2019 film in review – February (in progress)

February
Cold Pursuit

Released: February 22nd

Director: Hans Petter Moland

Writer: Frank Baldwin (based on Kim Fupz Aakeson’s In Order Of Disappearance)

Cast: Liam Neeson, Laura Dern, Tom Bateman, Emmy Rossum, Dominic Lombardozzi, Domenick Forsythe, John Doman, Tom Jackson

Cert: 15

Duration: 118 minutes

2.5 Stars (2.5 / 5)

It’s been five years since icy black Norwegian comedy In Order Of Disappearance blew through cinemas. Now its director, Hans Petter Moland, is back with an English-language remake.

Liam Neeson plays Nelson “Nels” Coxman; a solid, reliable figure of the community, who has spent his working life ploughing the same stretch of snowbound highway outside of a Rocky Mountain ski town. Then his son (Micheal Richardson, Neeson’s actual son) dies of an apparent drug overdose and Nels’ life falls apart.

Discovering that his son’s death was no accident, Nels picks up the pieces and heads out to take his revenge. In doing so, he ignites a gang war between health-nut Viking (Tom Bateman; oilslick eyes and Joker voice) and a Native American faction led by White Bull (Tom Jackson).

In this, Cold Pursuit follows its predecessor not only in outline, but almost blow for blow, body for body – whether they’re shot, strangled, decapitated after death, or wrapped in chicken wire and thrown discreetly off a frozen waterfall; a trick, Nels tells his brother, “Iceman” (William Forsythe; blonde, portly, wonderfully hangdog), he learnt from a crime novel.

The film even recycles the device of having the deceased’s name memorialised onscreen, accompanied by their year of birth and religious denomination. The only obvious update is a passing joke about the destructive capabilities of Yelp.

Neeson, for all the unrelated controversy surrounding him, is less interesting in the role of Coxman (nee Dickman) than the stolid Stellan Skasgard, who retains more of an everyman quality than Neeson after his innumerable cinematic rampages; though they’re usually characterised by fewer squeaky morgue trolleys and less sucking on a rifle barrel.

The only police presence, embodied by Emmy Rossum as a canny rookie and John Doman as a pragmatic old-timer, feature so little in the narrative that I can’t remember if they were in the original film. Laura Dern, meanwhile, is wasted as Coxman’s wife, Grace, who disappears from the plot early on.  A shot of her griefstricken, searching, out in the swirling snow, in her socks, makes you wonder what the film might have been with her in the lead.

Irreverent but not insincere, and blackly, bleakly, bloodily comic, Cold Pursuit seems blithely unconcerned about finding an audience; content to do it is own things, or at least In Order Of Disappearance‘s own thing, as made more palatable to the audience by its leading man.

Not that the multiplex seem to have taken to it: the film has gone from cinemas without leaving so much as snow-melt in its wake.

 

Happy Death Day 2U

Released: February 14th

Director/director: Christoper Landon

Cast: Jessica Rothe, Israel Broussard, Phi Vu, Ruby Modine, Suraj Sharma, Sarah Yarkin, Rachel Matthews, Steve Zissis, Missy Yager, Charles Aitken

Cert: 15

Duration: 100 minutes

2.5 Stars (2.5 / 5)

Here’s the new Death Day, same as the old Death Day.

Last we saw college student Tree Gelbman (Jessica Rothe), she had finally escaped the time loop by taking down the killer responsible for her many, many deaths, while also finding time to fall in love with Carter (Israel Broussard) and generally become a better person.

That’s when things get a bit more complicated.

After the comedy-horror antics of the first movie, Happy Death Day 2U dials up the sci-fi elements. It seems the cause of the loop is none other than Carter’s housemate, Ryan (Phi Vu), and his science project: an experimental quantum reactor nicknamed Sissy.

If that feels like a bit of a cop-out, it at least allows writer-director Christopher Landon to change up the formula, keep things fresh. After Sissy malfunctions again, Tree finds herself blasted into a parallel dimension where everything is just a bit out of whack.

Carter is now with bitchy sorority head Danielle (Rachel Matthews), who at least seems to be more altruistically minded in this universe, if no less oblivious. Tree’s would-be killer – SPOILER! – roommate Lori (Ruby Modine), is alive again and seemingly harbours no ill intent towards her.

