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Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Maze Runner: The Death Cure



"Three years we spent behind walls trying to break out, now we're trying to break back in."


So it seems as if the trend for dystopian stories about teenagers being sorted into divisions and forced to compete in some kind pf physical trail that will determine the fate of their society is finally winding down. We’re now a full two years on from the end of ‘The Hunger Games’ and a full three years past the point where most people cared about it, and with the ‘Divergent’ series falling short of its two part finale we find the last instalment of ‘The Maze Runner’ slowly moving out as well.


Thomas (Dylan O’Brien) leads some escaped Gladers on their final and most dangerous mission yet. To save their friends, they must break into the legendary Last City, a WCKD-controlled labyrinth that may turn out to be the deadliest maze of all. Anyone who makes it out alive will get answers to the questions that the Gladers have been asking since they arrived in the maze.


I will give credit to ‘The Maze Runner’ series in that at least its director and cast stuck with it all the way. Wes Ball and his cast are clearly intent on giving the series the finale its fans deserve and in a way that doesn’t come across as cynical. Whereas ‘The Hunger Games’ prolonged its own demise by splitting the final instalment into two parts, ‘The Maze Runner’ has made three movies that, for all their shortcomings, feel mostly complete. They each stand on their own as competently made adventure films aimed at the teenage market. It doesn’t exactly break any conventions but at the same time….at least it’s not ‘Divergent’.


Mind you, it isn’t exactly surprising that everyone involved with these movies is willing to put the effort into finishing them with the news that lead actor Dylan O’Brien was badly injured during production, forcing the studio to push back the film’s release date and halt production while he recuperated. Bearing that in mind I can see the value that O’Brien brings to these films. He possesses a headstrongness that drives the movie forwards and even carries some emotional weight at times. When I say emotion I mean content that is elevated by O’Brien’s performance that would have otherwise been impactful if I felt invested in the characters, because in many ways that is one of this franchise’s biggest failings.


Granted, it’s not as if ‘The Death Cure’ had a lot to work on as the previous movies didn’t exactly dig deep into their characters either. But as the series rolls towards a climax several moments are treated with notion of closure that simply doesn’t exist. The characters never evolve to be anything more than vehicles for the audience, with a dynamic that never felt earned or gratifying. At various points throughout ‘The Death Cure’ and this entire series the characters have come to the aid or betrayed one another but I’ve never felt anything worthwhile come from any of it. Part of what made the endings of other YA properties like ‘Harry Potter’ so meaningful to so many was how invested within the characters we felt, making their progression over multiple films and final send off so endearing.


What makes the character issue worse is that the plot of the film isn’t nearly enough to distinguish it either. The only sense of involvement I got from the first ‘Maze Runner’ was the intrigue that came with wondering who these boys were and why they had been dropped into the middle of this maze. But now, with the motives and reason behind that all in the open we find ourselves faced with a generic oppressive government that our bland slates of protagonists are going to overthrow. The plot never has any suspense or involvement to accompany it because as audiences we’ve seen it several times before. The third act in particular descends into a series of tired revelations that are as repetitive as they are boring. There’s no suspense or urgency to the final confrontation despite having been supposedly built up to for three movies now.


As bland as the third act is though, it’s still more engaging than the first two which are littered with repetitive briefing sessions that are purely there to serve as exposition towards an already overly convoluted finale. The few bursts of action we do get are handled decently by Wes Ball, with a good amount of clarity and cohesion to each sequence. But sadly he doesn’t take that same approach to scenes of dialogue which are all shot on the flattest way imaginable. There’s no glaring flaw to them necessarily but there’s nothing that would engage or intrigue me, which is basically a description of ‘The Maze Runner’ series as a whole.


While far from an insulting effort, 'Maze Runner: The Death Cure' constantly feels like more of an obligation than any finale that could be a truly worthwhile experience.


Result: 4/10

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The Post



"We're talking about exposing years of government secrets."


If there was ever a reason to see a movie based purely on the names attached to it then ‘The Post’ has to be that concept epitomized. That being said, it’s not as if the true story behind the film is fascinating to say the least, but when you have a movie starring Tom Hanks alongside Meryl Streep and being directed by none other than Steven Spielberg himself, then it’s fair to say that you are inclined to pay attention. Giants and legends of Hollywood bringing a story that feel frighteningly relevant in more ways than one.


Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) is the first female publisher of a major American newspaper, The Washington Post. With help from editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), Graham races to catch up with The New York Times to expose a massive cover-up of government secrets that spans three decades and four U.S. presidents. Together, they must overcome their differences as they risk their careers and very freedom to help bring long-buried truths to light.


There have been a number of notable movies about the press uncovering major scandals over the years (by which I mean two others, over forty years) from Alan Pakula’s ‘All the President’s Men’which instils its story with great cinematic tension and palpable paranoia, to Tom McCarthy’s ‘Spotlight’ that sheds a more intimate light on the reporters behind the story and develops them throughout the movie with masterful nuance. Now there’s ‘The Post’ which kind of falls somewhere in the middle, and despite being not as good as either of those films it is still a solidly made and endearing political thriller.


Spielberg has a great talent for taking these giant stories and making them fantastically humane. In ‘The Post’ he does this through making it less about a story of uncovering political scandal, and more about a person finding their voice within an ever complicated world. There’s a reason why Spielberg continually frames Katherine Graham within meetings filled entirely with men. Why he draws attention to her quietness and reluctance to speak during those meetings. Though these sequences featuring Streep do become a little repetitive and spoil the pacing slightly, they are necessary to result in some brilliantly cathartic moments in the third act.


