Unfortunately, it has now been over a year since I posted a film review, and I have only just realised that the last review I wrote was for Fifty Shades Darker! Hardly a climax to remember! (no pun intended!)
I have still been watching many films, but in my pursuit of a new qualification I have had to put writing reviews of these films to one side for the time being.
Assuming I pass all my assignments and exams and do not have to do any retakes, then I intend to be back writing full reviews of films by June. However, in preparation for this and to make sure that I haven’t forgotten how to write, I include here brief mini reviews of all the new (and newish) releases that I managed to see in the month of March.
Russian auteur Andrey Zvyagintsev is one of my favourite directors, and so I was very much looking forward to this. This story of a married couple (Maryana Spivak and Aleksey Rozin) going through a divorce and deciding who gets to look after their son (Matvey Novikov) contains all of his trademark themes of being on the surface a human drama focussing on the many flaws associated with the human condition, but with an underbelly of political and social commentary.
Unlike most dramas of this subject, neither couple wants custody of their son, and show as much dislike and resentment directly towards him as they do to one-another. However, after leaving their son all alone for an entire night, he subsequently goes missing and what ensues is harrowing search which asks some awkward questions of the two protagonists and human nature in general.
Zvyagintsev is the master of cinematic understatement and produces yet another power house drama that is often profoundly harrowing and always deeply engrossing. Indeed, some of Loveless’ most powerful and haunting moments are actually put together using what could be described as simple directorial methods, but he simply lets the raw power of the story and some its individual moments do all the work. Great performances are of course essential, and the entire cast deliver subtle, understated, but quietly very powerful performances that complement Zvyagintsev’s directorial style.
With seemingly skilful ease Zvyagintsev manages to combine political & social allegory with a deeply haunting human drama that often produces more questions than answers, and some of these questions are very difficult ones that the audience cannot help but apply to themselves. For me this kind of film making only enhances our engagement with the rich and layered narrative and produces what will surely be one of the best films of 2018.
There is no getting away from the fact that for many reasons the release of Blank Panther was a momentous and very important occasion for the cinema industry. However, I will leave the discussion of those subjects to those more qualified and knowledgeable than myself and just focus on the film and judge it on its own narrative merits. Likewise, many far more qualified to do so than myself have commented on what this film represents, and I am not here to discuss that, just simply review it as a piece of cinematic entertainment.
Well, it gives me no pleasure to admit that I thought the film itself was overall a bit of a narrative mess, and though it certainly had its merits as a piece of entertainment, it is very much a mediocre addition to the MCU canon.
The main story of T’Challa / Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) having to prove himself worthy of the thrown of his home kingdom of Wakanda is very much tried and tested stuff. Throw in our protagonist having to further defy the supposed odds when this is throne is challenged by an outsider (Michael B. Jordan) who has his own vengeance fuelled backstory, some political infighting, Martin Freeman’s agent, some dodgy CGI and some misfiring attempts at comic relief, and that ticks most boxes. However, the film seems happy to just rely on clichés instead of developing them.
Despite the film feeling overlong, the plot strands still feel mishandled due to a slightly erratic structure that means the film never seems to find any kind of smooth flow and is unfortunately a rather unsatisfying experience. This is all a waste as the actual villain of the piece is actually one of the better antagonist backstories for a while and he does emerge as quite a sympathetic character. Despite this the stakes never feel quite as high as they should, and the whole vibranium thing does dangerously venture into the Harry Potter realm of ‘it’s okay, it’s magic’ narrative laziness that enables characters to just get out of tight spots a little too easily and never actually overcoming any kind of obstacle. While the good performances from the leads are deserving of a better script and plot.
Black Panther is perfectly watchable and entertaining, but a completely forgettable addition to the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Though this has been available on Netflix for a couple of months now, I thought I would give this Will Smith starring actioner a go. Expectations were low, mainly due to the fact that Bright is directed by David Ayer, and they were certainly met.
The actual world of building of an earth that has been populated by humans, orcs, elves and various other fantasy creatures since the dawn of time and all the various politics and conflicts this has produced is potentially quite interesting. However, this is a David Ayer film, and he does not to subtlety (or indeed any kind intelligence), and so we just have a dumb fantasy-action-buddy-cop film hybrid that is just about watchable, but very forgettable due to the fact it is so incredibly daft.
