Monday 27 February 2017

The 89th Academy Awards - Summary, What the F**k?!

Okay, so there is a lot to talk about here and I might as well address the elephant in the room immediately. Best animated short film went to Piper and not Borrowed Time? Wow, talk about a screw up academy. Oh and of course there was also the inconvenience of announcing the wrong winner for the most esteemed award in all of show business. You had one job Hollywood, and it was to hand someone an envelope. How you managed to mess that up is beyond me, how no one just saved themselves the embarrassment and mentioned that they had the wrong envelope before is beyond me. It’s fitting that they reunited Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty to announce it, because ‘Bonnie and Clyde’ ended with a massacre and so did their reunion for this event.

Granted I’m far from annoyed at ‘Moonlight’ winning, it is a deserving and progressive winner, but the manner in which ‘La La Land’ lost out hurts my soul. But amid this fiasco I feel like we also saw the best of those at the eye of the storm. The ‘La La Land’ producers graciously accepting what had happened and personally handing over the coveted award to the team of ‘Moonlight’, the superb way Jimmy Kimmel (who I found to be a surprisingly good host on the whole) kept control of the situation or the very fact that they admitted the mistake in the first place because when you think about how easy it would have been to dismiss the actual results in the wake of this mistake it is commendable that they revealed the truth to such embarrassment.

If you were a keen supporter of ‘La La Land’ like myself and were both elated and disheartened beyond belief in the space of a few moments, take solace in the fact that you were not esteemed film critic Scott Mantz. Once the false announcement had been made Mantz took to Twitter to congratulate ‘La La Land’ only to have to make a rebuttal mere moments later. Still even he saw the funny side and took time to pose for this photograph which seems to summarise the entire chaotic moment.  

But let us not allow that one blunder to spoil a whole night of great talent being awarded. ‘La La Land’ still bagged a commendable haul of 6 awards putting it on par with the likes of ‘Star Wars’, ‘The Godfather Part 2’ and ‘Forrest Gump’ and in my own opinion it deserved every one of them. Stone and Chazelle in particular were worthy recipients of their trophies and while it may not have been the clean sweep some were anticipating it is most certainly not a failure in any regard. But far more importantly I happened to be right in all of my predictions for the acting categories, and once again they were all very well deserved.

Both screenplay awards went as expected but sadly Laika Studios once again lost out to the juggernaut of Disney, who won with ‘Zootopia’. Despite backing it will my heart and soul to win its category I was surprised ‘O.J: Made in America’ was actually able to secure its award, but that it did so hopefully that can end the argument over whether or not it’s a movie or a TV series. It’s now conclusively a movie and a great one at that. It almost makes me forget the sheer horror when I have to confront the notion that ‘Suicide Squad’ is now an Oscar winning film. I just threw up a little in my mouth as I said that, especially given that other films with one Oscar include ‘Citizen Kane’ and ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’. It won in Best Make Up which it wasn’t even good at anyway, beyond some clown paint and a horrendously obvious CGI enhanced prosthetic it was pathetic, which makes it all the worse that ‘Star Trek Beyond’ whose make up work was truly outstanding lost out as well.

I also predicted that politics would likely play a part in helping ‘The Salesman’ win Best Foreign Language film over the favourite ‘Toni Erdmann’. The fact that Asghar Farhadi was unable to see his own film winning an award spoke volumes. Then you also have the fact that Mahershala Ali became the first Muslim actor to win an Oscar and (I’m saying this a lot I know) deservedly so. It is supremely difficult to think of any supporting performance in 2016 that left a stronger impression. If anything I hope that beyond the blunders and snubs this year’s Oscars is remembered for these small social breakthrough’s that demonstrate the unique power of film and in their own small way make a difference beyond the cinema screen.

Sunday 26 February 2017

A Cure for Wellness

"Only when we know what ails us can we hope to find a cure."

In the modern movie environment that is riddled with sequels, reboots and remakes it is tempting to lavish praise upon the next original movie that comes along regardless of its actual content. By no means should we ignore the work of talented storyteller who strive to bring us original material (and convinced someone at a major studio to let them make it, which is even more miraculous) but there is also the small side note of whether or not the movie itself is any good.

A Wall Street stockbroker (Dane DeHaan) travels to a remote location in the Swiss Alps to retrieve his company's CEO (Harry Groener) from an idyllic wellness centre. As he spends more time there he suspects that the treatments are not what they seem. As he unravels the wellness centre’s terrifying secrets he finds himself diagnosed with the same mysterious illness that keeps all of the guests there longing for a cure.

There are any number of shots within ‘A Cure for Wellness’ (or any shot in the movie to be fair) that you would want to freeze frame, hang on your wall and admire every days for its artistry, excellent composition and stunning cinematography. It may be one of the best looking horror films to come out of America for some time, good enough to rival the look of movies by Nicholas Winding Refn. But disappointingly, Gore Verbinski seems to have taken another lesson for Refn that permeates his lesser films. Namely the fact that it doesn’t matter how amazingly beautiful your movie looks, sooner or later it needs to work as a cohesive whole.

But because I always like to start on a high note I’ll spend more time delving into what was outstanding. Like all of Gore Verbinski’s films the set design, cinematography and visual effects are impeccable. Each aspect of the movie, on a visual level, synchs up perfectly to create an awe inspiringly intriguing vision. Not only that but there are select scenes throughout the film that have this same level of craftsmanship and when taken on their own are excellent pieces of filmmaking. The sound design is also superb, creating a terrifying feeling of isolation and entrapment through the simplest of music ques and sound effects.

So on a technical level, so far soo good. In fact for the first half hour of the movie I was beyond intrigued and fascinated by Verbinski’s twisted vision. But as the film ploughs on I gradually came to realise that nothing I was watching had the slightest air of cohesion to it. The plot meanders around so aimlessly that I would struggle to relay it to you having just seen it. That is not to say the story itself is complex, overall it is actually infuriatingly simplistic, but the road to get there is so needlessly long and convoluted.

