Shyamalan as a “master of horror” – so too would all those things happen for him. They deserve to.

It remains to be seen whether his film will make it all the way to the Oscar race, as The Sixth Sense did (and as Get Out did last year); certainly, Collette should be in the running. Her performance here, as an artist, wife and mother dealing with the death of her own complicated, problematic mother, is one for the books. It’s got the lot: emotional complexity and integrity but also audacity and unwavering commitment to the essence of the film, what it’s trying to be. She understands the intention of every beat, and that while on the whole realism is the order of the day, sometimes something else, something for the sake of the moment and the mood, is necessary. She’s never afraid, or embarrassed, that she’s in a horror film.

Aster honours horror’s past beyond the casting of Collette, and one of the most admirable and effective things about the film is how many established horror tropes it uses in fresh, inventive ways. The whole film could have felt like a stale pastiche, but it is anything but; indeed, it’s the opposite, feeling like a rebirth or an awakening. And it is; this is the dawn of a new filmmaker of consummate skill whom we must notice and follow if we care about American horror cinema at all.

Aster’s judgement is confident, mature, unerring. The film’s casting is precise and evocative, and includes a striking find in young Milly Shapiro, playing Collette’s daughter. The cinematography is beautiful, unnerving and deliberate, emphasising shadows, moonlight and dusk (the film was shot in Utah) that evokes the feel of the great American horror cinema of the 1970s. The music is unobtrusive yet consistently effective, the production design immaculate and vital. Most satisfying of all is the pace, which is stately. Aster doesn’t rush a thing. He’s written a brilliant script and he’s brought it to the screen with the respect it deserves. One of the films of 2018, which is turning out to be a very, very good year for discerning, adult cinema.

I Kill Giants

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* * * 1/2

Set in New Jersey, shot in Belgium and Ireland, helmed by a Dane, starring a mix of Americans, Brits and Irishfolk, based on a graphic novel, and infused with a dark melancholic beauty, I Kill Giants feels nothing if not unique. Cooked in such a diverse pot, the result is strange and darkly beautiful, a slave to no master’s rhythms or rules other than its own. It should be perfect for teen girls who relate to its protagonist, Barbara (Madison Wolfe), a troubled outsider; this film is a troubled outsider, to be approached with appropriate caution. It’s not afraid, of giants, of upsetting you, of facing the dark.

Barbara lives with her brother Dave and older sister Karen (the always brilliant Imogen Poots, who is uncannily believable as Wolfe’s sister) in a wind-swept wooden house on the Jersey Shore. Karen looks after Dave and Barbara; there are no parents around. Barbara is a loner, a high-school outcast with no friends (until she makes one, Sophia, played by a young Brit named Sydney Wade who may very well become a massive star), but who has no time for such trivialities anyway: she must defend her small town against the oncoming invasion of giants from the stormy sea, and when we meet her she is deep in preparation, with traps, rituals and other mystical accoutrements that point to both a highly developed imagination and perhaps some mental health issues.

I’m not sure how old my daughter will need to be to see I Kill Giants – possibly in her early teens – but I’ll be happy to screen it for her when she’s ready, if it seems like her thing. It’s beautifully crafted, supremely well acted (except for the school bully – why, oh why, are bullies always so one dimensional, even in complex films like this?) and seriously moving. Reader, I cried. And not just a little. The tears streamed down my face, and it felt good. A rewarding experience for the right audience, be it teen girl loners or troubled outsiders of any age.

Gringo

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* * 1/2

Gringo, Nash Edgerton’s second feature film as director, desperately wants to be an Elmore Leonard adaptation, but it’s not. It’s from an original screenplay by Anthony Tambakis and Matthew Stone that is full of Elmore-isms: witty and relatively lovable criminals, nefarious schemes, heaps of ethnic diversity, rapid-fire dialogue, guns but not too much actual violence, exotic locations, and an essentially comic tone. But Leonard’s books – and the best adaptations of them, such as Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, Out of Sight and the TV series Justified – always have, amongst the wacky ensemble of rogues and ruffians, a central figure who commands respect, through their ingenuity, humanity and moral code (even if they’re a criminal themselves). Leonard’s lead characters don’t get lost in the shuffle, they command the ship.

