Tuesday 22 August 2017

Review: Life

Year: 2017
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Screenplay:Rhett Reese, Paul Wernick 
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds. 

Synopsis is here:

Daniel Espinosa’s mainstream cinematic entries could perhaps be a good definition of what the youths call “basic”. They are films which have just enough to elevate them above mere “wallpaper” movies; films which are on in the background merely to provide environmental decoration (i.e: it’s on because it’s on). However, they do very little to become films that do anything distinctive. Espinosa’s Northern American features are good at reminding you of more insightful films with bigger impacts, but as a film of themselves, provide little more than a non-committal shrug. In watching Life, we realise that little of this has changed, but it’s the best of a middling bunch.

Life is little more than a well-financed borrowing of Alien, with a sprinkling of other recent, more effective Sci-Fi fare (Sunshine, Gravity). It pilfers and re-arranges enough to become a relatively compact and enjoyable ride, yet like many imitators, the film itself doesn’t include the ingredients that made previous films so memorable. The angst which fills Sunshine (2007) is non-existent here. The deep emotional current that runs through Gravity (2013) can’t be found in any of Life’s corners. Don’t expect the stillness and social dynamics that punctuate Alien, will not be seen. The fat is more than trimmed off the meat here. Don’t expect any extra weight. The problem is that it’s the fat, which cooks the meat and gives it flavour. Ask any cook worth their salt. What we get here is something well done.

Espinosa is all too happy to show off that all the tips and tricks we saw in other sci-fi movies are all still very fun to watch. Ogle at Seamus McGarvey’s fluid cinematography. Marvel at the fact that, for the most part, no one steps their feet on solid ground. You may have seen this elsewhere, but it’s still impressive to watch. It will no doubt be a nice screensaver for a fancy widescreen somewhere. All the while, the film is compressed into a tight package. It zips along to its most effective moments and never dilly dallies. Possibly because it knows it hasn’t got too much junk in the trunk, but hey, at least the film’s tensest moment plays out just like it did in the trailer seen in front of so many other films. 
Believe me when I say, if you’ve seen said trailer, you’ve seen the best moment of the film.

Therefore the other films I mentioned give us a little more to play with. The examples I’ve mentioned give exchanges that provide interest outside the set pieces. Such exchanges bolster the movie and provide motivations and heft to the proceedings that Life is only vaguely interested in. One character hints at a damaged life back on earth that they’d rather not go back to, but this is a transparent moment to provide a small jolt later in the screenplay. It never feels like a true revelation of character. Life is so fleeting with such aspects, it makes things tough to fully surrender to it when the proverbial poo hits the fan. 

It’s easy to be cynical about a feature that isn’t hurting anyone. While it’s a shame that Life has no jagged edges, save for a twilight zone sting at its climax, that fact that it’s a smooth ride, is actually quite nice. It rises above the likes of Espinosa’s Child 44 simply by holding a coherence which that film did not. It holds a decent amount of suspense when it’s on point and has a solid cast holding it together. It’s still a step above a wallpaper movie and despite appearing a little worn, the corners are not peeling enough for the whole thing to be torn down. 

Review: Alien Covenant

Year: 2017
Director: Ridley Scott
Screenplay: John Logan, Dante Harper
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup, Danny McBride, Demián Bichir.

Synopsis is here:

I didn’t hate Prometheus. I felt it’s over reaching ambition helped paper over its niggly narrative issues. It’s fun yet overdone marketing campaign only highlighted to me the importance of good film writing. If people bought into decent critical analysis as opposed to glittery, nostalgic PR campaigns, I feel there might have been a more muted response to the film as opposed to outlandish shrieking over one Damon Lindernoff.

That said, the frustrations which Prometheus brought, clearly affected the choices made in Ridley Scott’s follow prequel Alien: Covenant, an engaging piece which helps solidify some of the more slippery elements of its predecessor and effectively attempts to go back towards what made Scott’s 1979 film so gripping.

It’s hard to bottle lighting, particularly when the first time you did it was quite some time ago and because of the effects of time, it’s clear that Covenant now must really adhere to its financial paymasters. When looking back at the original Alien a couple of weeks back, I marvelled at the pace of the feature. It has the running time of many conventional features, and yet the leisurely way the film sets itself up and pulls a viewer into its nightmare is still something to admire. You forget just how long you spend living with these characters as they bicker and posture before the horror starts.
Alien: Covenant doesn’t have that sort of leeway. The cinema of the 00’s is a cinema of instant gratification. Just look at the knee jerk reactions of modern film writing. Therefore, after a brief prologue to help explain the open-ended motivations of Prometheus, motivations shouldn’t have been that questionable if you consider what we know about certain characters, we are launched into the middle of deep space and straight into a colonial spaceship plunged neutrino blast. Said blast helps push the narrative on quickly but does so at a sacrifice of the characters on the field.

