Zama film review ****

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Zama, 22nd June 2018

Now here is a work of imagination. Just what film is for. I suspect its languorous pace might not be to everyone’s taste but it delicately captures the sense of isolation and ennui that its hero, the eponymous Diego de Zama finds himself trapped in.

We are in Asuncion on the Paraguay River in the C18. Zama has been scantily rewarded with a position as a government magistrate in the service of the Spanish Empire after his exploits in battle, an americano born in present day Argentina, desperate to return to his family in Buenos Aries after many years away. His oft-promised transfer requires the imprimatur of the ministry in Madrid and that requires a letter from the Governor. Meanwhile Zama has to just get on with the unlovely business of life in a colonial outpost, flirting with the wives of the ruling elite, avoiding the temptations of the local prostitutes and drowning his sorrows in drink. Daniel Jimenez Cacho brings a palpable sexual frustration to Zama, alongside the barrenness of his emotional and intellectual landscape. You sense his despair at the hand that fate has dealt him and his own shame at the man he has become. The film opens with him spying on some indigenous women bathing in mud on the banks of the river. Not a good look.

The setting is magnificent. Interiors and exteriors look and feel totally authentic. Nature intrudes. The heat is oppressive. Cholera is endemic. Domesticated animals wander in and out of buildings. The colonisers and colonised are entwined. Indeed it turns out that Zama himself has a child with a local woman. The colonisers don’t have much to do here at the end of the world. Zama has a few cases to deal with, one of which exposes the ugly racism embedded in his office, and precipitates a scrap with his Spanish subordinate, who, much to Zama’s chagrin is “punished” by being sent away. A new, even less sympathetic Governor, replaces the incumbent when he returns to Spain and he takes over Zama’s quarters forcing him into a decrepit shack on the outskirts of the outpost. Early on Zama steps in, unconvincingly, to protect the honour of the local inn-keeper’s daughters, later on he fails to have an affair with the Governor’s wife.

Eventually Zama, deciding he has nothing to lose, throughs his lot in with a bunch of Quixotic bounty hunters who are tasked with tracking down a local bandit named Vicuna Porta, who may or may not exist. This, you won’t be surprised to learn, doesn’t end well.

Now if I was a betting man I would say that Zama is a walking metaphor for colonial guilt. He exists in a perpetual state of paralysed reverie. Someone is needed to represent the “civilising” force even as it becomes progressively less “civilised”, only able to bring “order” through terror and moving on once the economic exploitation is complete. Everyone on the ground is trapped in the hierarchical bureaucracy.

Familiar territory in some ways, novelists Achebe, Conrad, Forster, Orwell, Naipaul, Rushdie, even Kipling in his ham-fisted way, have been there, with film-makers like Coppola, Denis and Herzog following, and Fanon, Said, Rodney, and countless other academics, have examined the corrosive effects on coloniser and colonised and the profound impact on our world today. Indeed Zama itself is based on the 1956 novel of the same name by Antonio di Benedetto, who was tortured and imprisoned by the junta in 1970s Argentina.

Argentinian director Lucrecia Martell  has served up a very worthy addition to this canon. This is her first feature for 10 years which probably explains why I had not heard of her but I will hunt out her previous films. Apparently some people think she went on a trip up the Amazon, Kurtz like, during her hiatus. If so she has put it to good effect in the visual language of Zama.

If you are of a patient disposition, keen on stories that might stretch you a little further than usual in terms of space and time, and enjoy cinema for how it looks as well as where it goes, then I recommend you give this a viewing if, and when, it pops up on your chosen streaming service. I was reminded of the films of Terence Malick as I watched it, which is mostly, though not exclusively, a good thing.

 

Beast film review *****

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Beast, 14th June 2018

I can be pretty certain I am going to thoroughly enjoy a film in a cinema. I can go when pretty much no-one else is there, to a showing near the end of a run, which satisfies my misanthropy and intolerance of distraction, and I can rely on the combination of known critics, cast and directors, to near guarantee success. And, unlike the theatre or a concert, the very “static’ nature of film, there is only one possible performance, further pre-empts disappointment.