This could be fine if the film was trying to draw up a sense of suspense through its misdirection, but ‘A Cure for Wellness’ is so tonally inconsistent that it feels like the offspring of two completely different ideas that could not be stretched into a feature film. Having gone from the atmospheric and psychological tension of its first half, it rapidly jumps into a series of over the top set pieces that escalate on an almost unintentionally humorous level. It was as if the movie exhausted all of its worthwhile ideas but realised it still had an hour of plot left to convey. These set pieces not only feel like a betrayal to the far more effective half that preceded them, but are so excessive that they spoil any effect the lower scale horror has up to that point anyway.

Why they even felt the need to include them baffles me. The ludicrously long run time of 2 hours and 26 minutes means that the pace and structure simply fall apart as it continues to drag on. I dare say a good hour could have been cut out of the film and it would have been just as if not more effective than it is now. Maybe I could be convinced to spend that much time in this world I could latch onto any of the characters as empathetic human beings. But none of them have the slightest bit of depth to them or any redeeming qualities that made me empathise with them. I understand not every character has to be likable, but I do ask that they at least be mildly interesting rather than just a bland caricature, with dialogue that is painfully awkward and unnatural. I’m willing to believe that the dialogue is a product of instilling an eerie atmosphere, but as it continues for the whole film it undercuts any potential dramatic tension.

The cast are serviceable for the most part, with a select few like Jason Isaacs being appropriately intimidating. But the fact that the movie spends so much time focussing on its lead character played by Dane DeHaan who (and I don’t like to single people out) but kept the same facial expression and tone of voice on him throughout the entire movie that it did even more to remind me that he was anything but a deep or empathetic human being. The fact that DeHaan has played exactly the same smug type in the rest of his performances only makes the situation far worse.

Stunning to behold on a visual level, but with a story that is both predictable and completely lacking in cohesion ‘A Cure for Wellness’ is difficult to become invested in.

Result: 4/10

I Don't Feel at Home in this World Anymore

"I just want people to not be assholes."

In an age where even independent films seem to think that compelling cinema means raising the stakes and conflict to unnaturally high levels in an effort to engage the audience it must have been refreshing to see a film like ‘I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore’. Having won the Grand Jury Prize for a Dramatic Presentation at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival it is now on Netflix for mass consumption, and while I’m disappointed at the lack of a theatrical release, if it means movies like this will get more exposure I am certainly pleased.

After being burglarized, a depressed woman (Melanie Lynskey) and her obnoxious neighbour (Elijah Wood set out to find the thieves, but they soon find themselves drastically out of their depth as they are pitted up against a group of dangerous criminals who are not merciful to those who interfere with their business.

Despite the fact that the summary seems to have the makings of any standard genre film, ‘I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore’ is concerned with the interactions between people, the hostility that permeates modern society and a general search for answers. Instead of focussing on the mechanics of the plot it contemplates the tiny details of a person’s life that can either make or break their day. In its bleak but humorous opener that is a deadpan montage of the main characters daily struggles, we see the environment and tone of the movie laid out fairly well. Though it veers off in several directions from there as it struggles to balance several moods at once you can’t blame first time director Macon Blair for trying.

This opening scene also sets up the way in which the film deals with an ordinary citizen simply pushed to the breaking point. With a comedic edge by its side the film treats each escalating problem as nothing more than a mild inconvenience and is more interested in conveying how this impacts the psyche of the main character. If anything that is where the film draws much of its comedy, from contrasting the eccentric nature of the situation to the grounded way the characters react to it.

Those characters in question are played very well by a talented cast. While I can’t say any of them were pushing their own acting boundaries or crafting a performance for the ages they were all serviceable and matched the tone of the film around them very well. Lynskey’s deadpan attitude is a pleasant contrast to Elijah Wood’s bizarre mannerisms that are consistently hilarious throughout the movie. Lynskey remains the only human character amid an ensemble of exaggerated cartoons but once again that helps the movie draw a lot of its humour, and it understands that she is the character we are supposed to empathise with. Like her we are almost baffled by the oddities of this rapidly escalating world. The only issue is that after a while it starts to wear somewhat thin, feeling more like a lack of effort than a stylistic writing choice.

One also has to credit the actors for balancing so many varying tones as the movie itself begins to introduce various styles and moods. It is in this sense where the writing starts to fall down slightly as it struggles to maintain a consistent tone as the film ploughs on, but the actors themselves are able to handle these varying moods very well, from the comical to the darkly observant. Outside of Lynskey none of them really need to go beyond a caricature but they serve their purpose well enough. On a technical level Blair keeps the same understated direction through all the comedy, social satire and darkly poignant character moments. He also seems to have learnt a few lessons from his collaborator Jeremy Saulnier by using some contrast heavy cinematography that really lights up the low-life suburban level he is depicting.

The movie is one that observes social norms rather than actually commenting on them. Like its protagonist it looks at each passing problem and moves forward regardless. Though it would be easy to drift further down this road of social commentary it’s not the story Blair wants to tell. Whether he wanted his debut to be a low key affair or just felt more confident in relaying this kind of story is difficult to tell. I do worry that ‘I Don’t Feel at Home in this World Anymore’ is the kind of movie people will project a lot of deep thoughts onto, treating it as if it is some awe inspiring fable of modern times. While I can safely say I enjoyed the film and its vision I do not view it as a perfect film or a particularly meaningful one. As I said it observes and does little else, but it observes rather nicely.  

A decently made and keenly observant gem that stays firmly within its comfort zone.

Result: 7/10

Saturday 25 February 2017

The 89th Academy Awards - Predictions

It’s that time of year again, the time when the best movies of last year that you were probably sick of talking about a while ago are now all in contention for what is, for some reason, deemed to be the biggest night in Hollywood. So as usual I’m expected to make some obligatory set of predictions that will most likely be wrong and laughed at by future generations. As far as the Oscar field goes this year has been surprisingly brilliant, with a diverse and wide range of movies being nominated that all have some form of merit in one way or another, as long as you don’t acknowledge that ‘Suicide Squad’ is amongst them.

