Tuesday, 15 August 2017

A Ghost Story REVIEW

A Ghost Story isn’t a horror movie, although it finds a way into the same sense of prolonged dread through the deep, eroding existential sadness of its premise; following the grieving process of a young woman (Rooney Mara) following the sudden death of her partner (Casey Affleck), who then proceeds to haunt their home. The pitch is simple, but the execution and vision by director David Lowery is the elevating force behind this morose, devastating and inspiringly original study of grief, progression and what comes after.

The decision to have Casey Affleck’s unnamed lead hidden beneath a white sheet for a majority of his screen time is a bold ask to make of an audience almost indoctrinated to laugh at such a preposterous image, but the garments that drape over Affleck’s stilted frame serve to wipe his humanity away as a literal figment of the person who used to be. A black, expressionless shape who wonders helplessly between the rooms of the place he once called home, bound to the house in a literal and metaphorical sense unable to move on. Andrew Droz Palermo’s 1:33:1 cinematography and faded pallet bring to the film the same timeless and aged look as Lowery’s prior mood piece Ain't Them Bodies Saints.

Affleck is gently moving here, but Mara is the tender nerve of the film's emotions as over the first half we watch almost silently as she comes to terms with her loss. The opening scenes of Mumblecore dialogues linger over the gentle cradling of bodies, and the moments of silent intimacy worth remembering of those we love. In the film’s most powerful scene, Mara finally arrives home and in a depressed slump on the kitchen floor consumes an entire pie, in one take, in real-time. The effect of the scene is arduous, testing and desperately sad as Lowery’s phenomenal restraint and camera positioning leaves us as stranded as she is, and the longer the moment goes on it transcends from voyeuristic into empathetic without a single beat having been hit.

Where the film goes from this point is an experience to be savoured, as time contracts and dilates through our ghosts eyes and the world he knew transforms and moves on around him, and figures similar to him struggle to find their own peace while he continues to wallow. The magnitude of the smallest personal decisions can have more impact than an entire house being torn to the ground, as lifetimes pass in instants, and memories serve as the only link to the past for those still living that isn’t bound by tangible certainty. The philosophical musings of how finite and fragile life can be, and how in the cosmic spectrum of supposed infinity by corporeal lifeforms is ultimately a fallacy – as the earth, the stars and the universe we inhabit will all inevitably die – are dark and narcissistic sounding considerations that the film uses to its thematic and spiritual advantage of wordless character growth.

The film threatens to lose its self-possession and meditative calm when these themes become vocalised in the text, in particular in a lengthy nihilist monologue from a house guest (played by folk artist Will Oldham) that spells out the intricacies of the films intention in a rather needless, but none the less thoughtful routine. But a particular sequence in which the literalisation of Affleck’s emotional state takes hold in the form of poltergeist activity is going to throw many as maybe going a step too far.

There are moments within A Ghost Story where it feels like this could be David Lowery’s own The Tree of Life. Given a larger budget or scope, the final movement of the film could have transformed into something far more abstract, but to do so would probably be to undercut the modest and intimate scale of Lowery’s vision. As with Daniel Hart's wheezing ambient score of deep strings, the film never crescendos but settles into its own frame of mind early on and seeks its own form of self-effacing elaboration. It requires patience, but its muted reward feels worth the melancholic journey.

Thursday, 3 August 2017

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets REVIEW

Luc Besson’s eclectic career of misfires and quite successes as a producer should never undercut his ability as a filmmaker, as both writer and director his virtues of an industry outlier over the years has managed to maintain his place as one of the most prominent voices in European cinema. He’s unique manner of handing the worn-out tropes and clichés of genre cinema have allowed him to experiment with new methods of presenting his stories through a converse use of imagery and sound, while also smuggling into mainstream theatres his own brand of contemporary commentary alongside his more broadly entertaining and off kilter eccentricities.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets opens on what might be the single greatest stretch of cinema Besson has ever produced; a wordless montage in which space-age optimism and progression overcomes the barriers of language, race and ultimately species over the course of hundreds of years, and the evolution of the melting pot Alpha space station that is central to the story is witnessed before our eyes. Followed immediately by a wonderfully simplistic prologue on a planet of a genderless race who live in harmony with nature, it’s a pure and beautiful piece of science fiction brilliance that harks back to the works of Roddenberry – and sadly also the film’s absolute peak.

That’s not to say that Valerian is a poor exercise though, just a flawed and hopelessly enthusiastic pulpy space adventure that kind of lacks the narrative push to make it truly great.

Besson is clearly in love with Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières’ original 60s comic series Valérian and Laureline; a series which inspired the likes of Star Wars and Besson’s own spiritual predecessor The Fifth Element. Like 2012’s ill-fated John Carter adaptation though, its ambitions outreach its grasp and its resonance is somewhat lessened by the fact that so much like it has been absorbed into the popular consciousness and current blockbuster spectrum.

Thankfully, what that film lacked in resourcefulness, Besson’s film revels in with a purity to its inventive visuals and designs to its world. Presented without a hint of irony or sarcasm in the treatment of its multitude of species and worlds it’s a delight to see Besson in such a flow with a material that he is so clearly at one with. All the while the strong anti-imperialist messages regarding tolerance and the sanctity of life and victims of colonialism wait in the wings, ready to emerge and consume the audience in the final act.

From creatures fishing for humans in the bowels of the ship with glowing butterflies, to a marketplace in which loss prevention is achieved by holding the stores in another dimension, there’s more imagination in single sequences of Valerian than there is in most movies – even when the design of some of the aliens arrive as an obvious analogue or of questionable ethnic origins.

What lets the film down is that its space police storyline is very much a non-mystery that feels very simple to unravel given the extended opening sequences, and some truly thudding dialogue that feels like it’s just there to fill in the gaps between sequences and narrative beats. It doesn’t help than most of the main performances come across as rather flat, with Clive Owen just hitting his mark and Dane DeHaan’s Valerian and Cara Delevingne’s Laureline sharing shockingly little chemistry beyond the one-liners and flirtatious remarks. Delevingne is better under the circumstances given her role, but DeHaan really struggles to sell his roguish character with none of the cosmic charm of Harrison Ford of Chris Pratt. It’s actually Rihanna who comes out with the most enjoyable character and performance outside of a few cameo roles from other stars.

The good that’s on show with Valerian is so encouraging that it’s worth the slog of the characters and plotting just to experience its odd foundations, Besson’s inflicted arthouse paraphernalia and the beautiful all-the-money-onscreen set pieces, costumes and environments (when it isn’t restricted to spaceship corridors). It’s very clearly going to lose a vast amount of its enormous independent budget because of its lack of ties to other more reputable and popular franchises, but it’s a gamble that may win out if it succeeds in finding the same base who made the resurgence of The Fifth Element such a phenomenon.

Thursday, 27 July 2017

Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie REVIEW

Of all the surprises to emerge this year, it’s doubtful that anyone would have been looking at Captain Underpants: The First Epic Movie with much hope that it would succeed. But here we are, approaching the end of summer 2017, and Captain Underpants has surpassed all expectation by proudly and unironically standing the funniest comedy of the year so far.

Adapted from American author Dav Pilkey’s long-running series of revered children’s books, the dim-witted underwear sporting hero (Ed Helms) faithfully leaps off the page with a hefty dose of toilet comedy and meta-humour at the expense of the current superhero movement to roast the innate silliness of it all without feeling patronising or overly clever.

Toilet humour is a hard game to pull off in comedy, and if it’s not timed right or revelled in enough can feel cheap or lazy. But the film’s world of an elaborate cartoon parading as reality is what we are guided through by our young BFF heroes, George Beard (Kevin Hart) and Harold Hutchins (Thomas Middleditch), and respects and throws everything it has at the audience. The pace of the film never lets up with at least one gut buster per minute averaging out over its mercifully short runtime – merciful only because should it continue for much longer the audience would be left a dry husks incapable of breathing properly for a week.