At the time of year where we see a lot of awards movies relying purely on their inspirational true stories to garner attention, it’s refreshing to see Spielberg subtly but masterfully instilling his movie with a sense of craftsmanship. There aren’t any overtly showy directorial methods here, just subtle and purposeful camera movements that add so much to the film as it unfolds. Spielberg is the kind of director who knows the importance of a simple conversation having rhyme and reason to it in terms of how it’s directed. He knows that when framed correctly a shot of a reporter running through a news room can be as thrilling as any high octane set piece.


The script by Josh Singer and Liz Hannah does a superb job of subtly building urgency within itself. There is no singular moment in which the seriousness of the situation dawns on the characters, but rather it creeps up on them as if it were inevitable. Though at times it does feel a little melodramatic as it occasionally stops the plot purely for the characters to state their own development rather than have the two progress side by side, it still makes each of those moments intriguing enough by having built a film understanding of each character as they evolve. It also does a good job in being purely entertaining, seeing the character dynamics evolve and the touches of humour throughout are helpful devices in terms of making the movie feel more watchable.


It should come as no surprise that John Williams’ score for the film is terrific, with him and Spielberg having such an acute understanding of one another that I wouldn’t be surprised if they each crafted their works completely independently from one another and they just happened to synch up. It’s also no surprise that Hanks and Streep are brilliant in their roles as well. Hanks exudes charisma and purposefulness as Bradlee to a point where you can’t help but be instantly endeared to him as a character, while Streep embodies a timid figure in this story gradually coming to realise their own potential and significance.


If anything it’s more interesting to talk about the supporting cast as they are the actors who seem to be surprising in how capable they prove to be in this kind of role. Sarah Paulson and Bob Odenkirk both turn in excellent performances, as does Bruce Greenwood, Tracy Letts, Jesse Plemmons, Pat Healy and Alison Brie. Though each of them are only in the movie for a few scenes their performances all add to either the urgency or the emotional impact of the story and leave a good impression for the film as a whole.


Purposeful and engaging, ‘The Post’ is made within the comfort zone of its makers but when those makers are the likes of Spielberg, Streep and Hanks you couldn’t ask for more.


Result: 7/10  

Darkest Hour



"You cannot reason with a tiger when your head is in it's mouth."


Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, now there’s a casting call that has awards written all over it right? While Oldman has been acclaimed for years as one of the best character actors in the world, he seems to have eluded the consideration of many major awards until recently. Maybe his choice of roles are too left field to be awards contenders or maybe he’s just unfortunately relegated to the supporting role too many times, but for whatever reason it’s taken the world this long to finally start taking his work into account.


At the precipice of World War 2, just days after becoming Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) finds himself facing a crisis as he and the rest of the nation are caught on a crossroads between whether to concede and begin negotiations for a peace treaty with Hitler’s Germany, or stand and fight against the tyrannical force sweeping across Europe. With everything weighed against him, Churchill must face rally a nation, face his darkest hour and attempt to change the course of global history.


What these kind of biopics tend to do is provide an actor with a platform to really showcase their talent in bringing a world renowned figure to life. The downside to almost all of these biopics though is that when you take away whatever phenomenal performance lies at its centre, there really isn’t that much to lose your mind over when it comes to the rest of the movie, and ‘Darkest Hour’ is no different. That’s not to say it’s a bad movie by any means as it is still very well crafted and competently executed, but it seems like something that would be equally as rewarding when viewed on a  laptop screen as it is when projected on a giant cinema.


I confess to being a little disappointed since I hoped that director Joe Wright may have been able to bring something extra to the table when it came to this story. His single shot sequence showing the Dunkirk evacuation in ‘Atonement’ was truly phenomenal but sadly there isn’t anything as visually dynamic or as cinematically bold to be found within the direction of ‘Darkest Hour’. Wright seems to know well enough that the best tool at his disposal is Oldman’s performance so he takes as many opportunities as he can to focus squarely on that marvel as it unfolds.


Of course, direction doesn’t have the necessarily be showy or extravagant to be notable, but it should have a consistent visual style and feel purposeful, and Wright’s doesn’t. It’s not so much any one moment that marks it as direction that’s lacking, it’s just a lack of any one moment that could signify it to be anything else. Each scene plays out with in a fairly standard manner, and as the movie moves along it started to lack a sense of urgency that would have made me feel more invested in the story. Neither the screenplay nor the direction alter the tone to make the stakes feel higher or the drama hit harder. Instead the movie just gradually moves along at the same pace, in the same tone and with the same style.


I can at least commend the cinematography and production design for being exquisite. Both of them create this atmospheric weight to ‘Darkest Hour’ that seems to be lacking in other aspects. As well as that of course, there’s the makeup team who have succeeded in transforming Oldman into Churchill and then some. It doesn’t look like a fa├žade at all, it takes on a life of its own and never broke the illusion of who it was representing. In all honesty my first inclination would have been to assume that Oldman had actually gained the weight to portray Churchill for how realistic this looks.


