I, TONYA

Four Star Rating

“…Tonya’s rise from ice skating-obsessed four-year-old to serious Olympic competitor and ultimately disgraced public persona, is examined here in all of its dysfunctional glory.” – Wayward Wolf.

The fact that I’d barely even heard of Tonya Harding prior to seeing this release is probably symptomatic of your typical British attitude towards all things winter sports-related.

“Why would I have possibly heard of her?” I enquired of a far more clued-up Central European friend of mine.

“It’s not as though Great Britain has ever really experienced success in any aspect of winter sports, let alone figure skating, is it?” I added.

Of course, no sooner had the words left my mouth did the names John Curry, Robin Cousins, and Torvill and Dean come flooding into my mind, like long forgotten memories of some glorious golden age of British winter sport domination at a time in which the sun seemingly never set upon The British Empire.

Add to this, not only were all four athletes victorious British figure skating Olympians, but they in fact all strutted their elegant stuff more or less within the same decade – give or take a few years here and there – that saw Tonya Harding come to the fore.

It’s a fair cop, and clearly, in the words of the late Andrew Sachs: “I know nooooothing.”

But what of Craig Gillespie’s film?

It’s probably fair to assume that a tough upbringing is always liable to nurture a tough individual, as was the case with Tonya Harding, whose remarkable story is regaled here by way of this splendidly entertaining biopic of the infamous U.S skater.

Told from a number of conflicting perspectives, Tonya’s rise from ice skating-obsessed four-year-old to serious Olympic competitor and ultimately disgraced public persona, is examined here in all of its dysfunctional glory.

The story of Tonya Harding is a very American tale in many ways.

The girl from the redneck family, living on the wrong side of the tracks, who, through a combination of hard work and a no-nonsense attitude, somehow managed to overcome all of the considerable odds set out before her to make it to the very top of her profession, albeit for just the briefest of glorious moments.

A resultant child of a problematic relationship, Tonya’s formative years appear to have been shaped through two highly contrasting parental approaches. Compassion and love from her father, and the rather poisonous and at times hateful approach of – so far as I can tell – Roseanne Barr and Dot Cotton’s evil love child… her rather ‘unique’ mother, LaVona (Allison Janney).

It’s LaVona’s relentlessly cantankerous attitude that finally compels Tonya’s father to jump in his car one day and never return, leaving LaVona to raise and support her talented daughter through her many years of intense figure skating training. For a waitress in a diner this is naturally the cause of much financial strain, a point that LaVona is never shy to impress upon Tonya, be that through verbal guilt trips, or in more extreme cases, through the use of physical violence – a sadly recurring theme in Tonya’s life.

No matter her dedication and commitment, Tonya’s rather athletic approach to her sport is constantly at odds with the more elegant and demure image that U.S ice skating seeks to portray. It seems that no matter what marvels she achieves out there on the ice – Harding is the first figure skater ever to successfully pull-off the daunting triple axel, for example – it’s never going to be enough for the closed shop of an agenda-driven U.S skating governing body.

Never fear though. Tonya’s husband, Jeff (Sebastian Stan), and his bungling best friend, Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser), with one massively misjudged act of misplaced support and loyalty, are about to clear the way for Tonya to reach the very top of her profession.

And completely destroy her career in the process.

I, Tonya is an absolute romp from start to finish. A marvellously skewed interpretation of the American dream – gone spectacularly wrong.

Directed with both energy and precision and with a major focus upon entertainment, it  brings to mind those momentum-filled Scorcese classics: Goodfellas and The Wolf of Wall Street.

And it’s this insistence upon momentum that serves the director so well here. Even the frequent occurrences of physical violence perpetrated against Tonya – whilst clearly grave subject matter – are not dwelt upon for any significant length of time or allowed to sap the film’s amassed energy. Instead Gillespie’s film flows with tremendous purpose, and the bigger picture is rightly allowed to take precedence.

Further enhancing I, Tonya’s over all sense of vitality is a rollicking good soundtrack made up of choice tracks from the era. From early Chicago, Fleetwood Mac and Supertramp, to the brilliant use of Laura Branigan’s rendition of the Umberto Tozzi-penned classic, Gloria, it’s all tremendous fun.

