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Saturday, 30 September 2017

Best and Worst of September 2017


As we head into the fall season of 2017, September gave us a very promising start as to where things were heading. Granted we do have to suffer through how lowest common denominator blockbusters have been replaced by lowest common denominator awards bait but on the whole the level of quality is still consistently good and has delivered some truly fantastic films in the process. We got to see artists pushing their unique visions through in some of the most remarkable films of the year in an uncompromising and viscerally bold way.  

That being said there was still the colossal disappointment that was ‘Kingsman: The Golden Circle’. Normally I try to avoid singling out certain films in this intro, but Matthew Vaughn’s spy sequel promised so much more than it delivered. It was truly a sequel that seemed to misunderstand what made the original so great and will only appeal to those who loved it for the most surface level reasons. But enough with that as there are still three truly great films to address.


3: First the Killed My Father

In what is undoubtedly Angelina Jolie’s best directorial outing yet, ‘First they Killed My Father paints a harrowing and intimately staged depiction of history that feels is both emotionally shattering but also brilliantly made. Jolie uses her protagonist to great effect not just in the way she is placed within the narrative, but the entire frame uses her as a symbol of innocence from which to contrast the horror of the war around her. As well as that, Jolie’s use of perspective fully immerses the viewer within this era of history, making it feel like an entity all of its own. It’s this intimate mind set that permeates every aspect of the movie, even its very structure which unfolds more like a survival story than a historical drama, namely because for those involved that’s exactly what it was.


2: Wind River

With this movie Taylor Sheridan proved that as well as being a masterful writer he also has great potential as a director. It really is staggering to think that ‘Wind River’ is only Sheridan’s second directorial outing as the movie seems to carry a sense of age and experience that is rarely found in early efforts. It weaves its plot and themes together so intricately that they feel essential to one another as Sheridan makes the landscape around his characters feel like a real entity. The movie also delivers two terrific performances from Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olson. It’s a movie that is focussed more on introspection and dread than conveying any cheap thrills, but that doesn’t stop Sheridan delivering some viscerally haunting moments that will linger with the viewer long after the credits roll.


1: Mother!

There are few films in recent memory that seem to have left a bigger impact upon those who have seen it than Darren Aaronofsky’s latest film ‘Mother!’. Love it or hate it, it’s a movie that has provoked a lot of discussion and a lot of encouragement to dig beneath the surface. I’ve seen several varying interpretations of the movie, from a biblical allegory to it being a statement on the environment, from a comment on an abusive relationship or meditating upon the struggles of an artist. Each new theory holds equal weight to me and all serve to deepen my respect for what Aronofsky has created. ‘Mother!’ is also a testament to Aronofsky’s talent behind the camera in how well it evokes a sense of unease from anyone that watches it. It’s disturbing on both an existential and visceral level, feeling like the closest thing one could possible come to filming a pure nightmare.  


And the worst…

Tulip Fever

At this time of year nothing brings me greater displeasure than the sheer blandness of historical period pieces like ‘Tulip Fever’. Even the movie couldn’t live up to its own promises of eroticism as it stumbles through a narrative it itself feels unconcerned with. None of the characters feel well developed or fleshed out, leaving it impossible for me to become invested in their plight. Even a cast as talented as the one found here can't make this feel interesting. There is no style or substance to be found within its drab, middle of the road display that in all honesty I’m struggling to remember anything about.

Wednesday, 27 September 2017

Kingsman: The Golden Circle



"We're kind of in another save the world situation."


I must admit I was very hesitant when it was announced that 2015’s surprise hit ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’ would be getting a sequel. Mainly because the last time a Matthew Vaughn movie got a hastily planned sequel, we ended up with ‘Kick Ass 2’. But then again Vaughn didn’t direct ‘Kick Ass 2’ and yet he had chosen to return for the sequel to ‘Kingsman’, so surely he must have thought it worth returning? Surely he had a story worth telling if he wanted to return?


With their headquarters destroyed and the world held hostage, members of Kingsman find new allies when they discover a spy organization in the United States known as Statesman. In an adventure that tests their strength and wits, the elite secret agents from both sides of the pond band together to battle a ruthless enemy and save the day, something that's becoming a bit of a habit for Eggsy (Taron Edgerton).


It crushes me to say this but I feel like I have to get it out of the way at the start, ‘Kingsman: The Golden Circle’ is the biggest disappointment of this year. It feels less like a sequel and more like a fan film put together by someone who completely misunderstood what people liked about the first film. Yes it has the same tone, over the top genre conventions and hyper stylised action sequences. But beyond that it seems to have forgotten all of the heart, substance and meaning that made the first one as great as it was.


First and foremost, every single character in this movie is completely static. They do things and are a part of the plot, but in terms of development, progression and empathy, none of the characters possess an ounce of it. They’re either over the top caricatures or vehicles designated to take the audience from one set piece to another. Having gone from an underdog to a superspy in the first movie, Eggsy is now just an empty shell of a character with nowhere left to go. It’s supremely talented cast feel utterly wasted. Despite the fact that the advertising made such a big deal over Colin Firth’s return the script gives him nothing to do. His role as mentor to Eggsy is redundant, he serves no purpose to the main plot of the movie and his presence undermines the role he played in the last movie. The screenplay seems burdened by the very character is struggled to reincorporate.


Then you have the much hyped Statesman, who feel even more underutilised. Channing Tatum, Halle Berry and Jeff Bridges all show promise with their characters but are disregarded before they can be developed or used in any meaningful way. There is simply too much going on in one movie for the screenplay to give adequate time to each element. Even Julianne Moore can’t make an impact as her villain remains rooted to the same location for the entire movie, robbing her of any menacing presence.


I will say that what ‘Kingsman: The Golden Circle’ lacks in substance it has least provides what you would hope for when it comes to style. Matthew Vaughn has a keen eye for well composed action sequences that are visually dazzling to behold. The colours are vibrant, the contrast is excellent and his incorporation of stylish tropes like slow motion and such serve to make each action set piece feel energetic enough. The only problem is that the music that accompanies these scenes are…odd to say the least. It’s not that the music is bad it’s just that it does not fit the tone or style of these scenes at all.


