Wednesday, 11 March 2020

David at the Movies: Sister Act minus the wimples


I’m fighting the temptation to wax cynical about Military Wives. There have been a lot of movies about Choirs (and even more TV shows), so this picture is a bit short on originality – and not short enough on predictability. But it’s as full of the feel-good factor as anything else in this genre and worth seeing for that alone.

I’m not sure which county the military base is in; the only road sign we see offers only London as a desti-nation. The men have all been posted to Afghanistan. Coffee mornings and quaffing wine aren’t enough to keep the grass-widow wives occupied, so they start a choir. Kristin Scott Thomas is pitch-perfect as the posh colonel’s wife whose vision of the kind of choir they need is at odds with that of the newly-promoted sergeant-major’s missus (Sharon Horgan, also spot-on). You may be able to guess the rest.

The rehearsals and performance scenes are not as much fun as those in Sister Act, and the women aren’t as engaging as The Calendar Girls were, but the director, Peter Cattaneo, who gave us The Full Monty in 1997, brings the same full-heartedness to this belated follow-up. Predictable or not, the widowing of one of the women is very movingly presented, and the finale in the Albert Hall should bring a tear to the flintiest eye. It brought one to mine.



Of the films in contention this year, I think I would have given Best Director and Best Picture awards to Quentin Tarantino and Once Upon a Time in Hollywood – a sly ‘revisionist’ take on Tinseltown at the far end of its Golden Age. Yes, Parasite is highly original and filled with ironical social commentary, but -- Best Picture? Nah.

It’s hard to write about it without spoilers, but it’s a tale of two Korean families, one rich and living in a hilltop mansion, the other struggling in a grimy basement below the bottom of the same hill. Crafty as well as envious, the poor people slowly (a bit too slowly, IMO) infiltrate the lives of the rich folk. When the plutocrats take off for a camping trip, things start to unravel.

The theme of the working class subverting the Upper Crust was brilliantly explored in Joseph Losey’s The Servant (1963), which did not morph from Social Drama into Horror territory. I think Parasite has to be judged as a horror movie, since that’s where it ends up. Set against the standards of Class-A horrors like Psycho and The Exorcist, I would not put Parasite in their league. Good, yes, and clever, beautifully shot and edited (and acted), but not up there with The Best. Sorry!

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Armando Ianucci offers a Monty Python take on this much-loved (and much-filmed) Dickens novel, emphasizing the comic elements more than the romantic drama that is usually highlighted. The director’s other big innovation is colour-blind casting, with several black and Asian actors, including (my favourite) Dev Patel in the title role. Hopefully it’s a sign that we are maturing as cinema-goers, but this casting ‘anomaly’ within minutes seems completely natural and completely ‘right’.

Apart from Patel and Ben Whishaw (as a harder tougher Uriah Heep), the most outstanding performances come from actors with longer career histories. Hugh Laurie hits a new high as Mr Dick, David’s delusional distant cousin. Peter Capaldi’s Mr Micawber is a pantomime take on his Dr Who and Tilda Swinton gives a rich fruity version of Aunt Betsey Trotwood.

There are some clever camera tricks, such as the location peeling back like an onion skin. For my taste the humour was sometimes too manic, but at its heart the film offers vivid insights into the creative process, which was very much central to the novel in 1850. The Monty Python comparisons kept coming back: after Life of Brian we have a clever and irreverent Life of Dickens. Weird and wonderful, and worth seeing for the OTT acting.

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Am I becoming more gullible, or are biopics getting better? Taron Egerton was uncannily good as Elton John last year and Renee Zellwegger really did seem to reincarnate Judy Garland. Now we get Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce as Popes Benedict and Francis, and within minutes I totally believed in them as the two Holy Fathers. (Make-up people perhaps deserve some of the credit.)

The story covers the eight years of Benedict’s papacy following the death of John Paul II in 2005 to his unexpected abdication in 2013 when Francis succeeded him. The key scene is a visit from Cardinal Bergoglio (the future Francis) to the papal summer residence at Castel Gandolfo: Bergoglio wants to retire early but so, he is shocked to learn, does Benedict.

This scene – and I guess the bulk of the movie – is a fictional dramatization, but Anthony McCarten's screenplay gives both men dialogue that is crisp and believable, with some nice comic moments (pizza and football!). The story is loaded in favour of Francis: flashbacks recapture his early Jesuit priesthood and the painful compromises he made with the ruthless Argentinian military rulers in the 1970s. Benedict’s boyhood in Nazi-era Bavaria is not revisited, and the (ongoing) scandal over paedophile priests, which Benedict severely mishandled and which was we assume the unstated reason for his abdication, is rather skated over – the only flaws in a near-perfect movie.

The sets – is it a set or a digitally recreated Sistine Chapel? – are stunning, the script sparkles, Pryce and Hopkins give deliciously nuanced performances. Who would think that a drama about Vatican politics could have the emotional heft of an opera, both grand opera and soap opera?

(The Two Popes) is streaming on Netflix.

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Director Sam Mendez is already raking in awards and nominations for this visceral picture of the “Great War”. Two British infantrymen cross the No Man’s Land between our trenches and the German trenches on the Western Front carrying a vital message that will prevent a massacre. Massacres were the order of the day in World War One as towns and villages were reduced to rubble and a few metres of French farmland slowly gained or lost.

Brilliantly shot, mostly at waist level, and cunningly edited to give the illusion of a real-time sequence, 1917, like Spielberg’s Warhorse in 2011, presents as authentic an impression of trench warfare as we are likely to see. Not just barbed wire and bomb craters, the two lance corporals crawl over rotting human corpses and dead horses to get to the German lines. There are a couple of overdone sequences which trip the movie into Indiana Jones territory, but mostly you do feel that this really is how it must have been for our grandfathers and great-grandfathers.

In the key roles Dean-Charles Chapman and George MacKay are totally "right" for the story and the period. Colin Firth, Benedict Cumberbatch and Andrew Scott are shoehorned into cameos. It’s a tough two hours to sit through, almost as gruelling as a Holocaust story, and it rams home the message that – extraordinary heroism and sheer endurance apart - there was nothing Great about the Great War.