A Fantastic Woman (2017)

fantastic

★★★★

After a romantic night out, a woman’s boyfriend collapses in their apartment. Worried, she rushes him to hospital. Within an hour, she’s told he has died. Unable to process the information, she runs, and is dragged back to the hospital by security. They’re not only suspicious of the circumstances surrounding the man’s death, but also who the woman was to him, and what she might be hiding, because the woman doesn’t look exactly like other women, and when they look at her ID card, it has a man’s name on it.

It’s with a slow and steady hand that Chilean director Sebastián Lelio guides us into the world of Marina Vidal. A transgender woman, Marina lives in a time when LGBTQ+ rights have never been more talked about but, as we quickly discover, that doesn’t mean the fight’s over. In her first lead role, transgender actress Daniela Vega affords Marina a quiet dignity that belies her daily struggle as she’s ritually humiliated by bigots and businesswomen alike.

The tragedy of her tale is expertly handled by both Vega and Lelio, who never overplay their hand, and frequently look for the hope hidden in the horror. Flashes of surrealism leaven the mood, including a glittering dancefloor segment and a telling moment in which Marina struggles to walk down the street as she battles a gale that keeps pushing her back. These surreal flourishes aside, A Fantastic Woman forgoes a traditional narrative (its McGuffin leads nowhere; there’s no grand victory for Marina) which might flummox some viewers, but as a portrait of a woman fighting bigotry and prejudice with quiet self-belief, it’s gripping stuff.

G.I. Joe: Retaliation (2013)

GI-Joe-RetaliationHarder. Faster. Um, realer. That’s the PR spiel supporting this delayed big screen follow-up.

It’s a sequel few were demanding, but fewer still can ignore, especially with The Rock plastered all over the posters, dangling there like a dumbbell-loving carrot for fanboys who scoffed at Stephen Sommers’ ludicrous G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra.

You don’t cast The Rock for his sentimentality, and sure enough Retaliation has all the emotional range of a lobotomized goldfish. Sweating and straining his way through a dizzying number of scuffles, The Rock mainlines adrenaline for Retaliation’s rat-a-tat set-pieces, all of them as absurd as those of its predecessor – and, in one city-levelling jaw-dropper, even more so.

Can’t remember much about the 2009 original? No worries; an opening set of Top Trumps deals out the heroes and villains for you. Because, yes, everything in Retaliation is calibrated to snare a 13-year-old’s attention span and the story, such as it is, acts as little more than a limp washing line on which to peg those incendiary set-pieces.

The basics: Channing Tatum-led super-soldiers the G.I. Joes are framed for the assassination of the Pakistani President and outlawed. While evil outfit Cobra is put in its place, the Joes – among them Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson) and Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) – attempt to put the world to rights.

Naturally, that involves ridiculously-stylish undercover clobber, fist-fights with B-villains Firefly (Ray Stevenson) and Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee), and Lady Jaye going for the jug-ular with a cleavage that could cause a serious injury. Oh, and in a second act upswing, recruiting original G.I. Joe Colton, played by a Bruce Willis…

Retaliation is an apt subtitle for a franchise fighting to stay afloat despite overwhelming bad will. To his credit, director Jon M. Chu (Step Up 2: The Streets) turns in a 3D post-conversion (the official reason for his film’s nine month release bump) that genuinely elevates the material, not least during a heart-in-throat Himalaya scrap that steals the show.

Otherwise, the film’s flatter than a nuked London. The banter lands awkwardly and the action’s all blaze, no bruise. Back-stories are reduced to hurried back-sentences.

And The Rock? He’s easily outshone by this actioner’s surprise golden goose: Jonathan Pryce. As the compromised US President, he’s catty and compelling, playing Angry Birds during a nuclear strike and boasting about hanging out with Bono… 2/5

Verdict:
“Rock solid,” is Bruce Willis’ nod-wink appraisal of an attack strategy in G.I. Joe: Retaliation. The film’s nowhere near as sturdy, trundling out middling action and nonsensical plotting.

Via Total Film

Robot & Frank (2012)

robotfrankIf Amour and Trouble With The Curve didn’t float your OAP boat, how about this for a pitch – Frank Langella goes on crime spree with adorable robotic butler. That may sound more like something Michael Bay would direct, but fear not, Robot & Frank is less concerned with blowing shit up and more comfortable with gentle humour, heartfelt observations and robots that make funnies.

Living in the ‘near future’, 70-year-old Frank (Langella) is having problems with his memory. Residing alone in an isolated wood-side house, his place is a tip and his grown-up kids only seem to communicate with him via the TV-phone. When he refuses to move into a ‘memory centre’ (read: retirement home), Frank’s son (James Marsden) comes up with an innovative solution: give dad a robot butler.

A hi-tech humanoid with the voice of Peter Sarsgaard, the ’bot wastes no time putting Frank on both a schedule and a diet. Though Frank is initially annoyed at the intrusion (“That thing is gonna murder me in my sleep”), he soon finds a use for the robot as an accomplice in his latest jewel heist.

Admittedly, that last development is a bit of a stretch, but Robot & Frank pulls it off thanks to its infectious, knowing sense of fun. It’s a ‘what if’ for anybody with grumpy old grandparents, and the film offers a frighteningly realistic glimpse at a future where people are even more tech-reliant than they are now. With a nostalgic backward glance, Robot & Frank serves up micro-cars, see-through phones and symphonic orchestras that are scarily plausible.

