Awards season rattles on in earnest this week, with the release of two major Oscar contenders in the shape of Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Green Book. There’s also the years first big horror movie, a foreign festival hit and the film that will almost certainly prove to be the swansong for the beloved How to Train Your Dragon franchise. There’s definitely something for everyone.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Melissa McCarthy‘s comedy career has become increasingly exhausting for the last few years. So, with that in mind, it’s a delight to see her doing something serious – and doing it brilliantly – in her newest movie.
Can You Ever Forgive Me?, directed by Marielle Heller, has McCarthy on Oscar-nominated form as down on her luck writer Lee Israel, who falls into the world of literary forgery. She starts by adding saucy postscripts to real celeb letters, then segues into simply writing them from scratch. Richard E Grant is equally great as her alcoholic accomplice, in a role that showcases him having the absolute time of his life.
It’s a film that delivers in terms of both drama and comedy, never squandering McCarthy’s innate ability to make every word she says funny. As fun as that is, it sometimes leads the film to take the side of Israel, despite her criminality. There are some under-cooked subplots and other characters never get the spotlight they deserve but, when the movie focuses on the McCarthy/Grant double act, it’s a foul-mouthed delight.
VERDICT: Melissa McCarthy is certainly a dramatic revelation in Can You Ever Forgive Me? but, when she teams with Richard E Grant, they find absolute gold. With a liberal helping of comedy, this bonkers true story genuinely comes alive.
(Dir: Marielle Heller, 106 mins, Cert: 15) [MY FULL REVIEW AT VULTUREHOUND]
How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World
How many times have you thought about How to Train Your Dragon since the last movie landed, back in 2014? If the answer is anything other than “several times, every day”, then you might struggle with The Hidden World – a delayed threequel that doesn’t seem to realise how delayed it is.
The plot relies on Hiccup and his buddies – a colourful supporting cast that gets nothing to do – as they attempt to find the titular concealed sanctuary, while fighting off a master dragon hunter. There’s a female Night Fury on the scene, too, facilitating some grotesquely over-extended courtship scenes in which Toothless shows just how incompetent he is in a dating situation.
This feels like a movie made because they felt they ought to give the characters a neat conclusion, rather than one driven by a compelling story idea. The endpoint is predictable, but the need for a narrative to get us there manifests in a selection of bland and unexciting action sequences, without much in the way of emotional connection. Even that finale relies on a deep bond between the audience and characters who haven’t been on the screen for more than four years. Damp squib, to say the least.
VERDICT: What a sad end to a very enjoyable franchise. This movie wastes its terrific supporting cast in order to focus on big, colourful action sequences that are delivered without any emotional stakes. It’s for the fans, and the fans alone.
(Dir: Dean DeBlois, 104 mins, Cert: PG)
It’s arriving in cinemas at the centre of a whirlwind of controversies, from white actors dropping the N word to producers tweeting about Muslims celebrating 9/11 but, taken on its own merits, Green Book is a solidly entertaining, middlebrow crowd-pleaser.
Viggo Mortensen is the strange, bestial Tony Vallelonga, who acts as chauffeur and bodyguard for Mahershala Ali‘s prim pianist Don Shirley. We learn early on that Tony is a terrible racist, but that disappears almost immediately in order to allow for a heartfelt connection between him and his black boss. Ali’s performance is terrifically controlled, while Mortensen makes the most of just shoving as much food into his mouth as possible.
The film is conventional to a fault, with Peter Farrelly completely disavowing his gross-out comedy tendencies for a movie that is never anything other than gentle. It’s warm enough to raise a smile from even the most cynical viewer, but it doesn’t deserve to be in the Oscars conversation.
VERDICT: Peter Farrelly’s shift to drama hasn’t gone as well as Melissa McCarthy’s this week, though Green Book is an enjoyable movie that benefits from one excellent central performance and one that is as competent as it is broad.
(Dir: Peter Farrelly, 130 mins, Cert: 12A) [MY FULL REVIEW AT FLICKERING MYTH]
The concept of an escape room is an interesting one to explore, given the fact it’s basically a group of people consenting to be locked in a hidden location by strangers. Through the director of the last Insidious movie, Adam Robitel, that weird concept has now been given a fun horror spin.
It’s very much a standard horror setup, with a disparate group of people receiving mysterious invites from friends and loved ones, directing them to a unique, high-tech escape room experience. As the rooms become dangerous, it’s soon clear that they have been duped into a game of life and death, which they may well not survive. There are upside down rooms, enormous ovens and a hospital with obvious relevance to the participants.
Robitel creates an admirable amount of tension from the premise, utilising the very inventive rooms to mine the maximum number of scares, while packing in a fair amount of backstory to make these characters worth rooting for or against. It completely topples off a cliff with its confusing, muddled resolution but, for 90 minutes, I was gripping the side of the seat with stress.
VERDICT: Like so many mystery-based horror movies, Escape Room has absolutely no idea how to stick the landing. However, with nicely drawn characters and some surprisingly innovative set pieces, it’s a tense and frightening delight of a horror tale.
(Dir: Adam Robitel, 100 mins, Cert: 15) [MY FULL REVIEW AT FLICKERING MYTH]
Dan Gilroy‘s follow-up to Nightcrawler – because no one counts Roman J Israel Esq. – looked like one of those unusual movies that suits Netflix to a tee. Velvet Buzzsaw was sold as an art world satire with lashings of horror. That’s sort of what it is, but it does it without a jot of competence.
Jake Gyllenhaal screeches his way through the film with crazy eyes as the preposterously named art critic Morf Vandewalt. He begins writing a book about a new artist, whose work is discovered posthumously and exhibited, despite his dying wish that his paintings be destroyed. Soon, people connected to the art are dying, as if pursued by a curse.
There’s a little satire here, but it’s deeply unimaginative and dwarfed by some mad creative decisions and a visual style that couldn’t be more televisual if it were a Miami-set episode of Eastenders. Almost every choice here is the wrong one and it’s very difficult to work out what the intentions were here. Whatever they were, it doesn’t work at all.
VERDICT: Jake Gyllenhaal’s wild-eyed bellowing is the perfect microcosm for everything that’s wrong with Velvet Buzzsaw. It wants desperately for people to think it’s smart, and so it covers its shortcomings by making a lot of distracting noise.
(Dir: Dan Gilroy, 112 mins, Cert: 15)
Lee Chang-dong‘s simmering mystery tale Burning thrives on ambiguity. It’s 50% love triangle drama and 50% missing person thriller, with equal mastery of both of those concepts.
Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in) is a rather tragic young farm boy, who somehow attracts the beautiful Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) and agrees to look after her cat while she goes on a trip. She comes back with a new beau (Steven Yeun) and disappears without a trace shortly after, leading Jong-su to be very suspicious of the charming, wealthy new arrival.
This is an engrossing and enthralling movie, which creates an intoxicating atmosphere as it amplifies the weird, unspoken tension between the three main characters. Yeun is terrific as the slimy, mysterious Ben and Jong-seo has enough Gone Girl in her performance to make you question the nature of her absence. The ending doesn’t piece everything together in a satisfying way, but Chang-dong executes everything with maximum style and confidence.
VERDICT: Lee Chang-dong’s intriguing mystery makes the most of its unique, dreamlike style to create a journey that’s far more memorable and enjoyable than its slightly disappointing destination. Well worth your time.
(Dir: Lee Chang-dong, 148 mins, Cert: 15)
What did you think of this week’s film releases? Let me know in the comments section and also take a look at last week’s review round-up.