Monday, 31 October 2016

Best and Worst of October 2016

Were you expecting some kind of Halloween related segment, well tough because ultimately you can watch horror movies at any time of the year as opposed to relegating a single day to discuss them all. What I am going to discuss today though is the best and worst movies of October. Sadly this month hasn’t been as promising as it could have been, with many seemingly promising productions coming to a frustratingly disappointing result, from a psychological thriller starring Emily Blunt that turned out to be as dull as dishwater, to a Tom Cruise action vehicle that felt like a ‘Mission: Impossible’ film if you put exactly half the effort into it.

That being said, when this month hit its high points they were some of the highest points of the year so far, with the big studios, independent and foreign markets all delivering some truly amazing entries. In fact for what feels like the first time in ages I even have an honourable mention outside of the usual top three, with ‘In a Valley of Violence’ being worth some recognition. But now the best three.

3: The Girl with all the Gifts

The first zombie film in years that actually manages to expand upon the genre and carve a fresh identity in the sea of oversaturation that is the market today. Despite taking familiar elements of its predecessors the way it spins them into a more socially conscious story that ignites our deepest fears of imprisonment, warfare and environmental change, as well as throwing us, head first, into a more disconcerting scenario with some harder edges to deal with. It is genuinely difficult to believe the film’s miniscule budget due to how excellent Colm McCarthy’s direction is, and the director expertly uses his apocalypse as a backdrop for his own claustrophobic and personally intimate thriller.

2: Doctor Strange

Marvel’s psychedelic trip into a new dimension may have the outlines of their standard cinematic stories, but the unique style and vision that lies within ‘Doctor Strange’ is able to distinguish it as a unique and fantastic entry to the franchise.  Not only is the film creative and innovative on a visual level, but its action scenes are all wonderfully and intriguingly crafted as well, with director Scott Derrickson using the Marvel platform to unleash his own trippy sensibilities. Surrounded by a magnificent the supporting cast of Mads Mikkleson, Chiwetel Ejiofor and Tilda Swinton, in the titular role Benedict Cumberbatch makes Stephen Strange completely and utterly his own, and I look forward to seeing his interactions with the rest of Marvel’s rostra in the future.

1: Under the Shadow

It is rare for a horror movie to feel as socially and culturally relevant as Babak Anvari’s astonishingly crafted tale of supernatural entities invading a war torn household. It uses its scenario to reflect the fears and trepidations of its central characters, as well as a soul wrenching metaphor for the culture she inhabits. Blending both neo-realism and nightmarish style, Anvari is somehow able to balance both tones perfectly, and make them feel so heavily intertwined that it is hard to imagine the movie working with a single misplaced aspect. It also helps that it is unnerving to say the least, with the sound design, cinematography and central performers all being used to great effect to generate a sense of sheer and utter entrapment.

And the worst…..


The question of why anyone is bothering to keep this franchise afloat in this day and age is impossible to answer, and the only question that can generate an equal amount of confusion is how they were able to convince talents like Ron Howard and Tom Hanks to sign up for it again. Actually a more confusing prospect would be trying to decipher any of the convoluted, exposition heavy, intellectually insulting plot points of this film. Sadly not even Hanks or Howard can save this sinking ship and we can only hope that an inferno is where this franchise will be cast to next.

Friday, 28 October 2016

Doctor Strange

"Be careful which path you travel now Strange, stronger men than you have lost their way."

It is genuinely interesting to wonder what will happen if the MCU ever makes a bad film. That is not to say their track record has been perfect but understand that when I say bad I don’t simply mean disappointing, formulaic or below average, I mean a movie with no redeeming qualities and a complete lack of competent filmmaking. In fact it’s almost pointless to even ask this question as the MCU machinery is now so tightly wound that even in the face of a colossal disaster Marvel would likely win back all the goodwill they needed within their next two or three films. In fact even that notion is pointless for the time being because ‘Doctor Strange’ is just as great as we’ve come to expect.

Having once been the most renowned surgeon in the world Doctor Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) finds himself at rock bottom following a debilitating accident that leaves his hands mangled and unable to perform his world class operations. Seeking a cure for his predicament he stumbles across a mystical being known as the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton) who introduces him to a whole new dimension of mystic arts and dark forces.

In the face of so many painstakingly formulaic and pandering superhero movies that was have witnessed in 2016 (it’s okay guys, we’ve almost made it through now) I was hoping that the nonstop parade could at least end with something a little more refreshing and unique, and ‘Doctor Strange’ most certainly delivered on that front. While the basic premise and structure of the film follows the usual pattern that the MCU has adopted for most of its origin stories by now (I guess the whole non-linear origin technique was perfected in ‘Batman Begins’ essentially rendering it as an idiotic and shallow attempt to replicate the success of a far greater film, and if you don’t believe me then I advise you re-watch ‘Man of Steel’), Marvel manage to throw in a few unique sensibilities that distinguish it from the crowd.

Much of that is down to the vision of director Scott Derrickson. In all honesty I was quite worried given that Derrickson’s filmography consists of a few serviceable at best horror movies as well as the truly atrocious remake of ‘The Day the Earth Stood Still’. But in ‘Doctor Strange’ his creative talent and eye for the surreal is given a real platform from which to shine. On a visual level ‘Doctor Strange’ is an eye popping extravaganza that needs to be experienced on the big screen as it is a true spectacle in every sense of the word, the most cinematic entry in the MCU since James Gunn’s ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’.

But the importance of Derrickson is far greater than merely throwing the film over to the visual effects artists. The way he composes and orchestrates each shot only further heightens the sense of awe and wonder, as well as the fact that he finds inventive ways to ground his effects heavy sequences within some aspect of the normal world, only further emphasising the sheer strangeness of the other dimensions but giving them a sense of weight as well. This is particularly noticeable during the movies action sequences, which are all creative and inventive on an entirely new level. Derrickson avoids simply repurposing familiar techniques in the midst of trippy visuals, he continually employs more subtle and interesting ways to convey a sense of conflict, tension and excitement with each new scene.

Despite this though the film still has an air of familiarity about it. While those expecting a completely experimental take on the genre will probably be disappointed this approach is able to give the film a sense of structure and consistency, meaning that our transition from the all too real moment when Strange’s entire career lies in ruins to the interdimensional chases less jarring than they could otherwise have been, therefore the film as a whole has a pleasingly natural flow that moves along at the pace we’ve become accustomed to from Marvel by now. While it would be nice to see the studio take more of a risk regarding this property their reassuring and competent hands make for an entertaining ride as well. The supporting cast that includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton and Mads Mikkelson are (very unsurprisingly) are all engaging, memorable and convincing within their roles, if not somewhat under characterised. Though I do appreciate the effort put into giving each of them a distinct ark a little more detail may not have hurt.