The mere occurrence of Alien: Covenant starting with such bombast, is in heavy contrast to previous entries to the series, and only help highlight to this writer one of the main conflicting issues with Scott’s return and the (new) audience expectation. To comfort the nostalgic affections of the first two entries of the series, but also to try and deliver a fresh new reason to once again dip into the well. The way Covenant starts, it’s a clear need to feed into how many blockbusters work now (no action through character, merely action), but it also hinders the film’s pacing. The film starts big, it ends big and leaves an entertaining but lacking middle. The idea that we’ll see the type of tightly packed, gradually building feature

As with Prometheus, there’s a lot to enjoy if not a slave having to operate in a certain way. The grandiose pomposity of Michael Fassbender’s android; David is welcome here, not least as it amusingly plays in contrast alongside Fassbender also playing a far more grounded humanoid, who's clearly at odds with David’s godly illusions. It is easy to see frustrations with Covenant’s gesticulating about creation and purpose, yet Covenant’s pontifications, while displacing the supposed main threat and antagonist, does its best to try and give the film a certain amount of weight. There is something to be said about these space-age settlers, the material ties they hold and the threat from within looking to destroy them. Even if Scott’s execution of the material is distinctly baggy, it’s clear that he wishes to give what we’re watching a certain amount of heft and a new angle.

Does it all work? Much of it does. While Scott doesn’t truly build the world as efficiently as seen in previous entries, he does allow the treacherous vistas to have a chilly disquieting vibe. The cast is imbalanced in the case of expectations (Katherine Waterston is badly left out to dry), but are more than enjoyable enough in terms of actual performance. This is combined with Scott’s ability to still bring about an effective set piece, with the films central sequence which involves cross cutting between two infection attacks and ending with a remarkable explosion managing to give off a large amount of heart pumping exhilaration. There are also smaller chills, with Scott brings about the same amount of unease with a decapitated head as he does with another infamous face hugger sequence.

None of what is seen is “better” than the original film or its action sequel, but at this point, to look for lightning to once again be bottled is folly. Alien: Covenant succeeds for this writer for simply being a baggy, yet enjoyable thriller. One does it’s best to bring its series full circle. Like Prometheus, it will, of course, throw up more questions than it perhaps needs too, however, name me five franchises which have gone on for this long without running into continuity problems. The thing is this writer came to Covenant for the pseudo-babble and stayed for the sharp shocks. I didn’t need to ask any questions when I saw David’s face for the last time.

Review: The Mummy

Year: 2017
Director: Alex Kurtzman
Screenplay: David Koepp, Christopher McQuarrie, Dylan Kussman,
Starring: Tom Cruise, Annabelle Wallis, Sofia Boutella, Jake Johnson, Courtney B. Vance and Russell Crowe.

Synopsis is here:

It's too easy to hate Tom Cruise. I've always enjoyed the man myself. Despite his rather obvious array of tics, Cruise's charm has always been my case for him rather than against him. I find that the animosity towards him often stems from folk who are my age or were just a little too young to get into the young maverick hype of the 80's. The Cruise from the turn of the millennium, the Cruise we see now is one where more attention was paid to his religion. His private life seeped into his persona more and the looming weirdness (along with one or two less than appealing movie choices) became the Cruise we recognise more. A shame. As a movie star, the man has it. Or rather had it in the case of the mummy, a rather pitiful attempt to rebrand some old gear under the new sparkly cinematic universe guise. Why? Because Disney/Marvel.

Thanks to Marvel’s ability to create an expansive universe for their media, we now have the likes of Universal trying to catch the fever. What do you do when you have all the classic monsters under your trademark? Shove them all into one great big “cinematic universe” and wait for the dollars to roll in. If you can grab a well know star whose shine is a bit scuffed. Then quids in! Who wouldn’t want to see some like Cruise rise to the occasion, despite plying his trade in the well received and successful Mission Impossible films? No pitfalls to be seen here. Mostly because the executives have huge dollar signs for eyes now.

Unfortunately, Cruise is the main component as to why this film doesn't sit right with me. It's not the weird jokes about his sexual prowess. Despite being in his mid-50's the film is quick to inform you his youthful vigour in the sack with markedly younger women. The issue is that Cruise with his demeanour and tics, never fully gels with the material. The 1999 version of The Mummy, the best-known version, has a strong sense of scale, style and wit about itself. It's location and timeline is well observed and give the film the right mood in which to absorb it. Bravo to Stephen Sommers. No seriously.

This Mummy Movie confoundingly spends its time in modern-day London with Cruise desperately trying to grasp at the fountain of youth. When we look at the silver fox actioners of Liam Neeson, we may be aware of his age, but the films often do well to at least try and cater to the situation. This had me screaming for A: Sidekick Jack Johnson to be the lead. He's more than capable. B: An actual film of the video game Uncharted which would feel far more relevant than this hasty cash in.