This might only be David Soren’s second film after the misfire that was 2013’s Turbo, but it makes far better use of his talents as an overseer regarding the films timing, its snappy editing and mindboggling use of different animation techniques to tell the story, which vary from the speedy and well drawn computer-animation, to 2D renderings of comic book panels and one sequence involving actual sock puppets of all things. Nicholas Stoller’s screenplay is a brilliant piece of childish nonsense that delights in thrilling and tickling the funny bones of the audience through its dialogues and absurd sequences of invention.

The performances are rock solid and dedicated from everyone, and while Middleditch might have a lower that usual vocal register for a fourth-grade student, he and Hart share a believable sounding chemistry between the two best friends. Nick Kroll is a spectacularly over-the-top German-accented villain with a preposterous title, and Ed Helms appears to be pulling out all the stops as both the title character and his disgruntled principal counterpart in one of his very best performances.

Captain Underpants is a hysterically reverent family film that while ostensibly aimed at a much younger audience is going to bring the grownups in the audience much more joy than they might ever be expecting. It’s bright, clever, loud and incredibly funny in a way few films of this calibre in the animation field (outside of Pixar) can often hope to achieve, and while it never sets its sights on higher goals or themes beyond the general bonds of friendship and the value of laughter, it hits its beats with rapid succession and doesn’t wind down till the credits roll. Don’t be shocked if this ends up being of many ‘best of’ lists by the end of the summer.

Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Dunkirk REVIEW

Time has always been of crucial significance to Christopher Nolan’s films, not just from the perspective of distorting linear narrative structures, but in the way they can corrode away at good men, enhance the severity of a situation, and add weighted circumstance and tension to any given sequence of events position. In Dunkirk – his depiction of the catastrophic evacuation effort of World War II – Nolan and musical collaborator Hans Zimmer begin the soundscape with ticking from the off, thrusting us into a race against the clock that continues to build until the final moments in one of the most exhilarating and intense war epics ever put to film.

What Dunkirk achieves over its reasonable runtime is a multifaceted glimpse into the scale of the event as seen through a triptych perspective from land, sea and air. But Nolan being the structural master that he is won’t simply let that be, instead stretching out the action of locations from multiple timeframes (Land by week, Sea by day, Air by hour) into an astonishing tableau of active engagement and suspended tension. Though it sounds as tricksy as many of his other pictures, the experience of seeing the collision of these timelines as they converge and crossover one another in the push toward the final movement is a seamless fusion of visual and editing ingenuity the likes of which only a seasoned technical professional could possibly pull of successfully – and that he does.

Beyond the spectacular construction that has been formed of its narrative strands, this is by far and away the most ambitious technical achievement of Nolan’s entire career. The emphasis on raw spectacle, physical action and authentic representations of detail, locations and vehicles gives the film an earthy and dirty feeling as the pyrotechnics fly and ships sink into the ocean every other scene. The look of the film – shot almost entirely in IMAX – is breathtakingly absorbing with Hoyte van Hoytema delivering his best ever work as cinematographer. His chilly frames of wide scope and stunning clarity place you right there alongside the characters with a tactile precision and ingenuity not often afforded to mainstream blockbusters. From the angles of sinking ships as water consumes the frame from left to right, to IMAX cameras fixed to the exteriors of era specific spitfire aircraft in the middle of a prolonged dogfight, it is wholly absorbing and awe-inspiring to witness alongside the violent and oppressively piercing sound design and exceptional score.

Alongside the traditional filmmaking techniques employed, Nolan’s focus on the power of the image leads the audience over the crux of dialogue. Many sequences at The Mole unfold with minimal dialogue exchanges, having people thrust together in fits of agency and desperation as a means of survival as the unseen but ever omnipresent enemy close in on them. When dialogue is spoken it is usually of essential importance regarding exposition, with little to no time wasted on backstory or in-depth characterisation. What character arcs could possibly be focused upon when the scope of the canvas is this large?

This is a depiction of a single moment in time, with its eyes fixed firmly on the end game of getting the soldiers home across the channel; an objective that is at all times out of grasp but devastatingly (literally) within sight from the shoreline.

What characters there are exist solely as perspectives to the unfolding calamity, but are duly granted their personality through their performances that are given. The heavy hitters of the cast take their roles in their stride, with Kenneth Branagh’s pier-master overseeing the procedure with stoic grace, Mark Rylance fulfilling his duty for king and country as one of the mariner’s to the rescue, Tom Hardy acting his eyes off in an exquisitely underplayed and confined role as a Royal Air Force pilot, and Cillian Murphy as a shell-shocked and broken soldier, who’s demons are made all the more difficult to imagine considering we never see the disaster that he has apparently bared witness too.

But its Nolan’s faith in casting unknown youths at the forefront of the story that makes this all the more horrifyingly realistic in depiction. Young men, barely out of school, miles from home and bleeding, starving and fighting for their lives as the world falls apart around them. Newcomer Fionn Whitehead heads the pack with an almost wordless performances as The Mole’s central POV figure, while Tom Glynn-Carney and Barry Keoghan deliver saddening pathos as they sail into war alongside Rylance. Harry Styles, for all the fuss kicked up about the former One Direction singer’s casting, turns out to be a fantastic choice of actor in the film’s most volatile and disturbing role.

Dunkirk is a relentless, heart pounding and bold new addition to the canon of Hollywood war epics. As you stare it down you can feel the sheer power of cinema bellowing back at you with unbridled force. This is the first picture since Inception in which Nolan appears to have felt right at home with the material, on grounding he can quantify and exercise his prowess with latitude and meticulousness – and might be the filmmaker’s best and most practical work to date.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

David Lynch: The Art Life REVIEW

It’s a tricky thing to wish to dissect and understand that which strives for the constant mystique of the unknown, that is fundamentally scrawled and untidy in presence, mind and soul, but so utterly unique and of itself. The works of modern surrealist David Lynch are as emblematic and encompassing of the persona that is Lynch himself, and any effort of scrutiny to pull apart the strands of such a warped and blissfully distinctive psyche would be counterintuitive.

Thankfully, David Lynch: The Art Life doesn’t strive to solve the big questions of how and why regarding Lynch as a figure and an artist, but rather allows the time spent in his presence to open up and dust off the pages of his youth and beginnings in a medium outside of the already established texts that have become essential reading for all enthusiasts of his work (see Lynch on Lynch).

Directed predominantly by Jon Nguyen, but seemingly guided and overseen by Olivia Neergaard-Holm and Rick Barnes as former collaborators on previous behind the scenes materials, the format moves through recordings taken over four years in which Lynch describes in both intricate and opaque detail the particulars of his upbringing, all the way up to his production on Eraserhead – covering relatively new ground for those not already intensely familiar with his filmography.

What he recounts – and the manner in which he recounts it with his high-pitched and gravely vocals – doesn’t so much take us into the mind of the maker as much as it passes over the major points of his young life before his name was renowned. These vignettes cover the humorous (his shock at the size of Bob Dylan on stage) to the humbling and the downright uncomfortable – especially a tale of a neighbour that appears too difficult and distressing for him to fully detail.

The intention of the film appears to be something of an amorous letter for his youngest daughter, Lula, who is the only other person to appear onscreen. He is fascinated and passionately loving of his wild-eyed child, who moulds clay alongside him and he looks on as perplexed and fascinated with her reading of the world as we are to his own. The feature might be a means of communicating with her in a way she may one day be better to understand through the melody of his voice and the adoring way that the film frames his family and personal photograph’s and artwork.

The predominant setting is in and around his workshop, where in-between stories he busies himself physically with his work through hammering nails and sanding the textures out of his pieces. It’s an absorbing world that we are being allowed into, seeing it unfold without commentary or explanation. The film itself is composed of montages over his paintings and scribbles that don’t really add much to the words but envelop you in a mindset and mood that will either leave you relaxed or seized up.

