Category Archives: reviews

Is the MARY QUEEN OF SCOTS film as good as the book?

The CW’s Mary Queen of Scots soap opera ‘Reign’ took an axe to historical accuracy. But beneath the fashion and fantasy, the vital beats were there; Mary wed the Dauphin of France, and returned to rule Scotland as a teenage widow.

Now, we have a wannabe serious, grown-up movie, inspired by John Guy’s sympathetic biography, originally published as My Heart is My Own.

We pick up with Mary (Saorise Ronan) washing up on the shores of her native land. She takes one look and retches. Her half-brother James is a bastard (like Jon Snow), and David Tennant is firebrand Protestant cleric John Knox.

Then there’s her cousin, Elizabeth I (Margot Robbie). Screenshot_2019-07-19-09-30-16-01.jpeg

Mary had become Queen of Scots as a baby, but through her grandmother (Henry VIII’s sister) she also had a claim to Elizabeth’s throne.

Having grown up safely in the French court, critics saw Mary as a pampered princess – yet Guy describes a charismatic and multifaceted diplomat.

The movie shows this by having Elizabeth’s courtiers say, “She’s formidable, Madam!”

At nearly 6ft tall, Mary liked to dress as a man to punk ambassadors. Just don’t expect to see this in the film – she might have been a fun gal by 16th century standards, but in steely Saorise Ronan, Mary is a straightforward, strong heroine.

She marries a vile brat named Darnley, who is murdered by Bothwell (established early as Mary’s sworn defender but absent for most of the movie), who then coerces Mary into marrying him instead.

The film dashes through this final sequence of events leading to Mary’s downfall, until she flees to Elizabeth and a fictional, arty meet-up in a laundry room.

Despite losing her own country, Mary won’t shut up about what a superior Queen she’d be. Facing her young, beautiful ‘rival’, Robbie looks shook. The greatest enemy to her insecure, frail Elizabeth is ageing before modern medicine and Instagram filters.

In Guy’s (well-researched) revisionist account, Mary was Britain’s unluckiest ruler, prey to larger neighbours and the combined forces of Elizabeth’s Catholic-hating advisors, the Protestant Reformation and the age-old factionalism of the Scottish nobility. She was tragically trusting of family, and – still only in her twenties – had disastrous taste in men.

For Josie Rourke’s film, this is largely simplified to Mary being the victim of gender bias. She’d have been best friends with her cousin-over-the-border if it weren’t for the patriarchy. The fact that one of them chopped the other one’s head off should serve to remind us, the #metoo generation, that men suck.

Fine, it’s only a film. But if you want historical fan fiction about the perils of female leadership in a male world, featuring ‘woke’ royals, Reign is on Netflix.

FANTASTIC BEASTS: The Crimes of Grindelwald

You’d imagine J.K. Rowling had earned enough goodwill that people might give her the benefit of the doubt.

Yet even before her Fantastic Beasts sequel hit cinemas, the casting caused controversy. The online response to the hiring of tabloid-stricken Johnny Depp as Grindelwald prompted director David Yates to release a statement via his agents Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs…

“Duh, he’s literally playing Wizarding Hitler, like literally,” shrugged Yates. “Let’s hope nobody takes a pop at Eddie Redmayne and accuses him of drop-kicking a Niffler. Now that’d be a real PR nightmare!” he laughed.

Then a scene in the trailer supposedly broke canon, and the release of the official cast list drew fury as it messed with the timeline established in books/minds.

But J.K writes great mysteries and she doesn’t make it up as she goes along, right? 

Well, there are some potential canonical problems here, but it’s only the second film of five. What’s worse is the critical consensus that it’s the worst Potter ever – that it has too many characters and confusing subplots, no clear protagonist, and exists only to set up later chapters.

To be clear, the first Beasts wasn’t that fantabulous – my review was basically, “Wow how hot is Colin Farrell?!” However, I could see it was the start of a story that promised to tap into the richer HP mythology.

‘Crimes’ opens with an impressive action scene, even if the criminal was actually already free, and just wanted his escape to have a certain degree of flair.

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Depp’s take on the character is more Black Mass than Captain Jack, but dark magic must take a toll, as Jamie Campbell Bower’s blond, handsome, spindly young wizard is just a mirage in the Mirror of Erised.

Grindelwald’s crimes include cruelty to cute critters (justice for Antonio!), murder, and nearly destroying Paris. He’s also guilty of making hot Dumbledore lovesick and mopey…after they spent a summer together in their teens, to put this in perspective.

The benignly manipulative Dumbledore has twisted Newt’s arm into protecting Credence – who is trying to discover his origins. And what a persuasive way Dumbledore has – “Hey Newt, you’re not popular, funny, or charming, but you do what’s right!”

So did Rowling have this new sibling twist planned, or did she come up with it between script revisions, à la George Lucas with Luke and Leia?

Well, there was a distinct lack of buildup. Audiences didn’t really finish the first movie speculating about a particular character’s parentage.

Of course Dumbledore always knows more than he lets on. “For the Greater Good” and all that – old ways die hard. Personally, I’ve always suspected he broke his dad out of Azkaban.

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It’s fantastic Rowling is enriching the mythology of her world. I hope she stays true to her original vision. It’s a pity she didn’t leave her new franchise simmering in the cauldron for a lot longer.

The Aftermath: BOOK vs FILM Review

It’s “Stunde Null” – zero hour – for a defeated Germany following WWII. Sadly for audiences of The Aftermath, time stands still.

The screenplay puts us in the picture: more bombs flattened Hamburg in a single weekend than were dropped on London during the entire conflict. British officer Lewis Morgan requisitions a German mansion, but being a civilized fellow, doesn’t send the family packing.

