Wednesday, 28 February 2018

The Party

"I expect the worst out of people in the name of reason."

In an age where movies rapidly become more bloated and it seems like there isn’t a single film these days that couldn’t be improved by shaving a few minutes off, it’s surprising to see a movie like Sally Potter’s ‘The Party’. Potter’s film comes in with a runtime of just 71 minutes, barely qualifying as a feature film at all. Going with the assumption that no good movie is too long and no bad movie is short enough; that should at least give the movie one immediate advantage from the start.

Janet (Kristen Scott Thomas), a politician for the opposition party, has just been announced shadow minister for health and is having a small celebratory party at her house. As her guests begin to arrive they each have their own special announcements to make that will surprise and shock the party, fracturing their dynamic and exposing their hidden motivations in the process.

‘The Party’ has been described by some as a comedy which initially surprised me because I certainly don’t recall laughing much during the film itself. But on reflection I think that actually stands as a testament to Potter’s ability to craft an intriguing and involving story because I was too riveted in the interactions and motivations of each character to notice the more humorous side of proceedings. It’s only with the favour of retrospect that I can recognise ‘The Party’ as a tragicomic piece of cinema that is stylishly composed and wickedly written.

Right from the start Potter uses her runtime wisely, instantly establishing an unspoken air of tension as the group of people begin to gather. Whether it’s from the deliberate camera shots that draw your attention to the nuances of how each character is reacting at any given time, or the intrigue that comes with uncovering the way their dynamic works. The deliberate staging and placement of each character makes the movie feel like a magnetic stage play, but with the added benefit of having Potter’s camera guide your eye to each new piece of unfolding drama.

I definitely appreciated ‘The Party’ on one level as a drama, and if you choose to view that way you will likely think it to be fine. But when you start to view it as a biting satire as well, then it starts to reveal its true brilliance. The characters are exaggerated in a certain sense, to a point where at times they explicitly state their ideals and intentions. If this were a conventional drama this would come off as contrived, but under the shelter of satire it allows ‘The Party’ to turn into a strikingly relevant tragicomedy, one that verges on the absurd at times but always grounds that irreverence with utterly despicable, yet still immensely watchable, characters.

The cast seem to understand the tone perfectly as their performances exist very much on the same line. Kristen Scott Thomas lies at the dramatic core of the film, and probably garners the most empathy through her role. Cillian Murphy is almost hilariously pitiful as a banker who is clearly on the edge of a breakdown right from the start of the movie, and just barely keeps it together on numerous occasions. Murphy is jittery and agitated in a way that is just as likely to inspire laughs as it is nervousness. Timothy Spall barely speaks for the movie’s first act and even he manages to paint an intricate portrait of who his characters is, which leaves him adequate room to develop as the movie progresses.

As I said before, the elements in the narrative that might be to the detriment of a serious drama somehow make ‘The Party’ stronger. The plot can seem a tad melodramatic and contrived at points but that almost plays into the broader satire the film is dealing with. The plot mechanics are just devices that allow for the characters to reveal their true selves, and in doing so they reveal what the film is really about. Though it sometimes can’t help but overtly state its themes as the characters argue amongst themselves, for the most part the movie does a superb job of keeping things restrained and minimal.

Despite having such a limited space to work in (the movie’s set amounts to three rooms and a garden) Potter directs her movie as deliberately as she uses her runtime. Nothing feels repetitive and everything feels involving. The images are immaculately composed in stark black and white, but also having a sense of freedom to it with her use of handheld cameras that give a free flowing nature to how the characters manoeuvre around the house. It’s beautifully paced in terms of editing, never letting a single scene drag on for too long or feel as if it has been cut short. Though it’s not a perfect movie overall, ‘The Party’ is a rare film that I feel couldn’t be improved by being shorter.

An involving piece of tragicomedy that is as layered as it is entertaining.

Result: 8/10

Tuesday, 27 February 2018

Recapping the MCU: Iron Man

It’s almost hard to judge 2008’s ‘Iron Man’ as a standalone film anymore. With the entire weight of the mega franchise that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe on its shoulders it’s almost weird to think of it as a singular entity, to watch it as if nothing exists outside of it, to see the many Easter eggs peppered throughout it as nothing more than knowing winks to the audience rather than an actual promise of what is to come. This is a movie that changed the entire film industry, that reshaped what we thought of as a franchise. Now that we are a full decade away from its release and looking upon the culmination of the entire MCU, I’m going to talk about it again.