In many ways the film as a whole can be summarised by analysing its titular character. Though Stephen Strange shares elements of other Marvel protagonists he still feels like a distinct character in his own right. Less eccentric than Tony Stark, edgier than Steve Roger and more sure of himself than Bruce Banner, Benedict Cumberbatch is able to bring forth a great sense of dry wit combined with a well-paced and rewarding transition from arrogant surgeon to defender of the astral plane. It’s immensely pleasing to see Cumberbatch moving into new territory and exhibiting more charisma and confidence than his previous roles have allowed, but one that is never above changing and developing for the sake of emotional resonance. With attempts to bring the character of Strange to the big screen dating back to the 1980s a number of actors have been considered for the role, but now it is truly difficult to imagine anyone else but Cumberbatch sporting that high collared cape.

A visually stunning and utterly unique entry into the MCU, anchored by a terrific performance from Cumberbatch in the title role.

Result: 8/10

Thursday, 27 October 2016

Regarding the MCU Villains

So with the latest instalment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, ‘Doctor Strange’ hitting theatres across the world right now I felt as if this would be an ample opportunity to reflect upon something that I have been considering for a while. One consistent (and relevant) criticism that has been levelled against the MCU by both its harshest detractors and biggest admirers is the quality of their villains.

Many have said that a story is only as good as its villain, and while not all stories require an antagonist your standard blockbuster morality plays (so basically all superhero movies) often epitomise the conceit of what opposes the right path (our hero) with someone who follows a different path (our villain). In many ways the lack of substantial antagonists within the MCU has often been credited to Marvel having a fondness of their heroes, which is admirable, after all when it comes to some of the other high points of the superhero genre like ‘The Dark Knight’ and ‘Superman 2’ is that their villains are given so much attention that they almost eclipse the titular hero.

Furthermore you can also point to the fact that many of Marvel Comics most interesting and iconic villains don’t actually belong to the MCU, with the likes of Magneto and Doctor Doom still being in Fox’s possession. However a fondness for your heroes and a few copyright issues still aren’t enough to explain the lack of quality regarding their villains. Before I go any further I should still clarify that I enjoy the MCU a lot and if anything I like to think of this as more of a reflection than an outright critique of their movies.

There is no set formula for how to craft a good villain. An antagonist can be memorable for the pureness of their evil just as much as they can be for their complexity, the same goes for their likability or how reprehensible they are, how sympathetic or how utterly inhuman they can be. From Harry Powell (The Night of the Hunter), Anton Chigurgh (No Country for Old Men) to Hans Gruber (Die Hard), at the end of the day if it works it works. So why do Marvel seem to struggle making their villains as iconic as their heroes? Well there is one commonality shared by many great villains, and it actually has a lot to do with the hero in question. The quality of a villain can depend greatly on how much they have to teach the hero.

This becomes more obvious when you analyse some of cinema’s greatest villains. Again this isn’t a paint by the numbers rule that guarantees results but by thinning the line between the hero and villain, ensuring that there is some kind of link between them that forces the protagonist to learn from the villain is what makes an antagonist intimidating on an existential level. The shrinking differences between the hero and villain mean that the differences between the audience and the villain have shrunken. So when the hero ends up learning from the villain through an unspoken connection we not only feel more compelled towards that villain, but more insecure about our own morality, thus provoking a real sense of fear concerning the antagonist as well as ourselves.

As I stated in my review of ‘The Silence of the Lambs’ one of the aspects that makes Hannibal Lector so frightening, more than the stillness, calmness and face eating is the thin line between the ruthless cannibal and the determined FBI agent Clarice Starling. They are united in a common goal that serves their individual interests but the way they exploit one another to fulfil those purposes and their own intellectual connection. Through Lector’s therapy session Clarice not only comes to understand a dark side of humanity, but also a dark side of herself. Another example is David Lynch’s ‘Blue Velvet’. At the start of the film Jeffrey Beaumont is fascinated by the criminal underworld and is only too happy to pry into it as an amateur detective, only to face pure and unspeakable evil when that world is epitomised in the form of Frank Booth. His own curiosity has suddenly been turned against him to become the ultimate nightmare. But if this is all too art house for you then look at arguably the most iconic villain of them all, Darth Vader. By establishing the parental link between them George Lucas used their similarities as a recurring motif throughout his original trilogy and worked into a fantastic payoff in ‘Return of the Jedi’.

There are also all of the villains I listed earlier, with Powell’s pure evil contrasting fiercely with the innocence of the children at the heart of the story, Chigurgh’s complete lack of morality serving as a harsh reminder to the Sheriff of the nihilistic violence that permeates the modern world and Gruber’s ruthlessly efficient decisions that contrasts John McClain’s morally driven reckless decisions.

So by that logic, which MCU villains have exhibited this quality that sets them apart as more than your typical bad guy? Starting with the most popular one can point to none other than Loki. While the God of Mischief has all the charisma and sly intimidation in the world thanks to Tom Hiddlestone’s terrific performance I believe his real staying power lies in his relation to the heroes. In both ‘Thor’ and ‘Avengers Assemble’ Loki serves as a stark reminder of the consequences of an ego driven personality with an obsession for power and competition, something that his brother Thor possesses in his own movie, and then carries over when the Avengers themselves struggle to work together due to their own competing personalities. Loki is not only the epitome of that self-destructive ego, but the way he relishes in it makes it all the more satisfying when he is finally vanquished.

Other good additions to the MCU’s villainous line up have also done a decent job of portraying this. Obadiah Stane is one, because while his transition from jealous to outright insane was rushed, it was necessary to offer a contrast to the man Tony Stark had become. Instead of being a competitive, corporate driven and ethically loose businessman who revelled in his dealings of death and destruction Stark’s redemption had to be made complete by defeating the man he once was. In many ways Stane himself summarises this sentiment when he yells “How ironic Tony, when you tried to rid the world of weapons you gave it its best one ever”. As opposed to being in Stane’s sense of mind where he would look at the Iron Man suit and see only profit and power, Stark ends the film as a man who wants to help people in the name of what is right.

In regards to its villains, ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ in my opinion has more going on than many people give it credit for. One emotional crux of the movie is the conflict between Steve Roger’s old fashioned, morally driven sensibilities and Nick Fury’s more efficient and shady methods. What the two men have in common is that over the events of the film they find themselves forced against their former friends now enemies, in Steve’s case it is Bucky Barnes and for Fury it is Alexander Payne. Putting aside the fact that Steve’s ideologies of identity and free will are excellently underpinned by observing how his friend has become a monstrous killing machine when robbed of his own identity and free will, Steve and the audience ultimately end up learning a lesson when the Steve/Bucky dynamic is compared to the Fury/Payne dynamic. The fact that Steve is able to save his friend as opposed to Fury killing his indicates that there may actually be some hope for Cap to maintain his own sensibilities even when faced with the modern world, and while Fury seems to be beyond saving in this regard even he acknowledges Steve’s own independence from the ruthless world he inhabits.