Its owner, Stefan Lubert (Alexander Skarsgård), is an architect and father whose wife died in the British firestorm. Joining this mansion share – it could be a reality show! – is Morgan’s wife Rachael (Keira Knightly), still grieving the death of their only son Michael in the Blitz.

If she’s a bit chilly with Lubert and his resentful daughter Freda, things are quite tepid in the Morgan marriage too, with Rachael angry that her stoic husband would rather work long hours saving Germany than confront their loss.Screenshot_2019-06-29-19-47-05-01.jpeg

This sets up an obvious love triangle, yet despite focusing on the affair, the film relies on the actors’ good looks to sell a shift from mistrust to lust. When Lubert lunges at Knightley it’s only because he looks like Skarsgård that it isn’t alarming.

Sacrifices have to be made from page to screen, but it’s like the filmmakers dropped a bomb on the book and hollowed it out. The final romantic twist? Axed. The Freda side story goes nowhere, we only get an indication of Lewis’s political role…etc.

The cast do justice to the novel’s well-developed characters, and The Aftermath will get you Googling “houses on the river Elbe”.

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The Aftermath by Rhidian Brook

20190323_104422-02.jpegWe first meet Rachael Morgan, muttering to herself on a train, as she travels to Germany with her 11-year-old son Edmund. The death of her older boy Michael has caused her to ‘think with a limp’.

Now her war-weary husband wants her to sleep with the enemy (in a manner of speaking). Rachael’s pretty, but provincial, not a fashion plate. She mixes with the class-conscious army wives, all ‘uncultured cuckoos in the fancy nests of other birds.’

Freda, fifteen, notes how the Englishwoman talks to herself, how her hands shake. Lubert’s boyish enthusiasm reanimates Rachael, as he talks about his professional ambitions, art, and grief. It’s a slow burn, two people brought together by loss – unlike the onscreen soap opera, where Keira can’t get her kit off fast enough.

It’s zero hour, and they both want a better world, one where people talk about what matters. Clueless Lewis belongs to the stiff upper lip brigade, yet when he’s not battling the world over Germany’s fate, he’s drawn to his translator Ursula.

With their parents busy, Freda and Edmund roam. Joining fellow Hamburgers clearing rubble, Freda meets a Nazi youth interested in Chez Lubert’s occupants, while Edmund befriends a feral gang – including the enterprising Ozi – who are in thrall to a sinister older boy.

The Aftermath has a compelling premise, and its subdued emotional heart and historical-political suspense make a dramatic finale, unlike the film’s thin action.

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RED SPARROW: Book vs Movie Review

Jennifer Lawrence stars in this grisly thriller as Dominika, a Bolshoi prima ballerina whose dance career is kiboshed when her clumsy partner (Sergei Polunin from Orient Express) delivers a gruesome, bone-shattering injury during a live performance.

Dominika’s uncle Vanya doesn’t believe in bad luck. High up in Russian Intelligence, he lets her know that her dance partner is shagging her understudy, so Dominika clubs them with her walking stick.

After forcing her to seduce a gangster in scenes that end in a bloodbath, Vanya recruits his niece for sexpionage, shipping her off to become a ‘Sparrow’. She is eventually deployed to Budapest to entrap a CIA agent called..drum roll..”Nate Nash” – yes really – who is handling a Russian mole, code named MARBLE.

Who is MARBLE? I’m not saying, but Nate Nash shares more chemistry with them during a brush-past in a nighttime park than he does in an entire movie with JLaw, who has unfortunate magnetism with Uncle Vanya (Matthias Schoenaerts).

The comparison was inevitable, but Red Sparrow isn’t a Black Swan-style psychological thriller. It’s also not the action movie you might expect – there aren’t any scenes where Dominika uses her dance skills to shimmy between laser beams or strangle adversaries with her thighs.

Instead it’s a bleak thriller that defines itself with icky, graphic nudity and sadistic violence, all while garroting itself with gibberish like the scene where Dominika alters her appearance with a home hair dye kit, transforming from raven to platinum. If only!

It doesn’t help the authenticity, especially when it’s perhaps a stretch to buy the premise that a limping Moscow ballet star could slip undercover for Mother Russia.

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Red Sparrow by Jason Matthews (2013)

Director Francis Lawrence decided against having an actor portray the real-life Russian president in the movie, because he was too scared it would have been a “different movie”! (Like that would have been a bad thing?!)

Putin does get to feature in Jason Matthews’ 2013 novel. The movie had already set the barre (haha) pretty low for me, so I really only expected a trashy airport read. But the author is former CIA, and the novel bristles with tradecraft and insights into modern Russia.

Dominka is born into privilege – her parents a revered former musician and a revered academic – and she’s a child prodigy with the curious gift of synaesthesia.

She studies at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy, until a rival ends her promising future. When her father dies, her uncle reels her into his dirty work before offering her a clerical role, which she rejects, demanding entry to the Foreign Intelligence Academy (AVR) – the first woman to be admitted.

Book Dominika is fiercely idealistic and patriotic, wanting to serve her country in an elite job. She finds herself belittled as a female operative and abused and betrayed, before she turns double agent, whereas movie Dominika is more out for herself.

She spars with Nate over politics, but ultimately their romance felt pretty tepid on the page too. Uncle Varya doesn’t look like Matthias Schoenaerts, and there are no incest overtones.

It’s still quite icky, and they torture the shit out of people – the filmmakers didn’t go out on a limb in that regard! But it’s an ambitious thriller that might have been improved with a series.