Despite being the first entry in the MCU, I wouldn’t hesitate to put ‘Iron Man’ near the top in terms of how I would rank the plethora of movies to come from the studio. It’s such a character focussed movie that is driven primarily by the choices and actions of its protagonist that it is hard not to see it as a compelling character study. We are drawn in to understand who Tony Stark is as a person before the plot itself actually kicks in. We see his vulnerabilities and flaws but we can’t help but be endeared to him as a result of his charisma.

This may sound like basic story structure but in a genre that these days relies on our assumptions of who each character is and skipping it in favour of going straight to mindless action, it’s so refreshing to see a movie like ‘Iron Man’ that actually familiarises its audience with the characters so that their impending struggle feels all the more earned. The plot itself may be somewhat basic but it’s saved by putting such an intriguing character at its centre, and allowing him to drive the narrative in every sense of the word. The specific story details of ‘Iron Man’ could not exist in any other superhero film because there simply isn’t another superhero quite like Tony Stark.

So I might as well cut to the chase and talk about Robert Downey Jr’s performance since it’s pointless trying not to. He dominates this movie in a way that few actors every have within a s superhero movie. Franchises tend not to allow for big and showy performances like this for fear of dwarfing the action set pieces, but director Jon Favreau clearly understands that the heart of this movie lies in how invested the audience are within Stark as a character, so he lets Downey go all out on the role.

He crafts a performance that so brilliantly treads the line of likable but still deeply flawed. So as a result Stark makes for an intriguing and involving protagonist. We’re drawn into his charisma and energy but can recognise the weaknesses that lie within him, which not only leaves room for development but makes it feel highly earned as well. The film’s entire structure is locked around letting Stark’s own actions dictate exactly where the narrative will go, so we’re not just watching someone changing via external forces, we are seeing them directly confronting their own flaws.

Rumour has it that because Marvel we’re struggling to find resources to make the film, Downey improvised much of his dialogue to save on script writing. The result is a sporadic and quick witted mood that never grows stale or tiresome. It allows Downey to easily exude charisma whilst also giving plenty of weight to the dramatic moments when he is required to hit them. Also because a lot of the humour is character driven, like the rest of the movie, it doesn’t feel out of synch as it does in other MCU entries.

The only unfortunate by product of Downey’s dominance is that some of the other characters feel a bit side lined. Not in a way that deeply damages to film, but just in a sense that some of them feel a bit static as Stark evolves beside them. The script does an excellent job of conveying the characters dynamic so as the film moves along we don’t have to waste much time with exposition and feel to weight of each interaction as it occurs. Gwyneth Paltrow turns in a performance that acts as a great contrast to Stark’s more manic characteristics. Paltrow plays the role coyly enough that she avoids turning the character into the wet blanket she could have been. Pepper is a voice of reason but still has her own fully formed personality.

Jeff Bridges turns in an equally magnetic performance as Obadiah Stane. There are some issues with how quickly he assumes the role of antagonist  which links back to the character development problems I said earlier. But at least when Bridges does become the villain of the piece he takes on the role with full bravado. Perhaps the reason is feels awkwardly jarring is that Stane isn’t introduced as the villain but rather morphs into one, which would be fine if his transition was a little smoother. But as I said, at least Bridges doesn’t go in by halves as he really stands against Downey to form a captivating adversary that stands as a pleasing thematic counterpoint to Stark as well.

Given the amount of special effects within ‘Iron Man’ it’s somewhat surprising that the movie has aged as well as it has. I think a lot of this is down to Favreau’s expertise with CGI and how to compose it within each frame. He demonstrated with 2016’s ‘The Jungle Book’ that he knows how to give CGI a tactile feel to it and he does exactly the same thing within ‘Iron Man’, injecting a sense of weight into every action scene and making them feel constantly engaging with his versatile methods of conveying each set piece.

‘Iron Man’ is a character driven superhero movie that even with the weight of the entire MCU on its shoulders, still stands as a stellar entry to both its franchise and genre.

Result: 9/10

Monday, 26 February 2018

The Death of Stalin

"I've had nightmares that make more sense than this."

If there was ever a time when the world seemed like it was in desperate need of another biting satire from the brilliant mind of Armando Iannucci, it is probably now. He’s proved very capable of handling contemporary politics in TV with ‘The Thick of It’ and ‘Veep’ while also finding time to show he has real cinematic talent by bringing the superb ‘In the Loop’. But now he has entirely new setting in the form of 1950s Russia, and if I trusted anyone to turn a story about history’s most notorious mass murderer into a hilarious comedy then it’s Iannucci.