Margot Robbie is on top-form as the aspiring U.S figure skater. Sebastian Stan is well cast as Jeff, the hugely-flawed love of Tonya’s life – a man that unfortunately (for Tonya’s own sake), she was never quite able to bid ‘adieu’ to. And Paul Walter Hauser is brilliantly comical as Jeff’s delusional best friend, Shawn.

But it’s probably fair to say that Allison Janney’s portrayal of Tonya’s chain-smoking mother, Lavona – acerbic put-downs and all – is the performance that steals the show here. A thoroughly deserving recipient of the 2018 Best Supporting Actress Oscar. I don’t think there can have been too many arguments about that.

I, Tonya offers a cautionary lesson in how even success built upon gargantuan levels of pain-staking effort can so easily implode in the face of poor decision making and the untrustworthiness of others.

Hugely entertaining stuff.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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WONDER WHEEL

Three Star Rating

“In the world of cinema not everything always has to be about change and innovation. The world will after all never be short of its fair share of boundary-pushing pioneers. Besides, it’s not as though Woody’s not played his part over the years.” – Wayward Wolf.

Whilst the same three stars may adorn both this review and that of our ‘old friends’ at Time Out, it is however hard not to take issue with the opening gambit of their somewhat dismissive take on Woody Allen’s latest film, Wonder Wheel.

“Feel like watching a new Woody Allen film?” they enquire, knowingly…

“Nobody does these days.” They continue…

“Currently languishing in movie jail, the controversial director soldiers on.”

In light of this and other such ‘glowing’ testimony, I think the term ‘soldiering on’ is probably highly appropriate here. It seems that poor old Woody can barely even buy a favourable review these days.

In some ways they do have a point though. But is it entirely fair?

Once again we are introduced to familiar concepts and scenarios within which an assortment of semi-neurotic characters experience the same kind of angst and existential headaches that we’ve become well accustomed to over the years.

But so what if that’s the case?

Since when did anyone watch the latter day films of Woody Allen expecting groundbreaking content or some sort of revolutionary approach to film-making?

I’d suggest that watching Allen’s films these days – and I mean this in a complimentary sense – is like putting on a favourite pair of comfortable shoes. Some will of course have long discarded these for more fashionable alternatives, but for many they’re simply indispensable. You know how they fit, exactly the type of journey they’ll provide you with, and that they’ll get you to where you both need and want to go.

And if that seems overly-safe or kind of uninspiring, then so be it. In the world of cinema, not everything always has to be about change and innovation. The world will after all never be short of its fair share of boundary-pushing pioneers. Besides, it’s not as though Woody’s not played his part over the years.

Wonder Wheel is a fictional tale with occasional narration from its author and one of its key characters, the aspiring writer and summer lifeguard, Mickey (Justin Timberlake), whose story centres around a family of larger-than-life characters living in the shadow of the famous aforementioned big wheel in New York’s holiday resort of Coney Island. Here resides carousel ride operator and recovering alcoholic, Humpty (Jim Belushi), his second wife and local waitress Ginny (Kate Winslet), and her young son from another marriage, Richie (Jack Gore). The archetypal, hard-to-love, ginger step child.

It’s a fairly cramped set up thus causing a certain amount of friction within the family unit; a state of play not helped by the family’s ongoing financial difficulties and Richie’s compulsive pyromaniacal tendencies.

Nevertheless, things are just about holding together for Humpty’s clan.

But when the lives you live are built upon the unstable foundations of sand – almost literally in this instance – it’s never really going to take much to bring things tumbling down. And the cracks in the foundations soon begin to appear when the daughter that Humpty disowned some years back – Carolina (Juno Temple) – unexpectedly arrives back on the scene having run away from her no-good hoodlum husband.

Romance soon blossoms between Carolina and Mickey. This scenario in isolation is not necessarily problematic, but the fact Mickey is already involved in an illicit affair with Carolina’s step mother, Ginny, is.

This awkward tangled web of love and lies slowly drives Ginny out of her mind, and to add insult to injury, Carolina – having ‘sung like a canary’ to the authorities regarding her husband’s nefarious activities – now leaves everyone in a predicament, susceptible to the looming threat of a visit from the mob, and all that that would entail.