Gringo’s lead character, by contrast, is passive, reactive, and an embarrassing stain on skillful actor David Oyelowo’s body of work. Why he agreed to take this role is a mystery, but how he plays it is almost an affront. His character Harold may be an executive working for a pharmaceutical company headquartered in Chicago, but he’s Nigerian, and, as he gets more and more scared by more and more Mexican thugs while doing shady pharma biz in Mexico City, his reactions become ever broader, his eyes bugging, his voice hitting falsetto, his teeth practically chattering. By the time he’s on his knees praying to God for his life, he’s truly become a caricature and a stereotype. It’s an uncomfortably bad performance, fueled by a terribly conceived character on the page and as directed.

Three of the ensemble come off well: Charlize Theron and Edgerton’s brother Joel make an entertainingly sleazy double-act as the crooked pharma head honchos, and infamous scene-stealer Sharlto Copley arrives late in the piece to rescue every scene he’s in. But there are heaps more poorly written characters lurking in the often very confusing story. What in the world are Harry Treadaway and Amanda Seyfried up to? Their threadbare characters and incoherent storyline could have been cleanly snipped from the film to its great benefit. As it is, Gringo has seemingly good intentions, and shows good taste in its inspirations, but keeps missing its own beat, scene after scene. It’s a happy-go-lucky, shaggy, odd, silly, and ultimately infuriating mess.

 

Gaugin

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* 1/2

Artistic creation is, naturally, a rich source for drama. Ballet companies, theatre troupes, orchestras and rock bands make good character ensembles. Filmmaking, despite the inherent self-reference, makes for great material: there are a lot of people engaged in a brutally challenging task, often bearing outrageous levels of ego, neuroses, ambition and wit. The solo arts are inherently more difficult; nothing can be duller than a film about a writer staring at a typewriter, or, even worse, a computer screen. At least painters have a canvas, and can literally create an image in front of our eyes, but a hundred minutes of staring at that, would be… well, like watching it dry.

Obviously, the artist needs to be dramatically engaged. Usually in this type of film, he or she is involved in an epic battle with the bottle, and often juggling multiple lovers. Pollack (2000) was good; so was Basquiat (1996). But Gaugin, or Gaugin Voyage De Tahiti as it is known in France, is not good. It is dramatically mort.

Gaugin gets sick of Paris; Gaugin goes to Tahiti; Gaugin paints. Except for a brief illness, he encounters such little drama in the tropics that the filmmakers have had to construct a love triangle for us to try and get excited by. It’s not exciting, not by anyone’s standards. There’s also a subplot – if it even qualifies for the word – involving a Tahitian student of Gaugin cheapening his talent by replicating statues to sell to white French colonialists, but it sounds more captivating than it is, which obviously isn’t saying much.

Gaugin is painted – boom tish – as unsympathetic, leaving, as he does, his large family to go cavorting in paradise (which makes the love triangle even more insufferable). Why Vincent Cassel agreed to play him, other than for a trip to Tahiti, is imponderable. It can’t have been the script, which must have had a lot of empty white space. This is a truly boring movie, in which barely anything happens. Gaugin’s actual paintings have more drama, and more life.

Solo: A Star Wars Story

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* * * 1/2

Since you’re going to see a movie about the young Han Solo – not a boy or teen, though, a young man, a little younger than Harrison Ford in A New Hope – you generate some expectations. You’d like to see him do that Kessel Run in under however many parsecs. You want to see him win that Millennium Falcon off Lando Calrissian in a card game. And you definitely want to see him get tangled up with Jabba The Hutt.

I won’t tell you how many of these vital questions get answered. What I will say, happily, is that Solo: A Star Wars Story actually tells you what you really wanted to know, and tells it very, very well: How Han Solo met Chewbacca, and how they become co-pilots, smugglers, and best friends.