The only real question then is just how good is the film going to be and is it in with a chance of entering my mental best ever lists. Beast is superb and most definitely does. Any concerns that I had that this might drift a little too far into genre territory plot-wise were entirely unfounded. In fact it effortlessly slips and slides between genres to promote a satisfying sense of discomfort, if that makes sense.

This is director Michael Pearce’s feature film debut. He is plainly an immense talent and it is no wonder this got financed. Gripping story, superb performances, beautifully shot and a clear, but not simplistic message, about the impact of “outsiders” on a “settled” community. Above all though it has bucket-loads of utterly believable suspense. A genuine thriller but without daft McGuffins or false motivations. If you are a scion of the ubiquitous crash, bang, wallop school of Hollywood blockbusters this probably isn’t for you. But, rest assured, neither is it anywhere near the cinema of pretentious, European navel-gazing that is my usual menu de jour.

Moll is a tour guide in her 20’s trapped in a stiflingly bourgeois middle class family on the island of Jersey. Mum Hilary is the worst kind of snob, Dad is incapacitated with Alzheimer’s and needs constant care, smug brother Harrison leaves tween daughter to the care of Mum and Moll, immaculate sister Polly is a social climber now boastfully pregnant. It opens at Moll’s birthday party where she is the very definition of “putting a brave face on it”. Time to turn to the drink, walk out, pop some pills, go to a club, find with a bloke, stay out all night and have a quick shag behind the old gun battery by the beach. Except that said bloke tries to coerce her. Enter the handsome, if slightly rough-looking stranger, Pascal, who sees off the creepy bloke at gunpoint. Couple up with the stranger much to the disgust of family. Secure freedom …. but at a price …. as Moll and Pascal chase each other, and are chased, down the “did-they, didn’t-they” rabbit hole.

In many ways this is not an entirely fresh plot, though in C19 novels, both classic and/or melodramatic, and plays of old, it often involved married, or about to be married, women seeking to escape into the arms of an enigmatic, or worse, outsider. This, though, couldn’t be more contemporary, by laying on top the investigation of a crime, like the best murder mysteries, (though this is no Bergerac, people), and through the dissection of class and xenophobia. Johnny is a local, boasting he can trace his lineage back to Norman times. He may be lying. Moll’s family are presumably monied incomers. Migrant workers come to pick potatoes are vilified. Jersey looks lovely but feels parochial. Bubbling underneath though is something very primal. Michael Pearce grew up in a Jersey which remembered being terrorised by a serial rapist and paedophile in the 1960s, Edward Paisnel, which provided the spark, but wisely no more, for his wily screenplay.

As if this wasn’t enough we are also made to continuously question the nature of Moll and Pascal’s passion and just how much Moll knows or wants to know about Pascal. Both have dark secrets and unpredictable outbursts. The final collision, played out in close-up at a scenic beachside restaurant, is a belter.

Now you can see from the sound of all of this, that, with all that they have to convey, only the very best of actors was going to be up to the task of playing Mol and Pascal. Step up Jessie Buckley and Johnny Flynn. Now I know my regular reader will find this hard to believe, given my oft-repeated distaste for musicals, but I actually found myself watching a couple of episodes of I’D Do Anything on the telly all those years ago, the brain-child of the slightly odd Andrew Lloyd-Webber. Our Jessie was robbed at the end but anyone with any sense could see what an immense talent she was. That is why I watched despite myself. She then, smartly, pitched up in the acclaimed Menier CF revival of A Little Night Music, trained at RADA, went on to a Globe Tempest, a Grandage Henry V and the Branagh Winter’s Tale with Sir Ken himself and Dame Judi. On TV she has done a Rosamund Pilcher adaptation, the BBC War and Peace (a marvel), Tom Hardy’s bonkers, but addictive, Taboo, The Last Post and, latterly, Marian Halcombe in the recent brilliant BBC Woman in White. On every outing she has been outstanding in my book even when up against the best of British acting talent.