What we have now is a modern-day mess about an Egyptian mummy buried in Iraq (LOOK! RELEVANCE!) which spends most of its time in London, featuring a leading star who doesn’t appear to understand that his relevance has altered with his age. Cruise’s desire to perform his own stunts is as always very commendable (especially since his recent injury) and scenes show hints of what made him an interesting presence. However, this is a rather mundane blockbuster starring an A-lister who’s trying to portray a man whose twenty years younger than he is. Unlike the likes of Live, Die Repeat (2015) and the later additions of Mission Impossible franchise, in which Cruise becomes more of a vessel for those around him, Cruise spends his time looking more dead-eyed than the CGI grotesques which populate this drab affair.

To be fair, it’s not as if director Alex Kurtzman doesn’t attempt to make this summer diversion appealing. The central aircraft crashing set-piece would be more astonishing if it had not seemed so heavily borrowed from Christopher Nolan’s bag of tricks. Despite the criticism aimed towards him, the inclusion of Russell Crowe may be grown worthy in consideration of the so-called “dark universe” but comes with a scenery chewing performance which at least seems in sync with the pulpiness that made the 1999 Mummy so attractive.

Now we’re given a film which like many recent summer films of its ilk, is more interested in what happens in the next film than the present one. The Mummy finishes with a finale so anti-climactic that one may ask why they even bothered. Then again, when you’ve owned the rights something for so long as Universal has with The Mummy, you remember you don’t really need to answer that question.

Review: All Eyez on Me

Review: All Eyes on Me
Year: 2017
Director: Benny Boom
Screenplay: Jeremy Haft, Eddie Gonzalez, Steven Bagatourian
Starring: Demetrius Shipp Jr, Kat Graham, Lauren Cohan, Hill Harper, Danai Gurira

Synopsis is here:

It's been over 20 years since the shooting of Tupac Shakur left a gaping hole in hip-hop. Of all the artists that have graced the genre, it still seems that his star shines brightest. This appears to be down to his ability to be a walking contradiction. He was both saint and sinner. A brash and aggressive artist behind the mic, his vicious well-known beefs with other musical artists are juxtaposed with his sensitivity and politics. Consider his crass dismissal of the late rapper Prodigy's sickle cell anaemia on the end of Hit em Up. Then compare it to well-known song hit Changes. 2Pac had the both the ability to be the epitome of white Americas worst enemy and the modern-day poet of black Americas struggle. If he had not passed away, it is this writers opinion, that it would be Shakur that many would be looking to in the wake of the continuous police shootings of young black men.

I never truly gelled with 2Pac. I spent a few days going over his back catalogue before heading to a screening of this film, and still, I find myself leaning towards Biggie Smalls musically (as the kids say, don’t @ me). After watching All Eyez on Me, I discovered that I even enjoyed Biggie Smalls on the silver screen, over 2Pac. Notorious (2009) may be cliched and somewhat biased to its producer (one Sean “Puffy” Combs), but it was at least enjoyable where it mattered. All Eyez on Me struggles on so many levels, it’s truly disheartening. Even for a person who is not a 2Pac fan, it's hard not to admire his charisma. An animated and forthright character, his tragic story is one fit for Shakespeare. I do not say this as hyperbole. What this man did to alter the scope and range of his music is far-reaching. All Eyez on Me film doesn't even touch the lower peaks of what this man did. There was word previously that two 2Pac biopics wherein the works. If this is true, that I hope that this is not the best one.

Where can we start? Shall we talk about the rushed, glossed over details of Shakur’s life that the film places as mere footnotes as opposed to defining moments? We could perhaps mention the lacklustre concert set pieces, which capture none of the energy and vibrancy of an artist at their peak? Coachella had a far livelier hologram 5 years ago. Could we mention that a lot of this stems from a rather dead-eyed performance from Demetrius Shipp Jr, an actor who looks the part more than inhabits the role? Maybe we should start with a rather minimal amount of music used from an artist who was well-known for holding a vast back catalogue despite his young age.

The fact is, these issues combine to create a film which leans more towards a made for T.V movie than a powerful cinematic portrait. All Eyez on Me is the type of film which takes happily uses a famous relationship with Jada Pinkett Smith as an awkward narrative crutch than a serious friendship held by the characters. Nearly every key moment is observed from a distance, devoid of any real emotion. The film constantly suggests that Shakur has money woes, but does so without any key insight. The film never really gets under the hood of a performer who was both conflicting externally as an artist and internally as a man. Straight Outta Compton (2015) may have been incredibly slick, but it’s a film which frames the plight of the group against the social climate as well and the internal conflicts of the group. All Eyez on Me is so limp wristed with 2pacs strengths, it’s hard to believe in its lead character as a social leader or a flagrant womaniser. Merely draping attractive, half-naked women around hotel rooms do little to convince.

This probably won’t deter faithful 2Pac fans, who have been waiting for years to see the man’s story appear on the big screen. One thing All Eyez on Me’s flat screenplay does is highlight just how rich Shakur’s story really could be. The film’s climactic credits remind us just how much the man achieved in his short life. It’s a pity that, save for a powerfully determined performance from Danai Gurira as Tupac’s ex Blak Panther mother, that All Eyez on Me has very little to say.