Despite being jam packed with inventive action sequences and entertaining pieces of spectacle, the  plot is lacking any reason for the audience to care that much. It’s another “save the world” scenario like the first. The only difference is that in ‘The Golden Circle’ none of the characters are allowed to progress or develop, none of them feel integral or involved within the plot and every narrative beat feels redundant or predictable because we’ve seen the first movie.
By building its narrative around its protagonist going from an underdog to a superspy it had some emotional weight to tie its lucrative narrative together and something to ground it in character. There is nothing that even comes close to doing either of those in this sequel, rendering every action scene as nothing more than empty spectacle that makes the classic sequel mistake of assuming that bigger is automatically better. In that regard they dial up every element to 11, from the action scenes to the tasteless jokes that were forgivable if not very awkward in the first one, but now have entire uncomfortable scenes devoted to a one note joke that is guaranteed to make you squirm in your seat.


‘The Golden Circle’ misunderstands what people liked about its predecessor, delivering most of the style but with none of the substance.


Result: 5/10

Monday, 25 September 2017

American Assassin



"Out there you're a ghost, you don't exist."


Has anyone ever been faced with a movie that they would have no interest in whatsoever save for one element? A movie that based on everything you have seen relating to it, from the trailers to the premise and even the title itself, seems like the most generic kind of vanilla you can imagine and yet there is that one singular element that grabs your interest? Today that movie is ‘American Assassin’ and. that aspect of interest is Michael Keaton.

When Cold War veteran Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton) takes CIA black ops recruit Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) under his wing, they receive an assignment to investigate a wave of random attacks on both military and civilian targets. After discovering a pattern of violence, Hurley and Rapp join forces with a lethal Turkish agent to stop a mysterious operative who wants to start a global war.

If you’ve never seen a spy thriller movie before then there is probably a lot of enjoyment to be had with ‘American Assassin’, and even if you have then you’re likely to enjoy the first act of the movie at least. It has a stark opening that does a decent job endearing you to the main character and making you feel invested in his plight. But as the film ploughs along it gradually descends further and further into clichés, standard plot points and perfectly average filmmaking.

Even the little pieces of interest that were established at the start seem to fall by the wayside. Characters are given motivations but then never developed further, ideas are brought up but not explored in any great detail, it’s part of why the film can’t help but feel as generic as it does later on. More so than the fact that every plot point feels annoyingly clichéd, they all feel somewhat underdeveloped and as a result struggle to hold the audience’s attention. The entire pacing and structure of the film also seem to fall apart at this point, with a second and third act that just sort of blend into one another and make the conclusion feel sudden as well as anticlimactic.

But as I said earlier, my reason for watching ‘American Assassin’ was mostly down to Michael Keaton who is working here at his usual standard of excellence. It’s a shame that the screenplay doesn’t give him much to work with but on the whole Keaton brings a magnetic presence to the film that makes every scene featuring him feel more involving. More than once we actually get to see Keaton bring forth some brilliant insanity that we’ve gone way too long without, that alone is worth the price of admission.

In fact on the whole the performances are solid. What I said for Keaton applies to the rest of the cast as their acting talent is clearly there but the screenplay lacks the depth to make any of these actors stretch their range or even stray out of their comfort zone. Even Dylan O’Brien in the lead role can’t quite create a sense of intrigue with his character that makes me feel especially invested in the plot once we had uncovered his core motivation. So while Mitch Rapp comes across as a sympathetic character he never morphs into one that I felt thoroughly invested in. He doesn’t leave an impact like Daniel Craig’s Bond or Matt Damon’s Bourne.

I think what makes the movie feel even more generic is the way its action is directed. I can’t find anything inherently wrong with Michael Cuesta’s handling of the action scenes in the movie but at the same time there’s no style to make them stand out. None of the action leaves a lasting impact as none of the environments in which the action takes place nor does the way Cuesta chooses to execute said action feel remotely unique. It’s perfectly fine but never strives to be anything more than that.

It even seems uninterested in its own plot. There’s no urgency in the way it unfolds, no sense of danger to permeate each scene, no tension as each plot thread plays out. Once again I find myself being unable to criticise it in any serious way as the plot isn’t terrible. It has stakes and consequences but it never reminds the audience of what they are, nor does it make its protagonist feel involved with them. It’s just a case of each part of the plot being presented to the audience in the exact same tone and style throughout. Had this been a movie in which there was more going on I would commend it for keeping a consistent tone and style, but ‘American Assassin’ could have really benefitted from being a bit less consistent and taking a few more calculated risks where necessary.

Competent but also lifeless, ‘American Assassin’ is a rather bland and generic entry in the spy genre.

Result: 4/10

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Top Ten Movies of 2009


2009 was a provocative year to say the very least. Granted any year in which sees Lars Von Trier, Quentin Tarantino, Michael Haneke and Yorgos Lanthimos releasing movies in the same year but even they seemed to be trying extra hard to break through boundaries and shock their audiences. All in all though that was for the best as 2009 wasn’t exactly a great year, especially for commercial cinema. There were some bright spots but it’s hard to escape the overbearing shadow cast by the piles of garbage that were ‘Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen’ and another ‘Twilight’ movie (I can’t remember which one, they’re all the same to me)

Luckily though the only negative for when it came to my top ten list was that I didn’t have too much trouble narrowing down my favourites of this year. That being said there were also plenty of honourable mentions. As I said blockbusters were lacking somewhat but we were still treated to some films that managed to do well on the critical front as well as the box office. JJ Abrams managed to revitalise a franchise for a whole new generation with ‘Star Trek’ whilst Neil Blomkamp managed to use a science fiction fable to offer important (if not entirely unsubtle) social commentary in ‘District 9’.

This was also a fantastic year for animation, in many different forms and styles. Pixar managed to deliver a deeply heartfelt movie (so in other words they made a Pixar movie) with ‘Up’. ‘A Town Called Panic’ may be the most nonsensical film of the year but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t hilarious. ‘Mary and Max’ was the visually expressive yet emotionally raw animated film of the year. But my favourite of them all was Wes Anderson’s infectiously charming and brilliantly crafted ‘Fantastic Mr Fox’.