And then there’s Johnny Flynn. It looks to me, that alongside his modern folk musical career, Mr Flynn does pretty much whatever he likes when it comes to acting. Serendipity, and latterly extreme admiration, has meant I have seen most every performance Mr Flynn has committed to the stage. His Curtis in Edward Hall’s intelligent take on Taming of the Shrew for Propellor, Lee in the West End Jerusalem, the Globe Richard III and Twelfth Night (again alongside Mark Rylance), Bruce Norris’s The Low Road at the Royal Court and as, (the not dissimilar to Pascal), Mooney in McDonagn’s masterpiece Hangmen. Like Jessie, even when surrounded by outstanding actors, he shines. And he just oozes charm. Vagabond, itinerant, drifter, rake, roue, mountebank, inveigler, Take your pick. He was born to play them right down to the straggly beard. You can smell him in Beast from the back of the cinema.

Put these two together and it is mesmerising. No need for any over the top theatrical flammery and no need to suspend any disbelief when it comes to romance. It is a wonder the two of them take even a few hours to get it on such is the intensity, and depth, of the passion they portray. You root for them, a latter day Bonny and Clyde, as they stick two fingers up to family and conformity even as their malignancy is revealed. Oh, and as if that wasn’t enough, across a string of excellent supporting performance, Geraldine James as haughty Mum Hilary is superb, oppressively trying to control Moll, in part because she fears her. A word too for Trystan Gravelle as oleaginous Cliff, the police officer looking at the murders and failed wooer of Moll.

I know this is going to sound daft but the best comparison I can make is to Hitchcock. The call back to timeless fables, the slight air of oneiric unreality, (Moll even has a couple of living nightmares), the psychological insight, the mauling of hypocrisy, the intensity of performance and, obviously, the mastery of suspense. No funny business from the camera, though there are some banally beautifully composed interiors and exteriors from cinematographer Benjamin Kracun, in full natural light belying the darkness at the heart of the plot, but certainly the same way with plot and story.

 

 

 

 

Isle of Dogs film review ****

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Isle of Dogs, 12th April 2018

Many, many years ago, just after the London Docklands Development Corporation was set up in 1981 I had cause to visit the Isle of Dogs, the real one, as part of my academic studies. It was a desolate sh*thole then, with all due respect to the few residents still camped out there. I saw some stray dogs on my visit. I swear it.

It is much better now. Obviously. With all those towers, activity and people. Or is it? Was it better in its heyday as a docks, all misty-eyed, working class solidarity, shepherding the fruits of Empire. Or when it was first laid out built on capital from the evil of slavery, as so much of this country’s wealth was. I have no idea but it is interesting food for thought.

Anyway, f*ck all to do with Wes Anderson’s latest near masterpiece, unless of course old Wes was secretly slumming it with some creative chums in Limehouse at the time. I have enjoyed what I have seen of Mr Anderson’s films, namely The Royal Tenenbaums and Grand Budapest Hotel, admired them even more, but all that artifice, activity, trickery, and well, off-kilter-ness, makes it hard to connect emotionally. That is true to an extent here though the surface simplicity of the tale and the stop-motion makes it less arch than these predecessors. And that comes from someone who is not a dog person. Or a cat person. Or a goldfish person. Or a budgie person. Come to think of it I am not even a person person really.

Wes has collaborated here with literally hundreds of other creatives, (I stayed behind to watch all the credits roll up just to see, not my best ever idea), to deliver his spectacular stop-motion animation. Apparently a fair number of said creatives are based in Three Mills Studios, a short, (and very fine), walk down the River Lea and Limehouse Cut to the Isle of Dogs. One of the Three Mills is the House Mill which is reputedly the largest tidal mill in the world. I was fortunate enough to be shown around said mill, now maintained by a Trust and open on a Sunday, whilst out on a walk a couple of years ago. Once you get your head round how it works you see just how marvellous in is in its simplicity. Geeky I know but fascinating.