Review: Dunkirk

Year: 2017
Director: Christopher Nolan
Screenplay: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D'Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy.

Synopsis is here:

Days before watching Dunkirk, I found myself irked by one or two prominent members of the film community claiming you 'must' see Dunkirk on IMAX. Like most well to do men about town (read: Goof-offs), I found myself bitching about it via social media.
Part of my anger stemmed from I was finding to be a disconnect from the so called social media group "film twitter" and those who we can call the main audience. It was something that came the night before while recording my weekly podcast Fatal Attractions, in which during a conservation about Crash, a distinction about film critics and audiences rose its head.

At this point in time, I like to try and consider myself as a film writer but also an audience participant and I find the ramblings of the film Twitterati often help bring about said disconnect. A cool club vibe that sometimes emanates from certain corners. I've perhaps not watched enough Agnes Varda.

I got praise from my brief "rant" and I was also roundly told that what was merely enthusiasm I had misconstrued as a demand. One gentleman who claimed this, I found also spoke about "credible reviews" on the film. See what I mean? The power of words. The cool club of credible reviews. As the world becomes more binary and the internet thrives more on absolutes to catch the eye, it becomes easier to be more averse to the language. This is coming from someone who really needs to lay off his own hyperbole.

Preferably the best way to watch a film is in a cinema with decent ushers and with audience members who aren't on their phones. Most other things are else optional luxuries. Much like the cinema itself. My screening of Dunkirk was in a ‘normal’ cinema rooted in the middle of my town with no extra wide screen bells and whistles. While I understand that Nolan’s use of IMAX/70mm has added to the cinematic experience. It was just more feasible for me to watch this movie like many patrons can only do.

35mm Digital and reader, I damn near married this film.

Yes, hyperbole rears its head here, but with a film such as this one, I find it difficult not to spout such inflation. I found Dunkirk to be a powerfully observed work full of evocative images and the type of immediacy that can feel lacking with other larger scale movies.

Larger formats can indeed enhance a viewing experience but they shouldn’t have to be key to immerse a viewer. Dunkirk works not just because we can now watch something like it in an upscale city cinema. It works because Nolan looks as if he’s really taken hold of elements that he has been obsessed with since first entering the scene. The Michael Mann like fascination with determined “men doing work”, the dissembling of chronological order and the slipping and shifting of time in general. All this is blended with Nolan’s familiar desire to pull at threads in which we’ve grown accustomed to viewing in a certain way. The film itself feels less like an archetypical 3 act structure blockbuster even though those elements exist within the movie. Dunkirk, much like the opening of Edgar Wright’s pop cinematic heist flick; Baby Driver (2017), holds moments of pure cinema. Exposition is extraneous (a bold contrast to Inception) and many of Dunkirk’s boldest moments work as they come across as a distillation of vision and moment. This is personal, expressionistic and yet clearly commercial filmmaking.

I’m sure the film will be considered an experiment by some. The story is read through the expressions and often wordless actions of its characters as opposed to dialogue. In fact, moments of dialogue come across more garbled than in The Dark Knight Rises (2013). Tom Hardy is again placed behind a mask and forced to act only with his eyes as they display the anxiety of the situation that is unfolding in front of him. Nolan’s willingness to believe that the audience will find clarity of story through the clarity of emotion is the type of bold decision making that has fallen down the rabbit hole of commerce when it comes to cinema of this magnitude. Like in so many of Nolan’s movies the essence of the story is simple. With Nolan’s films, they always are. Where is the issue lies is whether the filmmaker is conning the audience. In my opinion, Nolan is doing what he can to restructure how people can observe populist cinema and trying to do so without leaning on what can be viewed as crutches. With Dunkirk, he’s doing what he’s been doing since Following (1998), stretching the old fabric to find a way of making the clothes feel fresh. This doesn’t feel like a con. If one thinks so, I can only say that this output is far more satisfying than the repurposing of branding and franchise following that is being witnessed elsewhere.

Dunkirk’s intentional reduction of particular elements neatly coincides with the film’s uncomplicated take on war. Nolan; who stated in interviews for his wish to negate a more conventional style war film, delivers a text which instead takes a far more primal look at survival. Criticism toward Dunkirk has most been on the scant amount of plot and backstory towards characters. One critique stated has been the near inability to tell certain characters apart from others. This feels entirely by design, with a wish to instead focus on the pure immediacy of the situation.  It’s unsurprising that comparisons to Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) have been made. While Spielberg’s film is one more interested in individualistic heroism, Nolan decides on eschewing this idea which in turn gives the film a more unique and at times more believable feeling. It’s not that the film doesn’t desire to give its characters compassion, it feels that such sympathies don’t just suddenly appear in the immediacy of such an event. Even then, as it is discovered within the film, sympathy slips and shifts as quickly the threat does.