The next ‘Captain America’ film also seems sure of the relation between its villains and heroes. ‘Civil War’ hinges on the desire for personal revenge and obsession when Helmut Zemo is revealed to be motivated to destroy the Avengers due to outrage over his own personal tragedy. This is reflected within the films three most valuable and emotionally developed characters, those being Captain America, Iron Man and Black Panther. In fact the script even goes as far to have Black Panther summarise their dynamic during the film’s final conflict when he says “vengeance has consumed you, it’s consuming them, I’m done letting it consume me”. While Zemo has turned Cap and Iron Man into reflections of himself, engulfed by revenge in the face of rationality until all that is left is a desire to fight (Iron Man motivated by the loss of his parents and Cap by the notion of losing Bucky again), Black Panther is able to put aside his own personal loss and allow justice to be served.

So we know when this system does work for the MCU, and we could also point to a few villains that came close to achieving this but fell short. Look at Ultron, whose egomaniacal eccentricity could work well considering he embodies the worst attributes of his creator Tony Stark, a machine that embodies everything Tony hates about himself. But their dynamic lacks any confrontation or acknowledgement of this notion, so it lacks substance despite being interesting. There may be something to say about the fact that in ‘The Incredible Hulk’ Abomination is a negative connotation of our hero’s immense strength as well as the fact that his origin stems from the Hulk’s own collateral damage, the film never explores it. One could argue that the grounded morality of Captain America is nicely contrasted by the pure evil of Red Skull but again there’s too much simplicity for it to leave a lasting impact. Then you also have Ronan the Accuser, whose single minded line of thinking could contrast the diversity of the ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ but again it is never addressed in enough detail. That being said in a film that made us fall so utterly in love with its wisecracking heroes a melodramatic, super-serious villain was gratifying so I’m willing to be more lenient there.

Of course others just fail spectacularly, such as Sam Rockwell (I can’t remember his character name so I’m just calling him Sam Rockwell) and Whiplash from Iron Man 2, as well as both forms of the Mandarin in Iron Man 3, none of whom have any interesting dynamic with Tony and if they did it was merely re-treading the first. You also have Maleketh, who is so utterly forgettable that I only remember his name and being annoyed that Chris Ecclestone wasn’t give more of a chance to display his talent. As for the villain of ‘Ant-Man’, I honestly can’t remember who that was or what he was doing.

So after that long rant what have we learned? Nothing much but at the very least we can hopefully come to a better conclusion as to why certain villains work and others don’t. As I said at the start the MCU remains a franchise that I enjoy very much, and if anything their ratio suggests they are still capable of creating an excellent villain, let’s just hope they come to the same realisation we have here.

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

"You think you're above the law, but I'm not the law. So you should start running because I'm gonna start hunting."

Despite being 54 years old Tom Cruise has managed to maintain his position as the action star of a generation for almost two decades now (which would in fact make him the action star of multiple generations). Not only is the quality of Cruise’s action output impressive but so is its variety, from hard edged thriller like ‘Collateral’, futuristic science fiction in the form of ‘Minority Report’ and ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ not to mention the cornerstone that is the ‘Mission: Impossible’ franchise. So how does this sequel to the rather forgettable 2012 thriller ‘Jack Reacher’ stand?

 After dismantling a human trafficking ring, former military investigator turned vigilante drifter Jack Reacher (Cruise) returns to his old military headquarters to meet Major Susan Turner (Cobie Smulders), who has been assisting him in his investigations, only to learn that Turner has been accused of espionage and detained. Now Reacher must uncover a conspiracy to prove her innocence.

It doesn’t bode well that my main memory of watching the first ‘Jack Reacher’ was that I was continuously wondering how on earth they contracted Werner Herzog to play the main villain of the film. Mind you, this was also a man who once cooked and publicly ate his own shoe so in retrospect anything is possible from the German art house director. In many ways that is how forgettable and generic I found the first ‘Jack Reacher’ to be, to a point where even trying to provide a brief summary of my thoughts on it ends up with a tangent about Herzog instead. He was so great in ‘Rick and Morty’ wasn’t he?

Anyway, while I feared from the outset that ‘Jack Reacher: Never Go Back’ would only result in another disposable sequel the set-up did evoke some hope that it could be something more. As well as allowing Reacher, the quiet loner, to pair up with the equally competent Major Turner and his maybe/maybe not daughter to form a sort of makeshift family. We’ve seen that kind of dynamic in other great action movies such as ‘Aliens’ and ‘The Outlaw Josey Wales’, but sadly when it is applied to ‘Jack Reacher: Never Go Back’ it ends up being the most interesting and inventive aspect of the entire film by a wide margin.

That really is a shame, especially due to the strength of the cast, particularly Cruise and Smulders, who are most definitely giving their all to the roles. Cruise is once again able to easily convey a sense of great skill and confidence with his performance, rarely leaving the viewer in doubt of Jack Reacher’s abilities. But Cruise may be outmatched by Smulders here, as she drives home the concept of her own character being on the same level as Reacher, so despite the titular characters own god-like status from the way other characters refer to him, we are never left bewildered by Turner’s ability to meet his level of skill.

But as I said the film can’t capitalise on either of their talents, not the interesting dynamic they based their premise on because for the most part ‘Jack Reacher: Never Go Back’ is an extremely formulaic and by the numbers action film, one that, similarly to its predecessor, I can’t imagine myself remembering much in the future. The plot is basic enough to prove the writers an excuse to send their characters from city to city, throwing assassin after assassin at them. But as a whole the film lacks any significant sense of pacing, structure or tonal consistency. All in all it equates to one semi-competent action scene after another, with a few jarring comedic sequences in between and a few shallow attempts at development.

In fact almost every aspect of the movie feels underdeveloped in one way or another, from the character arcs, how the story is told to the audience as well as the actual plot itself and the general direction. None of it ever ascends to become anything than just a one dimensional sequence and as a result additions like Reacher’s daughter and the whole shady conspiracy feel like ploys to pad the runtime rather than actually further the story being told. Unfortunately a lot of this seems to be the fault of director Edward Zwick, whose previous directorial outings include sweeping war epics such as ‘Glory’ and ‘The Last Samurai’. Here though, his control of the camera not only seems painstakingly unmotivated, but also fails to be innovative in any way, meaning that a lot of the action scenes suffer as being generic or just plain forgettable.

A paint by the numbers action movie that would be fun if it were not so despondent at its own plot, characters and action scenes.

Result: 5/10

Saturday, 22 October 2016

In a Vallley of Violence

"They call this place the valley of violence, so why don't you back up before you find out why?"