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FILM REVIEW Solo: A Star Wars Story might have been suited to TV streaming series

I was sceptical when Alden Ehrenreich – who doesn’t look or sound anything like Harrison Ford – was cast as young Han. Where Ford is tall, rangy, and rugged, Alden could be a member of a galactic boy band (except he’s solo).

After a troubled production and reports of an acting coach, it seemed as if the odds of Alden successfully navigating young Han were approximately 3,720 to 1.

But the wise-cracking smuggler never did set much store by the odds, ‘cos if you have enough swagger, you can pull anything off. So I can vaguely imagine Alden maturing into Original Trilogy Han. (Way better than I could reconcile Hayden Christensen with the man in the mask – even after I watched it lowered onto his charred face.)

For starters, Solo is a straightforward, pulpy adventure that introduces young Han on his scuzzy home planet of Corellia, long before he met a Princess and fathered a Supreme Idiot. He’s serving a slimy crime boss, a bit like Rey did on Jakku, except Han and his girl Qi’Ra clearly have time for appointments at the hair salon.

When an escape bid sees Qi’Ra captured, Han signs up for a stint with the Empire, before meeting pro thief Tobias Beckett (guys, that’s the least imaginative SW name ever) and his gang. They chuck Han to ‘The Beast’ – no not a Rancor…it’s Chewbacca!

Beckett is stealing hyperfuel for a crime syndicate, but at the first sight of pirates, Han drops his shipment, angering boss Dryden Vos. He wants his fuel or else, so it’s all aboard the Falcon for that infamous Kessel Run. Dryden orders Qi’Ra, now his top lieutenant, to supervise them.

Now Han could be such a dark character: he grew up in Corellia’s murky underworld as a child slave, he fought for the Empire on a planet resembling a WWI hellscape, he lost his childhood sweetheart. But all he wants is to be a cool pilot and make a quick buck.

But Qi’Ra knows that under the cocky attitude, he’s one of the good guys. (Was it just me or did a certain bad guy look happy to get ‘closer’ to Emilia Clarke’s Bond girl femme fatale? Isn’t he a cyborg/robotic below the waist?)

Given the box office, sequels are unlikely, and there’s going to be a lot of analysis about what went ‘wrong’. I’m no expert, but Rogue One benefited from novelty and from charged audiences wanting something to sustain them until Episode VIII.

Solo feels very “Adventures of Young Han” – perhaps suited to Disney’s new streaming channel. It lacks the ‘event’ feel and the awe that Star Wars, including Rogue One, has always inspired.

And no, I didn’t get the significance of the dice either. 🎲🎲

Tomb Raider’s Terrible Reboot. (OK it was more ‘meh’ than terrible.)

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London has never looked like a better location for a twee romantic comedy than it does at the start of the rebooted Tomb Raider, a capable origin story and actioner with no sense of humour or wonder.

Kickboxing at a local gym and bantering with her bicycle courier co-workers, Lara Croft is slumming it harder than most; all she has to do is sign some documents declaring her missing father (Dominic West) dead, and she inherits a fortune.

Although he’s been gone for seven years, Lara (Alicia Vikander) adamantly refuses to accept that Richard Croft – superrich business man, adventurer and aristocrat – is no more. Flashbacks show the Crofts in sappier times, where West keeps calling Lara by the nickname “Sprout”, and declaring “Daddy loves you”.

Swede Alicia Vikander is a good actress, whatever those three crazy Michael Fassbender stans say. She makes a tomboyish Lara, whose defining characteristic is bullheaded stubbornness. Having beaten the likes of Daisy Ridley for the role, she’s convincingly English enough to be to the (Croft) manor born.

While participating in an illegal and reckless bike chase through our capital’s streets, Lara crashes into a police patrol car. Ana Miller (Kristin Scott Thomas), an associate at Croft’s company, pops up to post bail and warn Lara that if she doesn’t claim her inheritance, her father’s estate will be sold off.

I must check and see if Scott Thomas did any interviews to promote this artistic endeavour, because I just live for her rants about life as an ageing actress. The still beautiful KST grits her teeth at the sight of Vikander’s dewy prettiness, and wishes the fool had been crunched under those car wheels.

Oblivious to the KST death rays, Lara stumps into swanky Croft HQ to meet lawyer Derek Jacobi. She finds her father’s secret office, and his message detailing his research into Himiko, the mythical Japanese queen known as “the mother of death” or something. Richard warns Lara to destroy his work, in case it ends up in the wrong hands.

Hot on the trail of her father’s final destination, Lara heads east but gets captured by mercenaries funded by a shadowy organisation called Trinity, who definitely qualify as the wrong hands. They’d been failing at locating Himiko’s resting place when Lara turned up with Croft’s map, which pinpoints the exact spot the tomb is hidden.

Earlier in the movie we saw a waifish Ruby Rose lookalike easily put Lara in a headlock, but her survival instinct really kicks in, as she overpowers the hired toughs in hand-to-hand combat, before discovering Richard Croft living as a Tom Hanks castaway. He mutters, “Ignore it, it’s not real, it’ll go away, it always does,” when Lara appears, which is what my dad always says when he sees me.

Seconds later Lara’s dear old pa is back to normal. So did Sprout go to Oxford, or Cambridge? Look, Lord Sprout, this girl keeps landing on her thick skull, and the only reason there’s no damage is because she’s so dense.

Sigh. Croft performs amateur surgery on an injured Lara/Sprout and finally – it’s time to raid some tombs! Or rather, stop other people from raiding them in the case of the Trinity morons versus Himiko.

In what could be the start of an exciting-sounding premise (shame it comes at the end), Lara discovers that Trinity is actually a subsidiary of Croft Holdings, and a front for a secret organisation hunting for mysterious artifacts to control humanity. If Scott Thomas is in on it, believe me, they’ll be looking for the elixir of eternal youth 24/7. I know how she ticks.