Best Picture

When it comes to this year’s field of Best Picture nominees it is a very strong range of movies. While I have not written full reviews for all nine of the movies I have seen them all and can say with confidence that in a rare event I actually like every single one of the nominees. Every year there is some middling or perfectly average movie that somehow gets nominated and baffles me, but this year I think every movie is a worthy inclusion to this selection. What I appreciate most of all is that the films nominated this year were exclusively about the human experience in one way or another. None of them sought to push an idea or agenda, they were simply relaying stories that are about all of us and doing so in a brilliant way. For the sake of filling space here is a quick recap of all nine:

Arrival – A project of soaring ambition and startling intimacy, Denis Villeneuve’s science fiction masterclass is a mesmerising piece of cinema anchored by a decidedly fantastic performance by Amy Adams (how she was not nominated for Best Actress remains the biggest question of the many ‘Arrival’ raises).

Fences – Denzel Washington’s strongest directorial outing yet accompanied by one of the best performances of his prolific career. But Washington is put through his acting paces by Viola Davies who arguably steals the show. Not particularly cinematic but the characters are complex with an authentic struggle that speaks volumes.

Hacksaw Ridge – Despite having a first half plagued with sappy melodrama and poor pacing once ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ reaches the battlefield Mel Gibson’s visceral vision shines through in stunningly realised scenes of war with Andrew Garfield’s excellent performance bringing an inspirational and uplifting story to the big screen in all its glory.

Hell or High Water – A Conventional story told brilliantly in the second part of Taylor Sheridan’s New Frontier Trilogy. It may not be hugely complex but it is terrific entertainment from its performances, writing and direction by David Mackenzie.

Hidden Figures – Another uplifting historical drama about race but ‘Hidden Figures’ remains memorable for its brilliant lead performances and uplifting narrative. Despite a few too many subplots that detracted from the main focus and the supporting characters being too one dimensional it’s still a pleasing movie.

La La Land- Dazzling, emotional and possibly the most entertaining movie of the year, Damien Chazelle’s second fable of dreams and their cost boasts some of the most impressive direction of the year as well as two brilliant performances in Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling. A crowd pleaser that manages to be deep and transcendent at the same time. There’s a good reason it’s the favourite to win big.

Lion – Surprising in how well it renders its inspirational story and paints and extremely endearing portrait of home, identity and searching. The cinematography stood out as being particularly impressive as did Dev Patel’s emotionally resonant performance.

Manchester by the Sea – Depressing and bleak for much of its run time but don’t let that put you off Kenneth Lonergan’s deeply emotional and strikingly poignant film. Its characters are complex and motivated as well as being brilliantly realised by the entire cast with Casey Affleck and Michelle Williams being the standouts.

 Moonlight – Deeply personal to an almost haunting degree at times. Intimate filmmaking at its best that tells a life in three exquisitely crafted chapters each one with am extremely capable actor to portray the main character. If any film posed a threat to ‘La La Land’ it would be this.

So if I were to pick a winner from these nine nominees I would have to side with ‘La La Land’. I hate to be predictable and conform to the mass opinion, but I honestly cannot think of anything more spellbinding or complex as Chazelle’s musical masterpiece. I would raise an air of caution towards ‘Moonlight’ or even ‘Manchester by the Sea’ offering worthy competition but all the signs are pointing towards the fools who dream.

Best Director

It’s another case of being a strong category all round and once again it seems to be a three horse race between Chazelle, Lonergan and Jenkins (though I do appreciate the nomination for Villeneuve’s excellent work on ‘Arrival’). And once again I hate to go with the obvious choice but I would have to single out ‘La La Land’ and Damien Chazelle the take home the award.

Best Actor

Narrowing it down to the two favourites we arrive at Affleck or Washington. Denzel’s performance was a remarkable one and by no means should this be considered a foregone conclusion. But when it comes to a complex, haunting and painfully humane performance Casey Affleck seems to have the edge in every regard.

Best Actress

I’m caught at a crossroads between whom I want to win and whom I think will win. I think to all intents and purposes Emma Stone is the favourite, but when it comes to my own choice of who I want to take the sought after award, I would have to put my vote towards Isabelle Huppert for ‘Elle’. While Stone is superb to a degree that I would not be annoyed if she were to lose out I would be somewhat disappointed as Huppert delivered what I can without question call the single best performance of 2016. So while I still believe Stone is the most likely to win I’d be happier of they allowed Huppert to walk away the victor.

 Best Supporting Actor

Despite losing out to Aaron Taylor Johnson’s performance in ‘Nocturnal Animals’ at the Golden Globes, Mahershala Ali still remain the favourite to win for his performance in ‘Moonlight’, a decision I certainly can’t fault. However, once again I’d air a note of caution from the likes of Dev Patel and Michael Shannon.

Best Supporting Actress

In my opinion this is once again a race between ‘Fences’ and ‘Manchester by the Sea’ but unlike the Best Actor category this seems much easier to predict. While Michelle Williams is astonishing Viola Davis seems to be destined to win here. By all accounts she should be in Best Actress category but with the competition being tougher there she was slated into the Supporting category to guarantee a victory. It’s hard to imagine anyone else taking it.

Best Screenplay

This catgory presents another conundrum, because yet again ‘la La Land’ is marked as the favourite and despite the strength of Chazelle’s script I would much rather see the award go to something a bit more intricate. The various layers of narrative, complexity and superb structure of Lonergan’s script for ‘Manchester by the Sea’ mark it out as a deserved winner, but if the Academy really wanted to impress me they could choose ‘The Lobster’ for pure originality and bizarreness alone. As for the Adapted Screenplays it’s difficult to call a clear winner. ‘Hidden Figures’ and ‘Lion’ are fine but fall down with their conventionality on a narrative level. ‘Fences’ uses the word “adapted” liberally as it’s a word for word construction of the play. So that leave ‘Arrival’ and ‘Moonlight’, the existential or the intimate? Difficult choice, but in terms of what the Academy will favour I’d back ‘Moonlight’.