But make up is only half of the transformation, the rest if Oldman’s stunning performance. It really is a phenomenon to see Oldman playing Churchill at his most powerful but also in his most vulnerable moments. There’s a great sense of energy to the way he moves and gestures that gives such mythic weight to his voice and inflexions. It is one thing to create an impression of a historical figure for a few scenes, but to truly embody them for a sustained amount of time takes raw talent that only the very best can muster. Any singular scene of Oldman is impressive but when you take into account the versatility he displays throughout the movie, it becomes astonishing. The rest of the cast fill their roles well and stand up to Oldman during scenes of interaction, but it’s the towering display of brilliance which lies at the heart of ‘Darkest Hour’ that sustains the movie and makes it worthwhile.


‘Darkest Hour’ lives and dies on Gary Oldman’s performance, which is a phenomenon in its own right, with the rest of the film falling a little short.

Result: 6/10

Thursday, 18 January 2018

A Brief Look Ahead at 2018


So I’m a little overdue in terms of talking about movies I’m looking forward to seeing in 2018, but better late than never right….would be an awful excuse for ambulance drivers. I will say that though it’s difficult to have any perspective on the year from January, 2018 looks like a bit of a step down from 2017, or at least based on the movies that are coming out in the wake of the year before. This time last year I was already looking forward to the new works by filmmakers like Guillermo Del Toro and PT Anderson. This year we have…..Eli Roth’s ‘Death Wish’, because that’s exactly what we need in today’s times of heightened political and social tension.


That being said, there are still plenty of interesting films to look forward to, and I’ll list off a few of them here. There’s no real methodology to this process, I’m literally just picking the movies I’m looking forward to or are interested to see. Of course, there are a likely to be a bunch of films I haven’t even anticipated that I’ll be putting on my year end list in 12 months-time, but for now here’s what stands out to me as potentially engrossing pieces of cinema.


Black Panther

Might as well start with the first big release of the year, and what a release it is. Aside from just wanting to be present at what will surely be a huge cultural moment in blockbuster filmmaking, ‘Black Panther’ still looks like it will be one of Marvel’s most intriguing releases to date. With Ryan Coogler in the director’s chair I have high hopes for the movie to be a viscerally thrilling but emotionally complex kind of superhero movie, one that incorporates some uniquely stylistic set pieces in the same way Coogler did for ‘Creed’. 2016’s ‘Captain America: Civil War’ gave us a glimpse of what Chadwick Boseman could do as the Prince of Wakanda, but with a strong supporting cast for ‘Balack Panther’ that includes the likes of Michael B Jordan (who thankfully can now have a good superhero role and we’ll never have to talk about ‘Fant4stic’ again), Lupita Nyong’o and Daniel Kaluuya, we should expect great things.


Thoroughbreds

I know next to nothing about Thoroughbreds aside from the fact that the trailer looked amazing and it seems like exactly the kind of darkly twisted psychological thriller I would want to see. It provoked quite the response at last year’s Sundance Film festival when it premiered and though the director Cory Finley is relatively unproven, his cast certainly isn’t as it includes Anya Taylor Joy (‘The Witch’), Olivia Cooke (‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’) and the late, great Anton Yelchin.


Isle of Dogs

A new movie by Wes Anderson is always something to get excited about (unless you don’t like his films in which case you clearly have no soul), but even if I had no idea who he was I would be intrigued by the premise of ‘Isle of Dogs’ alone. No, the title isn’t a metaphor, the movie is literally about an island inhabited by dogs. Having been exiled by the Japanese government in an effort to combat the so called “canine epidemic”, a group of dogs band together with a small boy looking for his lost dog. Did I also mention that it’s in stop motion? If that were not enough the cast features (deep breath) Bryan Cranston, Bill Murray, Jeff Goldblum, Ed Norton, Tilda Swinton, F Murray Abraham, Greta Gerwig, Harvey Keitel, Frances McDormand, Liev Schreiber, Scarlett Johansson, Ken Watanabe and Yoko Ono.   


Lean on Pete

Between ‘Weekend’ and ’45 Years’, Andrew Haigh has built a reputation for being an emotionally driven filmmaker, one that will tear your heart out and challenge your perceived stability when it comes to his characters and stories. Based on everything I’ve heard about ‘Lean on Pete’ he seems to have lost none of his ability to crush people’s souls with sadness so this should be an interesting and impeccably made journey into despair once again.


You Were Never Really Here

Lynne Ramsey is a provocative director to say the least. Her movies are so wracked with tension and psychological complexity that it’s no wonder her latest movie garnered high praise when it premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival. It was at that same festival where Joaquin Phoenix took the best actor award and based on the high quality of his contenders for that award (most of which I’ve seen) I’m intrigued to see the performance that he beat. Its premise involves a contract killer and a prostitution ring but knowing Ramsey the story itself is only half of the film’s content.


Avengers: Infinity War

It’s hard not to get excited over this one. By the time ‘Infinity War’ hits theatres we’ll have seen the MCU shape and evolve for a whole decade. That’s a decade’s worth of filmmaking and pre planning all with the common goal of this moment, the moment which acts as a culmination of that entire process. I’d be lying if I said the franchise has managed to capture that same amazing feeling I first had when seeing ‘Avengers Assemble’ back in 2012, which isn’t to say the quality has gone down as if anything it’s stayed consistently good. But nothing has quite recaptured that sheer sense of awe in seeing these heroes united on the big screen for the first time. But with a whole new selection of players to join the game, maybe ‘Infinity War’ can finally equal it.