Chaos reigns.

But despite this pervading sense of unease, Allen’s Wonder Wheel takes a predominantly romanticised view of a Coney Island summer, embellished frequently by the oh so flattering orangey-golden hue of the summer dusk light, and the multi-coloured glow of the Wonder Wheel’s neon lights.

There’s a good collective chemistry between the cast members, and it’s great to see Jim Belushi back on the big screen again, producing a sort of John Goodman-esque depiction of his character, Humpty. Justin Timberlake and Juno Temple both convince in their respective roles, whereas Kate Winslet on the other hand, as good as she is in her portrayal of the emotionally tormented Ginny, tends to suffer a little from the fact that in certain scenes it’s almost impossible not to imagine a wild-haired Woody Allen himself playing this particular role of exponentially increasing neuroticism.

Ignore the naysayers, folks. Though I may be something of a lone voice here, all things considered, the much maligned Wonder Wheel – whilst admittedly not seeing Allen at the peak of his powers – is nonetheless pretty decent fare. To suggest otherwise I’d say is either a little harsh or perhaps indicates some kind of ulterior motive at play.

Can’t think what.

Hmmm.

Wonder Wheel. A cautionary lesson of what goes around comes around in a tale of forbidden love, vanity, jealousy, revenge and regret, all unfolding within one metaphorical 360 degree karma-infused turn of Coney Island’s most iconic leisure attraction.

 

YOU WERE NEVER REALLY HERE

Four Star Rating

“Who knew that the work of a hitman could be such an ethereal experience?” – Wayward Wolf.

Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here (YWNRH from hereon in), is a remarkable film based upon the Jonathan Ames book of the same name, chronicling the exploits of hired hitman, Joe (Joaquin Phoenix).

Through many a sequence of flashbacks we build up a picture of the tormented mind of this rather monosyllabic and withdrawn character. Be it through an upbringing of family abuse and violence or from the harrowing times that he spent in the military, Joe is clearly a man haunted by his past.

Back on Civvy Street, he takes care of his dementia-afflicted mother with the earnings from his work as ‘hired muscle’. On the instruction of those that require his services – frequently high profile or influential people – he is tasked with tracking down and rescuing missing girls from the unfortunate circumstances into which they have either been forced, or somehow now find themselves.

But the hiring of Joe’s ‘talents’ is very much a last resort.

Though apparently well paid for his services, he seems hell-bent on some sort of personal crusade to clean up the wrong-doings of society. Hammer in hand, his methods are crude and frequently brutal, but never less than effective.

YWNRH is a film that is at once both violent and beautiful, yet these two apparently disparate states somehow sit together well here, interwoven into one innovative and dream-like whole.

Who knew that the work of a hitman could be such an ethereal experience?

Stylistically speaking at least, YWNRH is a little reminiscent of Joseph Bull and Luke Seomore’s under-rated 2014 offering, Blood Cells, but it’s the over-riding parallels with Taxi Driver that are inescapable here. That said, never does Ramsay’s film ever feel derivative or in any way indebted to Martin Scorcese’s seminal 1970’s classic. A familiar narrative this may well be, but in Ramsay’s hands it feels fresh and original.

Whether it’s through capturing scenes of violence via the restricted view of an in-house CCTV security system, or deliberate directorial decisions to ignore an actual act of brutality in favour of immediately cutting to its blood-drenched aftermath instead, YWNRH feels like innovative, impactful film-making. And it’s Ramsay’s ability to switch so effectively between scenes of thought-provoking subtlety and pronounced graphic violence – and at times combining them both together – that makes the piece so genuinely affecting.

Joaquin Phoenix is perfectly cast as Ramsay’s scar-riddled brooding anti-hero. A man whose propensity for explosive violence would seem to be as much a cathartic process in reaction to the madness that plagues his mind, as it is a gut reaction to the appalling immoral injustices that he encounters regularly through his work.