Going back to live action there’s ‘(500) Days of Summer’ providing a wonderfully bittersweet, enjoyable and inventive romantic comedy. ‘Up In the Air’ may have been marketed as a romantic comedy but what we actually got was a terrific character study boasting a great performance by George Clooney. Speaking of great performances there’s also Jeff Bridges in ‘Crazy Heart’, Carey Mulligan in ‘An Education’ and Abbie Cornish in ‘Bright Star’.


10: Antichrist

I have no hesitation in saying that Lars Von Trier’s sadistic horror film ‘Antichrist’ is the single most disturbing movie I have ever seen. No other movie this year, or any year for that matter, has left me with a greater sense of dread hours after it has ended. It’s for that reason that I can’t really recommend it but I can profess to how masterfully made it is. No one can question whether Von Trier made exactly the kind of movie that he wanted to or if it created the intended effect, which was to horrify anyone who watches it. The cinematography is simply stunning and when combined with Von Trier’s meticulous framing creates a claustrophobic yet oddly beautiful display of images. The movie deal with themes of pain and depression so it doesn’t pull punches, I believe Von Trier was trying to project a sense of visceral discomfort onto his audiences that reflects the torment his characters are feeling, who are portrayed brilliantly by the powerful performances of Willem Dafoe and Charlotte Gainsbourg.


9: Goodbye Solo

Having crafted two excellent films in the form of ‘Man Push Cart’ and ‘Chop Shop’, Ramin Bahrani brings forth his most emotionally resonant movie yet. It pairs together two characters of completely opposite nature, from their background to their age as well as their whole outlook on life which drives the main plot and thematic weight of the movie. It’s within these characters that Bahrani grounds his film and makes their specific characteristics feel absolutely essential to the way the plot unfolds. Those two main characters are perfectly embodied by the two actors who play them, each bringing such terrific depth and distinctness to each role. The film digs deep beneath the surface and seeks to convey the full breadth of everything it discusses.


8: A Prophet

Jacques Audiard’s crime film is a brilliant example of why execution matters. Though the premise of ‘A Prophet’ is intriguing, it doesn’t scream masterful. But that is where Audiard’s impeccable attention to detail, grasp of tone and dynamic sense of energy. But what is remarkable is how these stylistic touches never detract from the movie’s care for character development. The film endears its audience to the main character and then proceeds to make the development of the characters flow seamlessly with the movie’s unfolding plot. It also helps that the main character is brought to life terrifically by a breakout performance from Tahar Rahim. The movie never fails to make you feel the urgency of each situation, carrying a constant sense of tension throughout as the protagonist is always one slip away from being uncovered.


7: A Serious Man

Though the Coen Brothers story of a midlife crisis and struggle to cope with the randomness of life has been divisive among audiences, I found to be another superb effort from the directing duo. It’s amazing how the Coens have such a capable grasp of tone that they can tackle themes of existential dread but inject it with an element of humour that not only makes it engaging to watch but also never allow one sensibility to undercut the other. But it’s not just the tone that the Coens weave into their narrative brilliantly, it’s also the underlying themes of their story that feel peppered throughout whilst never being too obvious that they detract from the main narrative. ‘A Serious Man’ may not be the Coens at their absolute best but it does represent a more mature form of filmmaking that is not only refreshing to see them venture into, but also to see them execute it this well.


6: Moon

One of the most inventive and emotionally resonant science fiction films in recent memory. ‘Moon’ is a deceptively brilliant piece of cinema, presenting itself as a futuristic fable but being, at its core, a deeply humanistic story of identity. Despite being made on a budget of just $5 million the movie never feels underdeveloped as far as its production design goes. It really is a credit to director Duncan Jones that ‘Moon’ manages to look more professional than most of the blockbusters released in the same year. Sam Rockwell delivers a performance that instils paranoia but also deep empathy and as much as I would love to describe what makes Rockwell particularly brilliant here, it would risk spoiling the mystery that is set up at the start of the film. ‘Moon’ is a movie of big ideas but set on an intimate stage that sets it apart as one of the most intelligent movies of the year.


5: The White Ribbon

Michael Haneke has always dealt with moral quandaries throughout his career, on the surface ‘The White Ribbon’ may appear to be a less strenuous ordeal but on a thematic level it paints a deeply oppressive portrait from which neither the audience nor the movie’s characters can escape. It’s a deeply atmospheric work, partly due to its bleak cinematography that matches the overall tone of the movie. ‘The White Ribbon’ says much about how violence is built into human society and has to wonder if it is inescapable, highlighting the way an environment can shape its inhabitants into something much more immediately dangerous. The cast are fantastic on every level, even from the young performers. Its narrative is patient but Haneke possesses such a mastery of framing and composition that every single shot of the movie feels as involving as it is poetic.


4: A Single Man


The fact that ‘A Single Man’ is a debut feature almost defies belief. Tom Ford’s film displays such an involving and expressive visual style without ever detracting from the main narrative. Through visuals alone Ford manages to place the audience directly within the mind set of his protagonist, his daily struggles, his outlook on life and the tiny details in which he finds value. All of that being said, the fact that an internationally renowned fashion designer is capable of assembling some pretty shots isn’t too remarkable, what is remarkable is how Ford so perfectly enthuses that style with the substance of his story. It’s furthered all the more by a tremendous performance by Colin Firth that, like the direction, finds great emotional power through the smallest of nuances. It’s honestly kind of amazing that Firth didn’t win the Oscar for Best Actor, as much as I adore Jeff Bridges I have to say that the academy made a mistake on that front.