The Predator

Yes there’s plenty of reason to be sceptical about this movie, especially given Hollywood’s history of reviving 1980s action vehicles to a point where the promise of a new ‘Terminator’ or ‘Die Hard’ movie feels more like a threat than anything else. But one name turns another ‘Predator’ movie from a dreary prospect to something I’m fascinated to see, Shane Black. Black’s offbeat sensibilities, tendency to subvert convention and complete understanding of what makes violence in movies great as well as how it can be used for storytelling, is reason enough for me to get excited.


First Man

Though it’s definitely a departure from his musical oriented efforts to this point (unless he incorporates a Jazz solo on the Apollo space shuttle….it could happen), that’s no reason to not still be excited for Damien Chazelle’s Neil Armstrong biopic. I’m hoping that under Chazelle this can be elevated to more than a standard Hollywood biopic and with Ryan Gosling in the lead role we should get a great performance out of the project as well.


Widows

Along with ‘Hunger’, ‘Shame’ and ’12 Years a Slave’, Steve McQueen is rapidly becoming one of the best directors working today so just the fact that he has a new movie coming out would be reason enough to get excited. But given that the script this heist thriller is penned by Gillian Flynn, author and screenwriter of ‘Gone Girl’, and carries a terrific cast that includes Viola Davies, Colin Farrell, Liam Neeson and Daniel Kaluuya, then I’m automatically interested.


Annihilation

But at the end of the day, all things considered, if I had to pick the movie which I am most excited to see in 2018, right now it would have to be Alex Garland’s ‘Annihilation’. With his directorial debut ‘Ex Machina’, Garland showed a great affinity for science fiction that is not only intellecturally stimulating but also deeply fascinated with the human side of the story. For Garland science fiction isn’t a genre purely concerned with showing new technologies, it is about reflecting and observing human interaction and framing it in such a way that we can see our own nuances placed against the futuristic machinery. The premise and overall look of the movie make it feel like a great progression from ‘Ex Machina’ as well, with Garland moving from an enclosed thriller to an existential epic. The trailers look amazing, the cast are all fantastic, roll on February 23rd.  

Monday, 15 January 2018

Hostiles



"I've killed everything that walks or crawls. You do it for long enough, you get used to it."


For whatever reason I find that the movies directed by Scott Cooper are always consistently good but end up falling ever so slightly short of being great for me. ‘Crazy Heart’ and ‘Black Mass’ both delivered great performances from their leading actors, and though ‘Out of the Furnace’ is my favourite of his that still lacked a certain something that would allow me to call it great. But for his latest film Cooper is reteaming with Christian Bale for a violent western epic, which certainly sounds intriguing.


In 1892, a soon to retire army Captain by the name of Joseph Blocker (Christian Bale) is assigned to escort a dying Cheyenne war chief and his family back to their sacred tribal land. Embarking on a preiilous cross country journey, they soon come across the sole survivor of a Comanche raid, Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike). With hostiles on all sides, the party must fight to survive in an unforgiving and perilous landscape.


A premise like that of ‘Hostiles’ seems open for any number of themes that are interlinked with the western genre as a whole. There’s no doubt that Cooper’s film wants to address these themes, but the problem lies in how vast its scope is. I think in this case the reach of ‘Hostiles’  seems to exceed its grasp and it can’t help but become a little lost amid the giant western backdrop on which it takes place. There are any number of powerful moments throughout the movie but they all feel somewhat robbed of their power due to not being properly addressed or dissected.


But to start with the negatives would be a little unfair as on the whole ‘Hostiles’ is still a deeply impressive film. There’s no denying that Cooper has a firm grasp of the western genre but also knows when to play with the conventions of that genre and craft something that feels a little more unique. At times it’s relentlessly visceral but at others it plays to a smoother and more dreamlike quality. It actually felt reminiscent of some of Terrance Malick’s early work like ‘Badlands’ and ‘Days of Heaven’. There’s a rich texture to the movie that makes it feel strikingly unique.


Cinematographer Masanobu Takayanagi really lends a great depth of feel to the film’s imagery. As the characters transverse the western landscape there is a huge sense of scope to their journey, making them feel lost in the sweeping hills and valleys. His colour palette is also lush and warm which the violence that unfolds on it all the more striking. It lends itself to the film’s brilliant atmosphere, as does Max Richter’s excellent score. It all helps create a mood that seems both grandiose but also very ominous, with an ever present sense of danger.


When that danger does reveal itself Cooper presents is excellently. The violence itself is quick and confusing but the aftermath seems all the more painful. In Cooper’s portrait of the west people don’t just die upon impact, we see the struggle and pain that comes before the end. The slow build of tension before the outburst is also terrific, creating a palpable air of suspense. The highlight has to be a fantastic night time raid, in which we never see the actual confrontation but hear the sounds of struggling from outside of the tent in which the ambush takes place. The sound design is so acute and implicative that it becomes much more effective than merely showing it.   


Cooper also has a great hold on his actors, as he garners some terrific performances from them. While it’s no surprise that Bale gives a great performance, his role in ‘Hostiles’ ranks as one of his best. The conflicting emotions within him that dictate how he interacts with every character are in constant turmoil, and Bale makes that obvious without even speaking a word of dialogue. On a few occasions the camera will focus tightly on his face as he struggles to conceal his inner emotions and resume his stern command. There’s an inner rage to Bale’s character but also a profound tenderness and compassion that seem to be at odds with one another. Pike also does well at conveying emotion through the quiet moments of the script. It’s often the unspoken details that shine the brightest in her performance, with her pain and grief hitting much harder at those points.