Who then is the new Babyface running around killing people?

Happy Death Day 2U skips past a lot of the recurring-incident humour of the genre, e.g. the student handing out environmentalist fliers. Instead the film plays its comedy much broader; like having the whole cast blasted through the air, gurning in slow-mo, to Madame Butterfly. The slasher element, too, is largely confined to the third act.

Which doesn’t mean Tree doesn’t die. A lot. (Though the film has a twist up its sleeve when it comes to that, too. Bikini skydiving, anyone?)

The film’s focus lies in its character study of Tree and in Rothe’s sharp, supremely assured performance. No longer the hapless “final girl” – she’s been through this sh*t before – Tree is now a straight-to-business bad-ass who only freaks out at the prospect of having to do it all again. The movie even mines further  emotion from her relationship with her family, which seemed to have reached a point of closure in the previous movie.

The self-proclaimed Back To The Future 2 of the franchise – Bear McCreary’s score even makes notable use of the iconic twinkle – Happy Death Day 2U might not have scaled the box-office heights of its predecessor, but, still, the best thing about time loops if you have plenty of chances to get it right; especially when you’re working on a Blumhouse budget.

So, next up, a Western? Happy Death Day Un3given? Gelbman Rides Again… And AgainMany Times Again In College?

 

If Beale Street Could Talk 

Released: February 8th

Director: Barry Jenkins

Writer: Barry Jenkins (based on James Baldwin’s novel of the same name)

Cast: KiKi Layne, Stephan James, Regina King, Teyonah Parris, Colman Domingo, Brian Tyree Henry, Michael Bleach, Ed Skrein, Finn Witrock, Dave Franco

Cert: 15

Duration: 117 minutes

4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

His first film since 2016’s Best Picture Winner, Moonlight – also my film of the year – Barry Jenkins returns to our screens with an adaptation of another great, generally unheralded American classic.

Based on the novel by James Baldwin, himself the study of 2016’s I Am Not Your Negro, the film follows two young, black lovers, Tish (KiKi Layne) and Fonny (Stephan James); the timelessness of whose love transcends the trappings of ’70s working-class New York, but who nevertheless find themselves trapped by circumstances beyond their control.

Told non-linearly, guided by Tish’s voiceover – sometimes serene, sometimes angry – we learn of the tragedy sometime after the fact: Fonny has been imprisoned for rape, a crime we know he did not commit; leaving a pregnant Tish to be supported solely by her family.

There’s a sense in this scenes, as Tish and her mother Sharon (Oscar favourite Regina King; fierce protective)  wait for their earnest lawyer Hayward (Finn Witrock; sidelined) to track down the victim, Victoria Rogers (Emily Rios), that these are lives in limbo.

In this, Jenkins brings the same intimacy he brought to Moonlight; whether it’s an unexpected conversation between Fonny and an old friend (a remarkable Brian Tyree Henry) nursing a hidden wound, or the first flush of love between Fonny and Tish, who have grown up together and hold each other in such esteem and tenderness their separation is heartbreaking.

Held in Jenkins’ now trademark close-ups, the actors seem to glow with vulnerability; their souls bared, unfurled. The lack of an Oscar nomination for James Laxton is almost as singularly astonishing.

Though the themes it conveys are deeply engrained, Beale Street feels a lighter proposition than its predecessor; perhaps due to its looser, more literary style. It feels, too, like more of an ensemble piece; spreading the plaudits between the likes of Aunjanu Ellis, as Fonny’s mother, whose one scene crackles with bitter, recriminatory power, and Coleman Domingo as Tish’s hustling, resilient father.

Diego Luna, Pedro Pascal, and James Franco also turn out for small but memorable roles; the last as a landlord willing, unusually, to rent to a black couple because he sees they are in love.

And so is tragedy tempered by love and the promise of love. By the possibility of change. By Nicholas Britell’s lush, string-infused score, buoyed further by Al Green and Miles Davis. By Joi McMillan and Nat Sanders editing, which operates with the irresistible associativeness of memory. It is a sublime sadness and, despite all, uplifting.

Beale Street may not talk – it’s too subdued for that; stuck behind the perfume counter, forced to bear its scented wrists – but I won’t quickly forget the look of it; its gaze, its hope.