FILM REVIEW: Black Panther

The Hollywood Reporter recently pointed out the obvious; even Jennifer Lawrence can’t open a movie. Studios don’t look to big star names any longer, but to brands like Marvel.

Now I’ve always thought superhero or comic book movie blockbusters were empty calories. This is unpopular I know, but Marvel makes me feel like I overindulged on Haribo candy (and the DCEU can feel like toothache).

Luckily, Black Panther isn’t another glib Marvel product, but a self-contained story about family, duty and honour. Set in the fictional African country of Wakanda, the War of the Panthers is a kid-friendly Game of Thrones, where cousins and different tribes fight for power, and the future of the kingdom hinges on revelations about an individual character’s parentage.

The language, artwork, costumes and makeup of this mythical land echo real-world African traditions, while the fantasy element Vibranium  is the source of Wakanda’s secret high-tech infrastructure.

The new king T’Challa is no flashy show-off à la Tony Stark, even if his royal duties include dressing up like a panther. He’s a noble character haunted by the death of his father and torn between protecting his people and overcoming his nation’s isolationism.

It’s a credit to Chadwick Boseman that his graceful performance doesn’t get blasted off the screen by Michael B. Jordan’s swaggering, vicious Killmonger, who wants to swipe the throne and the panther suit, and lead the country in a more hawkish direction.

Killmonger might even have clawed his way into the Top Ten Movie Villains of All Time. Because the superhero is king, the superhero is the brand, but the performances are key. If Hollywood is committed to saving the endangered species of the mega-movie star, it won’t find a worthier candidate.

It’s a strong cast: Angela Bassett is regal as the Queen Mother, Lupita Nyong’o is headstrong as T’Challa’s on-off love interest, while Winston Duke’s renegade tribal leader looks like Khal Drogo but is actually a cuddly vegetarian – and I know I’m not alone in spotting the GoT parallels, as Daniel Kaluuya made the link a year ago.

I zoned out during the casino scene and the car chase; seeing how they are two of my least favourite things in movies. Yet beneath the special effects, there’s a gentle, sincere exploration of Wakandan politics and culture which makes Black Panther a fresh addition to the comic book genre.

New to streaming & DVD: Wind River lingers like a chill…

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I wish I hadn’t watched Wind River on a Saturday morning. It’s an evening movie; when it’s over, you can lock your doors and hopefully not have nightmares.

That’s the unsettling effect Taylor Sheridan’s latest had on me, as I worked through some of the most buzzed-about movies of 2017.

Sheridan’s screenwriting has already given us the Oscar-nominated Hell or High Water, and the Denis Villeneuve-directed Sicario, which starred Emily Blunt as an idealistic FBI agent helplessly mixed up with shady alphas Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro in the war on drugs.

In Wind River – Sheridan’s first time as writer and director – Elizabeth Olsen’s Jane Banner is another FBI agent out of her depth, this time not in Sheridan’s native Texas but in the wintry wild west of Wyoming.

Jurisdictional matters have dragged Banner in to investigate the death of a teenage Native American girl, who was found frozen and barefoot in the snowy tundra by Jeremy Renner’s quiet wildlife officer, Cory Lambert, for whom the case has disturbing echoes of his own grief.

Technically, Olsen is in charge of the investigation, but with his deep connections to the land and to the dead girl’s marginalized community, the story belongs to Renner’s softly-spoken cowboy as he supports the outsider FBI and the tribal police.

Olsen is not completely robbed of agency like Sicario’s Kate Macer, yet she has no backstory, and we never learn what makes her so driven.

She looks like she should be reading the news in a warm studio somewhere, as she is woefully underprepared for the conditions and isolation (‘Shouldn’t we just maybe wait for some backup?’ she bats her lashes. ‘This isn’t the land of backup, Jane … this is the land of “you’re on your own.”‘)

Where Macer was caught at the border by political forces beyond her control, Banner plants face-first into a community blighted by poverty, addiction and hopelessness. I wasn’t sure if she was merely incompetent and inexperienced, or if she was truly meant as a symbol for governmental disinterest and mishandling.

The violence, when it comes, is more personal and depressingly universal, but no less brutal and shocking.

Despite shaky camera triggering my vertigo, I thought Wind River was another well-made action thriller, just not as ambitious or exciting as Sicario, with its tension and moral conflict between the leads.

Sheridan stands out for his dialogue, and he delivers on a similar level to previous directors of his scripts, especially in the realistic-yet-stylish bursts of violence, and the creepy sense of dread that outlasts the film.

On the Millennial mainline: Murder on the Orient Express

“Not another remake!” is a familiar online cry, normally accompanied by declarations that Hollywood has run out of ideas.

The word ‘remake’ provokes a knee-jerk hostility, and having just dodged the new BBC Little Women over Christmas, I was worried I’d caught the same faux fatigue. I’ve seen a stage play of Louisa May Alcott’s classic, and the still-fresh ’94 Winona Ryder film with a young, scene-stealing Kirsten Dunst is in my DVD collection.

I realized my aversion wasn’t because Winona Will Forever Be My Jo March! – it was because it looked genuinely bad. The accents sounded atrocious, and the actresses seemed more like sorority sisters in 2018 than impoverished, Civil War-era siblings. (Dunst at least was the right age to play Amy.)

