Film Review of the Week


Amsterdam (15)

Review: In an early scene from writer-director David O Russell’s unevenly paced comedy, Christian Bale’s quixotic war veteran with a back brace and glass eye stares playfully into the camera and pleads, “Do me a favour, try to be optimistic”. I obliged but ultimately ran out of patience with Amsterdam, which draws inspiration from a real-life political conspiracy to engineer a madcap murder mystery in pre-Second World War America and Europe as the Nazi party casts a long shadow over global affairs.

Blessed with a starry cast that includes Bale, Margot Robbie, John David Washington, Zoe Saldana and Robert De Niro, this lavishly staged caper jitterbugs before our eyes thanks to flawless production design and costumes, and the luxurious lensing of Mexican cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who won three consecutive Academy Awards for his work on Gravity, Birdman and The Revenant. Unfortunately, Russell’s script repeatedly stumbles with pointless narrative diversions and jarring shifts in tone.

The unnecessary 134-minute running time is a gruelling tour of duty. Russell has an enviable track record at the Oscars, guiding actors to multiple nominations and deserved wins for Bale and Melissa Leo (both for The Fighter) and Jennifer Lawrence (Silver Linings Playbook). It’s highly unlikely he’ll repeat the streak with Amsterdam. Going Dutch has been his undoing.

Doctor Burt Berendsen (Bale) and lawyer pal Harold Woodman (Washington), who fought side by side in the 369th Infantry Regiment during the First World War, are contacted by Elizabeth Meekins (Taylor Swift), daughter of their former army chief. General Bill Meekins (Ed Begley Jr) has recently passed away and Elizabeth is convinced her father’s death was the result of foul play. Burt and colleague Irma St Clair (Saldana) hurriedly perform a post-mortem examination to confirm Elizabeth’s dark suspicion.

Soon after, Burt and Harold are falsely implicated in a murder and the fugitives resolve to clear their name, aided by pipe-smoking nurse Valerie Voze (Robbie), who tended their wounds in 1918. The trio stumble upon a shadowy plot involving General Gil Dillenbeck (Robert De Niro) that could fatally compromise the presidency of Franklin D Roosevelt. MI6 operative Paul Canterbury (Mike Myers) and counterpart Henry Norcross (Michael Shannon) provide invaluable support as Burt, Harold and Valerie gather evidence of underhand dealings and continue to disappoint their loved ones, namely Burt’s snooty wife Beatrice (Andrea Riseborough) and Valerie’s oddball siblings Tom and Libby (Rami Malek, Anya Taylor-Joy).

Amsterdam incorporates archive footage during the end credits to bolster its impish assertion that “a lot of this really happened”. Russell’s dull, laboured art marries freewheeling screwball comedy to a timely reminder of the fragility of American democracy. If there is a punchline (not counting Taylor Swift’s abrupt exit), it goes missing in a pedestrian final edit that makes unscalable mountains out of political molehills.

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The Lost King (12A)

Review: One woman’s search for the truth unearths a historical treasure thought lost for more than 500 years in director Stephen Frears’s crowd-pleasing drama comedy. Based on a script co-written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope, The Lost King fictionalises headline-grabbing events from 2012 when the remains of Richard III were discovered beneath a car park in Leicester – an archaeological miracle spearheaded by amateur historian Philippa Langley. From the opening title card – “Based on a true story. Her story” – Frears’s picture makes abundantly clear where its sympathies lie, portraying Philippa as a quietly spoken divorcee who overcomes scepticism from the academic community to restore Richard III’s place in royal history.

Unlike the team from University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS), who were commissioned to dig, The Lost King operates predominantly at surface level, venerating Philippa at every feelgood turn and engineering some classic on-screen villainy in the form of the university’s director of corporate affairs and planning Richard Taylor (Lee Ingleby). Take plentiful pinches of salt as Coogan and Pope rewrite history.

One undeniable fact is a bravura central performance from Sally Hawkins as the driving force behind the exhumation. Her body visibly thrums to convey Philippa’s daily battle with ME and Hawkins emotionally anchors the script’s attempts at magical realism in scenes of Philippa conversing with an apparition of the king.

In 2012, Philippa (Hawkins) is based in Edinburgh, amicably sharing custody of her two sons (Adam Robb, Benjamin Scanlan) with ex-husband John (Steve Coogan), when a local theatre production of Richard III sows the seeds of an “unhealthy obsession” with the Plantagenet king. As someone who feels unfairly judged because of her chronic condition, Philippa nurtures an affinity to the 15th-century monarch, who is maligned as a villainous, manipulative hunchback in Shakespeare’s history play. She devours books and attends meetings of the Edinburgh branch of the Richard III Society, where she learns that the king’s mortal remains were lost to history after his defeat and death at the Battle of Bosworth Field.

A chance encounter with historian John Ashdown-Hill (James Fleet) bolsters Philippa’s resolve to pinpoint Richard III’s resting place and her research leads to a Leicester city council car park (one reserved parking place handily marks the spot with a white R). A spectre (Harry Lloyd) accompanies Philippa on her dogged quest as she establishes the Looking For Richard project and crowdfunds a small commercial dig led by Richard Buckley (Mark Addy) and the team at ULAS.

The Lost King excavates core elements of a rousing underdog story but Frears’s film lacks the emotional crescendo teased by composer Alexandre Desplat’s insistent orchestral score. Hawkins aside, performances are solid in service of the plot and Coogan pockets a couple of amusing one-liners.