As I said at the start though, there is simply too much going on within ‘Hostiles’ for me to call it great. Certain character moments can’t help but ring false as the film hasn’t adequately established the relationship between said characters, and some thematic arcs don’t feel developed enough to be fulfilling. That being said, for every missed arc there’s also one that lands with great power. The final few scenes in particular are both devastating for how they depict the west as an endless cycle of violence, but also hopeful for those who survive.


Epic in scope, which is both its strength and weakness, ‘Hostiles’ is an impressive effort from Scott Cooper that delivers some excellent performances from Bale and Pike.


Result: 7/10

Insidious: The Last Key



"These hauntings can be terrifying things. I should know, I've faced many evils in my life."


Its odd how over the course of one year, Blumhouse Productions managed to seemingly transform themselves from being a studio that revels in bringing us low standard horror films and pumping out endless sequels to the few successful ones, into a unique housing for gifted filmmakers. Or at least that’s the direction I briefly thought they might be taking with the release of acclaimed thrillers like ‘Split’ and ‘Get Out’. But almost a full year after those two triumphs, it seems we’ve reverted to business as usual.


Parapsychologist Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) receives a disturbing phone call from a man who claims that his house is haunted. Even more disturbing is the address, 413 Apple Tree Lane in Five Keys, N.M., the home where Elise grew up as a child. Accompanied by her two investigative partners, Rainier travels to Five Keys to confront and destroy her greatest fear, the demon that she accidentally set free years earlier.


The first ‘Insidious’ is a fine horror film, nothing mind blowing but serviceable enough and with a good enough understanding of the genre craft to be entertaining. You need only look at James Wan’s career trajectory to understand that the movie was good enough to allow him to move into bigger things. But as ever, when a studio sees potential they will tend to order as many sequels as they can, which leads us to the fourth entry of this franchise. Although that being said what this entry to the ‘Insidious’ franchise and its predecessor have lacked in craftsmanship made up for it with their character dynamic. The central group of characters work well as a unit and have decent opportunities to allow the actors to give out some genuinely good performances.


In that regard, the standout of the entire movie is Lin Shaye. In fact she’s so good that I’m actually glad we did get another entry in this franchise if only to provide her character arc with some closure. Say what you will about the movie itself, but it’s impressive that a 74 year old woman can carry a horror franchise in the way Shaye has here. The screenplay also seems to understand what a talent she is as it gives her plenty of opportunities to emote. Quite often director Adam Robitel seems well aware that the best tool at his disposal is Shaye’s expressions and he keeps the camera tightly focussed to her in moments of high intensity.


The script also does her the favour of fleshing out the character’s backstory so that Shaye has a real foundation from which to build her performance. She’s not merely reacting to the horrors as they unfold, they clearly hold a deeper resonance for her that lead to some unique acting choices in how she chooses to portray her fear. The theme of generational trauma has been a staple of the ‘Insidious’ franchise and it’s gratifying to see that the script has continued to push that theme through its depiction of the ghosts and backstories of its characters.


Sadly though, this great character work doesn’t translate as well into the movie as a whole. While the scares of ‘Insidious: The Last Key’ are effective at first they soon loose their power as the film relies more heavily on jump scares. It’s almost as if the movie is too scared to stay committed to the dark and brooding atmosphere it had initially begun to culminate, and instead tries to energise itself with a series of jump scares that end up defusing the tension. Worse still is that the movie becomes increasingly repetitive in terms of the methods is uses to garner those jump scares. Once is frightening enough, but to then try and revisit the technique means that I found myself anticipating the scares before they arrived, resulting in them feeling more annoying than unnerving.


Another issue is the tonal unbalance within the movie. Though the character dynamic lends itself to strong dramatic moments it doesn’t do the same for moments of humour, especially when those moments of humour start undercutting a potentially eerie sequence. Again it goes back to this issue of the movie not seeming confident enough in its own genre to commit to it. At times ‘Insidious: The Last Key’ feels frustrating in how it wants to pander to a broader demographic. This is also an issue in terms of editing as the movie has strong adult themes that would play well to a mature horror film, but has clearly been edited of any gore that would lose it that precious PG-13 rating. Neither of these are major issues but they served to distract me from an otherwise competently made horror film. Where the third act should have been gripping, I found myself counting down to minutes for the film to run its course.


Effective at times and featuring a strong performance by Lin Shaye, ‘Insidious: The Last Key’ is held back by its unbalanced tone, repetitive nature and failure to commit to its craft.


Result: 5/10

Tuesday, 9 January 2018

The Shape of Water



"If I told you about her, the princess without a voice, what would I say?"


There’s no doubt that Guillermo Del Toro is one of the greatest auteurs working in modern cinema. But despite this it seems as though his brilliant talent isn’t getting the full chance to flourish. Firstly there are the unprecedented number of cancelled projects to his name, the most tragic loss being ‘Hellboy 3’. Then he was unable to direct ‘The Hobbit’ trilogy as he originally intended. Then even when he released ‘Crimson Peak’ it was marketed as a generic horror film leading audiences and critics to misjudge it. But now he has a new film, and it’s fantastic.


Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mute, isolated woman who works as a cleaning lady in a hidden, high-security government laboratory in 1962 Baltimore. Her life changes forever when she discovers the lab's classified secret a mysterious, amphibious creature (Doug Jones) that lives in a water tank. As Elisa develops a unique bond with her new friend, she soon learns that its fate and very survival lies in the hands of a hostile government agent and a marine biologist.


One thing that never ceases to amaze me about Del Toro’s work is how it’s so clear than it could never have come from the imagination of anyone else. Everything in ‘The Shape of Water’ feels unique to his creative vision, and it feels like something no other filmmaker would attempt. There’s an exceptional quality to this film that makes it almost impossible to categorize. It’s gothic and fantastic in tone but also feels grounded in how it portrays the central romance, which is an impressive feat considering one half of said romance is a fish. It’s unnervingly dark at one moment but also beautifully whimsical, merging these conflicting tones brilliantly.


One thing that every character within ‘The Shape of Water’ has in common is that they are all out of synch with their environment, whether that environment is their location or the era in which they live. Characters like the amphibious creature are obviously out of their environment, but as is Sally Hawkins endlessly empathetic protagonist. Most of the world she inhabits refuses to hear simply because she cannot speak, as if that means she has no voice.


Then there’s her neighbour played by Richard Jenkins who is forced to repress his true self due to the social climate, as is Michael Stuhlberg’s character as his personal opinions as a scientist are belittled by the politic surrounding him. Then there’s Michael Shannon’s character, whom the movie continuously frames as being out of place in an ever changing world. Even 50 years ago the ideals his character represents were barbaric, and without spoiling anything I will say that there’s one scene in particular between Shannon and Hawkins that holds frightening relevance to the world we live in today.  


But another thing all these characters have in common is that they are portrayed brilliantly by the film’s hugely talented cast. Shannon brings a monstrously intimidating presence as the movie’s main antagonist, whilst the likes of Jenkins and Stuhlberg have endearing supporting roles as well. Octavia Spencer is a delight to behold, especially in her scenes with Hawkins where their friendship is instantly understandable. But it’s Hawkins herself that has to be the standout. I know it seems obvious to say that removing a character’s voice makes emoting all the more difficult, but I really cannot over emphasise just how phenomenally Hawkins manages to convey so much emotion through her physicality and facial expression. There wasn’t a single moment where I was lost over what Elisa was feeling, how she was reacting or what she was saying. It’s genuinely remarkable.


That being said, with a cast as talented as this it shouldn’t really come as a surprise that the performances are excellent. It also shouldn’t come as a surprise that Del Toro direction is amazing. His framing and composition are stunning to behold, with every shot being a work of art in itself. But for all the expertly shot set pieces, Del Toro so clearly has an intent to focus on the intimate moments that have a surreal beauty to them under his lens. He takes the time to build a relationship between his two protagonists that sees neither character speaking and yet they are constantly communicating. It makes the movie feel so personal and achingly humane. 


The colour palette is also fantastic, with DP Dan Laustsen using recurring themes and motifs to tie the film’s various locations together. There’s a consistency to the film’s editing and palette that helps tie its conflicting tones together. The film’s score by Alexander Desplat is also superb, being used at key moments throughout the film to elevate the emotional moments even further. It’s a score that’s affecting without ever feeling manipulative due to how well it ties into the emotions that the film rightfully earns. It’s these aesthetic touches that help elevate a story that is a tad predictable at times but never feels uninteresting due to the effort of the execution.


It genuinely is staggering to think that ‘The Shape of Water’ had a production budget of under $20 million, because it’s visual affects put the CGI of movies with a budget ten times as high to shame. Del Toro, Doug Jones and the rest of the production team render the creature so brilliantly that I never found myself thinking of it as an effect, there was never a moment where I doubted the illusion and instead I found myself utterly engrossed in the spectacle I was seeing. But even without those amazing effects, the movie works as a gorgeous and deeply moving work of cinema that could only have come from the mind of a true visionary.


Unique and intimate in a way that few movies are, ‘The Shape of Water’ defies any basic definition and is unlike anything you’ve ever seen.


Result: 9/10

Monday, 8 January 2018

Top Ten Movies of 2007


In this history if cinema, certain years are punctuated by a particularly great number of provocative and artful films brought to life by visionary filmmakers. Obviously, every year contains a certain number of great films, but it seems that like some of the best years in film history, 2007 seemed to possess an extra flair when it came to delivering true masterworks. Any genre, any form and any style all seemed to flourish as talented artists were given complete and total control of their projects, with all the necessary resources to fulfil them. It also helps that a good number of these filmmakers seemed particularly on form this year, as if their projects in 2007 seemed to be the fulfilment and culmination of everything they had been building towards for their careers.

Before the main top ten though I have plenty of honourable mentions. Ben Affleck made a surprisingly great directorial debut with the effectively thrilling and haunting ‘Gone Baby Gone’. Frank Darabont’s ‘The Mist’ was the perfect homage to 1950s monster movies while being a chilling vision of the apocalypse all on its own. But as tragic as that ending was, there’s a deeper thematic tragedy at the heart of ‘Atonement’ which managed to turn a single shot into one of the most breath taking sequences of the year, and that’s without taking into account the huge emotional context the rest of the movie adds to it.