Best Animated Feature

A very strong and varied line up and I say that without even getting around to seeing all of the nominees. I have it on good information that ‘The Red Turtle; is spectacular and despite the ‘Moana’ and ‘Zootopia’ for their social messages and excellent craftsmanship, I would have to voice my support for the stop motion masterclass ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’, though I wouldn’t be surprised if Disney end up adding to their awards cabinet.

Best Foreign Language Film

For a long time ‘Toni Erdmann’ looked dead set to take home the award and if it still did I would have no complaints. But recent events suggest that maybe, just maybe the Academy will want to send a political message by voting for ‘The Salesman’, directed by Asghar Farhadi who is unable to attend to ceremony due to a certain travel ban by a certain orange stained sociopath.

Best Documentary Feature

Many worthy candidates and picking a winner in question is extremely difficult. ‘13th’, ‘Life Animated’, ‘I Am Not Your Negro’ and ‘Fire at Sea’ are all terrific works of cinema. But I’d have to hand the award to quite possibly the finest filmic achievement of 2016, one I did not include in my annual list because it seemed unfair to rank ordinary features against it, and while I’m still unsure over whether it is a seven hour movie or an epic mini-series if ‘O.J: Made in America’ is up for an award it should most certainly receive one.

As for a few other select categories, I would expect both Best Song and Best Score to go to ‘La La Land’ (somewhat obviously). Best Sound Editing could potentially be given to ‘Hacksaw Ridge’ but any other nominee is also deserving there. Production Design is probably also ‘La La Land’s’ for the taking, as is Costume Design. Cinematography and Editing are two tough races, but yet again I would expect it to come down to either ‘La La Land’ or ‘Moonlight’ for both of them.

Saturday 18 February 2017

The Great Wall

"I fought for greed and gods, this is the first war I've seen worth fighting."

The world is a funny place is it not? One day you can be making intimate and poignant masterpieces of world cinema like ‘Raise the Red Lantern’ that are so provocative and powerful that they are banned in their own country of origin while being hailed as a masterpiece across the globe. Then the next day you can be making movies about giant monsters attacking the Great Wall of China, which contrary to what history tells us was actually built to keep said giant monsters out. Funny world right?

In the time of the Song dynasty during the reign of the Renzong Emperor, a group of mercenaries from Europe searching for Black Powder, only to arrive at the legendary Great Wall of China where they find an army fighting an endless battle against invading monsters. Faced with an astonishing task, the mercenaries must choose whether or not they will stand with honour and join the fight.

Despite its ludicrous premise ‘The Great Wall’ is a landmark film for the international movie industry. Not only is it the most expensive Chinese production ever but it also has the largest international release for a Chinese production as well. So the success of ‘The Great Wall’ could determine the future of international movie as we know it. But as for quality, well I can safely say that China have succeeded in showing that they can make a middle of the road, appropriately dumb, serviceable yet ultimately forgettable blockbuster just as well as modern Hollywood can.

For all the controversy that Matt Damon’s casting caused there really is not that much to his character to make such an outcry worth it. His character feels more like a blank slate that ultimately does very little in the way of development, distinguishing characteristics or empathetic qualities. None of this is helped by the fact that this could be the worst performance I have ever seen Damon give. In a weird way that is a complement to his career as a whole that this is his worst role by such a wide margin, but Damon’s ever shifting accent and constant stone faced expression make it difficult to see his character as anything other than an entry point for American audiences.

Though Damon’s character came under fire for fitting into a white saviour narrative I honestly think such criticism is unjustified upon seeing the actual movie. While Damon serves as an entry point, from a narrative standpoint his character is taught to be a more honourable person through his encounters with the Chinese warriors. Not only that, but the supporting cast are given an appropriate amount of screen time as well. It does have the feel of an ensemble film rather than a mere star vehicle. While none of the arks really pay off or feel evocative in any way, I do have to give the movie credit for at least trying to give weight to its large and diverse cast.

But even Zhang Yimou best movies often use their visuals to convey emotion and mood than their story or characters. Masterpieces like ‘Hero’ and ‘House pf Flying Daggers’ have visual splendour that few films have ever matched and to a certain extent ‘The Great Wall’ feels reminiscent of those. Numerous shots are stunningly composed and coloured, giving them a vibrant and energetic feel. It is in these moments where the cinematography, production and costume design all align perfectly to create a picturesque scene. But whereas Yimou’s other movies possessed that quality for every single frame, ‘The Great Wall’ is highly inconsistent on a visual level. For every shot of brilliance there is a CGI car crash that just piles one poorly rendered effect on top of one another. The CGI in question is not awful, but there was never a single moment that I was convinced I was seeing anything other than CGI.

That leads me onto the action scenes. To echo what I said earlier Yimou knows how to orchestrate a good action scenes based on his previously mentioned past efforts. But within ‘The Great Wall’ each action scene, while perfectly serviceable, seems relatively flat and uninspired. They seem derivative of other, superior films of the genre, and are merely a shadow of what other directors have done in similar environments. From Peter Jackson to Ang Lee, I feel as if I’ve seen every variety of action scene here such as the huge battles or intricate swordplay staged better by another filmmaker.  

On a tonal level the film does a decent job of blending Eastern and Western filmmaking sensibilities. In fact for the first half it works remarkably well, juggling its subtle character moments with its giant moments of spectacle, and due to a reduction of CGI for the first half it looks visually stunning for almost all of it. But as it charges head first into its second half it sacrifices that balancing act for focussing purely on the big set pieces which are hampered by the uninspired CGI and the pace takes a nose dive to a point where it feels like a slog to finish the movie.

Despite being very impressive in some respects, ‘The Great Wall’ eventually crumbles under its own weight, weak foundations and mismatched construction.

Result: 4/10

Friday 17 February 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2

"You stabbed the devil in the back. To him this isn't vengeance, this is justice."