The actor playing Chewbacca, a six foot eleven inch Finn named Joonas Suotamo, is pretty remarkable, and the chemistry between him and Alden Ehrenreich (whom I’ve already declared rather brilliant in Hail Caesar and Rules Don’t Apply) is palpable, believable, and deeply satisfying. It’s easy to forget the wonder, all those years ago, of being introduced to a character who’s partner in crime was a wookie, but you get it all back here, and it makes sense.

The camaraderie and banter between the two is complemented well by a motley crew of bandits, vagabonds and nightcrawlers in what is essentially a heist movie. Actually, it’s a movie with three heists, each adding a character or two or taking some away. Solo’s there throughout, obviously. Chewie joins first, then we get a dodgy crim called, rather hilariously, Tobias Beckett, played, rather hilariously, by Woody Harrelson; cascading behind him come Thandie Newton, Jon Favreau, Phoebe Waller-Bridge and, of course and already famously, Donald Glover as Calrissian. Sneaking in sideways, not so much a partner in crime as – and I did not see this coming – a serious love interest, is Emilia Clarke. And she’s great. I have never rated her on Game of Thrones; she’s always been that show’s weak link for me. But here she’s tremendous, game, up for it, and displaying just the right lightness of touch. All up, the gang is a lot of fun.

As for Ehrenreich… he’s excellent. He was served a tough, and thankless, gig, but he’s proved the naysayers wrong, as far as I’m concerned, with a performance that honours Ford without slavishly copying him. By the time we met Han in A New Hope, he was already cool; Ehrenreich’s Han is not yet cool, but he’s learning, trying it on, and occasionally making an ass of himself. It’s a funny performance but it’s also nuanced and, dare I say it, really very brave. Seriously, talk about taking a risk when taking a role!

I laughed out loud half a dozen times during Solo, and to me, it’s most enjoyable as a romp. The action really never stops, there are heaps of witty references, one-liners and sight gags, and everyone’s fun is infectious. There’s no rebellion and no force, so you don’t have to keep track of who’s got the force and who’s strong with the force. There’s a good villain (Paul Bettany) and a surprisingly heartfelt romance. But when I think back on it, the heart of the film remains with the relationship between one man and his wookie. It’s the bromance of 2018.

Aurore

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* * * (out of five)

Spoiler alert: This review obliquely references the film’s tonal conclusion.

Pregnancy is a good given circumstance – a good hook – on which to hang a movie. It’s human and relatable, there are going to be emotions involved, and it’s inherently suspenseful. There’s going to be a result, an ending, a climax. Nine months or so is a pretty good length of time for a story. The seasons can change, things can happen. Structurally, a pregnancy is pretty impeccable. Like screenplays, they’re even divided into three acts (okay, trimesters).

Aurore, a bouncy, swift and genial comedy from Blandine Lenoir, cleverly has fun with this inherent dramatic arc by assigning the pregnancy neither to the protagonist, nor the antagonist, but to a supporting character. Aurore, warmly played by Agnès Jaoui (who co-wrote the film with Lenoir and, weirdly for a French film, four others) is the mother of the expectant, but the center of the story. At age fifty, she simply feels too young to be on the verge of  being a grandmother; accepting this inevitable status is her character arc, and the film’s journey.

Unfortunately, this clever construction allows the film to avoid dealing with its actual nemesis, which is menopause. The trials and tribulations of menopause are highlighted, I dare say, in every scene of this 89 minute film, but not dealt with, except comically. Rather, the film uses Aurore’s daughter’s pregnancy to dodge the issue, keep things light, airy and pleasant. The film is about society marginalising women once they hit middle-age, but fear not, it’s all played for laughs, and everything turns out okay.

The mature audience I saw it with laughed with every hot flash and mood swing, many obviously in recognition. They didn’t want their buzz killed and they were completely obliged. I enjoyed the witty dialogue, the warm performances, and the intriguing setting (a city somewhere in South-Western France, by the water, possibly La Rochelle), but, somewhere in the second trimester, I realised the film, like its heroine, was more concerned with being loved than asking questions, and, frankly, it lost me. Like many pregnancies, the beginning was surprising and exciting, but the end was entirely predictable.