This said Dunkirk wants its visuals to inform the story as opposed to blunt exposition. The backstory of the grunts on the frontline is not known? This is not true. The simple fact that the cast is age appropriate tells us what we need to know. As does a wonderfully simple moment involving a panic-stricken Cillian Murphy and a tiny bathroom filled with life jackets. The most backstory comes from Mark Rylance’s stoic civilian-cum rescue support. A final reveal about his character not only tugs at the heart strings but is given far more potency because it is withheld. It is a detail which could easily have been given from the moment we meet the character, but it’s is given a sense of dynamism by simply waiting for a later moment.

Similar can be said for Nolan’s fascination with shifting time frames. More so than Inception, however, with less vigour than Memento. The arrangement of images by editor Lee Smith, help powerful associations which would have perhaps not made as an effective impact with constructed from a more conventional narrative standpoint. The film’s mosaic like images may feel like a challenge to some. I remember the slash filmcast, for instance, had some criticisms with Nolan’s choices on when to focus on what. However, for myself, the films blended constructions of the various time frames, never felt confusing, only more fraught. This construction of the story gives the film’s outcome a stronger element of surprise. Although if theirs is one criticism I do have, the film’s climax has a smattering of “Hovis advert” which highlights a Britain which only really appears on the big screen. This maybe just my cynicism due to the fractured feelings surrounding the U.K right now, but I feel it’s fair to say that Nolan’s film pushes buttons in such a way, that it’s unsurprising that Nigel Farage retweeted his opportunistic mug next to a poster after watching it. I do wonder what he made of the film's credits, which, to me, suggests gratitude towards the E.U in the making of this film. Strangely It’s things like this which also make Dunkirk so fascinating. Its images can scream hawkish to some, yet it’s main emphasis (for this writer), is simply one of survival. The cinematography by Hoyte van Hoytema is sometimes so tightly composed that I found myself fighting for air. Once the film finds moments of calm with some of its more open visuals, the feeling was more of release than of political leanings. Even when the film seems to suggest them.
The criticisms towards Nolan’s editing of action again raise their head here. But the disorientation here is organised chaos and never the slap dash feel that betray other action orientated movies.

What’s really effective in the film is the action through character. As aforementioned, we understand Tom Hardy intentions so effectively by the top half of his face alone. Mark Rylance’s slow solemn decisions successfully carry a hefty load about them way before we find out why. The first moments of two young soldiers meeting each other of the beach are expressed with quiet nods and purposeful digging. The order of the images can feel askew, but the weight of them does not. The intensity of the each moment is further enhanced by the brooding score by composer Hans Zimmer.

Is Dunkirk Nolan’s best film? Such a knee-jerk question is often asked by film writers now as we look towards our recent generation of auteurs. In my screening, I found it to be his most emotive and immediate work. It’s certainly the most purposeful expression of his techniques currently. How essential the film becomes in the director’s oeuvre will matter more when time distances us away from it. Until then I will say, Dunkirk is currently the most affecting film I’ve seen this year. And I didn’t need IMAX to tell me so.

Monday 21 August 2017

Review: A Cure for Wellness

Year: 2017
Director: Gore Verbinski
Screenplay: Justin Haythe
Starring: Dane DeHaan, Jason Isaacs, Mia Goth

Synopsis is here:

Subjected to understandably mixed reviews, as well as the relatively dubious release date of February, Gore Verbinski’s A Cure for Wellness may suffer from periods of stiffness, yet showcases its director as a peculiar and ambitious visual stylist who’s willingness and enjoyment in creating macabre moments often goes unpraised.

Since The Mexican (2001) Verbinski has happily suggested that his work is a little off the beaten track. A touch askew of the conventional direction. Especially in a visual sense. The prime example would be the third Pirates of the Caribbean entry, which merrily decides upon flirting with the surreal with Jack Sparrow trapped in the cheekily absurd Davey Jones Locker, after playing a losing hand with a Kraken. The strange, Burton-esque vibe pulled off by the sequence, almost feels as if someone laced parts of the fantasy swashbuckler with LSD for a laugh.

When not subverting typically standard fare like quirky rom-com The Mexican (2001), or children’s fantasies such as the Chinatown tinged Rango (2011), Verbinski clearly shows a love for all-round darkness. Mark Kermode is always quick to note the depressing tone set in Pirates of the Carribean: At World’s End, where proceedings start with the hanging of an innocent child. However, in looking at most of the director’s work, it’s clear that this is a filmmaker who wishes to walk the dark path. Consider the serial killer bookend from the American remake of The Ring (2002), which was cut before theatrical release. Verbinski is nearly always looking to work a bit of edge into his features.

This brings us to A Cure for Wellness, which cheerfully smashes together elements of gothic melodrama, sci-fi and mystery and binds them with distinctly macabre visuals. It leans towards the likes of Shutter Island (2010) and Shock Corridor (1963) yet also seems to hint at the likes of The Ninth Configuration (1980). Verbinski brings out all his visual tricks here, delivering distorted horror film angles and wrapping them in in an absurd plot which plays notes on anti-capitalism, incest and new alternative medicine all the way to foreign mistrust and of course insanity. The film plays most of these parts fairly well, with many scenes giving off a disturbing sense of unease. This includes one particularly gruesome moment, in which those with a phobia of dentists should stay clear from.

