Thursday, 28 February 2019

The Spy Who Loved Me

Lewis Gilbert, 1977, UK

Coming after the much derided “The Man With The Golden Gun”, “The Spy Who Loved Me”, along with the subsequent “For Your Eyes Only” are generally seen as the best of the Roger Moore Bonds. Whilst it is true that Moore owns the role here and convinces adequately both as combatant and seducer, knowing when to look serious and when to put his tongue in his cheek, this is still pretty much “Carry On Up Yer Spying”. The most expensive Bond at the time (Biggest! Best! Beyond!), it works best as a weak parody of itself. 

Bond is never one exotic location away from getting laid – Bond is here; he’s there; he’s everywhere – and never one woman away from trite innuendo, occasionally tied into the rote patriotism that makes him a national icon. The biggest joke of the film being that Bond has to team up with sexy Russian agent XXX, Major Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach… and is that kisses? X-rated?), and ... well, you know how men and women are different, yes? Even when fleeing death, Bond will pause to raise an eyebrow at the efforts of a lady because, well, you know how women are? See how agent XXX has trouble getting a van going to escape danger? Women drivers, right? See agent XXX pursue a lethal killer in a sleek evening gown, high heels and clutching a handbag. Etc.

The plot is a tracing over “You Only Live Twice” and we are firmly in science-fiction land and a long way from, say, Harry Palmer and John Le Carre. Okay, so that realism is not what the Bond franchise was engaging with and Bond is far more Flash Gordon than George Smiley, but it seems a shame to have Bond just a sequence of weak gags and innuendo until harder-edged action steps in from a far more convincing if no less silly film. But there has always been a part of Bond films that want to be all things to a mainstream audience. It’s a grab bag of generalisations held together by leading man charisma, gadgets and girls. Oh, but Richard Kiel as definitive henchman "Jaws" steals the show.

Sunday, 10 February 2019

The Favourite

Yorgos Lanthimos, 2018, Ireland-UK-USA

writers: Deborah Davis & Tony MacNamara

There was something about Lanthimos’ previous features ‘The Lobster’ and ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ that didn’t quite hit that final mark for me: good play but no last-minute goal or touchdown or whatever sports analogy you prefer (perhaps another viewing will change my mind). But there is none of that feeling of the point not quite being made to ‘The Favourite.’

In interviews, Olivia Coleman tells of how Lanthimos likes to leave things open and unrequited, to let the actors find their own answers – and doubtless the audience too. This reaps rewards in ‘The Favourite’ in that the three lead women eschew Lathimos’ previous deadpan style and give full-blooded performances that undoubtably makes this that most unlikely beast: a crossover Lanthimos film. Lured by the promise of the cosy tropes of costume drama, audiences get something far odder. It operates with the elegance associated with period drama and the iconoclastic sensibility and dirty words of a sketch show. 

Through the vast rooms and corridors of court, everyone wants the Queen’s favour: the men for politics, the women just to thwart oppression. There’s the surface tomfoolery and absurdism, but always the tragic underpins it all; not least in the ever present seventeen rabbits representing the children Queen Anne has lost (when interviewed by Simon Mayo, Coleman said that Anne was entitled to be as mad as she pleased after such loss).  But it’s also there in the background details of what the women must do to survive; Abigail’s fall from grace, for example, and her determination to rise again. Don’t come for historical accuracy (those rabbits are a fabrication, for example, but Screenrant provides an overview of the true story) but there’s plenty of emotional truths here. And always the hint of danger (the shooting range) as well as a topping of a little uncomfortable slapstick (watch for “Nude pomegranate Tory”).  But mostly there is also a litany of one-liners and bon mots to savour – “You look like a badger.” “…and something called a ‘pineapple’.” – and the cast relish them. 

The regal period drama has always been a home for dry wit and satire, and 'The Favourite' brings a slight lampooning of the genre and of history that opens it up without recourse to total veracity. It’s a woman’s film predominantly and Coleman and Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone wallow in the opportunity and captivate and delight without Lanthimos’ direction getting in the way. It’s three brilliant performances plus probably a career best from Nicholas Hoult. The screenplay by Deborah Davis and Tony MacNamara provide a great script for them to get their teeth into. It gives Lanthimos a solid through-line that is at once playful and cruel but with a wide streak of empathy and sympathy that hasn’t previously been part of this director’s provocations. It also has a final note that, although it’s apparently all games and one-upmanship, no one wins. A thorough delight with a sour bite. 

Sunday, 3 February 2019

Beautiful Boy

Felix van Groeningen, 2018, USA
screenplay: Lucas Davies & Felix van Groeningen

Although based on both the memoirs of David and Nic Sheff – ‘Beautiful Boy’ and ‘Tweak’ respectively – Groeningen’s adaptation, written with LukeDavies, tilts more towards the father, making this mainly a paternal viewpoint of a son’s addiction. 

There is a streak of obviousness in ‘Beautiful Boy’ where it uses a Notebook of Exposition or is too on-the-nose with the song choices, but just like it’s choice of Neil Young’s ‘Heart of Gold’, it is equally sentimental and clear-headed and ultimately moving. It is not working in abstraction or even subtlety, but this is where the aesthetic stops it falling into addiction-of-the-week TV movie. The mosaic of memories and incidents undermine much of the sense of cliché to allow the performances and mood to dominate. And dominate they do: Colin Farrel and  Timothée Chalamet are both excellent. Chalamet is a fine physical actor which reaps rewards when he is overdosing in a toilet. Farrel is more quietly affecting in his confusion and determination to support his son, excelling when he cracks up and cries. 

Josephine Livingstone finds ‘Beautiful Boy’ lacking as an expression of the truth of addiction: “Homelessness isn’t Timothée Chalamet draped handsomely across a diner; it’s contemptuous glances and shame.” For such films, Livingstone points out, the devastating effects of drugs is just a starting point for family drama and dysfunction, and that’s true. But the slight remove from the details of Nic’s experience meant that I never felt his tale or that druggy miserablism were predominant: that is, it’s the father-son dynamic as the family looks on baffled and helpless that drives the feeling rather than a grim truth of addiction. That is, this isn’t ‘Christiane F.’ or a film that casts the addict as an anti-hero, rebelling against the tedium and hypocrisy of the mainstream. And his problems cannot be located in social context: Nic is seemingly just as confounded by himself as everyone else: he’s a child of privilege from a split but loving home and can go back to that at any time, but drugs have a solid grip on him. 

There may not be detailed insight to crack addiction but the evocation of its effect on a family feels sincere enough. You may find, suddenly and unexpectedly, that it has tapped into real feeling. I certainly abruptly felt that I had been truly stirred at something incidental about halfway through rather than an obvious emotional moment, because I had been affected by the culmination of the overall experience. Particular note for the sound design and choice of songs that guide and glide over the collage and tonal shifts like stream-of-consciousness. There’s nothing new here, but it reaches genuine feeling in its pot pourri of colourfully photographed vignettes that make it an but undeniably emotional experience, whatever flaws it may have.