Back to Isle of Dogs (film). In addition to an army of artists, Mr Anderson has chucked the kitchen sink of plot devices at his story and employed some of Hollywood’s most discernible voices: Jeff Goldblum, Bill Murray, Edward Norton, Scarlett Johanssen, Greta Gerwig, Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinson, Harvey Keitel and, most memorably, Bryan Cranston as Chief. An orphan, an evil uncle, banishment, disenfranchisement, ecological collapse, plague, technology harnessed for dastardly purposes, rescue, trial by ordeal, redemption, there is a soupcon of everything, mixed together and gently simmered though still digestible for all ages.

There is some gentle homage to the great directors of Japanese cinema, straight and animated, (apparently Kurosawa make a film set on a rubbish heap), and the setting and collaboration is avowedly Japanese. The screenplay comes from Mr Anderson, Roman Coppola (again), Jason Schwartzman (again) and Kunichi Nomura, (who also voices Mayor Kobayashi). The dog’s barks are voiced in English, the Japanese language is only sporadically sub-titled.

I gather a whole load of guff has been written about the apparently dark forces of cultural appropriation here, given Mr Anderson’s range of Japanese stylisations . I see the argument but would not know where to start with marking out the cultural borders that would make such transgressions logical or credible. Who sets these boundaries, how and when? If this offends you will have a awful lot of shared cultural history to unravel and I, for one, would need to know how this separation was to be policed. This sort of thinking worries me.

As for the simple story of a boy and his dog, I loved it. The distancing effect which tarnishes Mr Anderson’s other films is disarmed making it much easier to root for the characters. The craft is admirable. It is a completely realised world but still doesn’t hide its cartoon roots. The score brings new definition to the word eclectic, extending well beyond the expected taiko drum rolls. It is visually funny but never tries too hard. Whilst I may not have laughed out loud at exactly the same time of the little’uns in the audience, the fact is we both laughed, ad that takes some skill. And the draughtsman in Mr Anderson can be given full rein, as his, and his collaborators’s, imaginations, range across background and foreground, to create striking scene after scene.

There is a lot here. However it works for you though, it will work for you. Don’t miss it.

 

 

The Square film review *****

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The Square, 27th March 2018

Ruben Ostlund’s last feature, Force Majeure, is one of my favourite films of the last few years. Now we have The Square to set alongside it. Longer, more ambitious, a bit baggier in places, it once again deals with the nature of embarrassment. This time though there is a healthy dose of satire laid on top. initially at the pretension and contradictions of contemporary art, with Mr Ostlund subsequently taking aim at a lot more targets along the way. It is excruciatingly funny.

The blurbs make a lot of noise about the participation of Elisabeth Moss and Dominic West. Ms Moss, who I only really know from the TV adaptation of the Handmaid’s Tale, has a job to do playing American journalist with whom the lead character, Christian, has a one-night stand. And she is very good in the role. (As an aside my advice to those who want to sample the pungent and vital voice of Margaret Attwood, probably the greatest living English language novelist, should stick to reading her books. I know she gets involved with the TV adaptations but for me they do go on a bit. There. I’ve said it). Dominic West also chips in with some low grade scenery chewing but it’s really just a cameo.

Nope. this film is really about two people. The wonderful Danish actor Claes Bang in front of the camera and our Ruben behind it. It has already garnered a hatful of awards, should have won the Foreign Language Oscar, and will be seen a a classic in decades to come.

Christian is the suave curator of the X-Royal gallery in Stockholm (the real Nationalmuseum, currently being refurbished, offering up its elegant services for the exterior shots). Anne poses some naive questions which flummox him. He is robbed when intervening to help a woman on the street. He and his assistant track his phone and hatch an ill-advised plan to letterbox mildly threatening leaflets to the apartments in the block where his phone apparently lurks. Plot A goes downhill from there. In Plot B the distracted Christian ends up sanctioning a viral campaign to promote the gallery’s latest exhibition. That also ends really badly. Throughout we see Christian’s self-image of progressive liberalism unravel to reveal darker class, intellectual, racial and sexual prejudices. He is a pretty selfish man. A modern, privileged, anxious Everyman.