David Lynch: The Art Life doesn’t stretch its potential from a visual perspective, but the way it surrounds the audience with the sounds and images of his work is enough to grant a sense of how his process operates so close to the stream of emotion and half-remembered dreams that are built into his cinematic structures and rhythms. It’s no missing puzzle piece, but it never intends to be and as such succeeds in its unwillingness to conclude on any hard note. It may only find full appreciation with those already accustomed to his persona, but it’s a neat and personal effort that basks in his eccentricities and perceptions.


The Cars films are the outsiders of the Pixar major productions, a series that has coasted on the credit of bankable merchandise and brand recognition more over the actual attributes of the films themselves, which have consistently proven to hold the most average critical reception the studio has received to date. These films may work for young children, but they lack the depth or emotional influence that has succeeded with many of their better efforts, and an internal logic to its nonsense universe (anthropomorphic automobiles and vehicles) that quite simply doesn’t make a great amount of sense when scrutinised.

This comes to the forefront of Cars 3, as protagonist Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) finds himself increasingly at odds with the new generation of racers and their more technologically savvy outlooks on the sport, and being referred to as a veteran who should retire now or face serious injury or death on the track.

There are many reasons why thematically this should work, by treating the series as a sports narrative it makes sense and certainly gives the character a greater sense of motivation than his original arc or learning to appreciate small town American attitudes. But in practice it never makes sense because of a very basic issue with the world itself; they’re cars.

Besides the preposterous ideas of conception (or construction) in this universe, in a world where bodily parts are interchangeable and constantly open to upgrades why should age be of any concern? The technology and statistical analysis being used by the team of antagonist racer Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) is apparently a new and frightening concept to apparent old-timers like McQueen.  Yes this all makes sense on the surface level for story’s sake, but in application it never coalesces with the nature of the world and proves to be a constant distraction from the drama.

Although said drama is as equally lacking in many ways. Sidetracking some of the series more colourful characters like Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), Luigi (Tony Shalhoub) and Sally Carrera (Bonnie Hunt) for a primary focus on Wilson’s McQueen and Cristela Alonzo as trainer (and prospective new series MVP) Cruz isn’t a move that fully succeeds because, quite frankly, McQueen isn’t that interesting a character to follow.

The dramatic beats fail to compel because of this lack of attachment, and scenes such as McQueen’s admittedly spectacular crash in the first act feels less shocking or affecting than it should do. In an attempt to conjure depth the film continuously disturbs the ghost of the late Paul Newman’s character from the original film, which only grows increasingly more tiresome and depressing after a while in its efforts to transform McQueen from racer to mentor – which only proves in showing just how vacant the rest of the performances really are. Director Brian Fee is clearly trying to tap into something here, but lacks the grace and momentum of the great John Lasseter even when he’s not on top form.

Cars 3 wants to act as the great trilogy capper Toy Story 3 was, but without the wealth of investment or engagement necessary to do so beyond broad sentimental strokes. It’s still an assuredly good-looking picture when it’s focusing on natural landscapes and slow-motion rubble and smoke in the lens, despite the generally lacking character designs. It works as a watchable and harmless experience, certainly better than the last one, but it feels like it really is time to call it a day on this franchise.

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

War for the Planet of the Apes REVIEW

What the new Planet of the Apes series has taken to its heart is that for all the spectacle and theatrics that a Hollywood summer blockbuster can offer, audiences won’t really care enough unless you have a genuinely engaging narrative and characters to populate the space between action scenes – and for all the bombastic imagery that its title might suggest, War for the Planet of the Apes is not an action film. In fact, the War of the title feels far better applied as one of metaphorical grappling than it does of any warfare related content, with the battle raging at the heart of its lead character, Caesar (Andy Serkis), taking centre stage in the ongoing apocalyptic conflict.

The journey of Caesar since Rise and through to Dawn has seen him come to terms with moral complexities of compromise, his loyalty to his own kind and his willingness to offer peace to an increasingly dangerous and more desperate humanity on the brink of destruction, pushing him ever closer toward his breaking point – and in War we see that boundary of tolerance finally broken in an emotional, thought provoking and devastatingly dark way that makes this latest instalment not only the best of the trilogy, but one of the best major releases to come out this year.

This is a prisoner of war story where there is no easy way out of a conflict this divergent, messy and final. The bleak moral enquiry of Dawn is a prevalent force of discord between the increasingly humane apes and equally animalistic humanity (as do many of the other spectres of its predecessor that continue to haunt the characters), with the humans reduced to mere titles as an ethno-nationalist group of the worst of humanity left to burn the rest of the world to a cinder in the absence of control. Though Woody Harrelson’s remarkably cruel Colonel, Leader of the Alpha-Omega military outfit, is given his due in personal depths and reasoning, it feels like a sickness that has spread to the minds of every living thing in the world that reducing them to states of primal arrest in more ways than might be apparent.

That the film spends as long as it does wallowing in the meditation that is the internal struggle raging for Caesar’s soul is a bold risk for any blockbuster picture, but then again the Apes series has always been about forcing political discussion and relevance regarding its contextual backdrops into the forefront of its storytelling. Said commentaries have evolved over the course of each film, and in War it is more obvious than ever that the angle of marginalisation, racial prejudice and intolerance is what this has been building toward all along. Images like ‘The Only Good Kong is a Dead Kong” and a gorilla with the word ‘Donkey’ sprayed on their back burn loud and speak volumes while the films terrific opening set-piece lays out the groundwork with very little dialogue.

The set-pieces on show are just as raw and magnetically compelling to watch as before, with Matt Reeves continued refinement of directorial skill producing visual wonders that extend beyond the digital effects thanks to his continuing collaborations with DP Michael Seresin, his eye for framing and outside texture, and his work on the layered and deeply involving screenplay. Although its feels like there may be just one coincidence too many in the final movement to align itself with its desired ending.

Make no mistake though, the work by WETA Digital is a continuing and awe-inspiring achievement in the fields of motion capture and performance art and digital filmmaking. The photorealistic apes take up more of the screen time than ever before, and are just about the most impressive looking digital effects ever produced thanks to the incredible physical and emotional performances that inform them. Karin Konoval as orangutan Maurice, Terry Notary as chimpanzee Rocket and Ty Olsson as gorilla Red have brought so much to these characters, and newcomer Steve Zahn as Bad Ape brings some much needed levity and comedy to balance out some of the darkness quite wonderfully. But Serkis is once again the highlight as the tormented and broken down Caesar in one of his greatest ever roles, and if the series is going to continue after this then it may have to do so knowing that Caesar’s journey has come to an end.

It’s broad with scope but powerful in its strokes, with an animated and beautifully characterised score from Michael Giacchino that evokes so much of Jerry Goldsmith’s original without feeling slavish or uncreative in its traditional soundscape. War for the Planet of the Apes is the kind of climax that most trilogies dream of having, where the events of its predecessors have built momentum behind every dramatic beat and pounding fight as the world inches closer to that of the original film, standing proudly alongside its accomplishments as one of the darkest and most intelligent franchises Hollywood has ever produced.

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming REVIEW

Spider-Man: Homecoming represents more than just another addition to the ever expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, but the long-awaited integration of one of the comic’s greatest characters into the ‘official’ canon of this ongoing series. To do well by Peter Parker would be enough considering Sony’s most recent efforts being as shambolic and contemptable as they were, but to live up to the monolith of the original Rami trilogy of an entire decades past was always going to be the biggest hurdle to jump.

Sadly, it really isn’t anywhere near the levels of sincerity, emotional depths and visual experimentation as those originals (then again, whatever could be?). But what Homecoming does represent successfully is fulfilling the promise of its title; the incorporation of a much beloved character effortlessly into the now matured and evolving world of the MCU without feeling bogged down by the weight of the larger narrative.