Ethan Hawke has been in two westerns this year, the first was the high budget, high energy and extremely high profile ‘The Magnificent Seven’ directed by Antoine Fuqua. The second is almost the exact opposite of that, not just for its small budget and the fact that rather than being a studio project it was directed, written and edited by one person, but whereas the previous film seemed to take itself about as seriously as it could, ‘In a Valley of Violence’ most certainly doesn’t.

A drifter named Paul (Ethan Hawke) and his dog are making their way to Mexico through the Old West. On route they arrive at a local tavern, but a random act of violence and argument with an egocentric psychopath by the name of Gilly (James Ransone), who also happens to be the son of the local Marshal (John Travolta), drags both Paul and an entire town of misfits into a bloody conflict of revenge.

One distinct similarity this Hawke-centric western does share with its counterpart ‘The Magnificent Seven’ is the way in which the two indulge in the trappings and tropes of any classic western. Now of course, indulging in references to other westerns is by no means a negative (just ask anyone who regards ‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ as a definitive masterpiece, such as myself), but what makes ‘In the Valley of Violence’ superior in its use of them is the way in which it establishes a consistent tone from which to base them on. It rarely takes itself too seriously but at the same time finds an ideal balance that distinguishes it from being a mere parody, in which it realises the weight of each situation and grounds them in reality but also plays them for their ludicrousness, which results in great entertainment.

Despite starting at a slow pace the film rapidly picks up speed and never stops racing towards the finish line until the credits roll. Right up until the final act both bullets and bodies are flying in a spectacularly bloody conclusion the tension is always mounting, the pace of the story is always escalating and the scale is forever climbing in order to make that final confrontation as satisfying as it is. ‘In the Valley of Violence’ may not be a complex tale, but it executes its simplistic story with such terrific energy and brilliant craftsmanship that it is difficult not to be caught up in the old fashioned feel of the western genre, but coupled with the violent liveliness of modern indie filmmaking.

What also separates ‘In a Valley of Violence’ is its sense of absurdist humour that is only made all the more effective by how the cast seem to be in on the joke as well. Not to an extent where they play each scene winking to the audience, but they tread such a thin line of commitment to the scenario and comedic sensibilities that it draws the viewer in and leaves them thoroughly entertained by the end. In many ways this is exemplified by the two leading cast members, with Hawke being a terrific embodiment of the classic western outsider, one who conveys a sense of world weariness and a haunted interior that is executed perfectly. Travolta on the other hand is giving one of his funniest performances in years, being impeccably intelligent yet easily infuriated and Travolta makes the most of both characteristics amid all of it carrying an air of intimidation somehow. However, rather miraculously, Travolta’s tour de force never took me out of the movie due to its pitch perfect tone that matched the attitude of its cast perfectly (it also may or may not help for this particular reviewer that the movie also contains two former 'Doctor Who' actors in the form of Burn Gorman and Karen Gillan).

Of course trying to take the film seriously is a difficult ordeal, and that sometimes shows when the script asks you to comply with some of the more dramatic scenes that don’t seem to have quite as heavy an effect as they were possibly intended to. Not only that but when the movie has to shift between its long and more contemplative scenes to moments of higher energy the result can be somewhat jarring. Ti West’s script is at its best when it’s carefully treading the line between absurdity and reality, and West has a good enough eye for this that he knows when to play up each aspect simultaneously. Not only that but with such a grand sense of care and detail that is applied to each frame, it is reflected in his direction that West has a deep love of….well, the west.

As humorous as it is violent, ‘In a Valley of Violence’ is a lovingly crafted and terrifically executed homage to the western genre.

Result: 7/10  

Friday, 21 October 2016


"Dante's Inferno isn't a fiction, it's a prophecy."

Welcome to the latest stage of “Why should I care about this?” This week’s addition sees the third instalment of an increasingly dour series of adaptations that are based upon a terrible series of books that inexplicably became a bestseller. Despite carrying the talents of Ron Howard and Tom Hanks, Dan Brown’s books have been about as unsatisfying on the screen as they have been on the page and the latest addition, ‘Inferno’, is by no means an exception.

Harvard University professor Robert Langdon (Tom Hanks) awakens in a hospital room in Florence, Italy, with no memory of what has transpired over the last few days, but being plagued with visions of a Hell-like Earth. Accompanied by Doctor Sienna Brooks (Felicity Jones) he soon finds himself embroiled in a plot of conspiracies and assassins in a quest to uncover the truth.

In some regards ‘Inferno’ was actually one of my most anticipated films of 2016, not out of the hope that it would actually be good in any way, shape or form, nor the promise that we might at least get some entertainment from a terribly made film. The reason I was looking forward to ‘Inferno’ was to see Mark Kermode’s inevitable evisceration of it, which did not disappoint and frankly is far more invigorating than anything to be found within this movie.

But what of the actual movie itself? Well what always strikes me about the Robert Langdon films is how difficult they must be for a screenwriter to adapt into anything noteworthy, mainly because Dan Brown is a writer with no concept of an internal monologue, so his universe is a one where every character says exactly what they are thinking at any given time, explains who they are and their entire life story to anyone who meets them and who spout exposition as if their lives depended on it. Like its predecessors ‘Inferno’ does not have a plot as much as it has a collection of expositional monologues that lead from one set piece to another.

What separates ‘Inferno’ from the previous films of this series though is just how little it seemed to care about anything and how little effort it put into even pretending that it was anything meant to be taken seriously. Whereas ‘The Da Vinci Code’ and ‘Angles and Demons’ carried themselves with a prestigious sense of grandeur that at the very least made their woeful scripts and bafflingly convoluted plots comical in a so-bad-it’s-good way, ‘Inferno’ simply seems to have given up. As I watched the film I even found myself slowly giving up as well, wondering why I was even putting the effort into attempting to find anything intellectually interesting, entertainingly profound or dramatically engaging within the movie.

It speaks volumes about just how awful a script is when the likes of Tom Hanks and Felicity Jones can’t even make the dialogue sound even mildly engaging. Hanks has crafted so many endearing characters over the years that it almost boggles the mind how one of his roles can be so mind numbingly boring, bland and uninteresting that I found myself stryggling to hang onto his continual drones of architecture and symbolism. The plot itself is full of so many hilariously idiotic touches from the main villain leaving a breadcrumb trail that ultimately explains how to prevent his own plan, the contrived motivations behind each character and the fact that it seems to think its audience is so stupid that it reminds us what an anagram is every single time it appears as a plot point in the movie, which is only made all the more annoying considering that about 50% of the previous films were also devoted to explaining what an anagram was, meaning that they seem to think that even their own devoted fans won’t have picked up on their usual bag of tricks by now.

