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whirrsinwonderland

Thoughts from my brain – often about films

Month

January 2017

Silence for La La Rogue Monster… my first round up blog.

Due to there being a LOT of cinema trips recently, because of all the films for Oscar time, I am trying my first ROUND-UP blog of 4 films. Let me know if you like it or if it’s just too lazy!

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Rogue One

Saw it twice, finally the Star Wars prequel we all deserved. There are reams of reviews, discussion and debate out there by much cleverer people than me, so in one brief, possible SPOILERS, not very grammatically correct, sentence:

YES, brilliant characters, proper real stakes, lovely nods for the fans, Jyn was a GREAT lead, really not convinced by the uncanny valley CGI of Tarkin – Krennic was awesome baddie on his own, styling everyone 70’s yes yes yes, “I am one with the force, and the force is with me”, I love this sarcastic droid, original footage of red and gold leaders from the archive hooray, oh my GODS everybody dies that is awesomely brave WELL DONE, OH MY GOD DARTH VADER IS SO EPICALLY AWESOME WOOOOOOOWWEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.

And one last thought, I didn’t mind the CGI Leia as it worked for that brief line, and it will be so much more poignant now we have lost the mighty wonder of Carrie Fisher, but please be careful with Leia’s legacy, Disney. She deserves the very best.

A Monster Calls

I wouldn’t have given this a full blog anyway, due to it being a bit too close to home. Just as an alert – if you know the subject, then you’re probably already aware it’s a film to bring tissues and a good friend to, but if you have nursed someone with cancer, be warned this film is strikingly accurate in that regard and can be a trigger for some things you may have forgotten. Anyway, I had reservations about it, having loved the book and worrying from the trailer it was going to be a bit too FEEL THESE THINGS FEEL THEM – where the book was subtle and brutal and beautiful – but the film was wonderful.

Lewis MacDougall as Conor is a triumph, even more so when you realise three things:

  1. Lewis is actually Scottish he never slips his accent once even when shouting
  2. He has lost his own Mum to MS in recent years, just makes your heart break a tiny bit more
  3. He spends a LOT of screen time acting next to tennis balls on sticks or Liam Neeson covered in funny dots

A brave, devastating performance showing us the best in young acting talent, one to watch.

The animation and incorporation of the stunning art from the books was quietly and deftly done. All praise to Liam Neeson for donning the silly lycra and performing motion capture rather than just providing a voice – it was worth it.

The supporting cast are solid and excellent, giving a nice framework for the two leads to play in: Felicity Jones as Mum – suddenly everywhere and deservedly so – delivers lovely work, Toby Kebbell (who I’d only previously seen in Black Mirror) is understated but entirely real as the distant Dad. Sigourney Weaver threatens the believability (I know that’s odd to say in a film about a tree monster) with her wobbly British accent but walks the line and holds us with a gorgeous performance as a Grandmother who thinks she needs to be strong and strict when really she is falling apart from losing her child.

A Monster Calls was film as catharsis for me, I had a long, deep cry – partly for Conor and partly for myself and partly for the what happens next after your ‘truth’ is spoken aloud. Visually astounding at times, the first story where the animation kicks in flips the film from starkly real to pure fantasy and I challenge anyone to find a more fitting visual representation of grief than the image of tiny Conor and the huge chasm of his nightmare as the graveyard falls away, it also delivers unexpected laughter and strength.

I would recommend seeing this on a big screen, or if you are on a small screen, please turn off your phone and the lights and immerse yourself. It is a mostly beautiful and strangely uplifting experience.

Silence

If anyone else has seen this let me know. Having studied Scorsese’s films, I was eager for this film. It was clearly going to be a personal project for him, Scorsese was lined-up to be a Catholic priest and even joined a seminary before leaving, so a film exploring the very essence of faith and the danger and power of organised religion was always going to be interesting if nothing else. My husband loathed it, declaring it over-long, boring and narrow in its viewpoint. Which I have to say is perfectly valid. I adored it for its stunning cinematography, Scorsese hallmarks (overhead shots, slow-tracking shots, voiceover) and I was genuinely hooked by the religious struggle at the centre of the film. I was immersed in the sharp contrast of long, slow, wordy scenes debating the nature of faith with the brutal, visceral torture scenes – never gratuitous but always real – and all framed by a soundtrack of nature or nothing.