Where A Cure for Wellness fails is the same thing that Verbinski often stumbles on: economics. With a hefty running time of two and a half hours, A Cure for Wellness fails where something like Crimson Peak (2016) succeeds; the usage of time. Verbinski’s storytelling always has a way of loading a running time in such a way, that could easily be an effectively lean chiller now becomes a beautiful, but ungainly distraction.  Once we get to the films slightly over-egged climax, we release that Dane DeHaan’s selfish trader protagonist was never really that compelling to really engage with. We should, however, give three cheers to Jason Issacs (Hello) however, as the film, much like Netflix’s frustratingly shallow The OA (2016), is a tremendous showcase for his continuous good work. Hoorah.

Sunday 6 August 2017

Review: It Comes at Night

Year: 2017
Director: Trey Edward Shults
Screenplay: Trey Edward Shults
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr, Riley Keough.

Synopsis is here:

It Comes at Night has been marketed as a typical horror film. I’m sure that there were a few people who saw posters and trailers and assumed that it would be the type of bland, stereotypical nonsense that leaks out into cinemas at the arse-end of January or the back end of the Netflix new release queue. Not so.

It Comes at Night found itself referenced in Steve Rose’s Guardian article which tries to make that argument that the film is part of a newly termed (by Rose himself) post-horror movement, in which films which don’t run the course of a so called conventional horror film, like say The Conjuring (2013), are slowly taking over at the multiplex. The problem with a term such as post-horror is that quite simply, it's the type of term used by people, who don’t seem to be particularly interested in the genre. At one-point Rose states as a result of successful titles such as Split (2017) and Get Out (2017) means, as a result, there’s now a market for horrors with low budget and mass appeal. Most people who enjoy horror films know that this has been the case for decades and not just now.

The same goes for the very idea of post-horror. In the documentary The American Nightmare (2000), director Adam Simon details many of the so-called aspects of post horror that Rose depicts. While true that a modern glut of films has brought around a sense of “refinement” to the ideas Rose describes. What Trey Edward Shults brings across in his second feature are the same types of concerns and societal anxieties that inhabit horror films since the likes of George A Romero appeared on the scene. Things don’t jump out at you during Romero’s Martin (1978), David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988) or Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), but we certainly accept the existential dread that comes with them.

Much like Shults first film, Krisha (2016) It Comes at Night is a film in which the horror comes from regular people reaching deep inside them to do horrific things. It opens with a family being forced into the difficult decision to extinguish the life of an elderly member suffering from an unknown epidemic which has – from what we know – ravaged America as we know it.  Shults opens his film almost exactly like his debut feature: with an older face framed in extreme close-up. Despite looking at a stranger, Shults manages to portray familiarity, uncertainty and fear in a few short moments. He also sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

The atmosphere is one of intense grief and paranoia as we follow a family struggling to survive a contagious disease which has taken hold of the nation. Tempers flare when a second family interrupt their secluded sanctuary.

It Comes at Night feels quite plain when laid out on paper. In execution, it’s an exceptionally deft piece of work from a filmmaker who has quickly developed an authoritative vision on screen. Much like Get Out (2017) or Polanski’s apartment trilogy, Shults is an auteur that understands and utilises the idea that what can destroy us is simple mistrust. The horror that unravels within the film comes from the simple fact that with the right amount of pressure, decent people will do horrific things.
Shults mostly eschews overt violence and, like his previous feature focuses fully on mood. Save for one sequence, there are no ‘BOO’ moments, merely a steady feeling of unease that parades throughout. The camera set-ups are simple. Nothing complex. But the use of slow foreboding zooms, tight close-ups and powerful use of sound help bring around an inescapable feeling of dread. Tension builds as we quickly realise that the events that occur could be easily avoidable, yet the very real craving for self-destruction makes everything seem unavoidable. The terror stems from our wish to pick at the frayed edges of our humanity. To tongue the cut roof of the mouth. To pick at the scabs.

It Comes at Night picks an exceptionally on point cast to bring the terror home. You can feel that both Joel Edgerton and Christopher Abbott’s father figures are striving to make things work for their families. You can really feel that search for catharsis through Kelvin Harrison Jr’s display as Travis. Carmen Ejogo and Riley Keough are well drafted as the film’s motherly characters and each actor manages to tap into the right amount of feel to bring round the fraught and delicate bonds needed for such a story. Bonds which have their fragility heightened as uncertainty creeps in.

The beauty of the film’s ugliness lies in how well Shults navigates and toys with those processed ideas of the American family. This theme has lingered in American horror films since Romero’s Night of the Living Dead (1960). It’s apparent that it is these generational and social tensions which trigger something within the filmmaker. It also highlights why the idea of “post-horror” garnered such a negative reaction. It seems to be quite clear that Shults is updating tried and tested ideas for a different generation. For this writer, It Comes at Night works exceedingly well. Understanding the pitfalls of what could be considered “lesser” horror, the film manages to destabilise and unnerve viewers without the simple need to throw guts at the screen or use flagrant jump scares to catch the attention. It Comes at Night’s fears comes from the simple fact that the darkest monsters are the ones who we instil our trust in. When we look back at so much horror through the ages, we realise that it has always been that way.