As with before, Tom Holland is fantastic as the young Peter Parker. Having already been introduced in Captain America: Civil War, his first solo venture feels indebted to his fleeting character setup of that film. He’s as awkward and out of place as ever in his high school environment and fits the role of Peter Parker as easily as he does his more quippy alter ego, with the overlap evident and believable. He wants to do the right thing, but as a hyperactive and flighty kid wants to run with The Avengers before he’s even properly established himself as a responsible hero in his own right.

The idea of Peter having to earn his right to the status of an Avenger is his main drive, while his overriding of his Stark tailored costume leads him into trouble as he rushes through personal training without the requisite mind set or patience required to allow him to reach his full potential. Robert Downey Jr. proves a perfect foil for this as a mentor wanting to see his prodigy show itself without the benefit of help – and turns out to be a wonderful and not-at-all overbearing presence in the film.

The focus on some of the comic’s B grade villains is refreshing, with the likes of the Shocker, and Michael Keaton’s performance as the actually rather sympathetic but nonetheless dangerous Adrian Toomes / Vulture is really quite satisfying given his cold open.

The cast in general though are rather fantastic. Tony Revolori is a great twist on "Flash" Thompson. Laura Harrier as love interest Liz walking away a born star. Jacob Batalon steals every scene he’s in as Peter’s bestie, Ned, and an underplayed but memorable turn from Zendaya as the sarcastic outlier of the friendship group who might well become far more significant in the sequel. It’s just a shame that Marisa Tomei’s Aunt May feels as maligned as she is, that while she carries warmth lacks presence as most of her scenes devolve into men and boys simply fawning over her.

Jon Watts keeps the direction loose, and while his eye for colour really works though the digital photography, it never feels as expressive as it should do and comes across as visually dry as other MCU films from a shooting and framing perspective outside of key heroic images. Same goes for Michael Giacchino’s high-spirited but unmemorable and predictable score. It offers up some neat twists and turns later on that add dramatic weight, but the action scenes themselves feel a little too weightless at times regardless of the wonderful web slinging sequences.

Also, while this new narrative tries its best to differentiate itself from other iterations by not dwelling on or hardly mentioning key moments of Spider-Man’s origin story, it feels like the film is lacking some deeper emotional incidence beyond merely following its plot. The John Hughes-like inflections on high school life are pretty enjoyable and largely funny – including an increasingly hilarious recurring gag involving another Avenger – giving a dimension to the duel lives he must lead as he is pulled away from his heroic duties for detention and Spanish language tests. These work well, but if greater tension and circumstance were laid in its foundations – which are far closer to the roots of the genre structure than immediately apparent – the build up to the Homecoming Dance or the Decathlon might have been more interesting features.

What we have here is a stripped down, light and near inconsequential picture that simply seeks to reacquaint ourselves everyone’s favourite web slinger, with the intention on building up prospects further down the line. This is the most damning thing to say of it in that it doesn’t really strive for much else, and as such feels overall like one of the lesser entries in the canon. But maybe that’s okay for now, and hopefully bigger things are on the way.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Baby Driver REVIEW

Edgar Wright’s fascination with the generic trappings of American cinema has finally taken him firmly stateside for Baby Driver, in his first production since the end of ‘The Cornetto Trilogy’. A sun soaked action comedy coated in the arms of retrograde influences and modern customs – a toe-tapping masterpiece of visual construction and heartfelt sincerity.

A fairly traditional story of stock types and narrative expectation follow our lead, Baby (Ansel Elgort), on his escapades as a talented getaway driver and his desire to escape his criminal life with his love Deborah (Lily James). But what Wright is able to draw from its components are rich and characterful performances from his entire cast of relative unknowns and bona fide A-List talents.

Ansel Elgort might give the impression of a plain hero performer, but from the opening sequence of a Gene Kelly-like dance sequence down the block to pick up coffee, Elgort announces himself as a born movie star. Charismatic and charming, yet brooding and straight-laced, he holds attention every second he’s onscreen with effortless command. His support comes in the form of a remarkable cast of names all at the top of their game. Jamie Foxx is the most fun he’s been since Django Unchained, Jon Hamm treads a careful line of confidant and psychopath, and Kevin Spacey steals many of the film’s best lines as the dangerous head of the operation.

While Lily James’ Deborah isn’t granted as much time as the heavy hitters, she’s a wonderful presence and a character of agency and pure sympathy as the idealised figure of escape in Baby’s world, and Eiza González leaves an impression of one of badass halves of the film’s most screwed up couple.

On a technical level, this might be the best work of Wright’s career to date. His aesthetic value for editing, transitions, staging and camera movement leave every single scene impeccably perfect in production – always mining the most out of the possibility for storytelling with breathless timing and precision. The action sequences are incredibly involving and well-handled, framed and tackled with physicality and the occasional bursts of extreme violence, and the films third act evolution into the same kind of pictures that have influenced it descends into a frenzied extravaganza of emotional power, brash shifts and breathless action in one of 2017s most satisfying climaxes.

But despite the visual sensation, Baby Driver is an aural pleasure featuring one of the best soundtracks of the year. Music has always been of great significance to Wright’s projects, but here it takes on a transcendent function that literally soundtracks the diegesis of the entire film. Shaping significance at every moment with clarity and hilarity, Baby’s soundtrack to his own life paints an audible picture of his journey in vein of a musical. This is all without mention of the spectacular sound design that rattles and bangs its way through synchronised visual ballets of movement and flow with impossible energy and style.

If the film lacks anything, then it’s the meaty commentary of society so inherent to his work on the ‘The Cornetto Trilogy’. It’s not a film that stands to be about anything more than its own narrative function as an extravagant heist picture populated with sweet and sour characters. This is Baby’s story of maturation and change – from title to track list – which sees him transform from the timid child with the hard exterior into his own legend, all the while never losing track of his open-handed spirit.

Baby Driver sounds like a tricky sell, but its execution is so faultless, its screenplay so tight, its passion so plain and its heart so just and upbeat that it deserves a place in people’s hearts for taking its heavy influences, and making something so loud and unique in its own right to constitute its status as one of Wright’s best pieces of work.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Transformers: The Last Knight REVIEW

It’s noteworthy that while Michael Bay’s Transformers series has never been well received critically, it has continuously made an exorbitant amount of money at the box-office in both domestic and international markets. They’re loud, dumb and increasingly overblown with little regard for the intricacies of continuity or even the original source material. For a series based on such an overtly commercial property, they have in some way endured through renditions despite the nihilistic outlook and disinterest of Bay as a filmmaker and thus far soul author of these cinematic adaptations, with absolutely no intent on slowing down after the creation of the now corporately mandated writers room that has been assembled for the series’ foreseeable future.

So it must come as something of a shock or mild surprise to discover that Transformers: The Last Knight – supposedly Bay’s final instalment in the director’s chair – is quite possibly the best of these since the first film nearly a decade ago. The reasons for this marginal change in quality come down to a newfound sense of confidence on the part of the writers and filmmaker, leaving this feeling like the most self-assured and comfortably placed film in the canon to date.

Canon being the operative word here when regarding the actual narrative of The Last Knight, which spends a vast majority of its runtime almost entirely focused on expositional dialogues and flashbacks to previously unseen and unmentioned periods of ancient human history in which the Transformer species has been a near constant and godlike presence hidden in plain sight. The ramifications and reasoning behind most of these revelations are some of the most mind-blowingly silly, insanely rigorous pieces of alternate history hogwash ever written in a major blockbuster.

Be it through a massive sense of absurdist irony, the film might as well be an outright comedy in terms of its utterly bonkers and increasingly ludicrous plot points and narrative detours. This is without even mentioning some of dialogue exchanges, between humans and Transformers, which feel like no shits were given at any point during the writing process beyond laying down the lore and making sure the film sticks to its (unexpectedly) coherent structure of events.