3: Dogtooth

It’s easy to focus on the disturbing subject matter of ‘Dogtooth’ as well as it’s uniquely inventive style, but what struck me most about it was Yorgos Lanthimos’ magnificent control over image and tone. Every piece of his movie feels like a deliberately constructed aspect, one that ties into the greater themes of the movie as well as its highly original narrative. He shoots the film in a method that combines elegant compositions with off kilter framings that never fails to elicit a sense of unease. As Roger Ebert put it, the visuals almost resemble a family photograph where something is a just a little, but obviously, wrong. The performances are unnervingly in tune with the rest of the movie, completely embodying Lanthimos’ vision of control and manipulation. It’s odd that a film as bizarre as ‘Dogtooth’ can also feel so frighteningly realistic, but that’s mainly because it is. This is a filmmaker taking truth and exaggerating it to make it cinematic, and it’s about as masterfully made as they come.


2: The Hurt Locker

The way ‘The Hurt Locker’ goes about dissecting its subject is so nuanced that you might miss it upon first viewing. It paints a portrait of a soldier who is incapable of functioning outside of a war. Like the bombs he disarms, Sergeant William James is explosive and temperamental but also very good at what he is designed to do. All of those characteristics are brilliantly embodied by Jeremy Renner’s stoic lead performance, which is punctuated by shocking bursts of energy. But the most valuable player is, by a long way, director Kathryn Bigalow, who achieves such a mastery of suspense that it would be easier to list the moments with ‘The Hurt Locker’ that are not seaming with palpable tension. Ona technical level the film is beyond perfect, with the sound design, special effects, production design and every nuance of the environment being impeccable. Even amid the chaos Bigalow finds clarity both in how she presents the action, but also how she taps into the deeper meaning of the movie and never loses focus on what this story has to say.


1: Inglourious Basterds

Hitchcock once said that suspense is two people sitting at a table, unaware that there is a bomb underneath them. Quentin Tarantino’s war epic begins with a scene in which a group of Jewish people hiding from a Nazi Colonel as he sits at a table, conversing with the man sheltering them. In this case, the audience and the characters all know there is a “bomb” under the table, and yet Tarantino is able to use it to create one of the most masterfully tense pieces of cinema I have ever witnessed. The film that follows is bold, brutal and entertaining on a level nothing else could match this year, but also punctuated the evidence of a filmmaker in complete and utter control of his medium. Tarantino’s hyper stylised blend of violence, humour and subversion takes the war genre and frames it as more of a western. But in the process he finds dozens of brilliant performances (the standout being Christoph Waltz), too many amazing scenes to count and dialogue that’s so good it could have been written by Quentin Tarantino, which it was. It’s a film that one can appreciate for its craftsmanship but also adore for its entertainment value, both of which only improve all the more every time you revisit it.

Monday, 18 September 2017

First They Killed My Father



"Develop a revolutionary mind set."


I’m sure this has been said before but the way Netflix allows certain movies to not only reach a much wider audience than they would otherwise but also supply said film with the resources that allow it to fulfil its intended vision anyway really is commendable. Granted it’s disappointing that we can’t see these movies in cinemas but it’s hard to deny that they get so much more exposure through this medium, particularly when it’s a film as important as Angelina Jolie’s ‘First The Killed My Father’.

Loung Ung is 5 years old when the Khmer Rouge assumes power over Cambodia in 1975. They soon begin a four-year reign of terror and genocide in which nearly 2 million Cambodians die. Forced from her family's home in Phnom Penh, Ung is trained as a child soldier while her six siblings are sent to labor camps.

As a director, Jolie has always showed more potential than her films have. Her previous directorial efforts ‘In the Land of Blood and Honey’, ‘Unbroken’ and ‘By the Sea’ all displayed a high level of craftsmanship but lacked the nuance or depth to become anything more meaningful. However, ‘First They Killed My Father’ is Jolie’s first film that feels worthy of her potential as a director. The story is a powerful and important one that speaks volumes about an era of history as well as being deeply humanistic.

What Jolie does so brilliantly in this film is portray a national tragedy through the eyes of a child. The perspective allows her to distil the historical events to their most provocative and emotionally resonant. But at the same time such a point of view allows you to play looser with the details that might be a requirement in other historical dramas. As an audience we are attuned to the idea that a child might not process everything around them, or if they do it’s not in the same way we would as an adult. It allows Jolie to employ some unique ways of presenting the unfolding horror. She takes a page out of Spielberg’s book and opts to keep the camera height at the same level as her protagonist, placing the audience firmly within her point of view. Her frequent use of handheld camera also helps to evoke this sense of unease that even permeates the quieter moments of the movie. There’s also a lot to be said about how often Jolie places her protagonist within forefront of the frame as the action is taking place, being sure to contrast the unfolding horror with her innocence.

All of this would risk falling flat if the performances were not convincing but fortunately Sareum Srey Moch gives a remarkable performance in the lead role. Though her most of her role is reacting to the events around her it’s one that she conveys with an appropriate amount of realism. Say what you will about Jolie’s somewhat controversial casting process but the result is a performance that works perfectly as a vehicle to take the audience through this brutal part of history.

It helps that the movie is structured more like a survival story than a typical historical drama. It becomes less about the bigger picture and more about a family struggling to survive from one day to another. It keeps to this mindset for the most part which that the emotionally powerful moments feel all the more impactful. But makes it excel even more is how due to the contrast with the restrained approach Jolie takes to presenting their version of normalcy, when things do reach greater levels of drama the film doesn’t need to employ any manipulative tactics to make it feel resonant, it already lands where it should.

There are a few more clichéd moments such as oversaturating the colour palette for flashbacks. It’s an effective tool but it does grow tiresome and seems overly melodramatic when the rest of the film takes such a realistic approach. Certain scenes also seem to drift awkwardly between taking an intimate and detached approach to conveying the story.  It’s only very rarely but it creates this slight tonal shift that makes the movie feel at conflict with itself. But as I said earlier, the advantage is that ‘First They Killed My Father’ makes it obvious from the outset that it is not interested in capturing the larger implications of these events. It wants to convey what it felt like to experience Pot’s regime from the ground level and on that front it is unrelenting. There is a slight political context in which the film acknowledges how U.S bombings against a neutral country created an environment of paranoia and chaos. But aside from that it focuses on the more intimate and emotionally impactful side of the story that undoubtedly leaves its mark. Even when the film reaches its end the audience is made well aware of how the damage can never truly be undone.