Following the unexpected death of the leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, a vicious and farcical power struggle breaks out between his closest advisors. These men who once lived in fear for their lives under the regime of Stalin now find themselves more likely to be offed by one of their allies as they become locked in a mission to ascend to power and take control of a major world power.

Iannucci has been known for his dark and politically motivated comedies, but ‘The Death of Stalin’ takes that to another level entirely. The dark moments are about as bleak as they come, and the comedy is about as funny as you’ll find in a cinema. It really is an astonishing feat of political satire that Iannucci has been able to bring forth this biting piece of socially relevant filmmaking that functions just as masterfully as a study of characters as it does of the entire regime they operate under. I cannot overstate what a brilliant tonal balance it is. Its thing to make jokes about cabinet meetings and congressional hearings, it’s another astral plane entirely to turn death camps, mass famine and civilian causalities into punchlines without ever coming across as tone deaf of degrading.

Make no mistake, Iannucci clearly has nothing but distaste for the world he presents in ‘The Death of Stalin’ as well as the characters that inhabit it. But he does seem utterly fascinated with them, and for the best part of 2 hours so are we as an audience. He has a fundamental understanding of the inherent ridiculousness behind politics and renders it in a way which anyone can understand. You don’t have to know anything about Russian history to understand the stakes in this film as they are made abundantly clear from the start. Though the dialogue heavy screenplay can be a bit weighty at times in terms of exposition, Iannucci places enough comedy throughout the movie to keep the viewer intrigued.

In fact sometimes confusion is an essential part of the plot itself. To see these characters immediately scrambling in a desperate effort to obtain power is hilarious in of itself, but to then then seem them abandon every one of their principles and ideologies on a whim depending upon when it suits them is even more hypocritically humorous. They become locked on psychological games that range from the deeply political to the incredibly petty. They jostle to earn favour with Stalin’s children, argue about who gets to stand where at his funeral and Iannucci even manages to render the simple act of people raising their hands to vote as comedic brilliance.

But of course, the movie never lets the audience forget the darker implications behind each action. From the very first scene we understand exactly what the stakes are for these characters and what it means to live under the Stalin regime. It contrasts the absurdity of each situation with the grim undertones that motivates each one, which adds a bizarrely relatable element to proceedings. Obviously these are despicable people but you can’t help but empathise with their plight. They’ve all been trapped in a labyrinth of their own making and as the walls begin to crumble all they can do is ensure their own safety.

That is in turn what allows all of the performances in the film to be pitch perfect. The characters are written to be exaggerated and over the top, but also painfully human in terms of their flaws and motivations. Each performer has a brilliant habit of subverting the expectations that come attached to their character. They are each introduced in one light but as the film progresses we are allowed to see them in their true light. Steve Buscemi’s seemingly bumbling portrayal of Nikita Khrushchev slowly reveals itself to be a malicious and vindictive plotter. Rupert Friend on the other hand has almost the opposite arc as Stalin’s son, being introduced as a temperamental danger but eventually transitioning to a pitiful and redundant relic. The same can be said for every performance which never struggles to convey each transitioning mood of their characters.

Treading a miraculous line between horrifyingly bleak and hilariously satirical, ‘The Death of Stalin’ is a brilliantly penned piece of cinematic comedy.

Result: 8/10

Friday, 23 February 2018


"Do you know what it is, to make your dreams come true?"

I was definitely excited by the idea of a new film from Duncan Jones, especially one that promised to return him to his roots via being labelled a “spiritual sequel” to ‘Moon’. As much as I adored Jones’ first film he’s never quite reached those heights of excellence again, with ‘Source Code’ being solid up until its third act and ‘Warcraft’ being a valiant but ultimately flawed effort to translate a video game into movie form. Basically, I could go either way in terms of guessing the quality of ‘Mute’, but it definitely intrigues me.

In the futuristic city scope that is Berlin forty years from now, a bartender named Leo (Alexander Skarsgard) who lost the ability to speak after a childhood accident, must begin a search for his missing girlfriend who vanished unexpectedly one night. Meanwhile, elsewhere in the city, two American surgeons (Paul Rudd and Justin Theroux) may provide him with some semblance of the answers Leo needs.