Agatha Christie’s ’34 novel Murder on the Orient Express, featuring detective Hercule Poirot, has also been regularly re-crafted for screen. There was a lot of online negativity around director-star Kenneth Branagh’s new blockbuster Orient; a perfectly good, Oscar-nominated 1974 Sidney Lumet adaptation already exists, so there was no need…

Au contraire, mon ami! OK, no need maybe, but judging by the box office, people were pulled in by the promise of this gorgeous new production – which loses a lot of the mystery and suspense of the Lumet version, while upping the action.

David Suchet’s performance in the BBC Poirot is considered closest to Christie’s peculiar, egghead creation. Where Suchet was an odd duck, Branagh’s detective is eccentric by way of a comedy Belgian accent, and an OTT moustache. He certainly knows his own worth, calling himself the “greatest detective in the world”.

We meet him in Jerusalem as he closes a preposterous jewel theft case (easily the dullest bit), and then finally he’s on the Orient thundering west across Europe when an avalanche derails the train. While trapped high in the stunning Alps, a passenger named Ratchett is murdered, making everyone in First Class a suspect.

This brings us to another problem people have with the movie – Ratchett is played by none other than alleged train wreck Johnny Depp.

Depp-boycotters should know that despite starring prominently in the marketing bumf, he plays a) the most hateful character (“I do not like your face,” says Poirot) and b) is swiftly bumped off, with a troupe of Hollywood actors all in the frame for his brutal stabbing. Imagine if they’d cast Harvey Weinstein as a baggage handler.

Was it Judi Dench’s Russian princess? Or could it have been Michelle Pfeiffer’s vampy husband-hunter, or Penélope Cruz’s missionary (reminding me of her early role as a nun in Almodóvar’s All About My Mother)?

There’s an achingly relevant younger cast, including Beauty and the Beast’s Josh Gad, Daisy Ridley (a less grating Keira Knightley), and rising actress Lucy Boynton (Sing Street) as a enigmatic aristocrat. Plus Leslie Odom Jr. (Tony winner for Hamilton) is Dr Arbuthnot – played in ’74 by that old dinosaur Sean Connery.

Although the critics have insisted that it all “offers nothing new,” the contemporary cast open the story up with different races, nationalities and ages – even if everyone only gets a thin slice of screen time. (Michelle Pfeiffer alone is worth seeing.)

Cinema continues to modernize and amaze us, and Orient is an immersive experience, capturing the allure of the golden age of travel. And of course there’s that much-raved about epic five minute 65mm Steadicam closing shot.

Perhaps I liked this film for superficial reasons, but it was surprisingly poignant, presenting a moral conundrum for Poirot – the man who sees everything as right or wrong with no in-between.

Leaving me only to add that I didn’t cry at the end when the Patrick Doyle score was playing. I got some orange juice in my eye, and anyone who says otherwise is 100% lying.

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Like my review? Please consider liking it and following my book, film and lifestyle blog as we go forward into 2018! Happy New Year everyone! 

SPOOKY FILM REVIEW: Personal Shopper starring Kristen Stewart

It’s 2007, before audiences would learn that Kristen Stewart was to be their Bella Swan, and there’s enormous acclaim for her tiny little role in Sean Penn’s Into the Wild. Anyone would think that the former child actress was being prepped for major stardom.

Of course, Stewart won the Twilight gig, becoming an object of obsession for girls everywhere, one half of Robsten, and a fixture on Hollywood’s Most Hated lists. Now, in 2017, she’s finally the ‘Best of her Generation’ — as Olivier Assayas described her after directing her to a César for her role as a PA to a neurotic actress in Clouds of Sils Maria. 

Stewart made history as the first American to win the French version of an Oscar, and Assayas would write Personal Shopper with her in mind to star as Maureen, a young expat in Paris. Again, she’s a flunky to a celebrity, with her supermodel employer dispatching her to upscale boutiques to try on clothes and pick up red carpet outfits.

Maureen is far more than an underling; she’s a psychic medium, a grieving twin sister, and an artist. She hates her job, but she’s in limbo in the French capital mourning her brother, who died from a heart defect she shares. She sits alone at night in his Parisian mansion, waiting for a sign from the other side.

The building creaks and the pipes rattle, and a rageaholic spirit scratches out her artwork. When Maureen is harassed by text message, we’re supposed to be unsure whether or not she is at the mercy of something more sinister than a fashionista; have ghosts made the jump-scare to the digital era, or has she got a stalker?

If this sounds like a weird blend of high fashion, ectoplasm, and suspense…you’d be right – but it really is an engrossing addition to the whodunnit/horror/coming-of-age genre that probably wouldn’t have worked with a typical lead actress.

But Stewart seems so plausible when she talks (or does that notorious Stewart mumble, mumble, shuffle) about the difficulty of finding portals to the spirit world, it seems perfectly reasonable. From that truthful base, she is fascinating; you just want to keep watching her.

Personal Shopper is a beautiful and detailed treat, from the Vionnet and Chanel dresses, down to Maureen’s beanies, polo shirts and sloppy sweaters. It looks like a fashion shoot, all carried off by Stewart’s insouciance.

She even makes the name ‘Maureen’ sound cool.

For those that ‘celebrate’ it, have a Happy Halloween, and do check out my Guide to Scary Movies.

FILM REVIEW: Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

valerian-v-poster-full-highres-01The search for a male star who can replace Harrison Ford continues. As the eponymous Valerian, Dane DeHaan is supposed to be a happy-go-lucky, square-jawed hero and roguish galactic agent.

Instead he looks like he should be playing a space cadet in some sort of academy somewhere with fellow cast member Clive Owen as the bullying principal.

Unfamiliar with the comics, I briefly and mistakenly thought Valerian and his partner Laureline (Cara Delevingne) were siblings, like a Luke and Leia crime-fighting duo.