 

The Lego Movie 2

Released: February 8th

Director: Mike Mitchell

Writer: Phil Lord, Chris Miller

Cast: Chris Pratt, Elizabeth Banks, Tiffany Haddish, Will Arnett, Stephanie Beatriz, Charlie Day, Alison Brie, Nick Offerman, Jason Sand, Brooklynn Prince, Maya Rudolph, Will Ferrell

Cert: U

Duration: 107 minutes

3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

A lot can change in five years.

That’s how long its been since the first Lego Movie arrived on our screens and was revealed as, rather than a cynical exercise in corporate branding, a big, silly, unpredictable film about the freeing power of imagination.

So, what next?

Well, the end of the world, of course. Picking up in real-time, which is to say five years later, the landscape of the Lego world has been dramatically altered by the arrival of an adorably destructive Duplo invasion who have transformed the modern-day metropolis of Brickburg into a family-friendly Max Max-ian wasteland renamed Apocalypseburg.

The whole cast have received silly-gritty upgrades – all apart from Emmett (Chris Pratt), that is.

He’s still the same eternally-optimistic, happy-go-lucky guy who won the day in the first film. Or did he? As I said, a lot can change in five years and Lego, unlike Emmett, is nothing if not adaptable.

The world is a lot less immediately sympathetic now to good-natured, but otherwise inept male protagonists. After all, we’re supposedly rooting for Emmett – and by extension his creator Finn (Jaden Sand) – against an all-female force from the Systar System – literally, Jaden’s younger sister, Bianca (The Florida Project‘s Brooklynn Prince).

Their queen, the oh-so-friendly, slinky, ever-so-possibly conniving Watevra Wa’Nabi (Tiffany Haddish) even has a song about how not evil she is (sample lyric: “Not evil, not evil, no, the least evil person I know”.)Then again, she does want to marry Batman (Will Arnett; still moodily self-involved), so who knows what’s up with that.

While there’s nothing to quite rival earworm extraordinaire “Everything Is Awesome”, the soundtrack is once again brilliantly poppy, and, remarkably, deeper; as are the themes in general.

There’s no way to repeat the coup of the first film’s “real life vs. fantasy” revelation – though Maya Rudolph gets a nice line in exasperated mom – but, once again, family is the key.

There’s also a good bit of meta-humour surrounding the casting of Pratt, who also appears as Rex, a cocky, stubbly, raptor-wrangling, galaxy-traversing, cowboy archaeologist with “chiseled features previously hidden under baby fat.” Surely he can help Emmett find his inner brooding.

Exploding, Puss-in-Boots-eyed stars. Richard Ayoade as a deadpan ice cream cone. A groan-inducing knock-off of a beloved Disney character. And even a bit of commentary on toxic masculinity. I ended my review of the first film by saying In Lego We Trust. Lego is great, no doubt, but it’s writing duo Phil Lord and Chris Miller, and director Mike Mitchell who’ve built a compelling world out of it.

Cluttered and frenetic, it seems like the sort of filmmaking of which Marie Kondo would not approve1, but there’s little here that’s not at least designed to bring joy.

 

 

Alita: Battle Angel

Released: February 6th

Director: Robert Rodriguez

Cast: Rosa Salazar, Christoph Waltz, Keean Johnson, Mahershala Ali, Jennifer Connelly, Ed Skrein, Jackie Earle Haley, Jorge Lendeborg Jr.

Writer: James Cameron, Laeta Kalogridis (based on the manga by Yukito Kushiro)

Cert: 12A

Duration: 122 minutes

3 Stars (3 / 5)

Robert Rodriguez and James Cameon don’t seem like the most obvious filmmaking duo.

The former has a famously run-and-gun approach to filmmaking, as documented in his book Rebel Without A Crew, and has spent most of career making B-movies. The latter is responsible for the two highest-grossing movies of all time and, as the director of AliensThe Abyss, and Terminator 2, is arguably the father of the modern sci-fi blockbuster.

But its thanks to the fusion of these two approaches that Alita: Battle Angel largely works.

Out scavenging on a mountainous urban scrapheap, Dr. Dyson Aido (Christoph Waltz in indifferent good guy mode) discovers an inactive cyborg, which resembles a teenage girl (Rosa Salazar in, hopefully, a career-making role). He revives her into a world that is, by turns, both strange and familiar.