The main plot just feels like it is made up as the narrative goes along and it is difficult to get into or care too much about it, with a typically wise-cracking Will Smith and surprising sympathetic prosthetics covered Joel Edgerton just about managing to keep our interest.
It does seem to be the case that of their own distributed films, Netflix produce a fair few duds, and this is definitely another one of those.
Oh dear, how the mighty have fallen! After his stunning low budget debut Moon, Jones then proved he could deal with big budgets and stars with the solid high-concept thriller Source Code, while he then brought us the critically panned Warcraft film. Warcraft was always going to be difficult one, and so with Mute he is back on familiar territory in more ways than one, not only is it a return to low budget sci-fi, but indeed Mute is set in the same cinematic universe as Moon. However, Mute is most certainly no Moon; Mute is a dull sci-fi dud lacking in any interesting ideas or themes that is held together by a stupid and poorly told plot.
The plot to Mute is set in Berlin forty years in the future and focusses on a mute bartender (Alexander Skarsgård) whose search for his missing girlfriend takes him deep into the city’s sinister underbelly and he becomes inadvertently involved in a darker plot involving two very shady and untrustworthy characters played by a giant moustache attached to Paul Rudd and a ridiculous blonde wig attached to Justin Theroux.
This futuristic Berlin looks like a very, very cheap version of Blade Runner’s Los Angeles, and though there are the occasional smaller interesting quirks to be found in the ‘futuristic’ set design, it fails to produce any kind of feeling of atmosphere.
While the story itself is a load of utter nonsense that has the occasional ‘twist’, but it is impossible to care about any of the characters or any of these supposed twists. While there is actually very little reason for this plot to be set in 40 years in the future, which only enhances the feeling of style of substance. What makes it worse is that the style itself is rather lacking too!
Another Netflix original, and the main reason I was attracted to this was that it starred Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan. Based on Stephen Leathers Novel the Chinaman, the plot is your standard affair of a Chinese businessman (Chan) whose daughter is killed in politically motivated terror attack, and he starts a one-man mission of vengeance, which sees him caught in the middle of a political conspiracy with an Irish Government official (Brosnan) who has a rather shady past.
Director Martin Campbell’s film adopts a very moody tone and is part political thriller, part standard action film and doesn’t quite seem to decide which it wants to be, and is littered with clichés of both genres, but doesn’t quite manage to mould them together with that much success.
The plot certainly has enough espionage and twists and turns to keep a level of interest, and Chan and Brosnan deliver good performances to elevate their characters above the cliché-ridden narrative. Chan delivers a great, understated performance, and while the film is quite dialogue heavy, Campbell keeps the action sequences low key and relatively realistic with people getting properly hurt by household objects. However, the fact that Chan’s character has ‘special skills’ due to his past and that it is Jackie Chan does take away an element of the feeling of danger. While Brosnan is excellent as the shady politician in a more intense and serious role that we are used to from him.
A lot of the supposed plot twists are quite obvious so there is never any real level of intrigue, but the gritty tone and good performances make this a perfectly watchable film that basically belongs on Netflix.
A couple of years ago Alex Garland decided to take up the director’s chair for the first time and blew us all away with his wonderfully cerebral sci-fi film Ex Machina. Well, how do you follow that? Firstly, you decide to have your film shown on Netflix, but unlike Duncan Jones’ latest limp offering, Garland once again delivers with another soulful, cerebral piece of science fiction that has both style and substance. Though the fact that the great and powerful thought Annihilation to be too cerebral for cinemas shows just how little respect they have for the good, honest cinema going public!
This time the story evolves around Natalie Portman’s biologist (who for what seems none another than narrative convenience is also a former soldier) whose husband (Oscar Isaac) returns from a secret mission in a critically ill condition, and so she volunteers to join a group of fellow scientists for an expedition to the same site that he went to. They travel to an area referred to as ‘the shimmer’, a mysterious area that was the subject of meteor landing and where the members of previous expeditions have never returned. What she and the group then discover within the shimmer are biological discoveries that are beyond their comprehension, and they search for answers.