The first ‘John Wick’ was the kind of break out phenomenon that only comes along once in a while. After all it is one thing to make an action film as superb as that, but for it fly so completely and utterly under the radar until its release is a rarity in this day and age. Naturally that means any sequel will automatically lack the out of the gate surprise the original had, which is a shame. But it’s difficult to get too worried because ‘John Wick: Chapter 2’ does have just about everything else.

As a former super assassin, John Wick’s (Keanu Reeves) plans at retirement are expectedly cut short when an Italian gangster shows up on his doorstep with a gold marker, compelling him to repay past favours. Ordered by the kingpin of the secret assassin society The Continental, to respect the organization's ancient code, Wick reluctantly accepts the assignment to travel to Rome on a special assignment only to become embroiled in a greater plot.

Maybe it is the relief of seeing a sequel executed with such brilliance, maybe it is the fact that having endured the likes of ‘Resident Evil’ and ‘The Return of Xander Cage’ to see an action movie of this level of craftsmanship was the breath of fresh air I needed at this exact time. Whatever the reason, I walked out of ‘John Wick: Chapter 2’ with such a euphoric sense of satisfaction and excitement that I have not felt for an action film in what seems like a painfully long time. While I cannot guarantee that it is quite as superb as the first, this second chapter is more ambitious, more audacious and equally as exhilarating as its predecessor.

Like any great sequel should, ‘John Wick: Chapter 2’ expands upon the foundations that were so expertly built before it. But instead of just escalating everything director Chad Stahelski has retained the tight narrative focus that made ‘John Wick’ so involving. He increases the scope but never forgets to incorporate those same unique elements that made the first film stand out from the richly detailed world building to the wry humour. At this point you may have noticed my numerous comparisons to the first film but frankly it is difficult to separate them.

That is not necessarily a criticism of ‘John Wick: Chapter 2’ though. While its increased scope and epic outlook distinguish it from the first it is still very much in touch with what made in the unique cinematic experience that it was. The fact that it picks up right where the last one left off further evokes this effect that we have not been apart from John Wick for long and in all honesty that is most definitely a good thing. It plunges straight into the mythology of its own world and rarely stops for breath. It moves with such a frenetic pace that is always involving but somehow never exhausting. As an audience member I never felt confused or overwhelmed by the action as it was unfolding.

I have little doubt that such an affect has a lot to do with Stahelski’s superb direction. He wields his camera with a sweeping and graceful tone that captures the unfolding action in all its glory, with stunningly orchestrated wide shots, motivated edits and full command of a legion of massively talented choreographers who can stage this action brilliantly. In fact I certainly would not think it a coincidence that the film features footage from Buster Keaton’s classic work, as everyone involved in ‘John Wick: Chapter 2’ clearly took a page out of his book when it comes to committed and practical stunt work. But for all this traditional elegance Stahelski makes you feel the raw violence of each scene. It keeps you constantly aware of the very real stakes the film has and its reputation for taking no prisoners. You feel the impact of every gunshot, punch and whatever else Wick can throw at his adversaries or vice versa (which is a considerable amount).

But speaking of Wick himself, I suppose it is time to finally address Keanu. I don’t think Reeves has had a vehicle that has as effectively demonstrated his brilliance as an actor than the ‘John Wick’ franchise. On the surface it is easy to look at the role and dismiss it as a mindless killing machine. But the subtle depth within John Wick as a character, combined with his intimidating presence and dry style of humour makes the character a wonderful showcase for Reeve’s versatility. But his greatest asset is on a physical level, where his balletic yet brutal presence manages to convey so much with seemingly so little. Simply put there is no possibility that this franchise would work without Keanu in the lead role, he has so utterly and completely made it his own that I will gladly repeat what I said of the first one in that this is Reeves’ best performance ever. But by no means are the supporting cast reduced to background objects. In fact if I were a character actor I would be looking to get a role in the next ‘John Wick’ film as the clear cut but ridiculously memorable entourage that populates the film is the perfect role for an actor to sink knot and revel in. From Laurence Fishburne’s underground crime lord to Ruby Rose’s mute security enforcer.

‘John Wick: Chapter 2’ is just about everything you could possibly want from a movie like this.

Result: 8/10

Monday 13 February 2017

50 Shades Darker

"This time, no rules, no punishments and no more secrets."

The first ’50 Shades of Grey’ movie represented everything I hated about the modern movie industry. It was a soulless cash brag that latched onto whatever trend was currently popular regardless of whether or not it was actually good or worth adapting in the first place. In this case the source material was a terrible novel that began its life as ‘Twilight’ fanfiction, so basically garbage that led to more garbage. Now there’s a sequel, and against all the odds, it’s even worse.

When a wounded Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) tries to entice a cautious Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson) back into his life, she demands a new arrangement before she will give him another chance. As the two begin to build trust and find stability, shadowy figures from Christian's past start to circle them, determined to destroy their hopes for a future together.

I can understand why certain people will want to see certain films, even some of the worst movies I’ve seen in recent years could at least hide behind the shield of delivering exactly what a specific group of people would want and nothing more. But for the life of me I cannot understand why anyone would be mildly entertained by ’50 Shades Darker’ (except as an unintentional comedy). I doubt anyone would actually be wrapped up in this generic, shallow and formulaic love story but at the same time if you go into this film hoping for porn then I can’t understand how it fills that need. I said the same for the first ’50 Shades’ movie and I shall say the same for this one, it is not even remotely sexy. I would honestly have more respect for someone if they randomly walked up to me and said “I just watched two hours of soft core pornography” rather than saying “I just watched ’50 Shades Darker’”. At least with the former statement you have watched something that delivers exactly what you were looking for.

Any romantic movie will hinge on the idea that its leads share a good chemistry together and work as a couple you want to see together and have sympathy for. But then again this trash is successful so I’m beginning to wonder why anyone bothers with that. Instead you could create two characters so utterly devoid of any depth, defining characteristics or empathetic details that I just started referring to them as “blank slate A” and “blank slate B”. There is no chemistry, no romantic tension and no sense of emotional connection between them.  The author of the original novel, E.L James (she wrote it on her Blackberry phone) insisted that the sequel procure a different screenwriter as the first film did an unsatisfactory job of translating her genius to the big screen, so they did and would you believe the luck that she just happens to be married to the screenwriter they chose? Of all the odds right?