Ostlund is motivated to explore all those situations where we confront when we should walk away or ignore when we should intervene. There is a sharp dissonance between the way the characters feel they should behave, in polite, liberal society, and the way they actually want to, and do, behave. Consequences flow from banal and absurd decisions. The animal instincts beneath the veneer of sophisticated humanity are revealed, literally in one memorable scene from actor Terry Notary. Ostlund carefully juxtaposes the wealth and lifestyle of the metropolitan elite in Stockholm, the apotheosis of “equality”, with want, in the form of beggars. Civilisation, whether in the form of art, technology, commerce, behaviour, is fragile.

Ostlund claims that some of the episodes are drawn from his own experiences. He and producer Kalle Boman devised an installation, called the Square of course, for an exhibition in 2014. Like its fictional counterpart ,”the Square is a sanctuary of trust and caring. Within it we all share equal rights and obligations.” The installation in the X-Royal gallery bears a striking resemblance to the work of Robert Smithson. The scene where a man with Tourette’s Syndrome interrupts a press conference happened at a Swedish theatre and Ostlund claims he was mugged in the rather ostentatious way in the film’s opening. Ukrainian-Russian artist Oleg Kulik who performs as a dog is the inspiration for one of the scenes.

Now you might reasonably say the film is a little long, but there isn’t one of the carefully crafted scenes that I would remove. You might also say that its doesn’t really go anywhere, and the narrative is unstructured, but that is the point. Characters jump into the plots unannounced heightening the discomfort. There is a surreal quality to the film, but that reflects more the images which Ostlund selects and the way he shoots his scenes, and the breaks between them, rather than any specific quality of ‘unreality”. There is also a link to the best of sit-com for me where the hapless hero, in an attempt to avoid embarrassment digs himself deeper and deeper into a hole. As in Force Majeure Ostlund has an ear for musical motifs which enhance the spectacle. I recognise the Bach setting and the Bobby Ferrin/Yo Yo Ma mash up; you hipsters will be alert to the more modern grooves.

In a failing bid to keep up with BD’s chosen academic specialism, and because it is so interesting, I have found myself delving into idiot’s guides to social psychology. Ruben Ostlund’s extraordinary work seems to mine hte same vital territory. I am going to watch this film again and again.

Network at the National Theatre review *****

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Network

National Theatre Lyttleton, 9th March 2018

Right then. Finally got to see Network. Booked early but this was the first date that BUD, KCK and the Blonde Bombshells could collectively make. A bit nervous because the last time we wheeled the Bombshells out to an Ivo van Hove entertainment it was Obsession at the Barbican which gets more disappointing as time elapses (Obsession at the Barbican Theatre review ***).

You can divide Mr van Hove’s work along three dimensions I reckon depending whether he adopts the “austere, psychologically insightful” or “busy, technological overload” aesthetic, whether or not he works with the Toneelgroep Amsterdam ensemble or other actors, and whether the play is drawn from a classic text or is adapted from a film. Most of the time he hits the jackpot but there is always a risk of disappointment, Obsession, the very dull Antigone a few years ago and the so-so After the Rehearsal/Persona Bergman adaption, being cases in point.

Obviously Network is brilliant. You know that from the reviews when it opened and all the social media buzz. Not just my opinion but the opinion of my guests who were well impressed. Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 media satire, directed by Sidney Lumet, is a marvellous film. I watched it again ahead of this just to check. Fast-moving, acidic, contemptuous, intelligent, disturbingly prescient, strident, it isn’t subtle but it is hugely effective. I particularly love the performances of Faye Dunaway as Diana Christensen, Robert Duvall as Frank Hackett and Marlene Warfield as Laureen Hobbs.