But the ‘no shits’ lord and king at the heart of the film is Sir Anthony Hopkins, who plays a historian dedicated to an age old secret society called the ‘Witwiccans’ (seriously) formed from the remnants of the Knights of the Round Table (who in this universe actually existed), and is unquestionable the most enjoyable presence in the entire movie. To see a veteran like Hopkins chewing the set dressing and reading through the screenplays drivel through snarling spittle and unhealthy gravitas is so damn entertaining it has to be seen to be believed.

Despite these ‘so bad its good’ qualities though, this really does feel assertive in its identity regarding spectacle and the intent of Bay as a visionary auteur – and Bay has never held such strong sway over a blockbuster until now. Although its story still largely exists for the purpose of producing sequences for the second unit teams, it feels like Bay is experimenting with the medium at this point through the use of digital cameras and some of ILM’s most impressive work on display. Though his use of continuously changing lenses and aspect ratios between shots and frames in single scenes feels like an aggressive bombardment of inconsistency.

This is a film that is nothing but climax at every single moment regardless of context, and only gets bigger and more visually spectacular as it goes on. Although it takes a while to get there through the film’s sadly less arresting first act, it does allow us introductions to our new characters even if the editing between these occasionally arbitrary figures is way too busy to start with. The new include Isabela Moner’s streetwise mechanic tomboy is a mixed bag of typically leery treatment at times, but is played well enough by the newcomer. Wahlberg is still as super sincere as he was in the last one but he still fits the role of the lead well, as does a turn from Laura Haddock as an Oxford Professor who bares less of the brunt of Bay’s wary tendencies with female women despite looking at all times like a glamour model in dress up.

But this is a series motivated by selling tickets to its technical exhibition, and while the cutting of the action scenes are still messy it’s more condensed than before, culminating in an admittedly impressive finale set piece display in which entire planets collide as seen from the god’s eye of Bay’s lingering IMAX frames, and planes and bodies fly through the air like a garish ballet of destruction.

This is not a great film, in many ways its garbage, but it’s the kind of garbage that has taken years to distil down to a level where it works. What was bad before (the drama, conflict and tendencies for characterisation) is still bad here but less so, and the attempted focus on storytelling here actually allows it to flow in a way the series has lacked since the comparatively centred original. Bay has left this series on the loudest, largest note he could manage, and this could be looked back on as the end of an era for Hollywood blockbusters helmed with such fragrant authorship.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

The Book Of Henry REVIEW

There are varying degrees of understanding for bad movies, like year’s The Mummy remake being a naked and empty-headed studio production striving for the profits in the international market, or Tommy Wiseau’s The Room which is so incompetent on every level that has enjoyed a life of cult status through its midnight screenings and irony riddled fan base. But The Book of Henry is something else; a film so incomprehensible in purpose, so out of step with human emotion, so wildly offensive in its handling of content, tone and construction that it genuinely baffles the mind as to how this managed to be produced by living, breathing, sentient human beings.

Where to even begin?

Well, for a start the premise itself is bad enough to begin with. Supposedly a deconstruction of a wiz kid narrative with a dark and nasty twist in the tale, the screenplay by Gregg Hurwitz strives for a difficulty in interpretation, but comes up shockingly short in execution on both a narrative and directorial level. In the hands of a stronger writer and a more capable director, this might have been salvageable as a unique oddity, but here it’s a complete tonal disaster that only gets worse as the film goes on.

Trevorrow’s visual leanings on the works of Amblin dyes the film as a twee and dainty portrait that is completely at odds with some genuinely horrifying story beats regarding dying children, sexual abuse, paedophilia and murderous retribution – only made worse by a horribly misjudged score by the otherwise reliable Michael Giacchino, that plays everything for sentiment and just comes across as mawkish and unearned.

‘Misjudged’ really is the key word here. As if the premise wasn’t a cobbled together catastrophe of plot points in its own right, it’s the presentation of the characters that comes across worst of all, which is a real shame because some of the performances – chiefly from the young Jaeden Lieberher and Jacob Tremblay – are really quite good.

Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) might be the genius at the core of the story, but he doesn’t really have a character and its baffling that his family and friends see him as some sort of beloved prodigy while the film does little to support him as anything beyond a boring, ridged sociopath. The abused girl next door exists solely as a plot device, with Maddie Ziegler seemingly cast for the purpose of a single dance sequence that arrives out of the blue and with a confounding point to the story. While other characters come and go without reason, make decisions based on celestial coincidence and read lines of gut-busting perplexing as to their intent and meaning.

But Naomi Watts as mother Susan is the worst of all; a barley functioning single parent who places all the weight and burden of her adult life on the shoulders of her child, plays videogames instead of paying bills, and yet still questions whether or not she is a good mother (she isn’t). It could be mistaken for her having brain damage or some mental disability, but she’s literally just an idiot who unquestionably follows every order that Henry gives her with no real attempt to question or intervene – and her stifling inability to process human emotion or decision making is something that applies to literally every other member of the grown up cast.

But then, halfway through the film, there is an unforgivably manipulative plot development that transforms The Book of Henry from its apparently comfortable family friendly roots into a sick, nasty piece of condescending drivel that continues on for another hour –  never letting up its jubilant and whimsically brain-dead tone and attitudes and plays the entire thing straight right up until its disgustingly misplaced and inexplicable climax.

All the while at the heart of the storm is Colin Trevorrow with his terrifyingly dense manner of approaching the material. Completely unaware of what he has produced, he charts a fanciful and quirky trek out of this sick minded story oblivious to his ill-suited attitudes toward it. The tonal shifts come hard and land with a sharp and piercing clatter of howling screeches, culminating in a ‘race against the clock’ montage cut between an assassination attempt on a neighbours life and an unfolding school talent show that will leave many in a state of emotional disorder and slackjawed disbelief. If it really was Trevorrow’s decision to stage this sequence in this way, then it might be quite definitive that he is just a bad filmmaker.

The Book of Henry charts entire new territories of bad; a rancid, malformed and sick minded pileup of inept decision making on a creative level for any major studio to make. It’s hard to see anyone involved in the production of above voting age coming out of this clean. For writer Gregg Hurwitz, this might be the last we hear of him in any major production. For Naomi Watts, she may have to find something challenging to scrub her pallet clean. But for Colin Trevorrow, this might come as a wakeup call with red alarms blaring at the mention of his name like a swollen asterisk. Had a name such as his not been attached to said production given his upcoming work on Star Wars: Episode IX and Jurassic World, it might have fallen to the wayside of the mainstream press, but instead stands today under scrutiny and ridicule as one of the most god-awful pieces of unfathomable garbage to be released this year.

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

My Cousin Rachel REVIEW

The best works of Daphne du Maurier carry with them an aura of spectral presence; the sensation of memory hanging long over the gothic architecture of her dark romantic mysteries like a mist over her otherwise scenic Cornwall settings. My Cousin Rachel is such a work that holds a spine tingling sense of the paranormal over its narrative without ever once giving in to such distraction. This is the first adaptation of said text to enter the medium since Henry Koster’s 1952 feature, and Roger Michell’s take on the material is an exquisite, lingering exploration of the same text that stands proud on its own.

It shares similarities to Thomas Vinterberg’s recent adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd, as a period piece that is delicately trained to focus on the textural pallet of the setting and dressing of the authentic looking and beautifully physical environments of rural estates. Mike Eley’s cinematography gives the film a classical sense of composition, that stays poised with a contemporary method of shooting and editing to keep up a pace and authenticity.

At the centre of the piece is a spellbinding performance from Rachel Weisz as the titular Rachel, who balances all the emotional complexities of her cryptic figure with self-assurance in that she may be playing the character in one way, although the film would suggest another entirely. It’s a slight of hand that works devilishly well and in favour of Rachel’s apparent allure. The camera is as struck by her beauty and modesty as Sam Claflin’s young Philip who is both wary and bewitched by this undeviating presence that has entered his home –in tow with the dogs that follow her upward to her chambers at night.

