FilmSpace: The big November round-up

CommonSpace film critic Scott Wilson takes a look at the films of the moment

YOUR FILM CRITIC is back from a brief hiatus with what November looked like in cinema.

Battle of the Sexes – ★★★★☆

Sexism in tennis is still rife, so it’s relatively shocking to be reminded of how much worse it was. Battle of the Sexes details the match between Billie Jean King (Emma Stone) and Bobby Riggs (Steve Carell) after the latter sees King campaigning for equal pay for women on tennis tours.

The film’s imperfections lie in its muddled focus. It’s about pay equality, until it’s about the match between King and Riggs, until it’s about King coming to terms with her sexuality, until it’s about the sexist machine behind tennis. With all of these strands vying for attention, it’s easy to get lost in what the film is saying.

Riggs is sympathetic because he’s a hustler who sees a chance to make some money. King makes the distinction between his clown act and the actual oppression in the sport. It’s never stated, but it’s likely Riggs doesn’t care at all about the equal pay argument. That in itself is interesting because we see these pantomime villains everywhere – Katie Hopkins and Piers Morgan have made careers out of it. They believe in nothing other than an audience.

Bill Pullman’s Jack Kramer is the one closing the doors. He’s the one deciding the pay, he’s the one who ejects the women from the tour because of their solution to form the WTA. He’s the system.

Stone is reliably magnificent as King. The film works just as well as a love story, her confusion over how to express her sexuality in the 1970s, an empathetic struggle of trying to be yourself while also feeling the weight of a monumental task that needs complete focus. It’s arguably a better biopic than a film about the battle of the sexes. But a great film it is.

Murder on the Orient Express – ★★★☆☆

The man attached to the moustache is in fact Hercule Poirot, played by Kenneth Branagh. Once the shock of the facial hair has subsided, Murder on the Orient Express is an impressively lavish game of Cluedo. Its all-star cast has to share limited screen time (we need to suspect everyone, obviously), while at the centre is the perfectionist Poirot trying to put right a wrong, the only two labels he sees in the world.

Like Branagh’s last film, 2015’s Cinderella, it aims to attract such a wide audience that it can only be so good. It’s professional, tight, and exactly as expected. The costumes are wonderful, the acting sufficient, and the setting snowy as befitting a winter trip to the cinema. It’s a perfectly fine whodunit.

Thor: Ragnarok – ★★★★☆

The sheer amount of Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) films means they’re doomed to feel disposable. As time marches on, more becomes forgettable. Within a few months, Guardians of the Galaxy 2 has gone from “a right good time!” to “doesn’t stand up to repeat viewings.”

Thor: Ragnarok might be the one to break the curse. It helps that in director Taika Waititi the film has an auteur that not even the MCU can squeeze the life out of. It means his particular brand of humour is all over this third Thor film, for better or worse. It will be remembered for its attempt at being an all-round fun time, complete with awesome music cues, superhero poses, and larger than life personalities. A reminder of what these films can achieve.

Justice League – ★★☆☆☆

Another reminder of what these films can achieve. After the success of Wonder Woman, it seemed the DC cinematic universe was about to turn its fortunes around, finally finding a formula that connected with audiences. After its acclaim – which seemed to take even the studio by surprise – Justice League was hastily edited, especially its marketing, to lure in those who gave DC one more chance with Wonder Woman.

The marketing was misleading. Justice League is a mish-mash mess of a film. The MCU’s equivalent, The Avengers, worked because we waited for and wanted these characters to converge. The heroes who make up the Justice League are not as familiar: Aquaman’s film is out next year, The Flash doesn’t have the same actor from the TV show, and Cyborg makes up the unknowns.

The CGI is lacklustre, the villain is monstrously lifeless, and the sense of fun, entertainment, watchability has completely been wiped out. Gal Gadot steals the show as Wonder Woman, but that’s damning with faint praise in a film with little else to offer. What should have built on Wonder Woman’s success is back to business as usual for DC – dull and void of personality.

Paddington 2 – ★★★★☆

Some films get a pass because of their desire to be widely embraced. The broader the appeal, the less offensive something aims to be. The scale can balance for a perfectly watchable 3-out-of-5 film that passes an afternoon, with the same amount of personality as a Coldplay song.

But then Paddington 2 comes along and suggests we've been setting the bar too low for too long. The story of a framed bear just trying to do something kind for his aunt sounds tooth-achingly sweet, and it is, but its heart is assertive and not ignorant of the state of the world. It's a film about being good to one another in a time when that isn't so common. It's a stern adult sitting an audience down and saying "now, you all haven't been playing nicely".

So while it would have been fine for Paddington 2 to be another middling family film, actually it looks to It's A Wonderful Life and says we all have a part to play in making the world realise its potential. Without any one individual, lives would be half of what they are; at least, that is if that individual is as good as a well-mannered and well-meaning (immigrant) bear from Peru.

