March Review Round-Up: GREED, PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIREONWARD

With coronavirus shutting down cinemas last month, here’s a round-up of those last few films I went to see last March.

Never fear though- I’ll be reviewing plenty more over the next few week/months. While in isolation, you might want to check out the following:

GREED (Director/Screenplay: Michael Winterbottom)

 

Michael Winterbottom’s blackly satirical takedown of contemporary corporate greed doesn’t quite set the world on fire. Steve Coogan plays the repulsive, grinning Sir Richard McCreedie with convincing egomania, creating a foul-mouthed, cartoonish villain styled unambiguously after Arcadia Group’s rotten CEO Sir Philip Greed…sorry, Green.

Set on the fashion mogul’s 60th birthday, McCreedie invites his vacuous friends, spoilt family, exploited employees and a doubtful biographer (a typical, timid David Mitchell) to this great event, lavished in the adornment of the Roman Empire. But McCreedie doesn’t know his history- all empires must fall…and a reckoning is about to take place.

Taking his cue from E.M.Forster’s epigraph (‘Only Connect’), Winterbottom pulls down the illusionary divides between exploiter and exploited. The director-writer traces the direct line between the lurid shops of the UK high-street to the miserable sweatshops of South Asia. It also pulls the trousers down on McCreedie’s self-made, ‘barrow-boy’ myth that belies his Etonian education and financial privilege (Coogan’s swearing, swaggering adult emerges out of Jamie Blackley’s petulant younger brat perfectly).

It jarringly contrasts the ‘Instagrammable’, sun-bleached Mykonos shores (the consequences of the Mediterranean refugee-crisis quickly co-opted by McCreedie’s media crew) with the sweltering conditions of Sri Lankan women forced down in wage slavery. Winterbottom also makes few innuendos as he takes clear swipes at the respective practices of mega corporations and the fashion industry.

Greed’s definitely righteous (and right to be so!), yet never that funny. The early jokes are flaccid, imitative of Armando Iannucci’s pricking, sweary humour, but offer up little more than wry smiles and half-hearted laughs (a recurring joke about lazy Greek workers and an angry English foreman falls flat from the outset). It also struggles to generate comedy out of the truly despicable circumstances it delves into. Loaded, any humour struggles against the weight of subjects heavy as global exploitation and greed. As well it should.

After it’s punchy, Pet Shop Boy infused trailer, we’re misled into a satire of contemporary capitalism the humour of which is shuffled aside for the statistics by its end. Perhaps this is intentional as Greed insists you should never believe the packaging.

My Verdict // ★★★☆☆

 

PORTRAIT OF A LADY ON FIRE (Director/ScreenplayCéline Sciamma)

 

Portrait of a Lady on Fire can be watched now at Curzon Home Cinema. 

This slow burner from Céline Sciamma smoulders with longing and passion. From its intense, detailed performances to its elegant, evocative visuals, Portrait of a Lady on Fire is sublime cinematic art.

Sent to a remote island in Brittany in 1770, young painter Marianne (a magnificently taut Noémie Merlant) is tasked with painting the aristocrat Héloïse (a disarming, magnetic Adèle Haenel) for her distant betrothed. As her secretive study of the elusive young woman is uncovered, a passion flares in the artist that she never realised she’d kept from herself.

There are many strokes in Sciamma’s sparse, riveting script. The director-writer deftly explores how patriarchal societal conventions don’t just douse women’s romantic passions but also their artistic expression. The power dynamics between Marianne and Héloïse are soon swivelled (after insisting the painter’s first efforts don’t capture her, the young woman also remarks: ‘You’re not there either’) and slowly sparks the film to life.

It’s a welcome change after the poised, even constrained, stillness of Claire Mathon’s cinematography threatens to put you to sleep. The canvas of Brittany’s foreboding cliffs and thrashing seas might be deeply rich in autumnal colours and captivatingly shot, but the first act is almost unbearably stifled.

As Meriant and Haenel slowly unravel each other, aided by Luàna Bajrami’s sweet, quiet maid, the uneasy sisterhood takes centre frame and undertakes a beautiful transformation. Strolls to gypsy firesides and spontaneous illustrations done by candlelight become glowing moments always at risk of flickering out.

Of course, its classic tragic romance par excellence. However, for its painfully probing exploration of denial, desire and womanhood- you can’t take your eyes off it.

My Verdict // ★★★

ONWARD (Director: Dan Scanlon, Screenplay: Dan Scanlon, Jason Headley, Keith Bunin)

 

Onward can be watched now on Disney + 

It’s ironic the last film I saw before the world shut down was called Onward.

Nevertheless, Pixar’s latest feature might feel very familiar but lacks none of the usual inventiveness and heartstring pulling for which the studio is now well known.

In a realm where elves, manticores and trolls roam but there’s more WiFi than sorcery (luminescent sprites are swapped for the lightbulb), blue-elf Ian (Tom Holland) gets ready for his 16th Birthday. A magical present from his long-deceased father grants a one-day opportunity for him and older brother Barley (Chris Pratt) to spend with their dad.

But when the spell goes wrong, the brothers must embark on an epic quest to correct their mistake before the sun sets on their final chance…

Initially, Dan Scanlon’s fusion of high fantasy and modern conveniences is a lacklustre reminder of DreamWorks’ Shrek saga or the forgettable Planet 51 from Sony. While it’s still all gorgeously animated, offering such technical detail and colourful richness seen in their recent entries Coco and Incredibles 2, it can’t help but feel too familiar. Not only the visuals, but the first act setup is almost painfully conventional. Yet, when the adventure finally kicks into gear, Onward starts to works its magic.

It’s a quest bursting with poignant, tear-jerking moments and air-punching, hilarious action. As with many of Pixar’s entries, there are difficult (but family-friendly) reflections on loss, grief and acceptance amid all the ironic satire of the genre (such as Mychael and Jeff Danna’s score that cheekily riffs off Howard Shore’s iconic Lord of the Rings compositions).

Holland and Pratt give terrific chemistry to the siblings in the voice work. This fellowship of a do-gooder, a D&D enthusiast and a silent, yet surprisingly expressive pair of trousers, offers a refreshing dynamic that downplays any heated rivalry for a believable, uneasy kinship.

Even if the script sign-posts too much, Onward undertakes a resonant, heartfelt journey that has real charm, humour and dignity. For me, it felt deeply personal and a reminder that despite the obstacles we all inevitably face, our only way is onward.

My Verdict // ★★