Saturday 5 August 2017

Review: The Beguiled

Year: 2017
Director: Sophia Coppola
Screenplay: Sophia Coppola
Starring: Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, Elle Fanning.

Synopsis is here:

The more I think about The Beguiled, the more I fear it might not have worked for me. While watching the movie, I enjoyed its opulence. I was occupied in that feathery, dream-like bubble that Sophia Coppola creates with her film. The Beguiled is no exception to Coppola’s ability to craft succulent images. This is southern gothic by way of Vanity Fair. It’s nigh-high impossible not to drink in the lavishness.

However, it was with a second viewing of Don Siegel’s original cinematic adaptation of The Beguiled (1971) that I found myself feeling a little duped. Thinking back to Coppola’s film, I discovered that I had found it lacking. Much was said about Coppola’s decision (and weak explanation) to “whitewash” her civil war film, by omitting the original feature’s only black character Hattie. After watching Coppola’s film, I was first of the opinion that this could have been merely the force of progressive politics imposing itself on to yet another film because it didn’t adhere itself exactly to how a particular left leaning audience would want it to. So often I often feel that we can, and will, find anything to criticise (read complain about) as it may not fit directly into our agenda. But that second viewing of Sigel’s film said even more than expected. Coppola’s film pales in contrast to it, not just because of its refusal to talk about race in a war in which race was a key part of. The Beguiled ’17 sands down more than race, but also the seedier elements which make the 71 version stand out.

Coppola is a director who knows her bread and butter and does well when she sticks to it. Here the girls of the school, like so many of Coppola’s doe-eyed, wonderfully dressed females, embrace the ritualistic elements of being in such a private school in that era, the prayers, the sewing, the music and the repression. Set it in the 70’s and we’re only a few steps away from The Virgin Suicides (1999) with the way these girls gated away from the evils of the world. That is until the devilishly handsome Colin Farrell shows up.

Where the original and remake diverge is in more than just the omittance of slave girl Hallie.  Gone is the more troublesome elements of Martha Farnsworth’s incestuous relationship with her brother which draws a cloud over so many of the women previously. Also removed is a late-night sequence involving southern state soldiers who imply their wish to explore their desires on the girls. Another element which gives more reason to view John with mistrust. The inner monologue of the female characters, illustrated via voice over, also disappears. Something which was clearly used in the original novel, where the male character does not hold a point of view. This motif only enhances and highlights the agency between the girls and their relationship to John. Who is played with a far more predatory manner by Clint Eastwood than here by Farrell, who is given far more sympathy.

Coppola’s decision to omit Hallie from this updated version of the movie is a strange one. In doing so, Coppola dismantles some of the balance and richness found in Siegel’s film and stops from ever exploring some interesting dynamics. Farrell showcases his Irishness in the film and one could only imagine the conflict that could come from a black slave and an Irish soldier fighting for the north. But also, the conflict between Hallie and Eastwood are among the more potent exchanges in the film. Why deny us this? Instead, Coppola goes down a more swooning, safer route of “white woman feminism” which, shouldn’t really be a surprise to a fan of her films such as myself, but only highlights how superficial some of the films discourse can feel. Coppola makes her version of the tale a film full of lavish costuming, pinpoint blocking and near slavish ritualism but it never wants to challenge its viewer.

This causes a conflict. The Beguiled once again shows that Coppola is an auteur of a truly singular vision, observing womanhood in a way that only she can. Her dream-like visions still provide intriguing entertainment to those who are interested. Her cast and their performances are formidable (although 1971’s list of players is more alluring) and the film never outstays its welcome.
However, The Beguiled (race elements aside) holds no controversy, and Coppola is no radical. She never really has been. What we see here is a wonderfully framed period piece, but it has none of the rough edges that the film before it holds. Coppola has fun toying with elements of the women’s repression (Kidman’s face while washing Farrell is a picture), but the playing down and removal of the aspects which made the original so remarkable softens the blow considerably making The Beguiled feel like an entertaining piece but also a missed opportunity. You get the feeling that Sophia Coppola went out and does what she does. It’s just a damn shame it feels all so safe.

Review: Baby Driver

Year: 2017
Director: Edgar Wright
Screenplay: Edgar Wright
Starring: Ansel Elgort, Kevin Spacey, Lily James, Eiza González, Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, and Jon Bernthal.