The ghostly presence that suspends its tension over the narrative is rather excellent, especially considering that many of the story’s main plot elements have been assimilated into culture to such an extent that expectation and surprise is lost on a narrative that is being so faithfully told without major embellishment. There are exceptions here and there – the relocation of the fateful climax is setup in an oddly obvious and tone-deaf manner – but its restraint is otherwise sound and compelling. As are the supporting performances from Iain Glan and Holliday Grainger in roles that hold greater depths than the characters themselves might hold on paper.

It's not without flaws as the wrap-up comes a little fast and without time to decompress, but Weisz’s performance is so tremendously powerful and convincing that it all but fills in the gaps of what is unquestionably Roger Michell’s best film since Venus nearly a decade ago.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Wonder Woman REVIEW

In the current movement of the superhero genre in the blockbuster landscape, it seems astonishing that it has taken this long for a female led and mounted production to emerge in the age of progressive and forward thinking genre pictures. Wonder Woman being the single most widely recognised and significant character to receive such attention, it’s beyond fitting that she be the first the grace our screens in the current climate. What’s more astonishing is that from the bowels of the corporate machine of Warner Bros. and the mournful DCEU has emerged a triumphant, glorious and hopeful picture that marks their best feature to date.

Wonder Woman being as good as it is comes down to a firm perspective when approaching the material; hitting the mythology and character hard and throwing all of their celebrated elements and themes at the screen without a sense of irony or distance. This is about as earnest and honouring a treatment as the character deserves, evoking all the wonder and emotion that prevailed in the classics of the genre – from Richard Donner’s Superman to Sam Rami’s Spider-Man.

For all the supposed divergence from the ruling genre slates, it shares an awful lot in common with the earlier works of the MCU (in particular Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger) in both impression and structure – which come across for better or worse as a winning combination for tackling such admittedly goofy material. This is an origin story that charts the growth of Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) into Wonder Woman from her origins on the matriarchal island of Themyscira to the trenches of the blood-soaked Great War.

The emergence of her character is formed slowly and strategically; as we see her desire to do good in a world torn apart challenge her perceptions of people, as the black and whites she has been raised to understand in mythological tales take on the depressing greys of one of the worlds messiest and most tragic conflicts. There’s an odd contradiction to be had of the plot dwelling on the moral murkiness of the war and no clearly defined good or evil, only to have the plot boil the true nature of the conflict down to the actions and will of specific villainous individuals. But it works on a narrative and thematic level which informs Diana’s story arc rather well, as does much of the character work for Diana and the surprisingly tender complexities of her relationship with the equally likable Capt. Steve Trevor (Chris Pine).

Besides its narrative strengths, the resonant commentary regarding feminist ideals emerging in a world on the cusp of social change but still engrained with older customs is well handled to both a sincere and humorous effect. The progression of the ancient matriarchy rousing and rattling the cages of the establishment in manner of presentation and words as well as action is just inspiring. The sheer amount of viscerally divergent imagery on display – such as armoured women on horseback charging into suited gunfire – is some of the most stirring and original imagery the genre has ever produced, and the cinematography compliments it beautifully without ever objectifying its figures.

Patty Jenkins' direction and control over the entire production must be applauded in this respect as well as others. It’s a striking and colourful looking picture of narrative and character drive, but her work in the action sequences is exceptional at laying out picturesque landscapes and highly choreographed segments of powerful intent and physicality that’s in keeping with the DCEU’s primary focus on motion, as well as the dynamic of gods and men.

Gal Gadot might not have given us a chance to fully appreciate her take on the role in Batman v Superman, but she absolutely owns the movie with enough grace, precision and charm to fill the movies heart. Her chemistry with a surprisingly well cast Chris Pine feels fond and believable, though he shares the movies comedic touches with Lucy Davis as Secretary Etta Candy. The motley crew of soldiers who accompany them into battle are equally well sourced presences of varying depths. Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright rock their Amazonian warriors with bellowing strength, and Danny Huston and Elena Anaya have fun with their admittedly unappreciated villains.

It’s a shame that the final stretch and a late reveal allow the film to devolve from its almost transcendent state into something all too uncomfortably familiar; the climax delivers a heavily digitised dirty showcase of explosions and noise, against a fairly uninvolving antagonist and a lack of great weight to its action or reveals beyond its cutting between the more satisfying emotional beats. It still works overall and is never a deal breaker for the first two genuinely fantastic acts, but it’s a formulaic baggage that sometimes even the best of the genre is incapable of fully shaking off.

But when Wonder Woman works it’s a soaring victory. Not just for DC or the genre, but for an audience of young girls for whom this may become a beacon of hope and aspiration. The sight of a young Diana (Emily Carey) playfully imitating the fighting stances of the women around her is enough to bring tears to the eyes with a magnificent sense of feat and will. This is the one we’ve been waiting for, and our patience has been greatly rewarded.

Monday, 5 June 2017

My Life as a Courgette REVIEW

Stop motion animation has come a long way over the past decade, aided by advances in technologies from digital embellishments to 3D printing techniques which allow a much faster process in the wake of digital photography and exhibition. The stories being told vary from the fanciful and bold to the intrinsically mundane, which is a place where My Life as a Courgette finds itself most comfortable.

Based on Gilles Paris' 2002 novel Autobiographie d'une Courgette, we see the day-to-day life and practise of the orphanage in which the young Icare (nicknamed Courgette) now resides following the death of his mother. The subject matters that the film cultivates and touches on in both the background and foreground of this story are harrowing accounts of insinuated violence, substance abuse and crime which fill in the backstories of the children – brave enough never to shy away from the darkness of world even when in the company of the children who have suffered at the hands of their hostile environments.

This is the first major feature by Swiss director and animator Claude Barras, and at a length of only 65 minutes feels like a brisk yet humble insight into these children’s lives. The animation is beautifully simple, with round and lovable designs to the children with large and weary eyes through with their souls are laid bare, with the colour pallet of a children’s crayon drawing in its depiction of the world from their perspective. It’s the lingering glances, quiet frames and heart-breaking individual moments of realism that help inform their characters though motion and action (or rather inaction). Such as a young girl running to see if her mother has arrived at any opportunity, or the devastating indication of torment in another as she nervously taps her plate with her cutlery when under stress.

The characterisations are also drawn through moments and interactions in a collaborative screenplay that notably includes French filmmaking darling Céline Sciamma. The dialogue is sweet and occasionally sombre, but always in keeping with the joyous experience of being a child with jokes concerning water balloons, nicknames and a sweetly naive understanding of sex through such playful terminology as a man “exploding”.

Somewhere between the dark power of Adam Elliot's Mary and Max and the light humanism of Jacqueline Wilson, My Life as a Courgette has found a place allow it to stand and breath freely as a unique and charming picture that wants to see the good in people, especially those in authority such as the social workers and police officers who form bonds with the children in their care. Quietly shattering at points but always with a positive and humorous outlook.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

The Red Turtle REVIEW

Animation has been having a moment over the past decade, whereby major and minor studios have to varying degrees of success been experimenting with narrative applied with different audiences and cultures in mind. On the fringes of the mainstream circuit something has been brewing, be it in the wake of Studio Ghibli’s halt in production, the resurgence of Disney animation or the rise of Laika, but The Red Turtle is an oddity to be advocated for its ambitious strengths and restraint.

All but abandoning dialogue, this near silent work of a cast away stranded on an island comes to us as a rare co-production from Studio Ghibli. Employing the brush stroke and watercolour imagery of director Michaël Dudok de Wit, his first feature film thrives on meditative exploration into the relationships between man, nature and each other as we follow his initial struggle to get back home – before finding something more that has emerged from the wastes of his desolation.