If there has to be a slight criticism, it’s Phoenix’s at times almost unintelligible delivery given his character’s tendency to mumble his way through most scenes. Needless to say, taking a bullet to his cheek/mouth during one particular ‘work-related’ scuffle does little to alleviate this particular enunciation issue. It does however make one wonder whether anything crucial, narratively-speaking, gets missed during Joe’s occasional verbal exchanges. But this is but a minor gripe, and it’s very much the visual and the visceral that are King here.

Finally, a brief word for the man of the moment – sonically-speaking at least – Jonny Greenwood, who yet again nails his brief with a menacing and at times challenging soundtrack that on one level brings to mind some of the best of Cliff Martinez’s pounding analogue synth-driven work that so brilliantly accompanies the films of Danish Director, Nicolas Winding Refn.

Above everything, YWNRH is highly memorable cinema with Phoenix’s performance in particular searing itself indelibly into our minds, unlikely to be forgotten in any sort of hurry.

Fine, fine work from the Director of We Need to Talk About Kevin and The Ratcatcher. But that was only to be expected.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

RED SPARROW

Three Star Rating

“…being no particular expert in linguistics and dialects myself, the Russian-infused spoken English within Frances Lawrence’s Red Sparrow, does at least get a tentative pass from me.” – Wayward Wolf.

Francis Lawrence’s Red Sparrow affords Hollywood’s golden girl, Jennifer Lawrence, another good opportunity to demonstrate her considerable talents in films of a more serious nature. Those with keen memories will realise that this is a revival of the Lawrence / Lawrence partnership which was ultimately so successful through their work together in the Hunger Games franchise.

Whilst Jennifer Lawrence understandably remains a massive box office draw, and thus a staple of many a huge grossing popcorn flick, the last couple of years or so has seen a marked maturity not only in her choice of role, but in the performances that these roles have consequently produced.

In my own very humble opinion, of course.

Coming on the back of both David O. Russell’s 2015 outing, Joy, and Darren Aronofsky’s breathtaking thriller, Mother, Red Sparrow sees Lawrence portraying a famous ballerina turned Russian Intelligence operative.

On sustaining a career-ending injury, Dominika Egorova (Lawrence), is given no choice by her rather shady uncle but to enrol into ‘Sparrow School’, very much against her own volition. Here she will learn how to use her body and femininity to devastating effect in the pursuit of acquiring classified secrets and information for her country.

But Red Sparrow – based upon the novel of the same name by Jason Matthews – is by no means a straight forward piece, offering a very involved twisting narrative, and frequently wrong-footing us as it goes.

It’s a tense tale of espionage, surveillance, counter-surveillance and double agents, and for a high budget mainstream release, it has to be said, it’s surprisingly gruesome fare.

Amidst all of the cut-throat cloak and dagger skullduggery, Lawrence positively excels as the seductive femme fatale, tasked with targeting C.I.A agent, Nate Nash (Joel Edgerton), with whom she soon finds herself romantically involved, further muddying the film’s already narratively murky waters.

Kowtowing somewhat to the mainstream, most Russian-spoken dialogue is offered in English with a whole variety of takes on what constitutes this at times most brooding of accents. This has, by all accounts, been a bone of contention for many, but being no particular expert in linguistics and dialects myself, the Russian-infused spoken English within Frances Lawrence’s Red Sparrow, does at least get a tentative pass from me.

Certainly there were no moments of teeth-clenching, toe-curling cringe-worthiness that I was ever really aware of.

And I’m sure Mr Lawrence will sleep easy with that news.

Considering the genre, it’s safe to say that this is not a film of the calibre of some of the classic spy thrillers of yesteryear. Red Sparrow perhaps has most in common with the James Bond classic, From Russia with Love, only far more gritty in its realisation. But without doubt, it makes for an at times revivifying experience, not least because of the refreshingly female-centric angle that it takes on this oft-visited genre.

Possibly not a film that will live exceptionally long in the memory, but with a twist in its tail, Red Sparrow definitely achieves what it sets out to do, and gets a lot more right than wrong in the process.

An at times dark, but always entertaining thriller.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A FANTASTIC WOMAN

 

Four Star Rating

“Daniela Vega Hernández produces a subtle performance conveying both hurt and inner strength – perfectly encapsulating her feelings of painful isolation.” – Wayward Wolf.