Jolie’s strongest effort yet as a director, ‘First They Killed My Father’ is an emotionally resonant, impeccably crafted work that puts the viewer straight into another era of history.

Result: 8/10

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Mother!


 "All I want to do is bring life into this house."


To say that Daren Aronofsky is a provocative filmmaker is an understatement worthy of rivalling “you know, I think this Damien Chazelle guy likes jazz’. His films are the kind of movies that I adore and admire but would never willingly recommend them to someone else as they so emotionally raw and stylistically aggressive that it takes a specific kind of viewer to not be instantly turned off. I feel that with his latest film ‘Mother!’ even those specific viewer might have trouble appreciating this.

A young woman (Jenifer Lawrence) and her husband (Javier Bardem), who is also a poet, live a peaceful and tranquil existence in an expansive old mansion until their life is disrupted by a mysterious new couple (Michelle Pfeifer and Ed Harris) that comes into their home and seem unwilling to leave.

‘Mother!’ really is something else. It’s unlike anything I’ve seen before and is one of the most uncomfortable and disturbing experiences one could ever have in a cinema. Darren Aronofsky has tackled broad themes in his movies before, from obsession to transformation and the capacity of human love but ‘Mother!’ is unquestionably his most ambitious yet. It is a horror film but not of scares or fight, it taps into our own existential nightmares and renders them as living images on screen. It’s shocking on a level that few movies are and I don’t doubt for a second that such a reaction is exactly what Aaronofsky envisioned.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around the idea that a movie this bold and purely insane could even be released by a major studio, and that’s before we ever tackle the movie itself. It incorporates all of the themes that have punctuated Aronofsky’s other films such as body horror, relationships, taboo, insanity, artistry and religion. Those themes are all weaved together in this claustrophobic masterpiece that creates such an all-consuming atmosphere that it might engulf anyone who stares at it for too long.

From the very first frame of the film, Aronofsky creates this sense of entrapment and paranoia through his movement of the camera. He keeps it pressed tightly to Lawrence as if we inhabiting her body the effect is an instant unnerving of the viewer. You start to distrust everything you see before and inevitably you end up asking whether the main character is insane or is everyone else around her insane? It creates and intrigue and mystery that instantly drew me in and the rest of the movie never, for an instant, let me go.

Lawrence in question remains an elusive figure throughout but then so does every performance. There is a vulnerability to her presence that evokes a sense of empathy from the audience to draw them into her plight. She creates enough intrigue through her performance to make it clear that her role is part of the lager puzzle that assembles the movie as a whole. The same goes for Javier Bardem whose poet husband is clearly drawn as a character, his motivation is to create and he is weighed down by the frustration of being unable to, but never sinks too deep into melodrama that the deeper side of what he and the movie represent are obscured. It’s clear that Aronofsky and his actors were all on the same page in terms of knowing exactly what kind of movie they were making.

This kind of complementing by way of contrasting can be found in other aspects of the movie as well. The cinematography and colour scheme all feel perfectly natural. There is no hyperactive colour palette or expressionistic lighting. Aronofsky grounds the film in a place that feels eerily real as far as his shooting technique goes. That stands in such stark contrast to the unfolding plot that by comparing them they serve to make the other feel all the move impactful. Each shot possesses such a rich texture that furthers the allegorical nature of the film, as if buried within every scene is another symbolic gesture. Each frame and composition of the movie feels insanely evocative. But what makes these metaphors so impactful is that none of them feel contrived. The narrative, style and general purpose all feel like these themes were interwoven through them from the start, as if this was always what it wanted to be. As well that the symbolism doesn’t feel vital to the viewer’s admiration of the film, one can appreciate it on whatever level they see it as.

This brings me back to how with ‘Mother!’ Aronofsky has undoubtedly created the film he set out to make. It’s bleak and oppressive, disturbing and visceral, elusive and endlessly enthralling. To feel immensely uncomfortable at any point in this movie is to know that it is doing its job perfectly. The film is tonally balanced and even though it’s third act is unrestrained insanity, the way it built up to that with impending suspense never makes it feel out of place. If anything you feel that inevitable sense of dread as you draw closer to the film’s climax.

Much like a film by Lynch of Tarkovsky, I don’t think the purpose of ‘Mother!’ is for the viewer to dissect every solitary image within it. There is heavy symbolism and a great deal of metaphor, but think first and foremost the film wants to elicit an emotional reaction out of its viewer. It wants to crawl into the mind of anyone who watches it and invite them to dig deeper, to discuss it, unravel it and take their own meaning from it. Whether you see an allegory for creationism, the nature of what it means to be an artist, a commentary on our environment, the way one human treats another or any other interpretations that will no doubt be drawn from the movie, it’s something you think about. That is, at the end of the day, what art does at its best.

‘Mother!’ is provocative, disturbing and highly allegorical. It’s a masterfully crafted nightmare from Aaronofsky that will linger in your mind long after you’ve seen it.

Result: 10/10

The Limehouse Golem



"He who observes spills no less blood than he who inflicts the blow."


We tend to have an enduring fascination with 18th century murders. Obviously one could attribute that to the reputation of Jack the Ripper but it’s amazing how that stigma carries over the any vaguely similar premise. The advertising for ‘The Limehouse Golem’ almost looks as if the film thinks it’s exploring a real murder case or something that’s been whispered throughout our society, as opposed to what it is which is a weird name for a fairly vanilla movie.

Victorian London is gripped with fear as a serial killer is on the loose and leaving cryptic messages written in the blood of his victims. With few leads and increasing public pressure, Scotland Yard assigns the case to Inspector Kildare (Bill Nighy), a seasoned detective who has a sneaking suspicion that he's being set up to fail. Faced with a long list of suspects, Kildare must rely on help from a witness to stop the murders and bring the maniac to justice.

For a film of this nature to work, two things have to happen. We have to be invested in the central mystery that drives the narrative and we have to feel involved with the plights of the characters. The plot has to create intrigue and suspense in the way it unfolds and sadly that quality is distinctly lacking from ‘The Limehouse Golem’. It seems so desperate to try and mislead its audience that it never puts any thought into whether or not said audience would actually be interested in the plot. It takes many twists and turns but they all feel contrived, never coming across as a meaningful creative decision that furthers the narrative of the characters.