Now if I am honest Lee Hall did not strike me as an obvious choice to adapt Paddy Chayefsky’s precious script. Then again Mr Hall, the brains behind Billy Elliot, War Horse and Victoria and Abdul on screen, The Pitmen Painters, Shakespeare in Love and Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour on stage, and an adept Brecht translator, is nothing if not versatile. Wisely he and Mr van Hove have elected to faithfully translate most of the vital dialogue from the film, with some minor shuffling between characters. The temptation to tamper with, for example, CCA Chairman Jensen’s excoriating speech about the power of capital, is resisted, as are Howard Beale’s own show sermons. It is unfortunate that the negotiation scenes involving the Ecumenical Liberation Army and the Communist Party of America are abandoned, they tickle me, but something had to give. The relationship between the obsessive TV programming executive Diana Christensen, whose only reference point is her own ambition, and news chief Max Schumacher, is fully preserved as is his wife’s, Louise Schumacher, pain at his betrayal. And all the corporate manoeuvring.

So plot, sub-plots and text vigorously reconstructed, what next? This is where the magic of Mr van Hove and his designer sidekick, Jan Versweyveld, really kicks in. The template they employ is well tested from the longstanding Toneelgroep Amsterdam Shakespeare adaptations, Roman Tragedies, and it more recent cousin, Kings of War. Extensive use of live, on-stage video and video fragments, mixed in real time, a stunning achievement from designer Tal Yarden and team. A thundering soundscape from Eric Sleichim with an on-stage quartet BLINDMAN. Costumes from An D’Huys which are exact re-creations of the mid 1970s setting. There is a “UBS” TV production suite on stage. There is, famously, a restaurant on one side. and costume and make-up desks lurk at the back of the stage. All the guts, the manipulation, of the production are on show and, because key scenes are set in a TV studio, this surely couldn’t be more effective. There is even a slightly time delayed video sequence where Max and Diana stroll along the South Bank with umbrella. (Mind you this couldn’t top the bemusement of some lost tourists caught on camera stumbling across the performance of Bart Siegers, I think, as Enobarbus, in Roman Tragedies, outside the Barbican).

In addition to the thrilling technical wizardry, Mr van Hove, breaks the wall, and ropes the audience in repeatedly as the story unfolds, in the warm-up at the top of the Howard Beale show, when Beale clambers into the audience and, obviously, when the assassin emerges at the end. The messages about the lengths broadcasters will go to to secure ratings, the ugly emptiness of much popular entertainment, the voracious appetite of the capitalist structure which sits behind this, the immorality and venality of those hardened by the system, the co-option of those who purport to stand against it, the alienation that they, and we, experience, ring out load. No updating of the plot required from an analogue to a digital world: the frantic, exhausting hyper-reality of the production does this for us. Remember the film was produced before the rise of neo-liberalism. Paddy Chayefsky died in 1981. If he was angry then, he’d be bloody livid now.

OK so there are one or two moments when being bashed over the head by this story and this production is a little tiring. But that I suppose is exactly the point, and you can chew more slowly on the content after the fact, as we have been doing.

As if this wasn’t enough we have an astonishing performance from Bryan Cranston as Howard Beale. Casting him looks to have been the most inspired of a string of inspired decisions around this production. Now as I understand it, Mr Cranston spent many years as a moderately successful jobbing actor before his turn in Malcolm in the Middle (never seen it), and then, famously, Breaking Bad. I generally can’t be doing with these TV series, preferring to see my pleasures in more concentrated form, as should be clear from this blog. However BB was an exception though it did test my patience at times across the 60 odd episodes. Still it is rare to see such a complete portrayal in any dramatic medium.

For me BC betters Peter Finch’s screen Howard by appearing to retain a better grasp on the forces around him. That is not to say that BC doesn’t show Beale’s mental collapse, just that, once his albeit damaged mind is made up to preach his disgust, he summons up a strength that Mr Finch’s more prophetic Beale lacks. The shift in Beale’s rhetoric post the meeting with Jensen is actually more satisfying on stage. Mr Cranston is riveting in the video close-ups as Beale moves from resignation, to desperation, through wild anger, and on to zealotry and an almost gnomic mysticism.