In the poverty-stricken Iron City, skeevy cyborg bounty hunters, like mohawked RoboMerc Zapan (smirky, jerky Ed Skrein), stalk the streets; occasionally getting jacked for parts by enterprising thieves. For most, the only means of escape, or at least escapism, is the spectator sport Motorball – halfway between speed skating and gladiatorial combat.

All of this lies in the shadow of Zalem, a high-tech utopia floating high above, ruled by the mysterious Nova. Many of the citizens of Iron City are striving to reach it – from tousled love interest (charismatic newcomer Keean Johnson) to the unreadable Chiren (Jennifer Connelly on femme fatale autopilot).

The only access would seem to come through Vector (Mahershala Ali playing it cool and low-key), a mid-level crime boss who has to put up with intermittently being possessed by the man in charge.

For all this, Battle Angel doesn’t get bogged down in the world-building, despite what promises to be an extensive mythology – think The Hunger Games meets Altered Carbon.

What sells it is Alita, who starts off as a head on a scrapheap and  over the course of the film matures into a righteous bad-ass. Salazar is a truly likeable, engaging presence in the role, carefully walking the line between winsome naïvety and annoying cockiness. There’s even just a touch of Edward Furlong’s ’90s-kid John Connor to her in lines like “Hey, what’s your problem?”, which makes sense given Cameron co-wrote the script.

It might be his passion project, but its Rodriguez who brings a literally scrappy charm to proceedings. If not as visually groundbreaking as Avatar – cyberpunk doesn’t tend to age very well – the action scenes are nevertheless dynamic without being weightless, full of grace and brutality and a surprising amount of blood for a 12A.

High concept sci-fi, streamlined world-building, and heart – Alita: Battle Angel is refreshingly not machine engineered. Unlike with Avatar, audiences haven’t flocked to Iron City, which makes the prospect of a return to Iron City and a certain celebrity cameo at the film’s end all more comical.

Still, it was good to get James Cameron out of the bathysphere for a bit.

 

Green Book

Released: February 1st

Director: Peter Farrelly

Writer: Nick Vallelonga, Brian Hayes Currie, Peter Farrelly

Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Mahershala Ali, Linda Cardellini, Dimitar Marinov, Mike Hatton

Cert: 12A

Duration: 130 minutes

3.5 Stars (3.5 / 5)

Green Book might honestly had been considered “an important film”, had it come out ten years ago. Released in 2019, though, it can’t help but feel, at best, a bit out of step with the current climate.

Based on a (dubious) real-life story, Green Book follows Frank Vallelonga AKA “Tony Lip” (Viggo Mortensen), a rough-hewn New York wiseguy whose talents include talking his way out of trouble (hence the nickname), eating hotdogs, and being handy with his fists.

He’s also, we’re led to believe, a “good guy” – a hardworking, family man, who just happens to be a kneejerk racist.

Trying to make ends meet, he agrees, very reluctantly, to act as chauffeur to Doctor Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali), a preeminent black concert pianist who literally lives over Carnegie Hall. Given Dr. Shirley’s tour will take them through the Deep South, Tony’s duties, we understand, will not begin and end behind the wheel. There may be trouble.

Tony and Dr. Shirley – it feels below the character’s dignity to use his first name – are, in themselves, almost comically a study of contrasts. Tony is stocky; Dr. Shirley is svelte. Tony is uncouth; Dr. Shirley is refined. Tony wants to eat fried chicken; Dr. Shirley would prefer not.

And so the life lessons begin. In seeing Dr. Shirley at work, Tony learns racial sensitivity and, through Tony’s cajoling, Dr. Shirley learns to connect.

Green Book‘s script – written, in part, by Tony’s son, Nick – avoids the usual road trip pitfall of breaking down into incidents. Scenes at concerts and in motels have a natural build to them as Tony and Shirley’s relationship deepens and evolves, unsurprisingly, but nevertheless compellingly.

The film has little to say about racism, other than to suggest it can be a matter of limited horizons. If Ali walks away with the Best Supporting Actor Oscar – he feels more like co-lead, imho – it will be a far shout from Sam Rockwell’s winning turn in the differently controversial Three Billboards, which, for all my reservations with its handling of race, at least it felt like it had something to say about the tragedy and absurdity of prejudice.