Though this narrative concept initially sounds less than original (and I will confess to knowing nothing about Jeff VanderMeer’s novel), Garland proves once again that he really understands the process of creating cinematic atmosphere and tension. The deliberately measured pacing helps to create an increasing level of intrigue as the plot develops and the main characters (and us the audience) learn more about the shimmer, while Annihilation is also visually stunning and does deserve to be seen on the biggest screen possible (though that will be difficult for anyone who doesn’t have a home cinema!).
Visual and thematic metaphors ensue (as well as a plentiful but not excessive amount of body horror) as the narrative develops, with plenty of questions being asked. Garland seemingly deliberately leaves us clues, but very rarely providing clear answers. While the motivations behind each of the five characters for embarking on this seeming suicide mission also play a key role in the themes and ideas that the narrative explores. While perhaps not providing an ending quite as satisfying as Ex Machina, Annihilation is still a deeply engaging piece of cinematic sci-fi that will haunt the viewer for a long time after watching.
There is no denying that Greta Gerwig is very talented writer and actress, and now with Lady Bird she has proved to a talented director too. However, (here comes the inevitable but) one of my main criticisms of her collaborations with Noah Baumbach is that when writing films that supposedly have ‘witty’ and ‘sharp’ dialogue there is the risk of just having a smug film about smug, unlikeable characters, and those films struggled to avoid these traps.
Unfortunately, Lady Bird often falls into the same trap, as some of the dialogue feels over written and therefore a lot of the supposed humour feels forced and therefore creating a film that is alienating when it is supposed to be involving.
This coming of age tale focusses on 17-year-old Christine “Lady Bird” MacPherson (Saoirse Ronan) as she embarks on her final year at high school. Disillusioned with her life on ‘the wrong side of the tracks’ in a world of poverty, she seeks to find her place in the world where her levels of creativity and sophistication can be recognised.
There are many initial relatable qualities of the protagonist, as many of us have gone through a phase in our life (or are yet to leave this phase) where we are trying to find our place in the world and feel that we just simply do not fit in with the place that we have been forced into. Lady Bird is also a character that is flawed, and some of these flaws are relatable, but she is often almost impossible to actually like or care about due to being too obnoxious because of the over written script that seems to want to sacrifice meaningful dialogue with overly nasty put-downs and punchlines that work well in the trailer.
Likewise, Lady Bird is also a love letter to Sacramento (where Gerwig grew up) and again the theme of characters having nothing good to say about their home towns but deep down actually having a lot of affection for them is also relatable, but at times we feel like we are intruding into Gerwig’s very private love letter to her home town, which makes the film quite alienating at times. Likewise, the structure is too ill-disciplined; I appreciate that this kind of film will always have a ‘character driven’ narrative, but in the case of Lady Bird the narrative does not flow smoothly and the last 15 minutes clunk along as it feels that Gerwig struggles to end her film.
Lady Bird’s main saving grace is the cast, whose note-perfect performances and effortless chemistry often elevate the over written dialogue and seen-it-all-before narrative moments, and they make sure the film remains watchable.
Lady Bird does have some good moments, and certainly showcases Greta Gerwig’s potential talent as a writer and director, and I am sure next time she will do much better than this mediocre effort.
The Cloverfield Paradox
So J.J. Abrams’ slightly bizarre franchise continues, and this instalment provides further proof that they are all linked by more than just their names. However, I hated Cloverfield and thought that though 10 Cloverfield Lane did have some moments of genuine tension and intrigue, it failed to deliver on this.
Well, without trying to give too much away, this third instalment focusses on a spaceship called The Cloverfield Station (!) which has been launched to solve the earth’s energy crisis (which has put it on the brink of a new global war). On board is the shepherd particle accelerator, which if activated correctly can provide infinite energy for the earth, but there is also a fear that if it goes wrong then it could create ‘The Cloverfield Paradox’ which could open a new dimension, potentially unleashing horrors from other dimensions. Well, surprisingly, it does go wrong, and they end up in a different dimension and the crew of famous actors of various nationalities must figure out how to get home.