I bring this up because as much as I’d hate to bash the combined output of this creative power couple, it is awful in every way. The script lacks all sense of pacing, structure and coherent story arcs. At the start of this review I gave a quick plot synopsis but it’s ultimately irrelevant to the movie itself. There are subplots and deviations that go nowhere from helicopter crashes to murderous stalkers and none of them last more than a few scenes or are addressed for longer than five minutes. I left the movie feeling infinitely more confused that when I had entered, knowing next to nothing about the characters, environment or scenario. I suppose the obvious answer for why the script ended up like this is that it was prioritizing where it could put the next sex scene. But it even manages to fail at that. The scenes in question are lifeless, lacking in energy and horribly integrated into the movie.  

I suppose the only way this film does improve upon the original is the way it is shot. Unlike the bland, dead eyed colour palette of the first film ’50 Shades Darker’ at least has an eye for competent composition and contains cinematography that is not reminiscent of staring at a concrete wall for two hours. That is hardly surprising given that James Foley is in the director’s chair here. The same James Foley who once upon a time directed the excellent ‘Glengarry Glen Ross’, a film so tightly composed and exquisitely crafted that I could do nothing but stare in disbelief when I saw how ths film was directed. Though some individual shots are nicely composed, the cohesion from shot to shot and the connective tissue that makes up each scene is so bafflingly off that it genuinely becomes difficult to place where two people are within a scene that involves just two people.

As for the two leads, Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan reach into their very souls to bring forth a pair of performances that display astonishing range with one or maybe even two different facial expressions throughout the entire movie. Granted the shallowness of their characters is unlikely to help but even this material feels underused in their hands as they fail to convey a single solitary emotion that goes beyond “I like you because you’re attractive”. You would think that amongst the supporting cast at least one role would shine, even if by accident. But no, even an Oscar winning actor like Kim Basinger seems to be trapped in the same bland and bored expression. All of this is only punctuated by an equally bland and lifeless soundtrack. How romantic.

Like its predecessor ’50 Shades Darker’ is a summation of everything that is wrong with modern movies.

Result: 1/10

Sunday 12 February 2017


"There's this video that kills you seven days after you watch it. The second it's over the phone rings and this voice says 'seven says'."

So, are you excited for a long overdue sequel to a horror franchise that was steadily decreasing in both its quality and box office returns with each instalment, with this latest sequel not only being caught in development hell for several years but having its eventual release date slowly pushed back time and time again until it went from being released at the peak of the fall season of last year to the dead zone that is early February? No? Then congratulations on being a normal person.

A young woman becomes worried about her boyfriend when he explores a dark subculture surrounding a mysterious videotape said to kill the watcher seven days after he has viewed it. She sacrifices herself to save her boyfriend and in doing so makes a horrifying discovery: there is a movie within the movie that no one has ever seen before.

The central conceit of main drive of the threat in ‘The Ring’ franchise is that of time. The concept of watching a video tape that will, without fail, kill you in sever days instigates a finite amount of time from which a writer can tell their story and place an automatic narrative thrust on whether or not the main character will get through alive. It is for this reason that ‘Rings’ inability to convey a sense of time is so detrimental to the movie’s overall effect. By removing one of the main driving points behind the threat it is difficult to become wrapped up in the plot on even the most basic level.

Another problem the movie seems to have is that of tonal consistency. It tries to pace itself like some kind of psychological thriller but it seems impatient with its own pace and continually tries to shoehorn in a string of fast pace action sequences, such as its opening scene on a crashing plane that not only feels completely disconnected from the rest of the film but also has completely the wrong feel for the movie that follows. We are a long way from the creepy and ominous atmosphere of Gore Verbinski’s original film here.

Not only does the film seem impatient with its tone but also in how it allows events to play out. As opposed to a steady and slow build of tension that made the original so effective, ‘Rings’ jumps straight into the standard horror clichés from nonsensical visions of doom to cheap jump scares. Furthermore the plot feels needlessly convoluted in a lacklustre effort to kill time until it can reach its equally unsatisfying conclusion (it’s a movie about a videotape that kills you in seven days, it can’t be that difficult to make an interesting story out of that, surely?). The story seems to meander around aimlessly and almost uneventfully, punctuated only by some ineffective hallucinations that are almost incoherent in terms of how they fit into the story or the context of the plot. The end result is that not only does the story feel infuriatingly unsatisfying due to the way events unfold, but its structure does such a poor job of raising any sense of tension or danger that one can’t even be swept up in the moment as it goes by.

Before anyone states that the film had to make its plot complex to ensure it wasn’t derivative of the other instalments, I’d argue that with some innovative direction and compelling characters even the most basic story would be far superior to the product we ended up with. But then again both of those elements seem to be so fundamentally lacking in ‘Rings’ that maybe it is something beyond this creative team. So many characters feel so woefully underdeveloped and exist purely to die that they might as well have walked around with a big red X marked on their foreheads. None of the main characters have any hint of depth or characterisation to them, they are just a group of people with differing likelihoods of when they will die, surrounded by more people who will be used as terrible justifications for the increasingly idiotic decisions they will make.

I suppose by this point it goes without saying that most of the actors in the film are terrible (it’s a horror film, this early in the year and it isn’t ‘The Witch’, they are going to be terrible). Granted they do not have a lotto work with in terms of strong characterisations of unique and well defined people, but even taking that into account none of them did anything to convince me of what I was being told was transpiring on screen. But if the actors took me out of the moment then the director deserves even more credit on that front. Though the shots were decently composed from time to time their assembly and scene construction often made an event seem more laughable and confusing than anything else.

‘Rings’ seems too generic and too forgettable to even get angry about, but by no means does that detract from its terribleness.

Result: 3/10

Thursday 9 February 2017

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter

"We're going to kill every last one of them."