In a lot of ways ‘Mute’ reminds me of another Netflix genre piece released recently, that being ‘Bright’. Now before you panic I can state that ‘Mute’ is not nearly as atrocious as that monstrosity (if only they hired a screenwriter for it….oh well) it does suffer from a lot of the same problems. The main one is a lack of effective world building. Probably the first thing that struck me about the landscape of Jones’ film was that it felt awfully derivative of a dozen other dystopian environments, from ‘Blade Runner’ to ‘Ghost in the Shell’. Of course, the overall aesthetic of most science fiction films are bound to reflect films like those given that they are two of the most influential science fiction films of all time.

The difference is that the films I previously mentioned have a consistent aesthetic that makes the world feel fleshed out from its giant architecture to its smallest details. ‘Mute’ on the other hand is so inconsistent in regards to its production design and overall look that one scene will be set against the giant city scape complete with flying cars and a neon bathed atmosphere, only to then transition to a completely ordinary setting that would look at home in any setting. There’s no motif or scheme that rings through the locations within the film, making it hard to become invested in this world as a tangible setting.

But perhaps that lack of investment also comes from some poor storytelling, because ‘Mute’ contains a good chunk of that as well. The story is peppered with interesting elements that spark intrigue, but these various elements are all completely disconnected with one another. In fact so are the characters. ‘Mute’ tries to tell a multi layered story but instead of its various plot threads complimenting or building upon each other, they come across as concepts randomly bumping into one another. It’s a random assortment of narratives that just happen to coincide for a messy and confusing third act. Any semblance of motivation for the characters also seems to fly out of the window at that point, as the actions they all undertake seem to be completely random.

I was at least expecting some visual flair from Duncan Jones as he had demonstrated with his previous directorial efforts, but even that seemed a little off. The palette of the film was visually pleasing but lacked any depth of feel or versatility. I feel like a majority of the film was spent framing its characters in the exact same medium-close up that resulted in a flat and lifeless texture. There’s also no sense of pacing to the movie, with some story beats taking an agonizingly long time to come about (I feel like you could recap the first hour of the movie in about twenty minutes for the narrative points it conveys) or alternatively they come bombarding towards the viewer all at once. The end result is somewhere between very boring and highly confusing.

It’s a shame because I feel like there is a worthwhile film buried somewhere within ‘Mute’. If you could strip away the excess and zero in on the characters Jones could have crafted an intricate study of these three individuals. It’s clear that his actors have the talent to convey a deeper dive into the characters they are portraying because they each do a good job with the material they are given. Rudd finds an excellent balance between unstable and charismatic that results in a bit of tension over his interactions. Skarsgard conveys a great deal with almost no dialogue whilst Theroux is unnervingly creepy when he needs to be. It’s only let own by the fact that the screenplay forces the characters to deviate from any kind of motivation and just act irrationally and idiotically for the big third act finale.

Too many half-hearted concepts and not enough focus or intrigue, ‘Mute’ is a movie in the midst of an identity crisis, and it’s not that fun to watch.

Result: 3/10

Sunday, 18 February 2018

The 15:17 to Paris

"Do you ever feel like life is just pushing us towards something?"

Between this and ‘Sully’ I can’t help but think Clint Eastwood has settled into directing feature length movies about 90 second incidents. The difference between his prior movie and ‘The 15:17 to Paris’ is that at least ‘Sully’ had a bit of substance to its second half, focussing on the long term implications of the protagonists actions and the cultural impact around them. ‘The 15:17 to Paris’ doesn’t do that and for the life of me I can’t fathom what it was even trying to do in the first place. It’s a genuinely baffling piece of filmmaking.

Following the lives of three friends as they navigate various trials and tribulations that eventually lead them to catch the 15:17 train to Paris on August 21st 2015. As they witness what they think is a possible terror attack unfolding in front of them they spring into action and in doing so change their lives forever.

Those few sentences I just typed to provide a brief summary of the movie’s premise is usually the easiest part of writing these reviews. But in the case of ‘The 15:17 to Paris’ it might be the most difficult because I’m struggling to make this story feel involving for a few sentences, let alone an entire movie. Obviously there’s no denying the heroism of these men. What they did on that day was an act of unspeakable bravery that should be commended by anyone and everyone. But with that being said, what the hell was this movie?

I know I keep asking that question but I am genuinely baffled as to what Eastwood or the writers were trying to achieve in the approach they took. They devote some time to exploring the lives of the characters leading up to the event itself but it all comes across as contrived and meaningless. None of these flashbacks hold any weight and only feel relevant unless the viewer is well aware of what will eventually transpire. The problem is that if you view the movie with that mind set then the movie tries to raise pointless tension in the moments before the event. A majority of the movie has treated the audience as if they already know how this story ends, and yet it still tries to build an air of suspense over the terror threat itself.