Part Sunshine, part Event Horizon, part a few others; The Cloverfield Paradox is quite happy to embrace the usual genre clichés without even trying to either explain these or do anything interesting with them, unlike last year’s Life which managed to at least create an atmospheric and often genuinely scary cinematic experience.
The big-name cast do stellar jobs in trying to keep straight faces as they deliver the nonsense dialogue (apart from Chris O’Dowd, whose apparent ‘comic relief’ lines are just plain irritating), and the likes of Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Daniel Brülh and Elizabeth Debicki actually bring much more dimension to their characters than the story has any right to. They manage to make sure the film remains just about watchable.
I am happy to admit that I am a layman when it comes to physics, but I find it hard to believe that there is any solid grounding in much if the plot to The Cloverfield Paradox as it is surely way too silly and non-sensical to be based on any scientific theory. Either way, as a piece of narrative cinema it struggles to work, and though its ending may help to explain the events of the other two films, I didn’t need to waste 100 minutes of my life finding out what caused the events of two films I do not particularly like anyway. Hopefully this remains a trilogy!
The Shape of Water
After the style-over-substance nonsense that was Crimson Peak, I was intrigued to see what Del Toro would do next, and with The Shape of Water he has put together a film that has both style and substance.
Set in the 1960s America, a lonely mute cleaner named Elisa (Sally Hawkins) who works at a high-security government laboratory falls in love with a mysterious amphibious creature that is being held there in captivity.
As with Pan’s Labyrinth, Del Toro successfully merges fantasy with reality in a film which contains so many allegorical themes within its narrative. It is of course first and foremost a love story, but it also focusses on those that are left marginalised by society (particularly at the time the film is set), and while Pan’s Labyrinth was set to the backdrop of the Spanish Civil War, The Shape of Water has the Cold War as its backdrop which plays a key role in the narrative developments.
Though I personally feel that Christopher Nolan should have just edged it for the best director awards, it is easy to see why Del Toro did win so many awards, as The Shape of Water is stunningly put together, with incredible attention to detail in the stunning set design that truly does create a feeling of time and place. While, Dan Laustsen’s incredible cinematography and Alexander Desplat’s score only further enhance what is a truly ravishing cinematic experience for all the senses.
The performances by the entire cast are also exceptional, with Sally Hawkins giving a stunningly understated performance, and she captures perfectly in her expressions and body language the various emotions her very relatable character goes through during the narrative. In the hands of a lesser actor Michael Shannon’s character could have been a walking cliché, but he adds that extra edge to his character that is essential to make him genuinely scary.
Though it may not be as truly memorable as Del Toro’s very best work, The Shape of Water is a stunningly crafted and spellbinding fairy tale that engages from start to finish.
You Were Never Really Here
One horrible memory that stays with me is a time in another life when I worked in the DVD section of a famous supermarket and one of the customers spoke to another about Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin and described it as a ‘murder mystery’. That for me summed up the worryingly low levels of intellect of the general public!
…but I digress.
Scottish director Lynne Ramsay has never been afraid to make uncompromising films that make the viewer less than comfortable, and You Were Never Really Here is no exception. The story focusses on deeply traumatised Gulf War veteran Joe (Joaquin Phoenix) who tracks down missing girls for a living, however when his latest job spins out of control and uncovers a political conspiracy, it takes him down an even darker path of violence.
Though that plot may seem like a typically cliched hitman thriller, Ramsay and Phoenix strip away the clichés to produce a dark, uncompromising character study that goes to some very dark places and offers very little in terms of positivity. All we have as character development is hallucinatory flashbacks, with the viewer never knowing how much truth is in them, with Phoenix’s character having very little to say.
Phoenix himself gives a stunning performance; capturing through simple body language and expressions the abject psychological despair, isolation and torment that his character goes through. Ramsay’s depiction of the violence is often brutal but suitably understated, often very matter of fact in its visual depiction. While Jonny Greenwood’s score and Joe Bini’s editing only serve to enhance the feeling of claustrophobic suffocation that this uncompromising and brutally raw character study offers.