But for all this doom and gloom there were no shortage of uplifting movies either. ‘Once was an infectiously wonderful musical drama, as was ‘Waitress’. Let’s not forget the fantastic comedies we were treated to this year such as ‘Superbad’ and ‘Knocked Up’. We were also treated to the usual brand of Pixar magic in ‘Ratatouille’ in which Brad Bird brought the same mix of emotional maturity and animated whimsy as he did to ‘The Incredibles’. Also, though it might not necessarily fit into the “uplifting” notion I started this section with, if you were looking for blockbuster entertainment you couldn’t do much better than Paul Greengrass and Matt Damon in ‘The Bourne Ultimatum’.

Then there were the highly affecting personal dramas that were made to feel powerful for the obvious care the filmmakers had for their subjects. Sean Penn brought the story of Chris McCandless to life with ‘Into the Wild’ to brilliant and profoundly moving results. But most of all I have to praise ‘Persepolis’ for its nuanced and complex take on identity and heritage. It really does say a lot about the quality of 2007 as a year, since one of my favourite animated films of all time didn’t make the final ten. But regardless, Marjane Satrapi’s adaptation of her own graphic novel is a phenomenal filmic translation that was utterly unique. But of course we couldn’t talk about uniqueness this year without also mentioning ‘The Diving Bell and the Butterfly’, a film that is truly unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.  

There were also plenty of strong genre movies. ‘The Orphanage’ was a chilling horror film and a strong debut for J.A Bayona. ‘Michael Clayton’ was a highly engaging legal drama. ‘Stardust’ was an utterly whimsical and wonderfully sincere fantasy, given great energy under the direction of Matthew Vaughn, and quite frankly any movie that stars Robert De Niro as am eccentric cross dressing pirate deserves recognition for that alone. ‘American Gangster’ showed that Ridley Scott can translate his talents to the crime genre very well and ‘Sunshine’ saw Danny Boyle turn to science fiction with fantastic results. We also got a great remake of a western of all things with ‘3:10 to Yuma’. Finally, a bold experiment in genre filmmaking that for its flaws I still kind of loved, the ‘Grindhouse’ project which combined Robert Rodriguez’s ‘Planet Terror’ with Quentin Tarantino’s ‘Death Proof’ to form a weird but wonderful oddity.


10: Eastern Promises

David Cronenberg may have mastered the genre of body horror, but this crime drama feels just as affecting and visceral as any of his previous efforts. Under Cronenberg’s direction ‘Eastern Promises’ is brutal and uncompromising in a way that few films are, being handled with such intelligence and raw power that it is sure to take your breath away as its highly intricate plot unfolds piece by piece. It feels brutal not through violence but through restraint. Nothing is drawn out or exaggerated, it all feels painfully real. The film is highly atmospheric, masterfully tense and features a fight scene that will go down in history as a revelation due to Cronenberg’s direction and the sheer commitment of actor Viggo Mortensen, undergoing ordeals that few actors would in the process. But as tempting as it is to focus solely on Mortensen’s powerhouse performance, it’s Naomi Watts who gives the movie a sense of genuine emotion with a deeply humane performance. It’s a tightly wound thriller in which every piece fits perfectly.


9: The Darjeeling Limited

While I would hesitate to make the case of ‘The Darjeeling Limited’ being Wes Anderson’s best movie, I do think it’s his most humane and emotionally affecting. It places its focus squarely on its three main characters, diving into their own personalities, their history with one another and deconstructing their ongoing dynamic. Anderson frames each of the three brothers grieving for the loss of their father in a different light but constantly places them together, making them feel strong as a unit but also shine individually. It also helps that the three brothers in question are played wonderfully by Owen Wilson, Adrian Brody and Jason Schwartzman. As one would expect from an Anderson film, the visual palette is absolutely stunning, with perfect composition and an exquisite colour contrast to the design. But within that design lies a profound story of communication and reconciliation, anchored by the usual quirky anachronisms that make Anderson’s work so distinctive.       


8: Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead

In a career that spanned half a century and delivered some of the greatest films in the history of cinema, Sidney Lumet bowed out with his last ever film, and what a gripping rollercoaster ride it was. A tightly plotted crime drama that unfolds non-linearly but never loses sight of its main driving force. Much like a lot of 2007’s best movies, ‘Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead’ uses the intricacies of its plot to stage an intimate character study that is just as involving as its story of bank robbers and failed heists. The entire cast is fantastic across the board, from Philip Seymour Hoffman and Ethan Hawke’s temperamental partnership, to the excellent supporting turns by Marisa Tomei and Albert Finney. Lumet directs with a subdued efficiency that is versatile enough to handle any and all tonal changes that the movie takes on its twisting descent. It’s the kind of movie that keeps you hooked from the first frame to the last.


7: 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days

Some films leave an impact through the cultural discussion that they bring to light just as much as the mastery of their craft, and that is exactly the case with Cristian Mungiu’s artistic drama. A deeply important film that raised the issue of abortion laws in its native country and around the world, but more than its message ‘4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days’ is simply an emotionally resonant film that places its characters within a difficult moral position. Its setting is minimal, taking place almost exclusively within a few rundown apartments, but through that limited setting it proceeds to tell a gripping story. It’s uncompromising and relentless in its realism, depicting a struggle that many people would wish to avoid with such raw authenticity that you can’t help but be affected by the surface level details alone. But a closer inspection reveals just how much work the film puts into endearing the audience to its characters which makes their ordeal all the more harrowing.