The eponymous green book, and all it represents, hardly gets a look-in.

Still, Green Book thrives on its two key performances: Mortensen, muscular (so to speak) and compelling as ever; Ali, as always, displaying remarkable subtlety and sensitivity as a man torn between two poles.

Still, Peter Farrelly’s background in comedy shines through in their interplay, aided by Patrick J. Don Vito’s careful editing. Sean Porter’s cinematography is vivid yet textured, nuanced, and Kris Bowers’ score crackles with threat and climbs with promise.

The film is nothing if not expertly made; a big, handsome, empty Cadillac, well-upholstered but lacking much behind the engine.

Mileage, in short, may vary.

 

 

Can You Ever Forgive Me?

Released: February 1st

Director: Marielle Heller

Writer: Nicole Holofcener, Jeff Whitty (based on the book of the same name by Lee Israel)

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Richard E. Grant, Dolly Wells, Jane Curtain, Ben Falcone, Gregory Korostishevsky, Stephen Spinella, Christian Navarro

Cert: 15

Duration: 107 minutes

4 Stars (4 / 5)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that an actor in possession of comedic talent, must be in want of a career in drama.

It’s rare, though, to get an Oscar nomination first time out the gate.

Lee Israel (Melissa McCarthy) writes literary biographies for a living. We’re led to believe she’s good at it. The problem is, nobody wants to read them. They’re regular features on discount tables.

Also, Lee herself is not well-liked: she’s surly and abrasive, she drinks like a fish. At a party, she’s less likely to steal the limelight than your coat.  The only creatures who have any affection for her are her cat and, inexplicably, her landlord, to whom she’s perenially in hock.

All of this contributes to the fact that, “No one is going to pay for the writer Lee Israel right now”; as her agent (Jane Curtin) reminds her when she asks for an advance on her next book

People are, however, willing to pay for her imitation of famous voices; especially when they don’t know it’s an imitation.

Based on the memoir of the real-life Israel, who passed away in 2014, Can You Ever Forgive Me? – itself named for a quote from Dorothy Parker – casts an eye on what it means to be creative, to be authentic. Are the works Lee creates – which she, in a fit of piqué, describes as “literary treasures” – any less valuable in their content not coming from Noël Coward?

Lee is herself, to be misquote Larkin, an “old-type natural fouled-up”; like her new drinking buddy, the rakish free-loading Jack (Richard E. Grant, toothily charming and melancholy; also Oscar nominated).

All they have in common is their sarcasm, their drinking, and the fact they’re both gay. For Jack, shamelessly fly-by-night, it’s just about hooking up; if only to secure a place to sleep. For Lee, whose motivations are more internal, it’s sadder, subtler; as on a date with bookshop owner Anna (Dolly Wells), where she can’t quite bring herself to take the first step.

Lee stands in the same vein of unglamorous female protagonist that McCarthy portrayed in films like Spy or Life Of The Party, but where tend to be liberated, raunchy, Lee is clenched, locked down. Even when she’s not carrying off minor heists from libraries and archives, substituting her own forged letters for real historical documents, there’s a sense that she feels she’s getting away with something; if only just.

Marielle Heller’s direction is sharp and sympathetic, allowing us to feel innate sympathy for Lee even at her least likeable. The New York of the film, lensed by cinematographer Brandon Trost, is Woody Allen without the pretensions; all leafy suburbs, warmly shabby bookshops, and intimate dive bars, accompanied by Nate Heller’s delicate jazz score.

Can You Ever Forgive Me‘s caustic wit – which to Lee, in her own words, her religion  – and downbeat sensibilities combine for an affecting, sharply funny portrait of two misfits and their crimes, such as they are; victimless, almost, apart from themselves.

  1. Sorry, that was my attempt at a topical joke. I won’t try it again. Sorry.

Author: robertmwallis

Graduate of Royal Holloway and the London Film School. Founder of Of All The Film Sites; formerly Of All The Film Blogs (www.ofallthefilmblogs.blogspot.co.uk). Formerly Film & TV Editor of The Metropolist (www.themetropolist.com) and Official Sidekick at A Place to Hang Your Cape (www.ap2hyc.com). Co-host of the Electric Shadows podcast (http://bit.ly/29Pd7RS) and member of the Online Film Critics Society (http://www.ofcs.org).

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