The Japanese cast were uniformly excellent, particularly Yosuke Kubozuka as confession obsessed Kichijiro and the mesmerising Issei Ogata as the inquisitor. Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver started well, their utter terror when landing in Japan, their shared bewilderment at the Japanese understanding of Catholicism and their clear bond was wonderful when they were together, but Garfield alone never quite convinced me. Despite every effort, I always saw his acting. Incidentally, for me he has never topped Never Let Me Go, but does seem to be in ALL THE THINGS at the moment so I watch with interest. Also a note that the Portuguese accents were pointless and really not required.

Silence was a proper dense film experience, and recommended for those with patience for Scorsese’s weighty films – when Garfield’s Jesuit priest is paraded into Nagasaki, I was instantly reminded of The Last Temptation of Christ – rather than his punchy, popular work, see Goodfellas, The Departed etc. If you like it you will get a story of an individual’s struggle with faith, stimulating questions about how religion translates, some beautiful cinematography and a feeling a claustrophobic wonder. If you dislike it you will get an overly long, fidgety film with no exploration of Japanese culture, Buddhism and Jesus appearing in the river and on the floor, hi Jesus!  I’m not sure I’d watch it again, but definitely worth it once I’d say AND husband and I talked about it for a good hour afterwards, which is always a good sign I think!

La La Land

Likely the most popular film on the list – you couldn’t mention La La Land without all those 5 STAR REVIEWS flashing through your head, and the Oscar nominations have fallen in line with the critics. And it IS a lovely film but I still don’t get the massive hype.

Good things: that sumptuous colour palette, the opening number, the closing ‘dream’ sequence, the bravery of starting as a big old school musical and then becoming a close-up, hyper-real relationship drama, the cleverness of casting only-OK singers and dancers so you never forgot they were real people, the use of real light over LA, the genius of the ending putting the reality on following your dreams but still managing to leave you smiling, Emma Stone’s costumes, Emma Stone.

Bad things: not enough big old school musical numbers, not casting true trained ‘triple-threat’ singer/dancers so we could relax and be whisked off away with memories of Fred and Ginger, Ryan Gosling.

So not really anything bad, Ryan Gosling was totally, totally fine and delivered a top class performance and my jolly word learnt all that jazz piano himself for the film #impressive –  I just don’t really GET him – please recommend me films that will change this – so that’s a totally personal one. By contrast I am deeply in love with Emma Stone and all she touches is gold as far as I am concerned, and like I wanted Natalie Portman to win the Oscar for Black Swan for one scene on the phone, I felt exactly the same with Emma Stone in this – her early audition when she is on the phone was sheer perfection and in one scene shows why she is so good.

I struggled between loving the fact that the two leads remained totally real during the musical numbers (and please don’t think I am suggesting they cannot sing or dance, because they clearly can and much better than me, but they don’t do these things as well as they ACT) and my yearning for the utter ease and joy of watching Fred and Ginger or Gene Kelly absolutely nail a complicated tap solo. In conclusion, I applauded La La Land for its real dancing, live singing and one take musical numbers, but just ONE more BIG number like the first one would have raised it way up for me.

However, I did come out humming the main song, I adored the total bravery of moments like in the planetarium, the wonderful film moments like her running from a date to the cinema, walking through the film lots, the absolute realness of the way a fight happens when they had the dinner scene, dreams coming true but not all of them. LOVELY.

I can’t think of anyone who would dislike La La Land though and maybe that is its genius – it’s enough of a musical for musical lovers and enough of a brilliant film for non-musical lovers and overall it makes you feel wonderful and open to possibilities. And you really can’t blame anyone for needing that right now, in a wicked world, some proper escapism is just the job.

Let’s have a little escape now shall we? 

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Moana: Is there something you want to hear?

I saw Frozen really late, when there were already lots of little girls in blue dresses and ‘Let it Go’ had become almost a parody of itself. I really loved it though, and having watched it again on Christmas Day I still think it’s a solid and good Disney that got over-analysed because all the parent’s wanted their daughters to like Anna best and all the children like Elsa best. I still think it’s cos she gets groovy ice powers and can produce sentient life and doesn’t have to marry the smelly moose guy but THAT’S NOT WHY WE ARE HERE.

We are here to talk about Moana. When I heard about it on my regular film podcast, I thought, this time I will not be late to the party, so I took myself STRAIGHT off to see it nice and early. There was me and two others in the cinema on a Monday 6pm showing just before Christmas, and it was AMAZING. Disney, you have not smashed it this hard for me since my Granny took me to see Aladdin in the early 90’s and then I got the cassette tape for Christmas and played it until it wore thin. I learnt the songs from Frozen so I could sing them to my 5 year old niece, the Moana songs I learnt for me, accidentally, because I can’t stop listening the soundtrack.