6: Hot Fuzz

Fact: there is no director working within the realm of comedy that even comes close to the brilliance of Edgar Wright, and ‘Hot Fuzz’ is definitive proof of that. It’s satirical, parodic and simply hilarious in every possible realm. Wright finds humour in places other directors so often overlook, from his editing to his composition and even something as simple as the frame of his shot. There seems to be no shortage in the methods he employs to garner a laugh from his audience. The fact that the movie is underpinned by the brilliant comedic chemistry of Simon Pegg and Nick Frost makes the proceedings even funnier, with each actor bringing such great value to their role that you can’t imagine anyone else playing the two policemen officers. Wright and his cast are now so phenomenal at their craft that by the time this farcical comedy reaches its third act involving an escaped goose,  a model village and a gunfight in a supermarket, I felt more invested in the action here than I did for any serious genre movie this year.


5: I’m Not There

Ambitious doesn’t even begin to describe Todd Haynes’ mesmerising musical biopic which sees him cast six different actors of the part of Bob Dylan. Well, to be more accurate the film features six actors in roles that represent a different aspect of the artist’s life. They include the poet (Ben Wishaw), the prophet (Christian Bale), the imitation (Marcus Carl Franklin), the outlaw (Richard Gere), the celebrity (Heath Ledger) and the martyr (Cate Blanchett). All of the embodiments of Dylan are terrific, with Blanchett being the standout, but it’s Haynes’ direction that really cements the film as a unique piece of art. The cinematography is hauntingly beautiful and varied from one persona to the other, whilst the editing finds utterly unique ways of stringing these stories together. It’s dreamlike atmosphere and calming visuals have an almost lyrical feel to them, as if the movie itself were unfolding like one of Dylan’s songs.


4: The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford

The term “revisionist western” applies directly to Andrew Dominik’s morally ambiguous tale on the genre that stands alongside the work of Robert Altman and Sam Peckinpahin. Though the story itself is littered with violence and vengeance, Dominik is clearly more content to use the long sweeping landscapes of his film to stage a backdrop for a meditative character study. It takes two figures of American lore and deconstructs them in a way that is as bold as it is beautiful. The film itself almost seems like a contradiction, somehow being hypnotically gorgeous but also stunningly bleak at the same time. It boasts two outstanding performances from Brad Pitt and Casey Affleck as its two titular characters. But beyond just the characters, the movie reaches out to examine an entire culture of fame and idolisation, there is a great mythic weight to the movie that only makes its intimate beauty all the more noticeable. It’s a movie filled with empathy, poetry and stunning honesty.

3: Zodiac

Leave it to David Fincher to create a murder mystery in which the killer is never caught or even definitively seen. All of Fincher’s thrillers have been more concerned with the characters than the corpses and ‘Zodiac’ epitomises that most of all. It is not a movie about a serial killer, it is a movie about the obsession surrounding that killer. The way each of these characters are infected with this unyielding fascination to uncover the truth is inevitable but highly involving. As an audience we years to know more about the titular Zodiac, but as the film unfolds we become all the more aware of the cost. Jake Gyllenhaal, Robert Downey Jr and Mark Ruffalo perfectly embody the themes of the film through their performances, with Fincher himself pondering over every solitary detail of the film. He draws palpable suspense from every single sequence, with the unspoken air of dread hanging over even the quietest of scenes as we come to realise that most of the questions raised in the movie will never be answered.


2: No Country for Old Men

You will struggle to find two hours of cinema, from this or any year, that are more absorbing, suspenseful and involving than Joel and Ethan Coen’s utter masterpiece of a movie. To say it’s thematically rich would be an understatement and then some, but it’s deeper themes of violence, morality and age are not what make ‘No Country for Old Men’ a great movie. What cements it as a masterwork is the way the Coen’s expertly weave these themes into the central narrative, tone and characters of the film. The world they draw is inhumane, morally ambiguous and utterly unrelenting, a world that’s stunningly photographed by cinematographer Roger Deakins. The Coen’s also have such empathy for the characters that populate this world, both for what they represent as well as their individual identities. None of those characters are more memorable than antagonist Anthon Chigurgh, chillingly portrayed by Javier Bardem. The imagery is always striking, the dialogue is crisp and involving, the suspense is palpable within every scene. There’s no shortage of praise that I can shower on this movie. ‘No Country for Old Men’ is simply a perfect movie.

1: There Will Be Blood 
The final shot of PT Anderson’s mesmerising epic, sees Daniel Plainview announcing “I’m finished” and in doing so cements the rise and fall of the Plainview as one of the greatest works ever committed to film. Powerful seems to mild a word to describe it, as the film engulfs the viewer in a hypnotic trance that makes its three hour running time go by in an instant. Like all of PTA’s films the plot is deceptively simple and yet his rendering of it opens the narrative up to endless thematic analysis. The film tackles subjects of greed, faith, blood relations, industry and morality, yet none of these weighty themes feel overbearing, because of what lies at the heart of the film. Lewis’ performance is breathtakingly towering, chewing the scenery and showing the dark and temperamental side of raw ambition in the process. Despite being a period piece, the score and ominous atmosphere of the film seem more akin to that of a horror movie, fitting perfectly with Plainview’s inhumanity. It’s a film that never loses its impact and if anything only seems to become more gripping every time I revisit it. Truly one of the greatest cinematic achievements of all time.