There has been a considerable raising in the profile of – and support for – transgender folk in recent times. A new wave of social justice / identity-driven politics has seen to that, resulting, in some parts of the world, in considerable debate and turmoil surrounding the implementation and mandatory use of new personal pronouns and the redefining of gender in general.

It has become a complex and somewhat tetchy issue for many.

In timely fashion comes Sebastián Lelio‘s critically acclaimed tale of unjust prejudice and enduring love, A Fantastic Woman – a film which deservedly took the Best Foreign Picture Oscar at the recent Academy Awards.

Transgender waitress and cocktail lounge singer, Marina (Daniela Vega Hernández), is living a fulfilled life with her lover, the significantly older, Orlando (Francisco Reyes), with whom she shares an apartment and a German Shepherd dog named Diabla.

Considering the propensity for Marina’s gender status to attract unwanted animosity, on balance life seems relatively good and secure for her.

Orlando’s sudden death, however, positively wrenches the carpet from beneath Marina’s feet, leaving her not only to mourn the loss of the man that genuinely seemed to love, understand and respect her, but to now tackle the future head on, shorn of the protective safety net and veil of ‘respectable normality’ that her relationship with Orlando afforded her – to some extent at least.

As far as Orlando’s close family and friends are concerned, now that he has gone, Marina is to be denounced. A persona non grata.

For Marina, this is to be a bleak and hurtful journey.

Indeed, Marina’s experience throughout Lelio’s film is frequently punctuated by examples of the prejudicial attitudes of people who are either disgusted by or too embarrassed at the very thought of having any sort of association with a transgender person, seeking to sweep the whole sorry affair under the carpet and airbrush it from memory in the process.

Such associations are, after all, not how they would choose to remember their ex-husband, brother, father or friend.

With only the support of her considerate work boss and a singing coach (Sergio Hernández), who truly believes in her – and a man in whom she clearly has great trust and respect – it’s difficult at times to watch such a lost soul gamely swimming against an overwhelming tidal wave of negativity. Increasingly, the hateful weight of this crushes Marina’s resolve, driving her ever deeper into a particularly dark place in her life.

Marina’s infrequent ‘visualised’ recollections of Orlando scattered throughout the film are at once both mournful and hopeful; reviving in her mind something that was beautiful, genuine and true and that serves as a reminder for her that happiness is possible, even for the most railed against of lives.

Daniela Vega Hernández produces a subtle performance conveying both hurt and inner strength – perfectly encapsulating her feelings of painful isolation. It’s a performance that positively insists upon (and gets) our collective empathy without ever resorting to melodramatics to do so.

Additionally, A Fantastic Woman boasts a soundtrack that is undoubtedly a major component of the film’s success.

Matthew Herbet’s understated score together with a choice selection of suitably emotive pieces perfectly support Lelio’s at times hard-hitting film. Perhaps most notably is the wonderfully evocative Pink Floyd-esque strains of The Alan Parsons Project’s Time, which exquisitely enhances one particularly tender scene of intimacy in the film’s early stages.

A Fantastic Woman is an ultimately hopeful film, beautifully realised and naked in its honesty. It lays bare the social and societal implications of what it means to be ‘different’ within a fearful and intolerant world, and more importantly the personal drive and determination that it then takes to overcome such oppression.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LADY BIRD

 

Three Star Rating

“…based purely on the quality of its [Oscar] opposition, I suspect that multiple nominations will be as good as it gets for this quirky coming-of-age tale.” – Wayward Wolf.

Greta Gerwig’s first foray into directing, Lady Bird, has apparently attracted significant interest amongst the Oscar nominations committee.

Not for me.

That’s not to detract at all from what is undoubtedly a strong directorial debut, but based purely on the quality of its opposition, I suspect that multiple nominations will be as good as it gets for this quirky coming-of-age tale.

Then again, what do I know?

Perhaps predictably, the film’s leading lady, Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan), is both strong-willed and a little bit ‘different’. Considering Gerwig’s own acting career to date, this should come as no surprise to anyone that’s familiar with her work.