So why is Moana so good? Well the music is an integral part of it. The only film I ever walked out of was Lilo & Stitch because me and my friend were all WHERE ARE THE SONGS DISNEY? Lin-Manuel Miranda, the utter genius behind Hamilton*, wrote Moana before he wrote Hamilton. It has all the perfection of an Alan Menken Disney (catchy on the first listen and then with you for always) but with that innovative edge, the lyrical play, the time signature shifts, that is so unique to Miranda’s work with Hamilton. So we’ve got a gold standard soundtrack – tick.

Next source material, plenty has already been written on the refreshing and respectful use of another culture’s stories in Moana, and they nailed all the ancient South Polynesian cultural details by all accounts so props for that – but the key thing for me is that Moana’s character is invention. They could have made a film about Maui, the demi-god – perfectly voiced (and sung) by Dwayne Johnson- he can transform with his magical fishhook and is mischievous and hilarious – there could have been a whole movie about him getting his hook back – but they didn’t. They cleverly realised that Maui as part sidekick / part antagonist makes a much better tale. So a refreshing new tale with a brilliant protagonist to take us through – tick.

An aside on Moana as a character, stunningly performed by newcomer Auli’i Cravalho, I will only briefly nod to the over-excited publicity given to Moana being a different shape to other Disney princesses, I think that part is irrelevant, it’s the personality that is interesting. I didn’t care that Merida in Brave had mad hair, I cared because she was a feisty, fully formed person with an opinion. I am not bored by Cinderella because she has a tiny waist, but because she is two dimensional and dull, thank the gods for the mice. We meet Moana in a montage, here is a little girl who is demonstrably kind to animals, brave and cheerful and fearless, character established. The scene where Moana meets the Ocean (who is a sentient character) is not only visually stunning but utterly joyful, you fall in love with this girl immediately. We then watch her grow over a song (in time honoured montage fashion) into a young woman, who is curious and capable, loves food and is getting pretty good at dancing. Moana is to be Chief, no asides about sons or how unusual that a woman should be chief. She just IS going to be Chief, a line in a song and we’ve accepted it. The way here was paved by Brave and Frozen, Disney has got to the stage where women lead they don’t just marry leaders, or have to marry leaders to lead appropriately. They can do it on their own. It seems small but seriously, that is a BIG STEP. The other big revelation is that there is not a hint of love interest, this is a story about a young woman discovering her place in the world, just like Brave, just like Frozen but this time we don’t even have to think about Moana and marriage, or even her sexuality because it’s not mentioned or part of the story. And to that I say HOORAY! And even better, she spends a substantial part of the film alone with a male character and SPOILER they don’t fall for each other or have any ‘moments’ or anything. Again, this seems small, but think about it, it’s a BIG STEP! One of my absolute favourite bits was when a villager was lamenting the leaky roof he couldn’t fix and Moana shimmies down from the ceiling and briskly says she has fixed the problem. This was presented with no ceremony or fanfare, no ‘what a tomboy’ undertone, just a throwaway. YES!

So back to why it’s great – the message. Disney now makes message films, at the end of the day we want a journey, ideally for the main character, or even two, and a lesson learnt. What’s great here is that it’s the messages aren’t black and white message. Moana’s village is lovely, she loves it there and there is a proper acknowledgment that you can have a great time at home, as Moana sings “Everyone has a role on this island maybe I can roll with mine?” but she has a need inside her, a niggle and a longing to explore and she needs to respond to that inner battle. For Moana it is the sea, the call of the horizon. For anyone who has ever had a true longing to try something or achieve something, especially in the face of doubt or even of common sense, the song ‘How Far I’ll Go’ will resonate. That feeling of being incomplete. And I think for children and teenagers, it will have the effect that Aladdin’s song had on me as he pulls back his curtain to look at Agrabah and sings “they’ll find out there’s so much more to me”’, to make them want to go out and grab the world with both hands, without really being sure why. At least I hope so! All the messages in Moana are shades of grey, Moana’s father wants her to settle on the island, not because of tradition or stuffiness but because of lessons he learnt, the fear he has and he must face external forces at work as well as Moana’s desires to leave. Moana’s grandmother imparts wisdom (and some great dancing skills) to Moana, but she is not considered wise, more of a kook, by everyone else.

Light relief sidekicks are a long held stable of Disney. Moana has a chicken sidekick and a pig sidekick. I personally wanted more of her pig friend as well, but Heihei the chicken did very well at the slapstick. Moana and Maui go on wonderful adventures, and there are numerous delights, which I will let you enjoy for yourself, including meeting a baddie that rivals Ursula the Sea-witch for having the best Disney ‘big bad’ song and some hilariously scary coconuts. And it is of course beautifully animated, lovely use of Maui’s tattoos and with some genuine scares that justify the PG rating, brilliant stuff.