This also brings me back to the issue of how the movie tries to stretch an event that lasted for a few seconds into a feature length film, because it doesn’t work. On a structural level there’s no inciting incident or active role in the protagonists part that would make me feel invested in their stories. We’re just passive viewers of their lives and vacation, and only in the film’s final act do we see them making that decisive choice. It would be an ideal subject for a documentary but as far as narrative features go, where we need story structure, pacing, development, intrigue and so on, it all feels like a bumbling waste of time. It’s not a criticism of the real life people behind this event, it’s a criticism of the choice to present their story in a way that was ill suited.

The reason why I have to keep clarifying that I am critiquing the movie and not the event itself is due to another problem with the movie, one that I don’t take any joy in pointing out. For some reason, Eastwood made the decision to cast the principal characters as themselves. It’s rather unsurprising to learn that these individuals aren’t the most competent actors. Even though they are re-enacting conversations they themselves had, their interaction and dynamic feels stiff and awkward partially for that exact reason. It’s obvious they are trying to recapture a chemistry that has already come through naturally. Instead of having a staged conversation that feels flowing and natural it just comes across as a few people waiting for their cue to speak.

What makes this even worse is that the script populates itself with the most banal and contrived dialogue that even skilled actors would have a hard time pulling off. To make conversations about nothing sound interesting is no small feat for an actor, let alone a group of real life heroes who probably deserve better than having assholes like me judge them for their acting ability. I mean seriously did no one think that maybe it wasn’t fair to put these brave people in a situation where they would have to be critiqued for their ability to do something they have never done before on a professional or even amateur level? It just serves to make the whole movie even more redundant. These people are not going to look on the event they themselves lived through in anew light or different perspective. They are not going to dissect themselves via a performance in the way a professional actor would do with a character. So once again, I ask, why does this movie exist?

Why? Just why? Forever and for the rest of eternity regarding this movie, just why?

Result: 1/10

Friday, 16 February 2018

Black Panther

"You get to decide what kind of king you are going to be."

So on the one hand ‘Black Panther’ is a big deal simply for being another instalment of juggernaut that is the MCU. But then of course there is the greater cultural moment this movie represents, because while there have been superhero movies with a person of colour as their protagonist, we have never seen one on the scale as that of ‘Black Panther’. But as well as all of that, if you are like me then you’re mostly excited for the prospect of a new movie directed by Ryan Coogler because both ‘Creed’ and ‘Fruitvale Station’ were excellent.

The nation of Wakanda is known to the rest of the world as a poverty stricken country, but beneath that lies a technologically advanced society that is ruled by the newly crowned king T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) who assumes the mantle of the Black Panther, protector of the nation. But when faced with a powerful opponent with a vendetta against Wakanda, T’Challa must rise to the challenge and face this threat that not only risks destabilising a nation, but the entire world.

‘Black Panther’ was always going to be a socially relevant film, just by existing it forms a social statement in of itself. But the themes the movie raises are strikingly relevant in today’s culture and while heavy set themes are not exactly the main reason most audiences will have for seeing the film, you would have to be pretty tone deaf to miss them. Themes relating to nationalism, solidarity, a country’s responsibility and identity, as well as many other culturally significant ideas. ‘Black Panther’ is a film about its fictional country just as much as it is about its titular character.

This might make the movie sound preachy but what is so gratifying about the themes brought up in ‘Black Panther’ is that they all feel motivated by the characters. The film isn’t bringing up these ideas for the sake of it. They act as driving motives for the characters, define their actions and represent their development throughout the film. The characters have their own ideologies and seeing those ideologies clash is what drives a lot of the conflict within the movie. Better yet is that none of these ideologies are shown in a strictly negative light. There are reasons behind why each character possesses the outlook they have, and they are not portrayed as being evil for having it. There are positives and negatives to every approach shown in the movie and the end result is not the obliteration of one, but a compromise between two.

I don’t want to keep harping on about cultural significance and social relevance because ‘Black Panther’ is a movie first and a statement second. But for so long the general attitude towards representation in blockbusters has been a requirement that people leave their cultures at the door. But that is not the case with ‘Black Panther’ because the movie does not just indulge in its culture, it actively celebrates it. Wakanda feels like such a fleshed out and lived in world, with its rituals and ethos being thoroughly explored. The script does this in a way that ties these elements of exploration back into the main narrative so that they never feel like needless filler. Any time devoted to giving exposition on Wakanda eventually proves to be a set up for a major plot component.