Tech aside, Langella’s the real marvel here. Acting for the most part against nothing more than an emotionless mannequin, he’s fantastic, playing the cantankerous old man (think Up’s Mr Fredricksen minus the soft edges) with surprising sensitivity. And though first-time feature director Jake Schreier keeps the tone light, he never lets us forget that Frank is mentally fragile – a fact that’s given unexpected poignancy when Frank realises he’ll have to erase his robot’s memory as it’s evidence of his planned heist.

At its core, though, Robot & Frank is a fantastic futuristic buddy caper with an inexhaustibly quotable script (by Comedy Central scribe Christopher D. Ford). It’s full of lovely ideas (check out the scene in which Frank’s robot attempts to parlay with Susan Sarandon’s retro library ’bot), meaning that though Robot & Frank has an android at its centre, its heart is definitely in the right place. 4/5

Via Grolsch Film Works

The Paperboy (2012)

kinopoisk.ruGrainy, sweat-smeared and more kitsch than an Elvis Presley bedspread, The Paperboy has a title that sounds like a made-for-TV Disney movie, but it’s easily the most outrageous film of the year. A kaleidoscope of murder, sex and violence, Lee Daniels’ (Precious) third directorial effort is a swampy oddity as brazen as it is wilfully bizarre.

The year is 1969 and Miami Times reporter Ward Jansen (Matthew McConaughey) has just returned home to Florida with colleague Yardley (David Oyelowo) in tow. They’re researching the story of Florida resident Charlotte (Nicole Kidman), a perma-tanned blonde bombshell who’s been writing to a prisoner on death row.

Charlotte’s convinced that inmate Hillary Van Wetter (John Cusack) is innocent of the murder of Sheriff Thurmond Call, and she wants Ward to help her prove it. Roping in younger brother Jack (Zac Efron) to help, Ward leads this strange band of truth-seekers into dark, alligator-infested waters.

Adapted from Pete Dexter’s 1995 novel, The Paperboy is a trashy neo-noir populated with the kind of characters that rarely see the light of day in mainstream movies. From Macy Gray’s sardonic, long-suffering housemaid (who also provides a rasping narration) to Kidman’s beautifully complex Barbie, it’s the characters that make Paperboy riveting from start to finish despite a catalogue of sins.

Those sins are, in all honesty, plentiful. Frequently lacking in focus and devoid of tension when it’s needed, Daniels’ film tumbles along making casual remarks about racism and sexuality that never really carry much weight. The film’s often messy, unsure just which story it really wants to tell, and its central mystery is distracting instead of intriguing.

So why the four stars? Well, all of that can be accepted (if not excused) in the captivating presence of The Paperboy’s unconventional players. Efron and Kidman are the heart of the film, both adrift, both toying with conventional ideas of beauty. She enjoys his covetous gazes, in turn playing up to his image of her (according to Gray’s narration) as “his mama, high school sweetheart and an oversexed Barbie doll all at once”. The Paperboy isn’t looking for easy answers; it’s content with the rough and tumble as it deals out killer one-liners and instantly iconic images.

If Efron’s growing maturity impresses, and Kidman’s gung-ho approach thrills, it’s Cusack who’s the real surprise here. Dirty in more ways than one, he’s a revelation as sex-obsessed inmate Hillary, and central to many of Paperboy’s most memorable moments – including a ‘psychic’ sex scene with Kidman that has to be seen to be believed.

Flying its freak flag with pride, Daniels’ film is a weird, mesmerising ball of contradictions, buoyed by the strength of its performances, but also aesthetically gorgeous (it was shot on Super 16, which gives the film a lovely grubby look). It’s sexy, shocking and stylish, and you’ve never seen anything like it. 4/5

Via Grolsch Film Works

Zombie Flesh Eaters (1979)

Zombi-2-Zombie-Flesh-EatersIt was always going to be an oddity. Released as an unofficial (Italian) sequel to George A. Romero’s Dawn Of The Dead. Directed by a dumped-from-grace Lucio Fulci. Book-ended with New York scenes shot specifically for the overseas market. Zombie Flesh Eaters should have been DOA. The oddest thing by far about this singularly gruesome zombie saga, though, is the considerable artistry in its gore-and-grit-churning tale of the ravenous undead.

A pre-credits sequence hints at what we’re in for. A bound man slowly rises from a bed. A gun is fired. The man’s head implodes with a shock of red that the camera guzzles up as greedily as any flesh-muncher. It’s just the first of many artery-spurting kills, the most famous of which has a young woman impaled through the eyeball (a scene restored when ZFE was finally released uncut in 2005) as zombies overrun the remote community of Matul Island.

If the plentiful gore still shocks, Fulci impresses most with admirable command over his material. Both blood-thirsty and eccentric, ZFE is a curious blend of Giallo and Hammer (check out Richard Johnson’s death-obsessed physician) that’s all hysteria-level thrills – zombies fight sharks, worms writhe in rotting skulls and women scuba-dive topless.

So what if the dubbing’s dreadful, the acting grotty? As it builds to a blazing inferno of a climax, replete with foreboding Big Apple epilogue, Zombie Flesh Eaters’ appetite for destruction is nothing short of exhilarating. 4/5