In fact, the French-Belgian Valerian et Laureline comics were a suspected early influence on George Lucas.

But Valerian drools over Cara (more than Luke did Leia) and it quickly gets annoying to watch the little twerp sexually harassing model Delevingne. “He’s got no chance!” I thought.

The romance is pure Attack of the Clones level space crash, complete with stilted dialogue.

There are hints of Avatar’s Na’vi in the humanoids from the destroyed planet of Mül, who stow away in the bowels of a giant free-floating metropolis called Alpha (the City of a Thousand Planets). There, different alien species all pool their knowledge in brilliant harmony. Or not.

There’s a plot involving the annihilated planet, Alpha’s Commander Clive Owen, plus a kidnapping and a little MacGuffin creature everybody is trying to get their hands on.

Agents Valerian and Laureline both get captured and have to save each other. Laureline puts a giant mind-reading jellyfish on her head to find Valerian, who later has to swoop in with a shapeshifting Rihanna to stop Laureline from getting her brains eaten by a race of master chefs on Alpha. (So much for harmony!)

The largely teenage audience were probably there for RiRi, but it’s just a cameo really. There’s a rushed immigration subtext involving her character, and the film has a message of love conquering all.

Director Luc Besson has an established reputation for style over substance. Valerian – his passion project – is a zany, hot mess, with the characters slaloming and sloshing around his crazy pinball machine universe. I tried to enjoy it – I loved the score and the soundtrack – I just would have liked better dialogue too.

Verdict: Valerian is like spending two and a quarter hours(!) on the now-defunct Bubbleworks ride at Chessington. Isn’t it amazing the childhood nightmares that can be dredged up years later?

The Light Between Oceans is Instagram-worthy, if not awards-worthy

The Light Between Oceans, or as I keep calling it – The Light Between Oscars – was once quite buzzy, tipped to give Alicia Vikander another shot at Best Actress after she lifted the trophy for The Danish Girl in 2016.

Based on a very popular work of historical fiction by M.L Stedman, an Australian serviceman, Tom Sherbourne (Fassy), returns from WWI. He marries Isabel (Vikander), and they go and live in his remote lighthouse.

After Isabel suffers two harrowing miscarriages, a lifeboat with a dead man and a squalling baby washes ashore.

A hesitant Fassy lets his wife keep the baby and raise her as their own. Things then take a Hardyesque twist when Fassy stumbles across Hannah (Rachel Weisz) weeping beautifully beside a memorial at the same church where the Sherbournes are holding their child’s christening.

the-light-between-oceans

Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures/Entertainment One

This is, I think, the first big studio film by Derek Cianfrance, director of the indie hit Blue Valentine (skipped it – Ryan Gosling does my head in).

Light is a melodramatic, sweeping romance but Vikander is so intense, and the premise so far-fetched, that early on I wondered if it would veer off into psychological horror, with the lighthouse and the baby manifestations of the character’s break with reality.

After that early, creepy suspense, it gets really overwrought, with an ending that felt badly rushed.

Rachel Weisz is surprisingly a gentle undercurrent to the lighthouse couple; Fassy gives a very reserved, stoic performance as the traumatized veteran, while the new Lara Croft Vikander is a storm to be reckoned with once again.

As husband and wife, they have an interesting chemistry and are quite contrasting onscreen. Vikander is still such an ingénue it looks like Fassbender might have plucked a child bride from the sea. He’s a rarefied thespian; she’s raw and tumultuous.

By all means, I think people should see The Light Between Oceans, just for all the talent on board. It is probably the most beautiful film of last year, with the stunning coast and stark lighthouse interiors. You could Instagram the living daylights out of it.

FILM REVIEW: Alien: Covenant

There are probably certain things you just know about yourself – like whether or not you’d be cut out for daring interplanetary exploration. Personally, I can confidently say I wouldn’t be much good.

However, in this sci-fi franchise, I’d be well-qualified. From the hardscrabble marines of Aliens to the inept scientists of Prometheus, Xenomorph Expedition’s workforce aren’t exactly first draft.

This brings us to the Covenant, a beautiful hunk of a ship housing a crew of married couples, jolted out of hypersleep by a neutrino burst. (Yes I’m totally going to pretend I know what that is.) Playing nursemaid is Walter (Michael Fassbender), the nice android brother/updated model to Prometheus’ smarmy malcontent David.

Now, I loved Prometheus. I loved David (the crew were so stupid and hostile he had to murder them) and sole David survivor Shaw (Noomi Rapace); I loved the blueness, and the weirdness of it. I was probably alone in the universe in just wanting Prometheus 2: More Dodgy Philosophizing.

But we’ve got Covenant, and its newly-awakened crew, who are lured from their target planet by an eerie transmission of Shaw singing John Denver’s ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’. Upon hearing her, I realized I didn’t care about these new Covenant losers, and I never would.

The only person against deviating from their planned course is the Ripley-esque Daniels (Katherine Waterston). Widowed when Captain James Franco got Anakin Skywalker’d in his malfunctioning sleep pod, she’s now second-in-command to Billy Crudup’s wimpy Captain Arm (OK it’s Oram, but it sounded like they were saying ‘arm’).

Daniels and Arm lead some of the other marrieds and a security team to explore this strange new world, and despite knowing nothing about it, they’re soon moaning and stopping for cigarette breaks like it’s a routine rekkie.

Luckily David (minus Shaw – sob!) is back, so ha-ha for our marrieds! Bye, suckers! David’s been busy experimenting with the Engineer’s black goo, which infects the Covenant idiots, who are so rubbish with firearms they shoot up their own landing craft.