To top it all off, even Ron Howard’s usually efficient direction seems to have disappeared entirely (a common symptom of working with Dan Brown is would seem) in favour of quick edits and shaky cam that makes any scene of high tension almost as incomprehensible as the plot itself. While it has the potential to be entertainingly incompetent the whole farce rapidly becomes boring and by the time one arrives at the final twist (which is incidentally is so large and lumbering that the only way a viewer could miss it was if they were asleep for the majority of the movie) that I defy anyone to even show the slightest interest in it.

Simply not worth the time or effort to care or even show the tiniest minuscule of interest.

Result: 2/10

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Talkin' Scorsese: Kundun

"You are the man who has come back to lead us, you must know what to do."

The movie that got Scorsese a life ban from entering China (sometimes I wonder if when he signed whatever deal with whatever god that would give him unprecedented access to actors like Robert De Niro and Leo DiCaprio the catch was that controversy had to follow him wherever he went). Due to the controversy the movie’s distributor, Disney, didn’t exactly go all out to push the picture and it went on to become one of Scorsese’s biggest financial bombs. In all honesty, that’s quite a shame.

Based on the life and writings of Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, from being selected as the next Dali Lama as a young boy in 1937, his role in the governance and spiritual leadership of his country to being forced to flee to India when Communist China declares Tibet to be part of their empire and begin an oppressive regime.

Though it sounds as if ‘Kundun’ would be a more audacious project for Scorsese to undertake, the whole feature plays out in a surprisingly leisurely manner, as if by this point in his career crafting a film of this standard has almost become a thing that requires minimal effort. I say this because while ‘Kundun’ is a flawed but impressive feature it rarely feels as if Scorsese is pushing the boundaries of his talent to make it. On both an emotional and technical level it feels as if we’ve been here before, not as blatantly as the manner in which his previous movie ‘Casino’ echoed prior efforts, but in almost every respect ‘Kundun’ simply feels like Scorsese revising the themes that have distinguished his career as such a remarkable one.

The obvious parallel may be the fact that Scorsese is once again retelling the life of a religious figure, and an important one at that. But where ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ featured a beautifully humane portrayal of its title character, ‘Kundun’ takes more care in its depiction of the Dali Lama. Maybe that in itself is to tie in with the culture surrounding the figure, in that he is simply a vessel for a spirit, so that by providing us with a less humane portrayal of the Dali Lama it shows him as more of an icon than a man.

That’s all well and good of course, but from a narrative standpoint it does leave the film somewhat emotionally distant. If the audience cannot fully empathise with the protagonist then they have less investment within the movie as a whole. That being said Scorsese does an impeccable job of immersing his viewer within an entirely new culture and society, emphasising the spiritual nature of the land and its deep resonance with those who inhabit it. This is due in part to Scorsese’s patient, more measured directorial approach. There is less style and flair here with an eye for the detail and beauty that surrounds the characters.

The beauty of the film also lies with Roger Deakins’ stunning cinematography (of course it’s stunning, it’s Roger Deakins) that not only gives a naturally tinted aura to each scene but also gradually shapes the images into more abstract and spiritually focussed visuals as the story progresses. It gives the locations a genuine sense of weight and importance and only makes it all the more tragic when this seemingly undisturbed sanctity finds itself embroiled in the complex political turmoil that is the post-war 20th Century. Philip Glass’ electronically synthesised score also adds to the effect with its otherworldly tones.

Despite being populated by relatively unknown actors the performances are decent across the board. It’s difficult to praise or condemn anyone because there are not really any standouts to point out, with each actor clearly being less concerned with fleshing out an individual and preoccupied with displaying a culture as a whole, of which they do an excellent job. In fact the same could be said for the film as a whole, because while ‘Kundun’ features some mightily impressive set features and remains painstakingly true to its own vision throughout, ultimately it feels more like a string of episodes than a cohesive plot. The end result is that though the films many extravagant visuals paint a picture of a society on the brink of social upheaval, and the man that they look to for guidance, as far as story and characters go the film can be frustratingly unfulfilling for all its impressive aspects.

Despite being more concerned with its culture than its characters there is still a lot to admire in the visually elegant ‘Kundun’.

Result: 7/10

Friday, 14 October 2016

The Girl on the Train

"I saw her, I saw her from the train."

The process of adapting a book into a film is a more complex one than most people would think. Truly successful adaptations are those that understand the unique potential of each medium and work on the strengths and weaknesses of the story to suit each separate art form. Details are often lost in the process and that can be frustrating for many fans of the original material, but most of the time it is necessary to conform one medium to another. So where does ‘The Girl on the Train’ fall in this complex world of adaptation?

An alcoholic divorcee (Emily Blunt) lives vicariously by fantasising about the lives of the people she views in their seemingly perfect suburban houses during her daily commute to the city on a train. However, one day she stumbles upon a dark mystery that leaves her unable to distinguish between truth and fiction.

If there is one thing I can immediately say about ‘The Girl on the Train’ it is that an actress of Emily Blunt’s talent is wasted on a movie like this. Her performance is by a long stretch the strongest aspect of the film, one that never fails to convey the broken and fractured nature of her character and establishes her unreliable state of mind that invokes a greater sense of mystery and involvement from the audience when we have to rely on her own point of view for the plot to proceed. The last part of that statement was undoubtedly the intended effect the movie would have, but sadly the plot and emotional weight of this film are so thematically lacking that Blunt only serves as a lonesome spark of brightness in an otherwise dull and cold film.

Despite a strong and intriguing opening ‘The Girl on the Train’ spends far too long merely building up to the central mystery that is supposed to underpin the film. The pacing drags and feels like a dead weight on the film as it heads towards a destination we already have a rough outline of, only for it to stumble straight into that plot and thunder across it so quickly that it rapidly becomes difficult to keep track of what is happening or form a genuine attachment to any of the people involved in it. So in summary I spent half of the movie waiting for something to happen, and then for the other half I was struggling to keep up.

Another unfortunate result of this breakneck pace is that when later plot points have to be revealed they come across as cheap and even unintentionally humorous. Too few of the revelations are thoroughly established and as a result later revelations never feel genuinely earned, leaving me with the impression that they were added as an afterthought or the result of the writers painting themselves into a corner rather than a subtly laid mystery. The fact that the film is so clearly ploughing for shock value in the irrational and often inconsistent way each character acts oly makes things worse.

Despite having some impressive cinematography the direction of the film feels completely disjointed form whatever is was trying to convey in the first place. Regardless of the awkward plot turns and shallow characterisations, Tate Taylor’s direction still feels clunky and misplaced here, rarely inciting a sense of tension or suspense within the story. If anything it only made me appreciate the mastery of other thrillers with a similar premise or set up and how superbly they were directed, from Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rear Window’ to David Fincher’s ‘Gone Girl’. Even when not being compared to greatness of that calibre though Taylor’s direction for ‘The Girl on the Train’ still falls frustratingly flat.