It’s a film that relies on the wonder of its storytelling, and as such to elaborate more on the relationship that is formed between the man and the Red Turtle of the title might elevate the weight is its slow burning strength and power. The animation style approaches that of the still images of a storybook in motion, relying almost entirely on the use of crosscutting between frames and imagery evoke meaning and purpose, and never once striving to explain itself in any oversimplified way. The frames and movements of the characters, their dramatic struggles at the hands of Mother Nature and the personal conflicts that they face are left to the audience to decipher with subtlety and poise.

Michaël Dudok de Wit’s short films but trust in picturesque narratives, ranging from the decipherable to the abstract as a means of captivation, and to fall into the spell of its motions and gestures. This is an elaborate and bold work to look at, and yet the sound design is what immerses you into its world with organic taps and sounds, and the breathing of its characters to give them a real physicality – while holding onto the calm of its atmosphere.

Life and death coexist as a single presence that is accepted by the balance of the universe, as the food chain is observed in motion and without comment. How life ticks on around us regardless of circumstance, and how we must change to survive and find something blossoming, compassionate, new and intangible are thoughts that dwell on the mind of this feature. Though these are not wholly original sentiments or ideas, it’s how The Red Turtle presents them through the glaring eyes of its protagonist, its dreamlike visuals and changes of texture that make them work here.

Tuesday, 30 May 2017

Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar's Revenge REVIEW

There’s a point in the latest instalment of this never ending franchise in which Depp’s illustrious character falls asleep while another character explains the plot of the film to him, waking with a shudder as a disgruntled “Are you still talking?”. This is about as close to the experience of the horrifically titled Salazar’s Revenge as you’d want to get. Once again the Pirates of the Caribbean series returns to our screens in another attempt to recapture the increasingly brilliant fortune that was the original film – and once again comes up short.

Although the new directing duo of Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg (who directed the high seas drama Kon-Tiki) have been brought on to breathe new life into the ailing brand, many of their action sequences fail to live up to the kinetic visual energy of Gore Verbinski’s original vision, instead devolving into over edited CGI slop on pretty much every occurrence. There’s certainly an amount of colour on show and one vaugly entertaining skit involving a rotating guillotine, but the setting and staging of events does little to disguise its admittedly smaller scale production values and Jeff Nathanson’s shockingly inept screenplay.

Cannibalising elements of the first film into a far more conventional small-scale slog which adds little to the canon, offers no real challenge beyond fan service, and in the process of bending over backwards to maintain a continuity forces contrivance upon unbelievable contrivance on the narrative with awe-inspiring ineptitude. Yet none of what is occurring carries any clear emotional weight or circumstance.

Our two new leads in the form of Brenton Thwaites’ Henry Turner and Kaya Scodelario’s Carina Smyth are bores – although Scodelario gets more out of her performance than the staggeringly dull Thwaites – who are merely there to fill in the plot details and exposition on the way to this instalment’s MacGuffin; the Trident of Poseidon.

Depp appears to be on autopilot as Captain Jack Sparrow, once again picking up the check but delivering the jokes through increasingly drunken and foppish attitudes which actually make them harder to understand. Javier Bardem’s villain Captain Salazar get some interesting design choices (though not nearly half as imaginative as some of the stuff from Davy Jones’ crew), but his character is tedious and Bardem isn’t really given the chance to exploit the campiness of his performance. The familiar faces of Geoffrey Rush, Kevin McNally and numerous others appear to do the rounds yet still bring little to the experience.

Really, that’s all to be said of the film beyond lamenting its once admittedly novel presence in popular culture. So detached from its high-spirited humility that the walking joke of Jack Sparrow being little more than a drunken idiot parading as a legendary captain is now completely lost on a series dedicated to retconning his presence into something that it never was – and who’s antics have only grown more tiresome as the years have moved on.

Tuesday, 23 May 2017

King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword REVIEW

Guy Ritchie’s upgrade to the major blockbuster circuit of filmmaking has been a little varied to say the least. His adaptation of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. was a passably entertaining at points but his reimagined Sherlock Holmes series found a balance between his low-end crime comedies and some new modern visual tricks. But King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is another matter entirely. Reconfigured from an original plan to lay the foundations for an epic 6-part saga focusing on the Knights of the Roundtable, this is yet another Warner Bros. exercise in put the horse before the cart when it comes to franchise management.

There’s very little about the film that works overall, but the better stuff comes when Ritchie is showing off is auteurist styling’s in lengthy quick cut montages that over explain the hows and whys of encounters between his Londinium lads on the street. It’s still as silly as it’s ever been but his nifty way of skipping between times and places is usually entertaining, and a near wordless montage briefly chronicling the passage from boy to man is actually punchy enough to get to the point.

Unfortunately, this peak comes very near the start of the movie (following an incomprehensibly mishandled opening sequence and title montage) and is merely just a setup and diversion from the main plot of the movie; which plays out like a part Moses story, part tedious fantasy story of mages and creatures in medieval Britain that happens to feature a magic sword called Excalibur and a character ostensibly called Arthur (Charlie Hunnam). The pace is an leaves everything an absolute bore after the first half hour and never livens up, with a third act that just emerges like a boss fight right out of a Dark Souls videogame.

Little to none of the film’s overly explained and convoluted lore and back-story make sense as paths cross, made worse by Ritchie’s intellectual contempt for his audience to keep up with essential plot information, and his inability to linger on any given scene without constantly cutting between other scenes to try and enhance the effects – and that’s to say nothing of the actual digital effects which are an appropriately mixed bag when applied to its murky looking cinematography and the sickeningly grey and grimy look to everything even in the face of its mystical spectacle. Although, Daniel Pemberton's wheezy and clangy score isn't too bad.

The performances are equally bland and uninterested from most involved, including low rent Ritchie regulars and those who look like they should really be trying harder given their stature in other work (including one gaudily awful cameo that arrives at exactly the wrong moment). Hunnam can be decent when used with more gratifying material but he’s desperately dreary here, while Jude Law underplays the villain in high camp dressings while only occasionally tilting over into pantomime in an effort to make things more entertaining. The characters they’re playing don’t offer much anyway, with dozens of interchangeable side characters with names such as ‘Mike the Spike’ and ‘Mischief John’ as is custom for Ritchie’s view of street level London.

King Arthur is a terrible movie; an unfocused wreck that throws itself between the sensibilities of its filmmaker as a crime caper comedy and a dull as dishwater fantasy epic. The efforts the film does make to over explain this origin story are dumb and best and insulting at worst. It’s obvious this has been hacked up by the studio in some way to save face, leaving many reveals such as the identity of who’s playing the unseen Merlin an eternal mystery that will never be answered. Though unintentionally funny at points, this quest isn’t worth the journey.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Colossal REVIEW

2017 has been a good year for cinema in taking innovative and chancy takes on generic foundational material. In the case of Nacho Vigalondo’s Colossal, writer/director Vigalondo finds a bizarre way of blending the worlds of Indiewood drama and large scale Kaiju action cinema in to a single cohesive whole. What might initially appear to be a pitch worthy gimmick turns out to be a remarkably clever and original conceit for exploring its character work and drama through a more familiar framework.

Through the means of magical realism, Colossal depicts the destruction of the city of Seoul by behemoth a miraculous and devastating Kaiju presence as an exaggerated manifestation of a far more basic piece of human drama and conflict. The creature will only appear in a specific location at a certain time, that just so happens to coincide with Anne Hathaway’s Gloria drunkenly stumbling home after a night of drinking.  

The metaphor here is an unsubtle but incredibly fascinating one; that the self-destructive tendencies of alcoholism cause just as much damage to the lives of those around the affected individuals, even if they have no idea of the consequences of their actions. But the genius lies in how well the film balances both elements of its Kaufmanesque premise.