We know where this sequel-prequel is headed: a CGI face-off with an Xenomorph in the halls of the Covenant. It’s Aliens, minus the snappy dialogue and (my earlier disrespect notwithstanding) the snappy supporting cast.

People who didn’t like Prometheus (there were a fair few) have got their way: Alien Covenant is a return to typical, hardcore blockbuster terrain. Please send it back to a permanent cryo-sleep. zzzz

👾👾

FILM REVIEW: Ghost in the Shell

The live-action Ghost in the Shell is a box office dud then, and there are people who are really happy about that. Not necessarily because they are die-hard fans of the original Japanese manga and anime, but because of so-called “whitewashing”.

To some, this movie was actually an “opportunity” to cast a hitherto largely unknown Japanese or Asian-American actress, instead of a big Hollywood star. But Paramount hired Scarlett Johansson, the Tony Award-winning actress who looks good in a catsuit.

Her character is Mira, or Major. Created by the shadowy Hanka Robotics, her brain is housed in a fully cybernetic body. People have all kinds of cutting-edge enhancements, like X-ray vision, but Mira is the first of her kind and the future of humanity.

As an agent of an elite government task force called Section 9, she is dispatched across a grimy, futuristic city to fight criminals like the mysterious hacker Kuze. (Forget whitewashing ‘cos the robot workforce is coming to take everyone’s jobs.)

Very mature themes and concepts were posed by the cult 1995 anime movie, but this 12A (or PG-13) remake really struggles doesn’t much bother with questions like: “What is it to be human in a technologically advanced society?”

Ghost is essentially a dark, stylish actioner that doesn’t get too philosophical. As with director Rupert Sanders’ debut movie Snow White and the Huntsman, it’s remarkable for its dazzling visuals and sounds.

The performances match the spectacle, with Pilou Asbæk as Major’s second in command, Takeshi ‘Beat’ Kitano as their boss, Juliette Binoche as the scientist Dr Oulet, and Michael Pitt as the villain. Johansson, for her part, has onscreen appeal and proven action prowess. She might not be able to open a $100 million movie, but she can carry one.

This isn’t a kitschy fun film, like her 2014 sci-fi hit Lucy. It isn’t as famous a property as other recent blockbuster releases, like ‘Kong’ or ‘Beauty and the Beast’, and it just didn’t capture the public imagination. Ultimately, Ghost seemed doomed to fail.

Still, it isn’t the travesty that the 46% Rotten Tomatoes rating suggests. (The casting negativity may have had a discouraging effect on critics.) Yes, the story needed more work, but the soundtrack, the cool visuals, and the acting make it a solid three out of five stars.

FILM REVIEW: Beauty and the Beast

I was never a Disney kid. I managed to avoid nearly all the studio’s nineties hits, including the ‘classic’ Beauty and the Beast. The only Disney animation I ever saw on a reasonably big screen was The Lion King, and that was just because I was trapped on a ferry to France at the time.

So I wasn’t going to take umbrage with the live-action remake offensive that Disney seems to be on these days.

Still, I was aware there was a lot of fuss surrounding this particular release. For starters, Belle –  Ms. Emma Watson – is said to have passed on La La Land for the role, which is pretty understandable; nobody could have known that the Damian Chazelle-directed feature was going to become such an overrated hype job.

And luckily, Watson has come up smelling of roses. She’s made serious bank as Belle and will now have first pick of future roles. She’s young enough and pretty enough – she’ll get her Oscar. Cynicism intended.

Problem no. 2: Watson has also been front and centre in the media selling Beauty as a modern, empowering, feminist take on the fairy tale. For what it’s worth, I thought her Belle was brave and courageous. A simple village girl, she knows her own mind and has no trouble rejecting Luke Evans’s ghastly Gaston.

So despite all the concerns that the movie was going to be a retread of a ‘problematic’ tale, once the friendship between Belle and Beastie is established, he’s revealed as her intellectual equal, and he doesn’t turn on her like a snarling dog later on.

To my utter surprise, Emma Watson is not nails-down-a-chalkboard. (Maybe she wouldn’t have been bad in La La Land; she can’t particularly sing, but then neither can Emma Stone.)

The rest of the cast are all on good form, including Ewan McGregor as a candlestick holder, Ian McKellen as a clock, Emma Thompson as a teapot, Dan Stevens as the Beast, Kevin Kline as Belle’s pa, and Josh Gad as Gaston’s sidekick Le Fou (what gay storyline?).

If I’m going to nitpick, I’d say it’s too long and I wasn’t 100% on the Beast’s CGI, but my audience applauded and I’ve been happily humming the songs since I left the cinema.

FILM REVIEW: Incredible Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy in a 90 minute horror

Who in their right mind would want to live in the White House?

In Pablo Larraín’s heady and unsettling look at the days following the assassination of JFK, life at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue for widow Jackie is more claustrophobic horror than corridors of power.

(It’s no coincidence that it’s reminiscent of the Overlook Hotel in The Shining – Larraín is a huge Kubrick fan, with some of the shots a deliberate homage to the filmmaker.)

A three-hander starring Natalie Portman, a score by Mica Levy (Under the Skin) and a gore-spattered pink Chanel suit, Larraín has rejected a cradle-to-the-grave biopic formula in favour of the experimental snapshot.

There’s a basic framework in the form of an interview Jackie gave to a journalist (Billy Crudup) a week after the assassination. The film jumps back and forth between roughly three timelines – the interview, Jackie’s infamous 1962 televised tour of the White House, and her husband’s funeral.

Leading up to the movie’s release, critics were hailing Portman’s performance as Oscar-worthy, yet clips from the movie revealing her distracting baby voice sounded absurd, no matter how ‘accurate’ it was supposed to be.