What this subsequent half-hearted mystery so disappointing is the fact that ‘The Limehouse Golem’ actually starts rather promisingly. It establishes its characters as somewhat intriguing individuals that I expected them to uncover more as the movie progressed. But that never transpired. As I said the movie is clearly far more concerned with trying to fool its audience rather than actually convey anything remotely complex or meaningful. The characters are never fleshed out or developed, things happen to them but as far as their own psychology goes there isn’t any major change that justifies the story. There’s no larger commentary, no major theme, just one convoluted twist after another that drives the movie on and on.

All in all the movie feels like a script for an episode of a long running detective show that has been padded out. The twists in question don’t feel riveting since they are conveyed to the audience through the most uninspired methods. Whether it be broad exposition or generic flashbacks, one of the narrative beats are allowed to unfold naturally or left for the audience to ponder over. A character works it out, they tell to the audience, the film takes us there, the hunch is wrong, next scene.

It goes about eliminating suspects methodically, but the problem with executing a mystery this way is that you can’t get past the audiences own expectations. If a character is being addressed just half an hour into the movie we subconsciously know he can’t be the killer since we would not have a subsequent movie. That’s not to say of course that some brilliant films haven’t subverted these expectations, but ‘The Limehouse Golem’ is not that movie. It chooses to plough through each suspect as formulaically as possible until it arrives at a conclusion that most people in the audience will probably be able to predict.

The movie can’t even seem to nail the details of the period in which it is set. Rather than actually make its time frame feel essential to the narrative, ‘The Limehouse Golem’ could honestly be taking place at any time. The only difference would be that the screenplay wouldn’t be able to include Karl Marx as one of the suspects. If you’re thinking that such an inclusion might pave way for some deeper themes relating to said historical figure, then you would be wrong because as a character Marx is here one minute and gone the next without any bearing on the plot itself.

Putting aside all of these writing issues, nothing else really feels inspired within the film. I can’t single anything out as being awful but I also can’t really commend it either. The performances from Bill Nighy and Olivia Cooke are solid, despite not being given much depth to work with, they endow the characters with distinct traits that make them easily identifiable. Under the direction of Juan Carlos Medina none of the environments within the movie stand out, nor do the frames or compositions ever feel evocative. They’re competently shot but they never inspire any sense of intrigue or mystery, they never serve to draw me into the narrative or visually represent the characters.

‘The Limehouse Golem’ is a generic murder mystery that could be entertaining for fans of the genre, but never remotely outstanding.

Result: 4/10

Thursday, 14 September 2017

American Made


"My name is Barry Seal. Some of this shit really happened."


It’s weird how an actor with the star power of Tom Cruise is still capable of surprising you. Though we may think of him strictly as an overly serious action star his various forays into comedies like ‘Tropic Thunder’ or his ability to bring forth a more nuanced character portrayal like ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ as well as his explosively brilliant dramatic roles in ‘Magnolia’ or ‘Born on the Fourth of July’. He is never above defying expectation and it’s always wonderful to witness him doing it again.

In 1978 a disillusioned TWA pilot named Barry Seal (Tom Cruise) is hired by the CIA to take reconnaissance photos within South America. But soon he becomes embroiled in a drug smuggling plot headed by Pablo Escobar and before long Seal finds himself conning both sides of the law through his smuggling operations, risking his life for the sake of having the time of his life.

By no means is ‘American Made’ a mind blowing film, it has major structural issues and it’s central conceit isn’t something we haven’t seen better explored in movies like ‘Scarface’ and ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’. But it’s simply so refreshing to see Tom Cruise let loose in this way. He retains that ever charismatic screen presence that makes his characters so brilliantly watchable, but at the same time he manages to tap into that moral grey area that we rarely see from him. Here he plays a man who is unapologetically corrupt but understands himself well enough to know that this corruption is what fuels his basic needs every day. Once he gets a taste of living life on the edge he cannot bring himself to back away from it.

Where this whole attitude could easily descend into mere fantasy fulfilment, director Doug Liman strikes a good balance of tone throughout the movie. The story establishes Seal’s state of mind and his consistent drive to push things to the limit but also takes broader social swipes at the world that allows Seal’s operation to go unchecked. At the same time Liman injects the movie with a visceral thrill that makes the audience feel fully involved in the events as they unfold on screen. The drug running missions have an air of tension to them even if the movie continuously hammers in the point that Seal is enjoying almost every minute of it.

Part of that tension comes from Cruise himself, as the script gives him plenty of opportunities to see the character on edge. He sweats and panics, often losing his cool when the situation becomes too intense. Cruise’s frantic motions during these scenes of tension only further evoke a sense that there is every possibility of the situation spiralling out of control. This is the first time in a while where it feels as if Cruise’s performance alone actually added to the strength of the character rather than being a commodity to the script.

The problem with tackling so much is that the movie rarely digs beneath the surface of what is going on. It makes vague statements about its subject but never acutely dissects it. By playing fast and loose with the narrative Liman does give the movie an energetic feel but when it’s disappointing when the movie does come across something that feels like it would be worth exploring in more detail only to brush it aside.   

But all in all the film throws in just enough to keep us interested for the length of its runtime and produces some terrific scenes in the process. Domnhall Gleeson appearing as the CIA agent who recruits Seal is a high point of the film, with Gleeson’s more diplomatic appraoch standing in perfect contrast to Cruise’s temperamental nature. Some of the side characters are neglected to a point where it feels as if the movie would have been better off scaling back and cutting them out. This isn’t to say there’s anything inherently wrong with these subplots and minor characters but they don’t add anything to the story.

As I said at the start, the film also possesses many structural weaknesses that make it feel both overstuffed and lacking in detail. Certain narrative beats are glossed over and others seem painfully drawn out, resulting in a second and third act that sort of collide in the middle of the movie rather than blending into one another. It also never seems to slow down which would be fine if the film insist that I feel a deeper understanding of these characters. For the most part Liman seems to know this and sticks to entertaining rather than trying to enlighten, but on occasions when the movie feels like its demanding empathy from its audience it was hard to take them seriously.