So neither aspect is fully satisfying on its own, and when jelled together both the direction and writing somehow end up detracting even more from one another. It only serves to emphasise the uneven nature of the story as a whole and with such over simplified characterisations it becomes increasingly difficult to want to put the effort into keeping track of this wildly convoluted plot. None of the characters evoke empathy or any sense of emotional detachment and with the scattershot transitions only making the whole process more difficult I found myself frequently questioning why I even tried to care about anything that was transpiring on the screen.

Tensionless, weightless and emotionally empty, ‘The Girl on the Train’ is a flatly directed bore.

Result: 3/10

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Talkin' Scorsese: Casino

"Look at this place, it's made of money."

Well it’s unpopular opinion time, because while I think that there is a lot to like and admire in Martin Scorsese’s 1995 mobster movie ‘Casino’ I’ve always been somewhat underwhelmed by it in comparison to how highly it seems to be regarded by most people. Whereas most new Scorsese movies were able to break new ground for both the director and his actors, there’s something overtly familiar about ‘Casino’ that just holds it back for me.

In 1973, sports handicapper and mafia associate Sam Rothstein (Robert De Niro) is hired by the Italian Mafia to oversee the running of day to day operations in their massive gambling empire in Las Vegas. But he has to deal with personal as well as professional issues from his temperamental friend and associate Nicky Santoro (Joe Pesci) to his scheming, self-absorbed wife (Sharon Stone).

To this day ‘Casino’ remains the last collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Robert De Niro (as well as the last of three times Joe Pesci would also be alongside them) and it pains me to say that their last outing together, while admirable in many respects, simple does not live up to their other fantastic projects together. Not only does ‘Casino’ fail to give the two immense talents any new material to work with or new ground to cover, but it also somewhat repetitive, structurally insecure and at 178 minutes, oddly paced as well.

But going back to my first complaint, if ‘Casino’ was from any other director it would be much easier to judge it as a singular entity. But the fact that it came from Scorsese, a post-‘GoodFellas’ Scorsese as well, severely limits its potential to stand as a truly great film. While all the ingredients are there they all feel so derivative of the director’s previous work from the plot to the stylistics, from the character dynamic to the tone of the movie. The easiest way to put it is that ‘Casino’ simply feels like a less tightly constructed and less thematically resonant version of ‘GoodFellas’.

But as I said before there is still plenty to admire about ‘Casino’. The film is at its best when it adopts a more documentarian approach to executing its story, taking a more hands on approach that immerses the viewer into the mad cap and deadly world of daily mafia life. Whereas Scorsese’s other films reflect upon the long term damage of violence ‘Casino’ attempts to examine the short and explosive bursts of it, an impression it achieves rather effectively.

However the downside to that is the inherent lack of depth that permeates the entire film. With so many differing components each moving at breakneck speed Scorsese is unable to thoroughly flesh out each aspect, meaning that as a whole the picture feels looser and not quite as immersive as it could be. Furthermore not all of these components are as convincing as each other, resulting in a movie that frequently feels sprawling and uneven. Despite a standout performance from Sharon Stone the subplot involving her relationship with De Niro comes across as rushed and almost incomplete, as if it is treated as an accessory rather than a fully realised aspect of the story.

Of course, Scorsese would later turn these criticisms into the foundation of another masterpiece but those elements were at their best in that particular production due to how they were thematically linked to the main character it was studying, and reflective of his own personality. But seeing them on display here only results in a somewhat hollow movie. While I never doubted that what was being portrayed on screen was on fact an accurate portrayal of mafia life, the characters were all one dimensional and therefore I could never become thoroughly invested within this extravagantly crafted world.

While on the subject of extravagance though, that is truly one of the films biggest strengths. On a visual level ‘Casino’ is astonishing to behold, from the gorgeous set pieces to the beautifully composed framing as well as that wonderfully stylish 1970s palette. It goes without saying that Scorsese also injects that same unique blend of style and realism, that seems to be an instinctive talent for him by this point, to make the movie utterly magnetic despite its flaws. But as I said before this is all merely a re-tread of his more brilliantly constructed movies, even his two leading men in the form of Pesci and De Niro are simply retelling the same story. From Pesci’s temperamental and violent outbursts to De Niro’s more level headed approach and how the two conflicting forces regularly come to blows as a result.

From a distance ‘Casino’ is massively impressive and admirable, but on a personal level it fails to resonate on an impactful level and the story itself feels stylistically and thematically familiar.

Result: 6/10    

Monday, 10 October 2016

Under the Shadow

"They'll always know how to find you."

You can achieve a lot by taking a familiar story and moving it to a location that holds more resonance for that particular narrative. Set in Iran, filmed in Jordan and directed by Iran born and London based filmmaker, ‘Under the Shadow has recently hit headlines for being Britain’s entry for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and not only is it thoroughly deserving of earning a nomination but it could be the most worthy recipient of winning that award so far this year.

In 1980s war-torn Tehran, a mother (Narges Rashidi) and her daughter (Avin Manshadi) are left alone. A missile hits their apartment building and, while it fails to explode, reality starts to blur as the young girl believes the bomb may have brought a malicious entity with it.

What makes a film like ‘Under the Shadow’ so spectacular is its ability to transcend any specific genre and be just as excellent a domestic drama as it is a supernatural horror film. It uses both aspects to enforce and complement each other, using the culture of its environment to advance the plot and fill in the details that inform the more complex themes, while also using the horror elements as a way to epitomize all of these conflicting social ideas.

Take this as one example, if this were any other horror movie the main character could simply flee into the streets to take refuge from the demonic spirits residing in her house. But in this environment the warzone around her, combined with the threat of being arrested by religious police who cannot allow a woman to be out on the streets without a hijab. It is in this sense that the movie evokes a sense of utter entrapment in the form of social repression as well as demonic possession, combined with an eerie feeling of intruders due to the falling bombs and unnatural presence.

Not only do the surroundings add to the movie’s atmosphere and plot, but they also advance its characters as well. Narges Rashidi is given a lot to work with which is just as well because her performance is a complex and immensely engrossing one, that balances an outspoken nature with a sense of vulnerability and these horrors that surround her serve as a way to reflect her own fears such as her perceived inadequacy to be a mother, that are also highlighted by the performance. The way it progresses is even more impressive. Rashidi’s performance is what turns ‘Under the Shadow’ from a normal horror film into a social drama of a woman living under Sharia law. Even the title itself can reflect both the supernatural and cultural ramifications of the story.