To the world of cinema, the word final has a very different meaning to everyone else. If you think it means a franchise is at last ending then you would be very mistaken, just look at ‘Omen: The Final Conflict’, whose very name was made irrelevant with the release of ‘Omen 4’. Then there’s the fourth instalment of the ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ franchise, ‘The Final Nightmare’ which proved to be a short lived finale as ‘New Nightmare’ was released three years later. ‘Friday the 13th’ did this twice with ‘The Final Chapter’ for number four, then ‘The Final Friday’ for number 9, which itself also was not the last chapter as ‘Jason X’ followed shortly (the one where he went to space). But anyway now we have ‘Resident Evil…..6? 7? Whatever: The Final Chapter’.

Picking up three weeks after the events of the previous film, Alice, (Milla Jovovich) awakens in the now-ruined White House, after being betrayed once again by Wesker (Shawn Roberts). Now he is gathering the entire forces of the Umbrella Corporation into one final strike against the apocalypse survivors and it is up to Alice to not only survive the attack but end the threat once and for all.

Modern horror and modern action have a lot of faults, but for the most part I like to believe that each genre is capable of recovering and reaching its full glory once again. But other times I see a film like ‘Resident Evil: The Final Chapter’ and I think “No, it’s dead and buried, we’re all doomed”. Paul W S Anderson’s film suffers from every fault it is possible to attribute to the action/horror genre. Whether it be cheap jump scares, shaky-cam, bad lighting substituting for suspense or edits so fast that I wonder if the number of shots is higher than the films frame rate, there is no incompetent cliché or technical error that seems beyond him.

In all honesty what do you really want me to say about this film? If you enjoy the ‘Resident Evil’ movies on a serious level and are genuinely invested in the adventures of Mila Jovovich (I’ve forgotten the character name already) then clearly you don’t care what critics think. It offers what fans of this franchise will have come to expect, but if you are like me and think that what this franchise usually offers is an exercise in cinematic torture then I can’t exactly say I’m thrilled. But for a moment I shall try to treat this film as its own product, as something separate from the other entries in the franchise and break down its strengths and flaws. First up, its strengths…….well that just about does it for strengths.

When making a post-apocalyptic style of movie one key aspect is that you craft interesting or intriguing characters that the audience can either relate to or empathise with as it raises the stakes if you care about the characters who are in immediate danger, and you will hopefully root for them to survive, thereby creating a sense of urgency within the plot. Or you could do what ‘Resident Evil: The Final Chapter’ does and make your characters so boring, so bland, so utterly one dimensional that their breath was the only thing the reminded me that they were in fact real people and not CGI automatons. I understand that as an actor to be given such a character must be difficult, but none of the performers seem to convey even the slightest bit of, anything really.

The story is so mind numbingly predictable and riddled with clichés that it feels unintentionally hilarious. It is the same basic survival story you would find in any movie of this genre (as well as every other instalment of this franchise) but lacking in any singly evocative, unique or interesting element. But despite this it also feels completely incoherent and inconsistent. Character motivations change flip from scene to scene, locations are muddled with one another and the plot holes are rife throughout. I feel as if it would take effort to deliberately write a story as banal and as confusing as this.

But hey, it’s not about the story or characters right? What these movies promise is simple action so surely they deliver on that? Well not really because of Anderson’s uniquely awful direction. Not only are his action scenes derivative of a dozen other superior films from ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ to ‘Aliens’ but they are terribly choreographed and staged. When one throws in the cinematography that looks like the entire film was made in an under-lit studio and shot with a camera that was stuck on the sepia-tone setting it gets even worse. But all of this pales in comparison to the editing, which as ever in this franchise is on another level of horribleness. It was as if the director and editor were each located on entirely different sides of the world and could only communicate through Morse code, once every thirteen months, while limited to a 150 characters each time. It all decends into an incomprehensible mess of noise, random cuts and infuriatingly quick edits that tear the scene apart.

The only good thing that can come out of ‘The Final Chapter’ is if it lives up to its name.

Result: 2/10

Sunday 5 February 2017

Resident Evil - The Franchise So Far...

So after watching every instalment of the ‘Resident Evil’ franchise in preparation for ‘The Final Chapter’ I have quickly come to the simple conclusion that I hate myself. To sit through all five of these movies one has to be the most narcissistic and self-loathing person imaginable, as subjecting yourself to this franchise should be classed as a form of torture. For people who haven’t seen them it must be easy to think that they are not worth getting worked up about. They are films that promise mindless action and Mila Jovovich in skin-tight outfits, what do you expect from them? But for those who are unfamiliar with the series, you cannot begin to imagine the incompetence of this franchise.

The first ‘Resident Evil’ was released in 2002, the same year we saw ‘Minority Report’ Sam Raimi’s ‘Spider-Man’ and ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers’. I bring this up because upon watching ‘Resident Evil’ one would be forgiven for thinking competent filmmaking must have been forbidden that year. Almost every single aspect of the film feels broken. The editing is some of the worst and most incoherent I’ve ever witnessed in a movie. The movie asks us to sympathise with Jovovich’s character despite the fact that we know literally nothing about her. Her character is a blank slate and her performance is very much the same, expressing so little emotion that it almost defies belief. The visual effects are also apocalyptically terrible, and I understand that this is the early 2000s but then I would direct you the three films I mentioned earlier. Talented directors have worked around their constraints, but Paul W S Anderson (the lesser Paul Anderson) seems to revel in them.

The sequel ‘Resident Evil: Apocalypse’ is, despite it seeming literally impossible, manages to be even worse than the first one. With Paul W S Anderson stepping out of the director’s chair to be replaced by Alexander Witt in his directorial debut. While Witt is marginally a more competent director than Anderson (shown by the fact that he went on to be a second-unit director for ‘Skyfall’ and Casino Royale’) he still falls far from the mark. Once more the action scenes are hacked to death with awful editing, lack of innovation and a general ugliness to the way they look. Anderson’s screenplay stands as the worst aspect of the movie though, with the plot not only being repetitive of the original to the point where it feels like a remake, but is so infuriatingly lacking in creativity or imagination. It feels like a pointless movie, one that has no purpose to exist and we are only at the second of a six film franchise.