The tone of the film is constantly shifting and sees the initial quirkily offbeat concept as something of a joke taken to extremes, before bringing the drama home in a far more insidious manner, which explores the cycles of emotional abuse and martyrdom which can be inherent to the effects of alcoholism or any kind of substance abuse. The type of self-loathing that gives way to projection and damages the states of mind of everyone around them. Gloria has returned home to wallow in self-pity, finds familiar comfort and decides to continue down her path of petulant self-serving until something bigger finally shows her what she has been doing all along.

Without venturing into the area of spoilers regarding the final outcomes of the films narrative conclusions, its exploration of these ideas come to a conclusion that for the sake of narrative and visual shorthand boils down to the kind of favoured fantasy dream of a child, that takes on a far more substantial resonance and weight as the real horrors of such a fantastical scenario become more shockingly apparent.

Anne Hathaway is incredible as the functioning alcoholic at the story's centre, channelling so much of Gloria’s internal grief while maintaining a brilliant sense of physical and emotional comedy to compliment the films goodtime attitudes and visual spectrum. Jason Sudeikis is something of a revelation, able to transform at will between the good-natured comedy performer he is known for and a more insidious and corruptive influence over Gloria’s lifestyle than might be immediately apparent. There’s also the support of brilliant bit players in Tim Blake Nelson and Austin Stowell who carry their scenes with alternative gravity and levity, and Dan Stevens making the most out of his allotted role as the frustrated former boyfriend.

Nacho Vigalondo’s direction is undeniably confident in presentation, with a heavy reliance on audible cues and sound effects to emphasise the inherent silliness of its daylight park skirmishes in contrast to the horrors unfolding on the other side of the world. There’s a real contemporary sense of awe and commentary to its spectacle but the drama is where its head and heart lies, with its metaphorical leniencies documenting the mythological confrontation of its decidedly small scale performances. The sound design in particular is wonderful at bringing a real wonder to proceedings, as is the occasional emergence of Bear McCreary’s emotionally energising score.

All this being said, the film might not work for everyone. The explanation for why these events are happening is a little haphazard, but really its only function is to facilitate the fantasy elements at play and little more. Its absurdum and lack of practical clarification will alienate people who would rather see every element of this highly metaphorical journey rationalized, when indeed the point is to draw attention to the parable that it is drawing off the often boiled down narratives of human stories and dimensions.

Colossal is a remarkably odd picture, but the execution of its premise is staggeringly well handled and the balancing act of its tonal fluctuations are admirable with forceful intent. Its levels of intimacy inform the onscreen carnage, but never lose track of the emotions and motivations of its trapped and lonely characters at the centre of it all. That something this original, audacious and responsive can still emerge from the Hollywood system is a miracle onto itself, and Colossal hits harder because of it.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Alien: Covenant REVIEW

To say that Prometheus divided opinion is a generous supposition at best. While following the DNA of the now archetypal Alien structure, it set about to explore admittedly old materials concerning ancient astronauts, gods and men and Greek mythology. Aiming high with ambition, though compromised by a convoluted screenplay of half measures and bewildering gestures.

Alien: Covenant follows more or less the same path, though it’s one that has clearly verged toward placing the brand and long-time fans of the series first as it essentially runs out the clock as an amalgamation of elements from across the series’ history. The structure is there, but it’s never quite felt as stale and uninvolving as this, as its new cast of ‘characters’ venture down to an unexplored world and are slowly picked off in expected and lacklustre fashion by familiar looking creatures of a once nightmarish design.

As with Prometheus, the tell instead of show ratio is out of control as characters explicitly state their observations and motivations to other characters without reason, and speak in wholly unbelievable manners to one another as they trundle their way through the film making every worst decision possible without adequate reasoning. It becomes so rote that every time a character announces that they’re leaving the scene, you know that they’re not coming back – but as opposed to the joy this might elicit from genre fans almost none of the kills are unique, memorable or even investing.

But around the edges of this very Alien film lie the scattered pieces of a Prometheus sequel that the film is left to pick up on with varying degrees of success. The answers to some of the many questions of said film do arrive in some form or other, with much of the resolution falling to the character of David (Michael Fassbender) in his continuing development as this new narratives most interesting character. His interactions with doppelganger Walter of the ‘Covenant’ ship are some of the best scenes in the film, with Fassbender delivering two brilliantly different performances as the stoic Walter and the insidiously deranged David.

The whole time this is happening though the human cast is left as vague figures of the backdrop, with only Katherine Waterston’s Daniels and Danny McBride’s Tennessee getting any human sympathy out of their situations and experiences with a decent amount of range. Sadly, we are also saddled with the likes of Billy Crudup’s Captain Oram and his suicidadly moronic tendencies and occasionally baffling dialogue.

The good mostly comes from the technical attributes which are unsurprisingly right where Ridley Scott now feels most at home as a cinematic technician. The film looks gorgeous with a drained colour and design to its interior universe that feels worn and physical, accompanied by Jed Kurzel’s pulsating score, but he uses much of this as a crutch and seems to be where most of his attentions lie as opposed to its narrative. He’s far more interested in the way that this world works – looming over events with authorial rule – than how the story is being told or how the audience might be able to connect to it beyond simple acknowledgement of this being an Alien film.

There are moments of grandeur and some neat twists and visuals at play here, with an effective intensity to some of its action, but its handling of themes from gothic literature and poetry mean little when its being piped into a film of such little to say beyond allusion. Where as the original film dwelled on happenstance and corporate greed, Covenant's determination to make sense of its plot overrides all of its more conceptually interesting divergencies. It doesn’t feel like there’s a specific audience for it to find great pleasure in, and as such lacks identity. There is little new to be mined from a title that has long since lost so much of its unusual ambiguity.

Monday, 8 May 2017

I Am Not Your Negro REVIEW

I Am Not Your Negro is a strange and captivating document concerning the civil rights movement, that breaths and hums with layers of purpose and intent that is as strong and verdant as it is difficult to handle and stomach as it slowly smothers the audience with its intent through imagery and language.

Haitian director Raoul Peck has here attempted to bring the works of American erudite writer and social critic James Baldwin to the cinematic medium. Specifically based upon his unfinished and proposed manuscript, Remember This House, Peck uses the linguistic verbosity of Baldwin’s phrases (brilliantly narrated by a subdued Samuel L. Jackson) and eclectic perspectives of America to paint a portrait of a dark era of social realignment. It’s a multimedia effort, compiling its footage from variations of different films, television broadcasts, newspaper clippings and moving images from across the past century.

It holds a structure similar to Baldwin’s intent, engaging with his own personal experiences with Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Medgar Evers, and how their very different approaches to race relations managed to fill a large whole of the real America of the time. Baldwin’s depictions of these men are raw and intimate insights into a singular mind, but encompassing a collective consciousness of anguish and rage that feels as sharp and volatile as the actions of any of these men.

His deconstructions of media consumption prove multiple examples of an engrained crisis at the hearts of those in a place of power, and how little these events have actually evolved into the present as we cut between his words and events subsequent of his death in 1987. Western mythologizing through its media and its history have aided in the creation of a stifling hesitance to discuss the manner and representation of race in the contemporary landscape. The binaries of the western for example are explored in a moment in which at a young age Baldwin realised that the ‘heroes’ he was supposed to be identifying with weren’t representing him.

It’s a suffocating watch, but at times feels as though it’s not so much challenging the authors perspectives and words as it is glorifying the sentiments and paying tribute to Baldwin as an amalgamated figure with languid presentation. But maybe that is in fact the film’s intent; to draw intention to words that still need hearing and ring as true as when they were stated and written. Whenever shouted down for his continued deliberations on race by those too ignorant or stupid to see otherwise, or to want to ignore the issue all together, his response of “white is a metaphor for power” still feels like the blow it was always intended to be – and should always be felt.