And for the first few scenes I suffered vicarious embarrassment. Even Larraín admitted he initially thought Portman’s accent was “too much.”  If this had been a more conventional picture, (imagine a ten-part Netflix series entitled Camelot) it might have been disastrous.

When Claire Foy was asked about getting the young Queen Elizabeth’s cut-glass 1950s accent right for The Crown, she said it would sound so alien today, they went with a “modulated” version instead.

Perhaps Portman could have tried a similar approach, but a strange thing happens; the diabolical lead performance becomes another string in Levi’s discordant score. The actress is terrific in this crazy, mannered straitjacket, every gesture and inflection both significant and strange, her only false note the row with brother-in-law Bobby.

Portman and Jackie aren’t a perfect physical match, but even that works – the tiny, frail figure of Portman swallowed up by shock and grief. She looks like a little girl clopping about in Kennedy’s heels and bouffant hair, like she raided the dressing-up box.

She’s not entirely fragile – she’s vicious as she wrong foots Crudup’s unnamed journalist. “Don’t think fer a secahnd I’m going to leht you pwint thaht,” she lisps.

This is Jackie crafting her husband’s legacy. It’s the gulf between her public persona (style icon, embodiment of the American Blue Blood) and her private persona. She mentions her miscarriages over and over; the conversations with the priest (John Hurt) stuck with me, as did the scene of the (now former) First Lady removing her blood-stained hosiery and scrubbing the brain matter from her nails.

Verdict: I have a newfound appreciation for the brittle talents of Natalie Portman. Jackie is like shattered glass. Best of all, it’s only 90 minutes. Go see!

Lx

FILM REVIEW: Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children

Ransom Rigg’s YA fantasy Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children sold millions and has been translated into 40 languages. Now Tim Burton’s adaptation has found a perch at the top of the US and international box offices.

On the advice of his shrink, the story’s hero Jake has left his Florida home for rainy Wales, hoping to unravel his Grandpa’s tales of growing up in an orphanage for “Peculiars” with extraordinary abilities – ranging from super strength and invisibility, to a girl with teeth at the back of her skull, and a lad who likes to belch up a swarm of bees.

Count me out of school dinners at this place.

peculiar

20th Century Fox. (Halloween costumes sorted!)

Jake finds a gateway to the 1940s orphanage, which exists on a one-day time-loop. He bonds with Emma Bloom (rising star Ella Purnell), a Burtonesque blonde ingénue who’d float away without her platform shoes. Poor Jake – she’s blooming beautiful, but she’s also an octogenarian who used to fancy his granddad.

Headmistress Miss Peregrine (Eva Green) is a “Ymbryne”, who can a) manipulate time and b) transform into a falcon – a mother bird hiding her young from Samuel L. Jackson’s mad scientist and the monstrous, eyeball-chomping Hollowgasts.

The most haunting moment comes when she gathers her pupils to reset the day, and she plays the popular WWII era song Run Rabbit Run on the gramophone. We know Grandpa witnessed the horrors of the Holocaust (Hollowgast?), but the movie does not engage further with the historical context.

The movie has some scary imagery, but it wasn’t the dark fantasy elements that I found most unnerving. As if being cursed with a set of teeth at the back of your skull and dodging evil creatures that want to eat you isn’t bad enough, imagine being trapped for an eternity at school.

It’s driven at least one Peculiar mad; seer Horace (Hayden Keeler-Stone) – among stiff competition – is the creepiest inhabitant of this child prison world, with his old-fashioned manners and weird fixation with tailoring.

There’s something skin-creeping about the movie, like a Victorian era freak show. It’s like one of those nursery rhymes with a sinister meaning – and as someone who spent their childhood secretly hoping they’d fall through a wardrobe into Narnia, it’s a fictional fantasy world I would not want to visit.

FILM REVIEW The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

The long journey from 310-page children’s book to incredible three-part movie extravaganza is complete. Originally conceived as two movies, The Hobbit trilogy could never be the epic that was The Lord of the Rings, with filmmakers mining material from Tolkien’s appendices.

Criticized for the excessive padding and thin plot, there is still joy simply in watching Bilbo’s story unfold onscreen, giving audiences the chance, one last time, to immerse themselves in Middle Earth.

The Battle of the Five Armies opens with the terrifying Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) unleashing vengeance upon the residents of Laketown, and again I’m astounded by the fortitude of kids in the audience – Smaug would have given me nightmares for years.

Smaug’s attack prompts some nifty heroics from Bard (Luke Evans) and his annoying offspring; Thorin is going mad in his mountain hall; Bilbo continues to be the brave little chap who won the respect and friendship of the dwarf king and his company.

Evangeline Lilly is Peter Jackson’s own addition to the elf race, Tauriel, and even manages to sell the tricky inter-species romance with dwarf Kili (Aidan Turner). And by tricky I mean I don’t know what Jackson and co were thinking when they came up with that abomination.

And finally! We get to see the magnificent elven King Thranduil (Lee Pace) in action. Of all the characters, he’s the one who catches my imagination the most.

One character with way too much screen time is Ryan Gage’s Alfrid. Pathetically endearing in the second movie, he’s now a thoroughly nasty piece of work jarringly deployed as comic relief. Luckily Billy Connolly’s voice work gets a few laughs as Dain, Thorin’s less-reasonable CGI cousin.

Again, that CGI! The prequel trilogy lacks the gravitas and grandeur of its sibling, but boy does it share its overindulgence in CGI.

Verdict: Looking for the positives here, but the actors are talented and the characters’ resolutions are poignant. If you just enjoy it for what it is – a silly fantasy movie, it’s OK, but fans of LOTR will be analyzing what went wrong for years.