Gerwig’s film is something of a tick list of teenage angst in all of its myriad forms, from losing your virginity, dating the guy that turns out to be gay, dating the guy that’s far too self-absorbed to notice you, ditching that penniless geeky best friend of yours for a richer more beautiful and popular model, to ‘flunking’ your school grades thus jeopardising your future career prospects – it’s all here folks.

But whilst on first inspection it may seem like the story board to a ropey piece of throw-away teen trash, Gerwig’s film manages to transcend the apparently disposable to produce an at times profoundly moving film which delves emotionally far deeper than it would at first appear. And it’s Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalfe), and more latterly with her father, Larry (Tracy Letts), that truly adds meat to the bones of this piece.

Lady Bird’s relationship with her mother in particular is erratic and highly strained. Two strong-willed characters they most certainly are, constantly at loggerheads with one another.

In response to her daughter’s somewhat unrealistic lofty ambitions to attend a high-brow New York College, Marion quips that she’d be better off just leaving school, signing up for city college, going to jail and then signing up for city college again.

Marion is the mother that only wants the best for her daughter, determined that she should learn from her own mistakes in life, yet her well-meaning motives come across as distinctly lacking in compassion and seem to dismiss Lady Bird’s own feelings and ambitions out of hand.

Her father on the other hand is an open and caring parent in whom Lady Bird can confide and receive the affection that her mother is either unwilling or unable to give.

Saoirse Ronan puts in a tender performance as the confused teen lead. Timothée Chalamet continues his recent good work with his portrayal of book-bound wannabe libertarian, Kyle, but it’s the welcome return of the wonderful Laurie Metcalfe that possibly impresses most.

Lady Bird is a tale of umpteen trials and tribulations. Girl versus the world on a teenage voyage of discovery. But as much as anything, it’s a film examining just what it takes to achieve our goals in spite of at times overwhelming odds and negativity.

It’s engaging and amusing in places, and all perfectly likeable.

It’s just no Oscar winner, but there’s no shame in that.

 

 

 

DARKEST HOUR

 

Four Star Rating

“No less impressive is Bruno Delbonnel’s absolutely beautiful cinematography, which positively shimmers through its artistic use of silhouettes and subtle lighting techniques.” – Wayward Wolf.

Darkest Hour examines the rise to power and early Prime Ministry of Winston Churchill. Churchill (Gary Oldman), is portrayed as being far from an establishment line-toeing ‘yes man’ – unlike existing Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup) – who, if the exaggerated handkerchief waving and heightened levels of vitriol emanating from the House of Commons are anything to go by, has clearly lost the confidence of both his own party and the entirety of the political opposition.

Chamberlain will resign and his party will then move quickly to choose a successor, in the interests of both the existing government, but more pressingly, to ensure that a strong level of leadership exists during war time.

Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane) – the party’s unanimous choice to succeed Chamberlain – surprisingly declines the offer. Step forward then one Winston Churchill. A less popular choice within his own party, once couldn’t imagine. Perceived to be something of a renegade and a loose cannon, the government is loathe to appoint him, but appoint him they ultimately do, only to soon regret the folly of their decision.

Whereas Jonathan Teplitzky’s 2017 effort, Churchill – featuring a similarly commanding central performance from Brian Cox – paid greater attention to Churchill’s faltering psychological state and the relationship that he shared with his wife and all-round pillar of strength, Clemmie, Joe Wright is more concerned here with Churchill the politician, as he sets about his work like some kind of force of nature, ruffling feathers as he goes with his dogged determination that Britain should not compromise and surrender to a tyrant that threatens the long-term freedom of the peoples of Europe.

Joe Wright’s film is hugely impressive in many ways. Most striking of all – and every bit the headline-grabber – is Gary Oldman’s absolute tour-de-force performance as this mostly unshakeably single-minded of first ministers. It should be noted though that Oldman’s portrayal of Churchill’s less decisive quieter moments of self-doubt are as equally worthy of praise as his portrayal of the call-to-arms, rebel-rousing speeches for which Churchill is so well known and revered.

No less impressive is Bruno Delbonnel’s absolutely beautiful cinematography, which positively shimmers through its artistic use of silhouettes and subtle lighting techniques. Perhaps most notable of all though is the imaginative and innovative staging and choice of shots. It’s as clear as day here that this is truly the stuff of Oscar nominations.