Michelle Dockery’s Diana is not quite as emptily amoral as Faye Dunaway’s on-screen version, but the relationship with Douglas Henshall’s Max just about works. The collapse of his shallow idealism is matched by his pathetic attempts to secure her empty affection. She never cares, he knows this from the start, he stops caring, in the end neither one of them cares. Beverly Longhurst, as Louise Schumacher, standing in for Caroline Faber gets to deliver the only really compassionate lines in the production when she boots him out. You should be very afraid of Richard Cordery’s Arthur Jensen, that’s what the men consumed by power at the top are like. I was also much persuaded by Tunji Kasim’s Frank Hackett, but frankly barely anyone puts a foot wrong here. Just as well, it would have been chaos if they had.

At its heart I think Network is a plea for our shared humanity not to be broken by an economic complex which seems to be beyond our understanding and influence, and not to be bullied and sedated by technology. What better place to do that than in the elemental forum for shared experience which is the theatre.

Beware the Infotainment Scam people. Mind you I might just have been scammed by Mr van Hove and his collaborators. It felt good though.

Black Panther film review ****

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Black Panther, 6th March 2018

The Tourist fancies himself as some kind of high culture dandy so he is normally dubious about fantasy, superhero, action genre films and the like. No plot. no characterisation, lazy, frequently daft, stultifyingly dull effects. There are exceptions if the ideas and treatments warrant it, Blade Runner 2049 most recently, but recent trips to see Star Wars instalments have proved tiresome.

So no interest up to now in the Marvel Studios output. The reviews though made Black Panther sound different, not just because of its Afrocentric setting and largely black creatives, but because of the quality of the result and the originality of the plot. And the Tourist doesn’t want to come across as a hair-shirted, intellectual humble-braggart, intent on only seeing what is good for him.

Black Panther didn’t start off too well. Hoary flash-back set-up, a few listless character tropes, an overwhelming soup of visual influences. But then I unclenched my elitist buttocks, stopped thinking about the smarmy things I could say about it and went with the flow. A flow of utter nonsense of course, but it is childish fantasy, so why bother analysing it, and a fall and rise redemption narrative arc which was telescoped from that first flashback, but it looks marvellous, literally, and the performances are brimming with, cliche alert, brio.

The powerful messages, the evil of Africa’s historic colonisation, the contrast between African and African American inheritances and stereotypes, the harnessing of technological power, are not laid on with a trowel, and the film dials down the visual effects in lieu of something more, frankly, stylish. The Afrofuturism aesthetic is, obviously, pretty cool, but director Ryan Coogler, and the artistic team led by production designer Hannah Bleachler, resist getting too pleased just with the look of the thing. In big screen Wakanda the technological is wedded to the organic, the past to the future, with plenty of sun-saturated daylight. A complete contrast to your standard fantasy setting even if the origin myth is not.

The cast is outstanding. Chadwick Boseman’s King T’Challa does border on the Hamletian instrospection, but this sharpens the focus for Michael B Jordan who plays aggrieved cousin Erik “Killmonger” Stevens, flip sister Shuri (Tottenham’s finest Letitia Wright), cheerfully sadistic Afrikaans baddie Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and Forrest Whitaker’s Polonius like Zuri. Daniel Kaluuya as W’Kabi does his trademark, who the f*ck do you think you are, scary stare and Martin Freeman, as Everett K Ross, once again, amiably wanders in from an entirely different movie set in Surrey. I do hope both these chaps don’t give up on the stage with all these Hollywood capers. Danai Gurira’s striking warrior Okoye and Lupita Nyong’o’s graceful spy Nakia should be gifted their own fictional nation on this showing. I am hoping some enterprising London theatre might sport a showing of Danai Gurira’s play Eclipsed which starred Lupita Nyong’o in its Broadway run.

To whom it may concern at Marvel. Let’s have another one of these please. You have a new devotee.

 

The Shape of Water film review *****

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The Shape of Water, 26th February 2018

I have to confess I wasn’t that interested in seeing The Shape of Water, (I am pleased with my little conceptual joke here). The trailers suggested this was likely in a similar vein to Guillermo Del Toro’s previous gothic horror/romance/fantasy films: lovely to look at but tedious to watch. Yet the reviews were persuasive, Sally Hawkins is a tip-top favourite of mine and I was getting into the swing of seeing all the Oscar nominated films in the manner of a sad armchair critic.