From integral part of the community to wrongly-arrested prisoner, Paddington’s optimism is genuinely inspiring. He believes in other people much more than they do, even the towering Nuckles McGinty (Brendan Gleeson), the jail cook. Sure, it's slightly unbelievable that one person (or bear) can have such an influence, but that's not the point - Paddington believes everyone has the capacity to be as well-mannered and well-meaning as him. If they were, it's easy to imagine a better world.

Like Thor: Ragnarok coming along at the right time and providing laughs, Paddington 2 delivers hope, love, warmth. It's the film 2017 needs, that Christmas is made better by, and that we all deserve.

Call Me By Your Name – ★★★★★

On the user-voted aggregate website Letterboxd, Call Me By Your Name is the highest rated film of the decade. It’s impossible to mention its name in certain circles without fawning and emotional-yet-indecipherable wails. Like last year’s Moonlight, it has tapped into something that audiences have been waiting for.

A summer romance directed by Luca Guadagnino, it tells the story of Elio (Timothée Chalamet) and Oliver (Armie Hammer) as they discover each other. Oliver is a student coming to live at Elio’s summer house “somewhere in the north of Italy” to study with Elio’s dad. That vague description matches the half-remembered dream of the film. Everything is sun drenched, as if a nostalgic paradise of youth. Indeed – the novel it’s adapted from is a story being recalled rather than told.

Hammer is too old to be portraying a 24 year-old. It’s a visual annoyance, especially when the relationship between someone at 24 and someone at 17 is morally ambiguous enough without Hammer’s clearly fully-grown stature.

Despite that, expect to hear Call Me By Your Name mentioned in plenty of top 10 of the year lists. It’s something special.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer – ★★★☆☆

Yorgos Lanthimos is a weirdo. His previous films have been about authoritarianism within a household (Dogtooth) and a world in which if you don’t find a partner you will be turned into an animal (The Lobster). The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a fairytale; an especially twisted one with Colin Farrell’s Steven as a surgeon who failed to save the father of a bizarre boy called Martin (Barry Keoghan) after a car crash. Martin is clingy and Steven thinks he’s doing a good thing by keeping him around, nurturing and mentoring him.

Because it’s a Yorgos Lanthimos film, things get complicated. Once the fairytale-like curse begins to take a hold of the family, it’s a slow and long descent into inevitability. Like The Lobster, Sacred Deer has a unique performance style, as if actors are being forced to deliver lines at gunpoint. While it worked before, it has the same success as The Lego Batman Movie – yes it’s still enjoyable, but we have already seen it.

It’s a little too long and slow, and The Lobster was better in every way. If Lanthimos’s world is appealing, then this is bound to satisfy.

The Florida Project – ★★★★★

All of my favourite albums are about finding beauty where there is none; sometimes where there's the opposite. Arcade Fire's The Suburbs and Lorde's Pure Heroine both touch on building mega-structures out of rows of houses and terraces and avenues and not much else. We expect life to happen in the cities, but it's on the boundaries where the living is made and happens.

Moonee, The Florida Project's young hero, pays little attention to her reality. The barren grassland around the motel she and her mum live in is ripe for adventure, crossing the threshold between semi-temporary home and the outside. The abandoned and derelict projects are a playground to burn to ashes.

She's quick-witted, which she learned from her mum. They're both big personalities who don't hold back - why should they? Life comes at you fast, so they're just keeping pace. Moonee is right to talk to everyone, to make friends where she goes, to ask forgiveness rather than permission.

Her mum, Halley, is as big a character as her daughter, but more defensive. She has a history. Who knows what it is, but it's written all over her face. She does what she has to for the two of them, working whatever work is available, fending off those who dare judge what it takes just to live out here beyond the walls of Disney World.

If I, Daniel Blake stares you right in the eyes, The Florida Project is looking at the stars.

If I, Daniel Blake stares you right in the eyes, The Florida Project is looking at the stars. The American Dream is a lie, but there's something hopeful about everyone who passes through the titular motel. Halley and Moonee aren't content just to survive, they want experiences they can look back on some day. But, like Daniel Blake, they are forgotten about. If all they have is each other, no wonder Halley is quick to react.

But empathy is essential from those watching. Without it, Halley is unlikable. This is wrong. Daniel Blake is a warm, charming guy, down on his luck and completely normal. He's easy to root for. The Florida Project asks you if you care just as much when the person isn't warm, charming, and completely normal. It asks you to confront prejudices and the system and personal upbringings. Daniel Blake is a victim of murderous bureaucracy, but Halley has been completely abandoned, perhaps because of her own actions.

Bobby, the motel’s manager, shows you the way. He has a firm handle on things, but he knows his customers and their needs. Upper management is on him fast when he bends the rules, but he does what's best for the motel and those staying there. He cares because he's there, talking to them like human beings, and not a suit looking at numbers. It's about governmental neglect of citizens, stupid.

Just like Bobby is the film's empathy primer, the camera constantly perching at Moonee's height is the cue to look up. At the fireworks, at the stars, at something to aim for. This is a funny film, and even with its ending it still to me feels hopeful, because these people are trying to claim life back one way or another, and the film wants them to. It's cheering them on. The Florida Project gets poverty and those who live it.

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