Though it has some noticeable flaws, ‘American Made’ is a highly entertaining ride that boasts one of Cruise’s best performances in years.

Result: 7/10

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Wind River



"You're looking for clues, but you're missing all the signs."


It’s always worrying when writers make the transition to directing. Whilst you would think any writer than understands the medium of film enough to craft a good script should be automatically competent behind the camera as well. But too often writers simply have not been able to make the jump to directing. Therefore, given that Taylor Sheridan’s previous screenplays have been brought to life by the likes of Denis Villnueve and David Mackenzie, by choosing to direct his own screenplay he has a lot to live up to.

Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) is a wildlife officer who finds the body of an 18-year-old woman on an American Indian reservation in snowy Wyoming. When the autopsy reveals that she was raped, FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) arrives to investigate. Teaming up with Lambert as a guide, the duo soon find that their lives are in danger while trying to solve the mystery of the teen's death.

It is extraordinary that a film like ‘Wind River’ is only the second feature from its director. The skill and craftsmanship behind it speaks of filmmaking experience that act to convey this sense of world weariness that permeates the movie. Along with ‘Sicario’ and ‘Hell or High Water’, the film forms Sheridan’s New Frontier trilogy and like the previous two it paints a broader social statement as well as being a highly involving crime thriller. The narrative is superb but it’s only scratching the surface of what the movie is really about.

What makes the intertwining of themes and plot in ‘Wind River’ so invigorating is how one feels essential to the other. There are no glaring twists within the actual mystery that drives the film, but due to the hostile and isolated nature of the environment in which it takes place any effort to solve the crime becomes infinitely more difficult. Sheridan is keen to point out how little the FBI seem to care about actually solving this case and how the existing resources to do so are completely inadequate. The very landscape feels like its own character and Sheridan’s direction reflects that with many long, meditative shots of the snow covered environment as well as his fondness to frame his characters within it.

But as for the characters themselves, their personalities become just as much a part of the films plot as anything else. As an inexperienced outsider Banner has to make adjusting to the world around her whilst she tries to understand it well enough to solve a murder there. Even though Lambert understands it there is an unspoken hostility towards his being there due to both the broader social implications and his own personal history there. Not only does each aspect make the overall development of each character all the more engaging, but it provides more obstacles that fuel to narrative.

It also allows for its actors to stretch themselves in their work. As the newly introduced FBI agent Olson’s performance feels reminiscent of Jodie Foster in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’, innocent and vulnerable to a certain degree but also punctuated with a steely determination that marks her as a strong and empathetic presence. Jeremy Renner fully conveys a world weary persona from his tone of voice to his entire psychical stance. It’s a character type that Renner has played before but never to such an impactful degree as he does here.

But most of this is down to the screenplay, where ‘Wind River’ transcends good writing to become something more haunting is through Sheridan’s impeccable direction. Save for a few shots that feel inconsistent to the style throughout the rest of the movie and some bursts of action that are filmed in a way that makes them confusing to follow, this is a fantastically directed film. Despite the film being a more focussed on introspection and despair than cheap thrills, Sheridan never fails to make his mystery feel involving through his directing prowess. There is an intensity to each scene, even the quieter ones as the camera pushes closer its subjects, as if asking us to scrutinize them and their place in the world they inhabit. He draws our attention to the sheer emptiness of the landscape and makes it feel uncomfortably claustrophobic, as if there is no escape from the frozen wasteland that hides a killer.  

Its subject matter may be harsh and the deeper themes are bleak to say the least. But somehow ‘Wind River’ never feels like a lecture to the audience. It’s central plot is involving but it’s also easy to see the broader picture that lies within it. Though I would say Sheridan’s main talents still lie in writing (as the screenplay is truly a work of art) his direction puts ‘Wind River’ on par with ‘Sicario’ and ‘Hell or High Water’.

Thematically rich and haunting in its subject matter, ‘Wind River is an involving, brilliantly staged and socially relevant thriller that shows Taylor Sheridan’s talents as a director.


Result: 9/10

Monday, 11 September 2017

It



"When you're a kid you think the universe revolves around you, you think you'll always be protected and cared for. Then you realise that's not true."


Stephen King’s novels tend to be based off simple premises but come paired with an intricate and detailed execution that makes them notoriously hard to adapt. Take his 1986 novel ‘It’, which blends interweaving narratives from multiple generations, deals with several varying genres of horror from psychological to visceral and spends more time fleshing out its environment than most authors would their entire premise. So, how does the movie go about tackling this problem?

Seven young outcasts in Derry, Maine, are about to face their worst nightmare as an ancient, shape-shifting evil emerges from the sewer every 27 years to prey on the town's children. Banding together over the course of one horrifying summer, the friends must overcome their own personal fears to battle the murderous, bloodthirsty clown known as Pennywise (Bill Skarsgard).

Your enjoyment of ‘It’ is likely to depend upon your fondness for Stephen King as a writer, how much you resonate with the themes he addresses in his books and how much you see a faithful adaptation of his work to be the best route. Given that the 1990 miniseries has not aged nearly as well as Tim Curry’s central performance, there are a lot of areas in which this 2017 adaptation improve upon it. By splitting the story into two sections it becomes a much more streamlined affair of a group of kids trying to overcome a monster that epitomizes their worst fears, and as much as ‘It’ is being praised as a horror film it works just as well as a coming of age fable.

One of the main reasons for this resonant core is the strength of its cast dynamic. The self-titled Losers Club works as completely believable group of friends whose unique traits make them work just as well as individuals than they do as a group. It works so well that one of the most effective tools the movie uses as a scare tactic is to emphasise the moments of isolation when the kids are not standing as a group. The movie outlines their key characteristics, their fears and what motivates each. There may be plenty of horror elements within Andy Muschietti’s film but it’s in the humanity where he finds the real core of the story.