You Were Never Really Here is not an easy film to watch, and nor does Ramsay want it to be, and though its story is often brutal and nasty, beneath that is a tenderness and deep loneliness to Joe, and there are elements of his character that will resonate with those of us that have ever felt completely isolated. It is a truly unique story that will engage with those willing to accept its raw brutality and will resonate long in the memory afterwards.
Swedish auteur Ruben Östlund’s Force Majeure (review) was one of my favourite films of 2015, and his 2017 Cannes Palme d’Or winning The Square is yet another fantastic darkly comic social satire that examines with wit and intelligence gender roles, class, the role of art and the state of 21st century western society in general.
The focus of the narrative is on Christian (Claes Bang), the curator of a Stockholm museum which is trying to market its new installation in way that means it will stand out in a social media dominated world. Meanwhile, after having his phone and wallet stolen, Christian’s attempts to get them back intertwine with this launch and he descends into an increasing crisis on both a personal and professional level.
The protagonist’s own individual journey unfolds like a farcical tragedy and is what keeps the narrative together and stops it from feeling too disjointed or episodic. While it is also the catalyst for some of the developments regarding the museum’s marketing campaign, and both strands of the narrative produce moments that will make the audience laugh, gasp or have a real good think about their own lives and the society we live in.
This is a film absolutely brimming with ideas and razor-sharp observations, and despite the premise of the narrative not sounding particularly enticing and the film being 151 minutes long, it is an incredibly engrossing experience that flies by. It is a film that frequently changes gears; some scenes are deeply uncomfortable, while others darkly hilarious, with Östlund very much in control of his narrative, telling it at the measured and appropriate pace that he wishes to. The Square is definitely an infinitely rewarding viewing experience, with the more viewer puts into it, the more they will get out of it.
Despite the fact he keeps on saying that he is retiring from directing, Steven Soderbergh keeps on making films, and after last year’s half-decent screwball comedy Logan Lucky, this most diverse of directors now brings us a psychological thriller.
The premise is simple enough; Claire Foy’s successful and driven career woman is still severely haunted by the experience of having a stalker despite the fact she moved 400 miles to a new city, and after she goes to what she believes is a therapy session, she mistakenly signs to agree to be kept in a mental institution. While there, she discovers that her stalker is one of the members of staff, or are they?
So, ensues a thriller questioning what is real and what is in the protagonist’s head, and just to make things more interesting, the entire film was shot on an iPhone. Though the picture certainly lacks visual depth, this and the narrow frame ratio do actually serve to enhance the feeling of claustrophobia that the film initially produces.
‘Initially’ being the key word there, as despite a promising start, the main issue with the film is Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer’s script, as they and Soderbergh appear to completely lose control of their film, and the narrative itself descends into madness on a greater level than its actual protagonist, but not in a good way. As the narrative goes along it gets more and more ludicrous, eventually removing any genuine sense of terror or indeed intrigue, as some of the plot developments are so unbelievable that they are laughable.
Thankfully (only just) holding the cacophonical narrative together is Claire Foy’s exceptional performance; indeed, it only enhances the sense of regret that the narrative is such a mess. However, thanks mainly to Foy Unsane is just about watchable but very forgettable, and proof that no matter how you shoot a film, first and foremost you need to have a good story to start with.
Isle of Dogs
Despite having all the trademarks of a typical Wes Anderson film, The Grand Budapest Hotel was one that managed to earn incredible financial and critical success that I am sure even Wes himself was slightly surprised about. So, surely the pressure is on Wes like he has never experienced before to produce his next film that will inevitable be judged against those extremely high standards. Well, one way to combat that is to go for something very different; a stop-motion animation centred around dogs and set in a future Japan.
Well, when I say different, Isle of Dogs still has all the Wes Anderson visual and narrative trademarks that fans of his filmography love so dearly, but perhaps those that of his films only saw The Grand Budapest Hotel (and maybe The Royal Tenenbaums due to its Oscar nominations) and so are essentially expecting The Grand Budapest Hotel 2, this is quite a wise choice to avoid that slightly unfair pressure and expectations.