So you’ve got all the ingredients, there and with Disney’s pixie dust you are away, But for me personally, Moana was so good because when the story reaches the climax, the ‘what will the hero(ine) do now when all hope is lost’ moment, there was just her to sort it. Yes, she seemingly has support (The “I chose the right tattoo” moment made me cry) but depending on your beliefs, I think she finds her way and her strength on her own, she is alone at that moment and she chooses to continue. She finds her place in the world and she finds the strength to fit everything together and as her defiant refrain becomes “That come what may, I know the way” you are in awe. Elsa’s “Let It Go” is often held up as a moment of power, of an anthem of freedom, but not 15 mins later she’s all terrified again, because Elsa’s moment of power comes too early without her knowing all the facts. With Moana, she realises everything at just the right time, just when she needs to and she has the strength to give that wisdom to another at Te Fiti “This is not who you are. You know who you are” and then builds on that climactic triumph to lead and inspire her whole village. It’s beautiful stuff.

And I hope there’s an 11 year old out there who sees Moana and downloads the soundtrack (RIP cassette tapes) and listens to it on repeat, without quite knowing why it’s so wonderful, but feeling a burst of power and confidence inside them. And I am so happy in the knowledge that the little girls and boys who go to see it, who at the moment just laugh at the chicken and need to sit on their Mum or Dad’s knee for the lava monster bit, are actually getting a Disney with all the right stuff. That it’s vital to follow your dreams and just as important to understand how that following of your dreams can benefit those around you, that you have to be able to look after yourself, but you’ll find that strength by learning from others. That it is not destiny or beauty that carry you forward but your body and your mind and your courage. And stories matter, keep telling them and (to paraphrase The Doctor) make yours a good one.

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* If you haven’t jumped on the bandwagon yet and listened to the Hamilton soundtrack (or kneecapped for a ticket if you are in New York) I would highly recommend it. Start with My Shot and go from there. While I am gushing, if you are a musical fan check out Lin-Manuel’s surprise of his new bride at his wedding – JOY.

Where my Niffler at? Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them

Over the festive period I ended up re-watching most of the Harry Potter films, out of order but with a lot of love, and I got to thinking about Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them and how I’ve heard a LOT of people say they loved it “perhaps more than the original Potter films’.

For my part, I approached Fantastic Beasts with caution. I am changeable in my assessment of Eddie Redmayne, sometimes I think he’s just brilliant (The Theory of Everything) and other times I feel decidedly meh towards him (Les Misèrables, My Week with Marilyn) so I had reservations there, and, let’s be honest, wasn’t everyone a BIT worried about a three (now five) film franchise born out of a comic relief tie in book? Especially after the disgustingly cynical treatment of The Hobbit, I expected to see some good CGI beasts and a bit of the milking of the Potter cash cow.

How wrong I was! Fantastic Beasts is a great movie. Granted, my fears about Eddie Redmayne as Newt weren’t totally unfounded, he was too blinky by half and a pretty nothing character really, also I know the mating dance with the rhinobeastie was mostly there for a bit of tension relief and for the younger viewers, but it was a bit EDDIE’S COMMITING TO THE MOMENT / A-level Drama for me… or maybe it was just because I saw this picture and it’s more Eddie’s annoying public schoolboyness than Newt’s dancing…

Image result for eddie redmayne mating dance

Anyway – otherwise I was totally WRONG, hats off and apologies to JK Rowling, I should have known the writer who had the integrity to keep Haley I see dead people Joel Osment from playing Harry Potter and insisted on British and Irish actors be cast, wouldn’t let her franchise go to the dark side. She has got a really exciting new series on her hands here and I think the further films can only get better.

Aside from Redmayne as Newt – he was fine nothing exciting really, the rest of the cast were uniformly excellent. It took me a good two thirds of the film before I recognised Ezra Miller (I silently said ‘Isn’t that KEVIN?’) as creepy, abused Credence, he really is brilliant and perfectly cast. New to me (new to everyone?) Katherine Waterston was lovely, totally believable as fallen-from-favour witch Tina, we cared because she cared and I particularly enjoyed the contrast between her and her sister Queenie (Alison Sudol), their dress, manner and ambition were polar opposites, but we absolutely believe they are family. It’s so heartening to see more and more properly written roles for women. Talking of women, massive shout out to the always excellent Samantha Morton, I so wanted more of the Second Salemers – this society is an example of where you can feel Morton and JK’s work behind the scenes, with very little screen time we can imagine a whole history for this woman and for the society – perhaps we might see this history in future films – fingers crossed. I enjoyed Colin Farrell, managing to keep his 20’s wizard-in-spats on the right side of dark and last, but by no means least, wonderful work by Dan Fogler, as our guide through the American wizarding world, the hapless no-mag Kowalski. The gorgeous electrical attraction between Kowalski and Queenie was one of my favourite scenes.