These conflicting aspects are also reflected by the superb direction of Babak Anvari, who employs an approach reminiscent of neo-realism for the earlier, character heavy scenes but then gradually introduces a greater sense of expressionism with disorienting and unnerving angles being used throughout the movie. Sometime the camera itself seems to stand at a tipping point, a moment when the audience can feel the slow transgression from reality to nightmares on both a visual and atmospheric level. The result of this almost seamless blend is that inevitably the audience starts to question what a real threat is and what a perceived one is. Are these hauntings real presences within the apartment or just the projections of the characters own fears?

Either scenario is plausible due to how well-crafted the mother/daughter relationship is that underpins the movie. While many have drawn comparisons to Jenifer Kent’s ‘The Babadook’, ‘Under the Shadow’ is able to utilise its surroundings to carve its own identity while tackling the same subject. Like ‘The Babadook’ we watch in terror as the seemingly safe place of domesticity is transformed into a nightmarish landscape. But of course with ‘Under the Shadow’ the fact that the domestic location was in the middle of a warzone and repressive society only means that it serves to unnerve the viewer even more.

The sound design is also flawless, one that creates a cacophony of noise from the exterior sounds of sirens, riots and gunfire to the benign domestic noises and then proceeds to use it as a weapon that only increases the tension and terror at any given moment. When there’s nothing left but silence it has an even more unnerving effect upon the viewer. It all seeks to add to the atmosphere, combined with the excellent performances, thematic weight that comments upon the trauma of war and repression as well the brilliant filmmaking on hand that create a film which leaves no room for escape, both for the characters and audience.

Socially challenging, stunningly crafted and unnervingly terrifying.

Result: 9/10

Thursday, 6 October 2016

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children

"I knew you were one of us when you were born. It's time for you to learn what you can do."

Tim Burton's films hold a special resonance for certain audiences, and while that gave his career a certain longevity and iconography during its early years but in other ways I can't help but wonder if it's been detrimental to his career as well. Don't get me wrong, I loved 'Edward Scissorhands', 'Beetlejuice' and 'Ed Wood' as much as anyone (as well as 'Nightmare Before Christmas' which he only produced rather than directed) but Burton seems so adamantly planted within his own style of filmmaking that he seems unable to grow as an artist, to adapt or evolve into anything new. Sadly that is once again evident in 'Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children'.

For his whole life, teenager Jake Portman (Asa Butterfield) had been hearing stories from his grandfather, about his childhood in which he battled gruesome monsters and lived in a home for unique children headed by the elusive Miss Peregrine (Eva Green). When Jake discovers that the institute is real he finds both friendship and purpose within the magical realm.

On the surface one would think Burton's sensibilities would be a perfect fit for adapting Ransom Riggs' book of the same name. Thematically they are founded on the concept of a loner searching for their own identity as well as a place of belonging, set against a gothic and supernatural backdrop. Surprisingly though, on a visual level this is actually the least Burton-esque film the director has ever made. If your a devoted fan of his style you may find that 'Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children' (a title that feels even longer when you have to type it out) shares more in common with an average superhero blockbuster than a traditional Burton film. In fact given that the films premise is strikingly similar to 'X-Men' (a secret school for gifted youngsters with supernatural abilities) maybe the visual style was an attempt to capitalise on that, a film more suited for today's superhero saturated scene.

That being said, when it comes to the films actual plot there is a considerable amount of material to distinguish it from most other franchises. Or at least I think there was because to be brutally honest 'Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children' often feels so weighed down by expository dialogue and dense mythology to build and establish the world in which it takes place. Most of this is handled by the titular character herself which ultimately becomes an annoyance as Eva Green gives a magnetic performance, but so much of her screen time is devoted to talking the audience through each aspect of their surroundings that the character never feels like a fully realised creation. Instead of spreading this world building throughout the film we receive barrel loads of it during the films first act, and even the few small features that remain elusive are only done so for increasingly contrived reasons so the screenwriters can introduce some form of surprise during the films climax.

What makes the front loading of the exposition even more frustrating is that the film never allows its audience any time to become invested within the school and the children that inhabit it. The peculiar children in question are not granted any depth of development. They serve less as characters and more as decoration to enhance the strangeness of the environment. In other circumstances that could be acceptable but in a film where the third act demands that you care about the school and the children within it in order to become invested in the plot it ultimately falls short of achieving any satisfying connection.

But despite this the plot itself feels somewhat secondary to the exposition, instead of driving the narrative it comes across as just an excuse to include action sequences that will keep the viewer invested . That being said, at least the plot is able to bring us Samuel L Jackson's villainous Mr Barron who is either the worst part of the film or the best. I know that sounds broad but Jackson's eccentric, scenery chewing, moustache twirling antagonist has to be seen to be believed. At least he looked like he was having fun in the role. While he and the rest of his entourage have an intimidating presence with some provocative and at times frightening imagery, their habit of being easily outwitted robs them of much of their threatening presence.

Annoyingly, the movie's protagonist Jake, played by Asa Butterfield is not nearly as interesting or engaging. While Butterfield is serviceable in the role his character comes across as less of a fully realised person and more of a vehicle to introduce the audience to this world. His screen time is mainly devoted to asking questions that, while necessary to understanding the environment of the film, severely detract from any potential depth or personality that could have been given to his character. Ultimately he is just a blank slate for the viewer to project themselves onto.

'Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children' is more of a world building exercise than a display of worthwhile characters or a riveting plot. 

Result: 4/10

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Deepwater Horizon

"My wife's name is Felicia, my daughter's name is Sydney, and I will see them again."

I think it's safe to say that director Peter Berg has found a comfort zone and is sticking firmly with it. Despite his talents behind the camera it's difficult to overlook his frequency at making true story films based on some kind of disaster starring Mark Wahlberg, and also 'Friday Night Lights'. But with 'Lone Survivor' already setting a decent enough standard the pair not only have this disaster movie based on the massive oil rig explosion in 2010 that created a huge spill off the coast of Mexico, but later this year they are also releasing 'Patriots Day' about the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings.

On April 20, 2010, blowout and explosion on the oil rig Deepwater Horizon irreparably damages and sinks the oil rig, releasing thousands of gallons of petroleum into the Gulf of Mexico in the worst oil spill in American history. Michael Williams (Mark Wahlberg), and Caleb Holloway (Dylan O'Brien), two of more than 120 crew members on board, help rescue some of their ship mates, while his family back home deals with the fallout of the disaster.

Despite the fact that when you lay out his career it seems as if he simply goes from one true tragedy to another, and then 'Friday Night Lights' there is no denying that Peter Berg does have a real passion for the events that unfolded that day. The direction alone conveys a need to enlighten its audience on the disaster that struck these men as well as the substantial loss of life. Sometimes however that can be a slight problem, as if the movie itself is more concerned with shedding light on the incident rather than provide a deep or meaningful examination of it. At times the movie itself comes across as more of a contractual obligation about the event, as if "someone had to make a movie about it eventually so why not now?" was the kind of attitude that sparked the process.