Set in a future Japan, due to an outbreak of dog flu and extreme levels of overpopulation of canines, all dogs have been banned and are removed to live all by themselves on a remote island known as trash island, which (hence the name) is a giant rubbish dump. However, a young boy flies to the island in search of his dog, and he and a pack of dogs embark on an odyssey to find the boy’s dog, while uncovering a greater political anti-dog conspiracy.
Isle of Dogs is a film that must be seen at the cinema, as the set design is stunningly crafted and absolutely brimming with little details (some of which will probably be missed on first time viewing), while the story itself is very emotionally involving and filled with heart, as well as the Wes Anderson style sharp dialogue. The choice for the dogs (voiced wonderfully by Bryan Cranston and a host of Anderson regulars) to speak English and the Japanese human characters to speak Japanese (without subtitles – but with the occasional Anderson-esque verbal translation) works surprisingly well. While Alexander Desplat’s score also enhances the sense of setting.
This is yet another Wes Anderson film to have a caper-like narrative, and while this in itself is great fun, it does also incorporate some bigger themes and ideas. Isle of Dogs is a tremendously fun experience and a film with a very warm heart.
Ready Player One
So, we have the second Spielberg film in as many months, and this one is certainly a very different beast to The Papers. Ready Player One is set in a dystopian future where the only way for most people to escape their poverty-stricken, mundane lives is to enter a virtual reality world called the OASIS where they can be anyone and essentially do anything. However, when the creator of the OASIS dies, he leaves a series of clues for all players to find an Easter Egg with the first to find it inheriting ownership of his company and therefore the OASIS.
The remaining strands of the plot are the usual clichés of our plucky underdog hero (Tye Sheridan) and a corporate villain (a scenery chewing Ben Mendelsohn in his usual bad guy mode), filled with the usual comic relief characters and a love interest. While there is very little coverage given is to why this future is so dystopian, as the narrative decides to focus on the virtual world of the OASIS.
There is however no getting away from the fact that Ready Player One is tremendous fun and is a wonderfully entertaining film that is filled with wonderful nostalgic references to 80s pop culture and will strike an extra special chord to those of us that feel particularly disenfranchised with the mundane real world and wish we could escape and be someone else and seek escapism from video games and films. It is also visually stunning, and though some of the film does take place in the real world, Spielberg does manage to mould together scenes in both worlds very well.
Admittedly, the enjoyable references aside (The Iron Giant and The Shining in particular), the film is all surface and there is no real depth to it and as much of a sense of danger as there should be, making Ready Player One quite a forgettable experience. However, there is no denying that it is tremendously entertaining and great fun while on screen.
120 BPM (Beats Per Minute)
Another Cannes favourite, but this is very different to The Square; set in the early 1990s, 120 BPM follows a group called ACT UP Paris, an activist group of young Parisians (many of whom suffer from AIDS) who fight against the lack of pubic awareness and treatment for AIDS.
The story uses the usual narrative of convention of focussing on a newcomer to the group, Nathan (Arnaud Valois) and his individual character journey as he meets the group and falls in love with one of its members; a radical militant who is in the later stages of AIDS called Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart).
However, this works perfectly as we are introduced to the group and its various members at an initial breakneck pace with many scenes crammed with naturalistic dialogue and information. Once the plot moves forward the film sticks with its raw and unflinching naturalistic style, and this only serves to maintain its level of integrity as it tells a very important story and is not afraid to confront the audience with some uncomfortable questions.
120 BPM is a very difficult and often quite harrowing film to watch, but so it should be, with director Robin Campillo never shirking from depicting the film’s darker moments in an appropriate way, and never once glamorising them. While the romantic elements of the narrative are not frightened to be explicit, but also show great tenderness between the characters involved, making sure that these romantic elements do feel natural within the main plot and only enhance our narrative engagement. Likewise, the performances from the entire case, especially the two main characters, are exceptional and suitably passionate, but also understated when necessary.
At 143 minutes 120 BPM is a little too long and could have done some more rigid editing and a good 20 minutes left out so as to keep the pace, especially in the film’s final third. However, this is passionate filmmaking that tells a very important story with the utmost integrity and is an engaging viewing experience that will live long in the memory.