But Muschietti manages to nail the technical sides of filmmaking just as much as the thematic ones. The craftsmanship behind ‘It’ is surprisingly great given that it is only a second feature. The director’s slow progression of tension and suspense plays right into the central conceit of what makes the titular monster so terrifying. Unlike the miniseries the whole approach to Pennywise is coy, opting to play with the audience’s expectations rather than showing all of the cards at once. The result are a number of brilliantly crafted set pieces that are sure to leave a lasting impression on the audience. I would however criticise the way a few of these scenes end, as all of that slow suspense seems to evaporate in favour of an overblown finale that feels out of sync with what preceded it.  I suppose the intent was to end with a big impression but each occasion just devalues the scene as a whole rather than add to it.

My other central criticism with ‘It’ is that it feels too long. Now that may seem counterintuitive of me given that I commended the movie for streamlining King’s expansive novel. But even then ‘It’ feels somewhat excessive as the narrative ploughs on. Certain scenes towards the end of the movie feel stretched beyond their capacity and the third act seems to spend a bit too long repeating itself in what looks like an effort to make the film’s climax seem more cathartic, which it does. But as I said that comes at a cost of spoiling that expertise pacing that had done the movie so many favours until this point.

That being said, when ‘It’ is at its best the movie is a brilliant film going experience. It’s rooted in strong character moments that draw empathy towards its main protagonists and as a result we feel all the more invested when the horror elements find their way back into the narrative. When those elements do appear they absolutely leave an impact. It really is refreshing to see a major studio horror film execute its scares this effectively.

Obviously, a lot of that scare factor comes down to Bill Skarsgard’s performance as Pennywise. Like the movie around him, the build towards the fear that lies at the heart of the movie is slow and thoughtful. Skarsgard’s performance evokes a genuine sense of anticipation surrounding Pennywise, so that when we do see those sudden outbursts of clown insanity it becomes all the more shocking for it. But what’s even more frightening is how subtle Skarsgard is (or as subtle as a killer clown can be). He doesn’t turn Pennywise into an over the top caricature, he injects him with a presence that’s eerily, human.

Despite some pacing issues, ‘It’ is an effective, well-crafted and highly entertaining horror film that is likely to please any fan of King’s writing.

Result: 7/10

Thursday, 7 September 2017

Tulip Fever



"First to flower, first to fall."


Where to start with a movie like ‘Tulip Fever’? Putting aside the fact that I’ve never cared for melodramatic period pieces, the build up to this film’s release is one premature warning after another. Having been filmed in mid-2014, its release was delayed and pushed back numerous times until it finally lands at before us here. Just a few weeks ago the studio released a red band trailer overstuffed with nudity in what seemed like a desperate effort to draw in audiences, because “Boobs, have you heard of boobs? Well they’re in movies now, you should see them.”

Set in the Netherlands in the 17th century, during the period of the tulip mania, an artist (Dane DeHaan) who falls for a married young woman (Alicia Vikander) while he's commissioned to paint her portrait by her husband (Christoph Waltz). The two invest in the risky tulip market in hopes of building a future together whilst having to avoid suspicion from those around them.

What is really odd about the advertising of ‘Tulip Fever’ is how little it actually has to do with the main movie. For a film that was sold as a steamy 17th century romance there’s much more insight into the economic situation of the Netherlands than one might care for. If you’re thinking “that sounds like a serious tonal mismatch” then you would be right. ‘Tulip Fever’ is half melodramatic camp and half boring exposition. Frankly I’m not sure which half I disliked more.

The main narrative drive of the movie is the affair between Alicia Vikander and Dane DeHaan, as their subsequent scheme to escape the clutches of the wealthy husband played by Christoph Waltz. But the scheme they conceive is so wildly ridiculous in certain areas that the movie never addresses, while also being painfully slow and uninvolving in others that the film dwells on for what feels like an eternity. As this bizarre mixture was unfolding in front of me I liked to think that it might be at least interesting, but it wasn’t. The direction by Justin Chadwick felt flat and generic, the narrative never unfolded in a way that made me feel involved or intrigued within the events that were playing out and even the performances were perfectly average. They were not awful by any means but they were far from outstanding.

That in itself is surprising given the superb cast behind the movie. As well as the ever charismatic Christoph Waltz in the role of what is essentially the villain, we have Alicia Vikander who’s last foray into period drama earner her an Oscar. But none of these actors really stood out, they filled their roles but never disappeared into them. I would have expected this from DeHaan, who appears to be playing the same kind of character in every movie he’s in, but not from two Oscar winners. There are some bizarre casting decisions not just in terms of who is playing the role but in how the character is used. Whether it’s Judie Dench briefly appearing as a character that adds almost nothing to the movie or Zack Galifanakis in what I can only imagine was a horrible misguided attempt at comedic relief. Again these are proven actors but their characters are so thinly drawn that it’s impossible to become invested in them.

I can say that the cinematography is pleasing to behold. It’s lavishly detailed and consistent in both its composition and colour palette. But sadly that is not enough to tie the rest of the film together as the narrative is constantly trying to pull the audience one way only to completely change direction in the next scene. It lacks the nuance required to reach the underlying themes of the movie, and any time it strays remotely close to them it shifts focus back towards tulip mania (because that’s clearly what we wanted to see in this movie!), disregarding any inkling of genuine drama they had.

There are a few inspired moment though. One touch I particularly liked was Chadwick’s use of handheld camera in certain scenes that help create a sense of urgency. While in most scenes any sense of involvement comes from the characters just telling the audience that something is supposed to matter, those moments in which Chadwick’s direction actually manages to evoke something naturally are a welcome relief. It’s this visual urgency that makes me wonder if ‘Tulip Fever’ was at one point a more interesting kind of period piece, one that used its environment to benefit the narrative rather than just a drab set dressing. Whether is started its life as the contrived melodrama we see now or just mutated into that, it’s still a disappointing effort from a group of people who we’re used to seeing more from.

‘Tulip Fever’ is an uninvolving and uninspired period drama that seems unaware of how ludicrous it is most of the time, and how boring it is for the rest of its runtime.

Result: 3/10