That is not to say the film is half hearted in its execution though. As with all Berg films it is technically superb in depicting the raw energy of whatever it wants, whether it is a football game, a battlefield or in this case an explosion. As well as that, the decision to utilize mostly practical effects over large CGI set pieces gives the destruction a sense of weight. The massive set that replicates the rig is used brilliantly to bring a genuine physicality to the cataclysm as it unfolds. Aside from a few too many close-up shots that eventually feel repetitive and somewhat gimmicky in how they constantly attempt to grab the audience's attention without resorting to any other, more inventive means, overall Berg's direction is spot on.

Naturally it would seem like an essential aspect of a movie like this that the disaster itself would be captured with as much visceral energy and authentic peril as possible, and you would be right. Due to its structure 'Deepwater Horizon' feels more like a two act film than your standard three, in that we spend the first act meeting the crew and the second watching the disaster. This can be slightly jarring when it comes to the movie's overall structure and pace, but ultimately it allows Berg to devote more time to capturing the destruction in all its horrifying glory. The sound design in particular is impeccable, expertly immersing the viewer within the fiery carnage and evoking a complete sense of utter helplessness as events continue to unfold completely beyond their control. What makes that destruction feel authentic is how Berg manages to avoid making it feel gratuitous. By placing his characters right in the centre of the hellfire he injects a constant presence of danger and death to proceedings, the visuals hammer home just how life threatening this situation is rather than merely presenting it as empty spectacle. In all honestly it emphasises just how miraculous it was that anyone survived at all.

However that structure also means that we are rarely able to gain a deep understanding of who these people are. We observe them on the day of the disaster and how they dealt with it as it unfolded, but we don't feel a genuine emotional connection to them when things do go wrong other than the basic need to see them survive. It's only made worse by the fact that a good chunk of the time before the impending explosion is devoted to tech talk that sets up the series of events leading to the actual incident. While I understand the need to talk the viewer through why precisely this disaster occurred, it supports me earlier theory that the film was conceptualised more as an acknowledgement rather than an explanation. The fact that the film essentially characterises John Malkovich's character as the antagonist of the film who is inconsiderate of his workers and equipment. Instead of digging deeper into the cost of the event (on both a human and environmental scale) and scrutinizing those responsible in a more meaningful way the script just passes it off to an easily blameable villain. 

The performances are generally good across the board. Wahlberg in particular is able to embody that gruff and snarky attitude that is so often associated with industrial workers. However that attitude he displays early on in the film only makes it more impactful when panic sets in later on, and the shock of what he has just witnessed starts to set in as he starts to destabilise. In fact the same could be said for all the actors who do well in establishing the outlines of a grounded character that ultimately destabilises when faced with such extreme danger. It's just a shame that none of them were allowed to dig deeper into the emotional core of that character and evoke a genuine sense of empathy towards their plight.

Berg does an excellent job capturing the disaster itself, but sadly he can't quite do the same when it comes to the impact, humanity and the tragedy.

Result: 6/10

Sunday, 2 October 2016

The Girl with All the Gifts

"I am producing a vaccine, and she is the main ingredient."

Let me just say, I think ‘The Walking Dead’ is a fine show, it’s decently made, written in such a way that makes every few episodes bearable and the ensemble cast is fairly good. It’s nothing spectacular, but I’m not angered by its popularity as I am with other shows. However when it comes to how it’s impacted the zombie genre as a whole, it’s the spawn of Satan. It encourages storytellers to climb into their own rut and stay there, never improve or expand on anything, as if the primary goal is to reach a comfort zone and remain there for the rest of time in a monotonous state of repetitiveness. Luckily though, one film offers an answer.

Melanie (Sennia Nanua) has grown up in a world undergoing a zombie-like apocalypse due to a fungus known as the Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. She lives under heavy guard for reasons that are initially unclear, but when her home falls to the horde and she goes on the run, it emerges that she may be the key to ending the struggle.

When a film opens with a young child being thrust out of a bare concrete cell at gunpoint, restrained and wheeled into a class with a dozen other children in the same position, it should be a clear sign that this take on the zombie genre is going to be different than what we’ve come to expect over the last few years. It harkens back to the days when genres like this could be sued to express social commentary and real issues concerning the nature of mankind, from Romero’s original fables that tackled racism and consumerism Danny Boyle’s energetic revamp in the form of ’28 Days Later’. Almost ironically, the reason ‘The Girl with All the Gifts’ evokes this reaction from me was its ability to not retreat into the past of its own genre, to carve out its own identity and style that in turn mark it out as one of the best in the history genre.

Despite taking familiar fears of ravenous undead and eerie children it spins them into a wholly fresh and excellently intelligent film. Though narratively it follows the tropes of other post-apocalyptic pictures (that being a small group of people joining together and embarking on a journey of survival) the ambition of the film and the themes it explores as well as the intrapersonal dynamic of those central characters is what makes it so remarkable. Director Colm McCarthy uses this apocalypse as a backdrop for a claustrophobic and deeply personal thriller that rarely shows the constraints of its very small budget. It is only in some of the wide angle CGI shots that the illusion is broken but they are limited in number and for the most part the focus remains squarely on the characters who are as fascinating as the disease that plagues the land, and both are treated with an almost ambivalent nature that gives the film a much more grounded feel.

Another great addition is how convincing each actor is in their role. Not only does each performance establish a distinctive and empathetic personality but the way the role is written allows every main player to explore hidden depth and display a clear motivation for their actions. Glenn Close’s own steely determination, Paddy Constantine’s no nonsense type and Gemma Arterton all make for interesting counterpoints to one another in their dynamic and versatility. But the main emotional crux of the movie lies with Sennia Nanua, whose performance compiles a striking mix of childlike vulnerability and visceral savagery, and in the post-apocalyptic world she occupies it’s difficult to state which aspect is more frightening.

At times ‘The Girl with All the Gifts’ can feel deliberately disorienting, refusing to provide copious amounts of exposition during its first act and refraining from revealing any hidden motivations until its final act, and that will undoubtedly prove frustrating for some. But for those willing to wait it can offer a film that is equally keen to tackle both the horrific and dramatic aspects of its own story without resorting to emotional manipulation or cheap gimmicks. It is also packed with striking visuals that will undoubtedly feel reminiscent of the repurposed London landscape from ’28 Days Later’ but like Danny Boyle’s film the true haunting nature of the film comes from the characters journey of self-discovery, destabilisation and their own potential inhumanity to one another. It is here that the film truly taps into societal fears of warfare, imprisonment and environmental change that reaches into our own consciousness far more than simple blood and gore, though there’s plenty of that as well.

Challanging and compelling as well as viscerally thrilling and complex, ‘The Girl with all the Gifts’ is a triumph of the zombie genre.

Result: 8/10