And of course the beasts – I must give Redmayne recognition for making me totally believe in the Niffler and the Bowtruckle particularly – all beautifully imagined and realised and the CGI never feeling like a computer game (yes I am looking at you The Hobbit). I really LOVED the Niffler, capturing all the reasons we love our pets, a creature with a full personality.

Image result for niffler

The twists were good, the dark bits were PROPERLY dark and like the unfurling darkness in Harry Potter, kept you thinking after the film was over, JK has big ideas and the more you think about them the bigger they get. If you buy into them (and if you don’t why are you here) part of the reason the Harry Potter universe endures is down to these deep ideas. For example, the horcruxes in Harry Potter, on the surface are there to explain Voldemort’s immortality and to give a nice framing of ‘quest’ for our 3 protagonists,  but if you stop and just consider the actual premise, that when you kill your soul splits, that’s wonderful stuff. Not to mention all the exploration of themes from slavery, bullying to prejudice, fear, segregation etc. This was the other thing I really liked about Fantastic Beasts, the THIS IS AMERICA feel to it, I thought Newt’s seemingly throwaway comments on the differences were JK at her best, comedic or throwaway lines that actually have a huge message. When Newt questions ‘no-mag’ as a term, muggles suddenly becomes so wonderfully British and affectionate, and the incredibly clever line that implies the US wizarding is deeply prejudice, when Newt says how silly it is that wizards and witches don’t marry outside their own.

So in sum I really enjoyed it, BUT is this film better than the original Harry Potters? Only time will tell, but I think there are three reasons Fantastic Beasts FEELS better and why people are coming out of the cinema going ‘I enjoyed it more’.

Reason number ONE:

No bad child / tween / teen actors. Let’s be honest, Harry, Ron and Hermione all have beautiful moments of acting across the Harry Potter films, but they also have a lot of utter awfulness. Forgiveable when they are delightful little moppets but some of Daniel Radcliffe’s hungover faxing it in performances of Harry in the later movies is really dreadful. And the surrounding cast, Ginny really does make you want to stick sharp spoons in your eyes, although as my husband pointed out she does have dreadful script to work with… ANYWAY. In Fantastic Beasts you have an adult cast of excellent actors and they are all properly enjoying themselves at the top of their game. Imagine Harry Potter with just the adults, Rickman, Smith, Oldman etc all doing some stellar work with no wooden snogging exposition scenes – picture that and you’re getting Fantastic Beasts.

Reason number TWO:

We already know the universe. Newt has a suitcase that has a whole world inside. Not a problem, don’t explain it to us, just show us and we understand. The Harry Potter films have laid all the ground work for us buying in and understanding everyone saying silly words and waving sticks around, so we can just jump straight in with Newt doing magic and apparating all round the bank, no problem! Just like The Prisoner of Azkaban was the first Potter film where they did away with the ‘repetition of the plot in case you forgot what you watched’ scenes, Fantastic Beasts gives you a few newspaper headlines (I still adore this as a method of introduction, never change David Yates) so you know WHEN you are and then we are off. Having an established universe to play in is so much more fun and arguably makes for a better film.

Reason number THREE:

We don’t know what is going to happen. I know, I KNOW, there are many people that only saw the Harry Potter movies and did not read the books, BUT there are many SURELY more that read, re-read, read to others and talked about the books in great detail long before the films were made. This will always affect enjoyment of a film, especially films of the blockbuster variety. Watching a new version of a Jane Austen we are excited for what a particular actor will do to a well-known character, it’s like watching Hamlet.  But imagine SEEING some of the gasp moments in the Harry Potter books for the first time on a big 80ft screen. The ‘oh I liked how they did that moment on the astronomy tower’ becomes ‘WHAT THE VERY… I KNEEEEEWWWW IT SNAPE YOU BASTARD’. And that element of surprise and reveal is why Fantastic Beasts feels better.

A genuinely great cinema experience, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, also promises a great re-watch to come and the birth of a very exciting franchise. Enjoy! #nifflertillIdie

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