So off I went. Dear reader, I was bewitched. This is not, on the face of it, a complicated fable, but it has a lot to say. Sally Hawkins plays Eliza Esposito, an orphan who has not spoken since being found on a riverbank with scars on her throat. She works as a cleaner at Occam, an aerospace military research facility in Cold War America. Our symbolic “monster”, a merman/amphibian of sorts, direct from the Amazon, arrives. So far, so Del Toro. Class A psycho nutjob, Strickland, played with splenetic relish by the versatile Michael Shannon, is tasked with looking after the creature, which he does, cruelly. Restless scientist Hofstetler, (an austere Michael Stuhlbarg), objects, but, as a Russian spy, he has ulterior motives. Eliza, through that tried and trusted combination of eggs and music, falls in love with the creature and hatches a plan to release him, roping in kindly, gay, commercial artist neighbour Giles (Richard Jenkins) and voluble colleague Zelda (another engaging performance from Octavia Hill). You can guess the rest.

Good triumphs over evil, naturally and there is thrill, if not suspense, in the break-out. This is a timeless story. Beauty and the Beast, set against a world of US-Soviet paranoia. You can feel the references to other classic films, even if, like me, you don’t know what they are. There is an echo of the silent movie greats as well as a nod to the monster movies of the 1950s and 1960s. Indeed Eliza and Giles actually live above a cinema the Orpheum (courtesy of Toronto, as so many of the exterior shots are). It is chock-full of repeated motifs and symbols. Mr Del Toro has a hand in the writing, but has wisely co-opted Vanessa Taylor, who wrote some of the early episodes of Game of Thrones. It shows. There is a hard-edged realism which punctures the fantasy and lends structure to the story.

Unsurprisingly the film looks exquisite with blues and greens predominating and all sorts of arresting images wrung from Mr Del Toro’s box of tricks. Water, water, everywhere. Costumes from Luis Sequeira, Paul Austerberry’s designs, Alexandre Desplat’s inventive score and, especially, Dan Lausten’s cinematography, all coalesce to bring the story to life. Frankly though none of this can work if the two, effectively wordless, performances of the two leads don’t convince. Getting zipped in to a merman/amphibian suit for hours on end and trying to convey emotion through face and body movement alone is a job few can master. Just as well Mr Del Toro has his long time “monster” collaborator, Doug Jones, on hand.

Now it doesn’t take a genius to work out that Sally Hawkins is a gifted actress. I saw her first in 2000 in a pair of Shakespeare productions at the Open Air Theatre. was struck by her performances in the TV adaptions of Tipping the Velvet, Fingersmith and Persuasion, by her collaborations with Mike Leigh and, most impressively, by her performance alongside Rafe Spall in Nick Payne’s Constellations. The two of them turned that into a much better play than it really was, and it was pretty good to start with. Here, as Eliza, she is transcendent. I don’t care how grizzled and cynical you are, this is a love story you should buy into.

So there you have it. I am fortunate to have had the time to see all the Oscar nominated best films, bar Call Me By Your Name. I enjoyed all of them, but only this, Phantom Thread and Three Billboards … really seemed to me to harness the power of cinema. Films where you know the direction of travel or where the camera is just pointed at the action can be satisfying but what I crave is uncertainty and surprise. And insight into the human condition. I see the other films I really liked last year would fail to make the grade because they are either a) “foreign”, b) tiny, in budget, not scope, c) actually from the prior year or d) maybe a bit too full on. I would have shoved Mother!, Detroit and The Florida Project into the list if I where in charge. Mind you, all pointless since Three Billboards … is, unarguably, the best of the chosen bunch but, to my immense surprise, The Shape of Water, runs it close.

I should have realised. Never underestimate a fat bloke born in 1964 (or 1963) with a terrible beard and ill-kempt hair who spends too much time locked in his imagination.