Synopsis is here:

Now that filmmaking is so invested in the digital age, from creation to distribution methods, one thing I’ve found myself noticing a lot more is long tracking shots. A very good colleague and I found ourselves labelling the technique as the film equivalent of the guitar solo. We also certainly didn’t believe that all long shots are considered equal. While technically impressive, the tracking shot can easily lead to pretension. A flashy directional flourish which only asks the audience to look at the director as opposed to what’s in the frame. Since taking up photography and watching more older films (hence the lack of blogging on here), I’ve grown to appreciate a good cut even more.
This brings us to Edgar Wright, a director I’ve greatly admired since watching the sitcom Spaced (1999) on Channel Four all those moons ago. Wright is a particularly stylistic filmmaker, who utilises visual flourishes in a way that, like say, Spielberg, makes his films as instantly recognisable to audiences. The crash zooms are nearly always a dead giveaway. Another telltale trademark of Wright's is his love for the long tracking shot. Unlike many other directors, Edgar Wright apricates, and more importantly understands, a good tracking shot.

What’s this got to do with Baby Driver? A vibrant modern take on the heist movie? Well, it’s all to do with the film’s giddily delirious introduction to its main character; Baby (Ansel Elgort). After a breathtaking opening chase sequence, perhaps Wright’s most technically proficient of his career, Baby Driver decides to give us a breather, without giving us a breather. We are given a beautifully choreographed tracking shot that introduces us not only to the character of Baby but also how he sees the world. One full of music and movement. Wright has pulled this trick on us before in Shaun of the Dead (2004) and Hot Fuzz (2007) but never has he done so with such joy. Like with previous sequences of Wright’s, the moment is packed with so much visual information, that it will most likely take a third viewing to pick up on everything that it’s packing. However, such a moment also builds upon its character. While it looks cool, it’s not done just because it is cool. It’s a truly harmonious blend of sight and sound. Dare I utter the words pure cinema?  I will. But perhaps only in my point of view.

The opening moments of Baby Driver are so joyous, that the film, almost never truly recovers. Nothing afterwards really tops what occurs in the beginning. Wright’s film soon becomes a more typical affair, which reminds high on fun, despite its problematic narrative. It is in here in which the argument of Wright has a director of style over substance becomes more apparent, particularly when it comes to his portrayal of women.

Much like the hyperactive Scott Pilgrim (2010), the love interests within the films universe come across more like prized trophies than characters with agency. Where Baby Driver throbs with the same kind of kinetic vivacity which made Scott Pilgrim so enjoyable, by the final act, both films feel uninterested in the plights of their female leads, this is despite their solid performances. The females in Baby Driver, as with Scott Pilgrim, feel more like extensions of the men they love and fully formed characters. This doesn’t take away from Lily James’ delicately vulnerable display, but the films development of character, or rather lack of, stunts what the films love interest could have been.

The same goes for an awkwardly placed motivation of a character during the films third act. Said character, decides on a noble act from out of nowhere which feels false and unbelievable. Annoyingly, said moment slowed the momentum and had me start of question more of the film. It rather unfairly made me wonder just how important cornetto trilogy writers Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are to Wright’s creative process. Said character twist was so out of the blue, I can imagine a DVD extra of the three of them explaining the screenplay moment, a la Shaun of the Dead. With Pegg and Frost missing a second-time round, one wonders what they would do if they could have had a hand in crafting the screenplay.

Such negatives do not detract from the fact that Baby Driver is a whole heap of fun. Its action sequences are key to this, running at a blistering pace, yet maintaining a solid sense of space. Baby Drivers set pieces are also wonderfully varied. A mixed blend of car chases, foot chases and shootouts. No sequence feels repetitive. Nothing outstays its welcome and everything is crafted to the rhythm of whatever is playing in Baby’s ears. Musical organised chaos.

While the basic plot doesn’t much stray from the usual “one last job” narrative of so many heist movies, the real glue that connects the wild set pieces is the cast who are more than up to the task of keeping up with the film. Ansel Elgort does more than enough to show off his star quality. Much like Scott Pilgrim, this boy with the “hum in the drum” is socially awkward but particularly skilled. Baby Driver gives Elgort a film that allows him to let him run a little wild with his charm. While the whole white slightly stunted man child isn’t in vogue in certain circles, Elgort clearly has a good time with the material and it shows. The same goes for the likes of John Hamm, Jamie Foxx and Kevin Spacey. All solid comic performers when they want to be. It seems that all three were chomping at the bit to be let loose on a film like this. Each performer has a chance to shine and does so with the type of panache you expect from them. It’s a shame that the screenplay lets the likes of Lily James and Eiza Gonzalez, down. They do very well with what they’re given. Special credit should go to deaf actor CJ Jones who provides the film heart as Baby’s foster father.

Baby Driver is a juvenile delinquent of a film and I mean that in a somewhat good way. It shows that despite its faults, Wright’s departure from Ant-Man was probably a good thing. The fact that afterwards, he can brush off a decade's old script get it financed for less than $40 Million and make one of the more eye brow raising summer films of 2017 is quite heartening in more ways than one. It’s a film that reminded me of the same blend of chaos and crooning that made The Blues Brothers 1980’s such a delight. Times have changed, and Baby Driver isn’t as anarchic as Landis’ irreverent musical comedy. It’s clear however that its heart is in a similar place.