Onto number three, ‘Resident Evil: Extinction’. By this point I found myself wondering why the Umbrella Corporation (the main antagonist of the series) was still conducting their evil research when all of humanity had been annihilated.  In fact let’s talk about the Umbrella Corporation as an interesting, complex and empathetic villain. They’re not, they are so simplistically evil that it feels unintentionally hilarious. What is even more laughable is how after two films I still know next to nothing about the franchise’s main character other than the fact she is played by Mila Jovovich (I think the character has a name but I can’t remember it). This time Russell Mulcahy, who directed ‘Highlander’, but on the downside he also directed ‘Highlander 2’. As for his work here, it falls somewhere between the two. While I would not call it truly terrible it is nothing to get excited about, it does its job. In fact on the whole this instalment actually improves upon the previous two, with a screenplay that actually has cohesion unlike the previous entries.  However it incorporates so many tired clichés that it becomes hard to take it seriously, and everything is so blatantly predictable.

Unlike the first three, ‘Resident Evil: Afterlife’ was not screened in advance for critics (any film that does that is bound to be great, right?). But what it does have in common with the previous instalment is how blatantly it rips off other films. While one could call it a homage each call back is treated too seriously for me to believe it was intentionally trying to make the audience recall it. The biggest effect these borrowed elements have is that they made me wish I was watching the far superior movies they were referencing. From John Carpenter to George Romero, no horror director is safe from having their work plagiarised by Paul W S Anderson, who makes his long awaited return to the director’s chair. In essence the film is just a strong of unimaginative and poorly directed action scenes connected by some sort of “plot”. The most baffling thing about it is that even if you were a fan of the series I find it hard to believe any fan could tolerate the fourth ‘Resident Evil’. Within the first ten minutes the film undoes all of the continuity from the first one, placing the story back at square one so it can just do the same thing as the others all over again. More and more the franchise has gone from being simply a bad movie to a complete exercise in futility, and there is still one more to go.

Mercifully I have now arrived at the fifth film. What is there to say about this instalment that has not been said about the others and therefore applies this one as well? There is such a lack of characterisation, no sense of structure or cohesiveness. The dialogue is horrendously awful and I feel like even if it was endearing the actors would not be able to convince me of it for a second due to how terrible they are. It recycles so many elements both from its previous instalments and other films (with the opening sequence essentially being a shot for shot recreation of the opening to Zack Snyder’s ‘Dawn of the Dead’). The editing is embarrassingly bad and all you are left with are hollow action sequences draped in some of the worst CGI enhancements I have witnessed in a mainstream film.

So, anyone looking forward to ‘The Final Chapter’?

Thursday 2 February 2017

Best and Worst of Janurary 2017

So here’s the thing, normally when I do these segments for January it becomes less of a look back at this particular month and more of a rundown of the films I already talked about in my Best of the Year list because inevitably I had to wait until January to see some of them. This year I thought, instead of simply reciting the best films I just happened to see in January I was going to exclude anything that ended up on my Best of 2016 list, purely because you already know what I thought of them and where they fall in the established order.

So with that in mind I turned my attention to the movies I didn’t include on that list, placing them as my top three of the month. When all is said and done January was surprisingly decent. The fact that I was able to find two 2017 releases that were actually very good should be a feat worthy of praise all on its own. Sadly though, as one would expect it was not without its flaws and I am already dreading the idea that 2017 might yield a film worse than the ones I saw this month. But anyway, before all that here are the three best.

3: Split

M Night Shyamalan made a good movie again. Just saying that sentence makes me feel like I’m yelling an outright false statement to the public but it is true. Though it is not without its flaws ‘Split’ represents an impressive return to form for Shyamalan, demonstrating his ability to craft a screenplay of integrity with a narrative flow, character motivations and a surprising amount of depth. As well as that Shyamalan proves that he is once again capable of raising tension and composing provoking shots. But the most valuable player is easily James McAvoy, whose performance is a tour de force that creates so many separate and distinguishable identities while injecting enough gravitas into proceedings to make the premise feel grounded enough to take seriously.

2: Fences

Since I last wrote about this adaptation of August Wilson’s play it has picked up a slew of Oscar nominations and deservedly so. Two of those nominations are for Denzel Washington and Viola Davis who are utterly magnificent in their roles, with Washington giving a powerful and towering performance while Davis brings such a sense of raw intensity to her performance that it almost defies belief. While his direction does not quite open the material up on a visual level Washington shows a good understanding of Wilson’s dialogue to bring forth the best directorial outing of his career, as well as one of the best performances of his career.

1: T2 Trainspotting

I can hardly blame anyone for being sceptical over the sequel to Danny Boyle’s 1996 masterpiece, over twenty years after it first hit cinema. But in the sequel Boyle and his cast have delivered a film that uses the time gap as its thematic driving force. Unlike any other sequel of this kind, ‘T2 Trainspotting’ does not seek to recapture the essence of the original because it acknowledges how one never really can. Though the characters would like nothing more than to resume the lives they were living twenty years ago before it all went wrong, they are forced to admit that they never truly can. One thing they have not lost however, is the talent as Boyle’s energetic and hyper-stylised camera is just as vibrant as ever, while the cast sink back into their original roles effortlessly. It is wonderfully entertaining to see these characters once again, but at the heart of ‘T2 Trainspotting’ lies a poignant and emotionally resonant core.

And the worst….

The Bye Bye Man

I can’t remember the last time I saw a mainstream movie that was as incompetently made as this. It is so hopelessly inept in almost every single regard that it defies belief, the laws of logic suggest they had to get something right. But from the acting to the cinematography, every single aspect seems fundamentally broken. The plot borrows from every horror cliché and trope imaginable, coming off like the worst and cheapest kind of copy there is. As I said in my original review, the scariest thing about ‘The Bye Bye Man’ is that there might be a film in 2017 that is worse than this.