If there’s to be one criticism it’s perhaps the inclusion of a scene in the film’s latter stages which I’m fairly confident is the stuff of fiction, in which Winston Churchill goes on something of a fact-finding / soul-searching mission.

Changing the habit of a lifetime, he rides the London Underground to Westminster rather than being ferried about by a personal driver. Whilst doing so he engages in a number of conversations with understandably shocked and bewildered passengers in an attempt to gauge the thoughts and feelings of the general public with regards to the increasingly desperate scenario confronting them all – the very real possibility that the allies will suffer defeat during the early exchanges of World War II.

No matter how heart-felt and useful a scene this may well be with which to portray Churchill as being ‘truly a man of the people’, I’d argue that it is also rather out of place within the context of the film as a whole. It all seems like something of an ill-fitting after thought, and threatens to undo some of the excellent work that has preceded it, though I appreciate that this will of course be entirely subjective.

Nevertheless, don’t let this minor quibble distract from what is otherwise an absolutely stupendous piece of film-making, beautifully and lovingly put together with direction that successfully blends the artistic with the popular.

Despite its dependance upon heavy dialogue and weighty subject matter, Joe Wright’s Darkest Hour nonetheless remains easily accessible and absolutely simmers with emotion.

One of the finest biopics for many a long year.

 

 

THE SHAPE OF WATER

Three Star Rating

“A grisly fable come watery fairy tale. A sort of E.T for adults if you like, just not as good…” – Wayward Wolf.

A strange aquatic entity has been captured in South America’s Amazon region and has been transported back to a top secret research laboratory in the U.S.

In this establishment works Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute cleaning girl assigned, along with her good friend Zelda (the predictably typecast Octavia Spencer), to maintain the cleanliness of the particular room in which the mystery Amazonian creature is housed, and it’s not long before a strong connection bordering on amorous devotion develops between Elisa and this watery web-foot.

But this is not exactly a petting zoo. The mysterious species has been brought there for scientific reasons. In a bid to gain some advantage over the Soviet space programme, the U.S government wishes to study this creature’s remarkable breathing mechanism.

Overseeing the logistics of this operation is cattle-prod wielding psychopath, Colonel Richard Strickland (another reliably villainous performance from the excellent Michael Shannon), a man severely lacking in empathy, a trait that he all too readily demonstrates through his constant ill-treatment of the aquatic subject.

But having lost two fingers – and subsequently having had them sewn back on again – in an altercation with the creature, Strickland then attempts to convince the powers-that-be to perform a vivisection on it.

And with the very real possibility that this amorous amphibian could be snatched from Elisa’s arms, it’s clear that an immediate plan of action is required.

But the clock is ticking…

The Shape of Water when boiled down is a surprisingly straight forward affair considering who’s sitting in the director’s chair. A grisly fable come watery fairy tale. A sort of E.T for adults if you like, just not as good, with a possible tip of the hat towards Beauty and the Beast, for good measure.

The narrative may be suspiciously simple, but the film serves as a visually pleasing vehicle through which to explore various themes of love, acceptance and tolerance, amongst others, and there are some fine performances, from Sally Hawkins in particular, lending the piece a high degree of credibility.

Though largely restricted to sign language, looks and gestures, it is Hawkins’ on-screen relationships with the most prominent people in her life, namely Zelda, Strickland, and most notably of all, her artistic gay next door neighbour, Giles (Richard Jenkins), which really bring this tale alive.

Giles, much like Elisa, seems to suffer from a crippling lack of self confidence, but their shared empathy and hopelessly romantic dreams help them both muddle through life’s struggles together.

Guillermo Del Toro’s film has a dark yet playful feel to it; a necessary approach considering the fairly preposterous premise of a physically romantic liaison between a mute girl and, what is essentially the creature from the black lagoon, which, visually-speaking at least, seems to have been Del Toro’s clear influence here.

It’s an interesting piece and not without its positives, but ultimately one that I couldn’t successfully engage with on any sort of meaningful level, and it wasn’t for the want of trying.

The Shape of Water fails to really make any significant waves – a pleasing enough ripple in a garden pond, more like.