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Vengeance (15)

Review: Revenge is usually best served cold – at room temperature, at a push. For his self-penned feature directorial debut, actor BJ Novak serves retribution piping hot with a side order of gallows humour against a backdrop of Texan oil fields and a close-knit community which meets condescension with a cheerfully curt, “well bless your heart!” Vengeance is a smartly written murder mystery that hungrily sinks its teeth into lazy preconceptions about the second-largest state in America and spits out deadpan rebuttals with delicious rapidity.

Novak’s array of targets – which he hits with stinging efficiency – includes commitment-phobic serial daters, privileged white males, gun-toting rednecks, true crime podcasts, cultural appropriation and the scourge of social media. At times, his script pushes too hard for the perfect, polished one-liner but Novak is remarkably adept at simultaneously enforcing and upending cultural stereotypes within the familiar framework of a fish-out-of-water comedy. On screen, his appealingly awkward and misinformed central performance is buttressed by an ensemble of scene-stealers including Ashton Kutcher as a silver-tongued record producer who has a theory about every 21st century malaise.

New York journalist Ben Manalowitz (Novak) is asleep with another meaningless hook-up when his mobile phone skitters on the bedside table. “This is the worst phone call you’re ever going to get in your life. Your girlfriend is dead!” sobs Ty Shaw (Boyd Holbrook), whose sister Abilene (Lio Tipton) has overdosed in a stretch of desert dubbed The Afterparty. Ben and Abi were fleeting romance acquaintances – she is logged as Texas in his contacts list – but Abi’s family believes Ben was her long-distance boyfriend and he is guilt-tripped into attending the funeral. Following the burial and a hastily improvised eulogy (“She will always be a song in our hearts”), Ben meets Ty and the clan including Abi’s mother Sharon (J Smith-Cameron), grandmother Carole (Louanne Stephens), sisters Kansas City (Dove Cameron) and Paris (Isabella Amara) and younger brother El Stupido (Eli Abrams Bickel).

The Shaws maintain Abi was murdered because she never took drugs. Ben is persuaded to stay for a couple of weeks to gather material for a true crime series produced by industry heavyweight Eloise (Issa Rae). As Ben observes, a dead white girl is “the holy grail of podcasts”. Mexican drug dealer Sancholo (Zach Villa) is a prime suspect and Ty is ready to dole out vigilante justice. “I don’t avenge deaths,” blusters Ben. “I don’t live in a Liam Neeson movie!”

Vengeance is scalpel-sharp and Novak repeatedly draws blood with barbed dialogue and keen observations on modern social dynamics. The unedifying truth about Abi’s final hours emerges organically through streamlined storytelling, deep rooted in a deadly North American epidemic without any known vaccine.

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The Woman King (15)

Review: A real-life military regiment of all-female African warriors, which inspired Wakanda’s valiant Dora Milaje in the Black Panther comics, angrily scythes through the 19th-century slave trade in a thrillingly orchestrated drama directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood. Punctuated by bruising, blood-smeared battle sequences on foot and horseback reminiscent of Braveheart, The Woman King canters roughshod over historical accuracy to fertilise a period of big screen representation and diversity that includes the action-packed blockbusters Black Adam and Black Panther: Wakanda Forever.

Dana Stevens’ script sidesteps uncomfortable facts about the slave trade to simplify warring factions into good and evil, squarely positioning the audience behind the imperious title character portrayed by Oscar winner Viola Davis. Her fiercely committed performance, which required months of weightlifting, fight training and stunt coordination, fills every frame and crescendos with an obligatory inspirational speech on the eve of battle (“We are the spear of victory, we are the blade of freedom!”). Physicality of hand-to-hand combat contrasts with tender and moving scenes between Davis and sisters in arms, particularly South African rising star Thuso Mbedu, whose embodiment of a teenage orphan in control of her own destiny warrants a strong bid for a Best Supporting Actress nomination at next year’s Oscars.

King Ghezo (John Boyega) succeeds his brother on the throne of the West African kingdom of Dahomey, in direct opposition to the Oyo Empire. The Oyo collaborate with white European traffickers and Ghezo pledges to atone for the sins of his sibling, who also traded slaves, by shifting focus to palm oil production and agriculture. To repel the threat posed by enemy troops under the command of General Oba Ade (Jimmy Odukoya), Ghezo entrusts the kingdom’s fate to General Nanisca (Davis) and an all-female group of warriors called the Agojie. The ranks of the Agojie include Nanisca’s confidante Amenza (Sheila Atim), strong-willed veteran Izogie (Lashana Lynch) and orphan Nawi (Mbedu), who has been disowned by her foster father for refusing to take a husband.

Nanisca’s harrowing past becomes entwined with Dahomey’s future as she moulds the next generation. Meanwhile, spirited newbie Nawi gravitates towards occasionally shirtless and reluctant slave trader Malik (Jordan Bolger). The Agojie’s heroic endeavours position Nanisca to stand alongside Ghezo as his equal but favoured wife Shante (Jayme Lawson) has the monarch’s ear and she is publicly opposed to changes that threaten her elevated position.

The Woman King delivers a rousing, blood-pumping spectacle, emboldened by a terrific ensemble cast that personifies sisterly solidarity. Nawi’s romantic dalliance with Malik is extraneous but their sensual scenes counterbalance repeated flashbacks to a sexual assault. Female characters are fully realised and actively propel the narrative forward with the same sense of chest plate-beating urgency as composer Terence Blanchard’s score. For sweat-drenched self-sacrifice, Prince-Bythewood’s picture reigns.

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