This also lends itself to giving the movie such a unique feel with its brilliant costumes, sets and environments. The production is also beautifully shot by cinematographer Rachel Morrison, whose visual stylistics add such a depth of feel to every shot. This is elevated even further by Ryan Coogler’s dynamic camera work that is as versatile as it is impactful. The action scenes pulsate with a palpaple sense of energy while the meditative scenes simmer with an almost spiritual atmosphere. Much like ‘Creed’ there’s a brilliant single shot action sequence that stands as one of the best directed scenes from any comic book movie in recent memory.

The ensemble cast deliver some terrific performances as well. Chadwick Boseman completely and utterly embodies T’Challa as a character, fully immersing himself within the role. Lupita Nyong’o brings great weight wo her role even if her character does feel a tad underdeveloped. Martin Freeman’s character lends an outside perspective to Wakanda that he pulls off brilliantly. Danai Gurira makes for a strong and motived supporting role. Daniel Kaluuya represents a conflict of ideologies and does so with nuance and subtlety. Andy Serkis is over the top in all the right ways. Letitia Wright has a breakout turn as T’Challa’s always energetic sister. Then there’s Michael B Jordan whose turn as Killmonger marks him as one of the strongest antagonists in the MCU’s history. He’s complex, intimidating and highly motived in a way that makes his character feel like a fully realised counterpoint to T’Challa himself.

‘Black Panther’ is a gloriously entertaining and strikingly relevant blockbuster for this modern climate. It’s impeccably conceived and stunningly realised.

Result: 8/10

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Fifty Shades Freed

"You may call me Mrs Grey."

The best trilogies in cinema are often the most consistent ones. Whether they be Kieslowski’s ‘Three Colours Trilogy’, Linklater’s ‘Before Trilogy’ or Wright’s ‘Cornetto Trilogy’. These trilogies have a set standard of quality and stick to them with all three instalments. So, on that front, there is a great sense of consistency the ‘Fifty Shades Trilogy’. Each instalment has had a distinct quality that has carried over into the next one. The only slight problem is that the level of quality happens to be rock bottom.

Believing they've left behind the shadowy figures from the past, billionaire Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan) and his new wife, Anastasia Steele (yes that is her name, someone thought of that, someone who claims to be a writer…oh and the character’s played by Dakota Johnson), fully embrace their inextricable connection and shared life of luxury. Just as the Greys begin to step into their new roles, sinister events come to light and jeopardize their happy ending before it even begins.

I know that both critics and audiences tend to use hyperbole, which is something we should all avoid since opinions on movies can often be nuanced things. But I well and truly believe that ‘Fifty Shades Freed’ may be one of the worst films I have ever had the misfortune to sit through. On the one hand I shouldn’t be surprised given the quality of the preceding two films, but even when taking that into account I was struck by just how abysmally incompetent this movie was.

There is no discernible plot to it, I mean literally nothing. Scenes play out with a complete lack of conflict, structure or any discernible event that would make them even mildly interesting. There’s no inkling of structure to the movie, with the main conflict being introduced and resolved within the final fifteen minutes of runtime. For the rest of the movie we see the two characters engage in the most inconsequential kinds of conflict you can imagine. It’s a conflict of interests between two blank slates, driven by events that are as irreverent as changing an email address. None of these scenes build on one another or develop into anything greater than their basic set ups. It’s almost experimental in how it endlessly meanders around, looking for a way to kill time.

The characters are so thinly written that having now spent a total of six hours in their company I couldn’t tell you a thing about them. Anastasia Steele has to be the base model for passive protagonists at this point. Any shred of identity she had in the first film gradually disintegrates as she morphs into this self-entitled object, which might make for an interesting movie if ’Fifty Shades Freed’ wasn’t condoning this power dynamic at every opportunity. It acts as if the audience are actually supposed to be invested within this relationship as if it’s a tangible, fleshed out romance.

Make no mistake, Christian and Anastasia are objectively terrible people. Mr Grey is a sociopathic and highly controlling millionaire whilst Anastasia is hired and subsequently promoted in the company run by her own husband. I’m not saying it would be impossible to empathise with these kind of characters, but that would take a movie of intelligence and substance rather than this thinly veiled softcore porn. Mind you, I say that, but I also think you would struggle to find a film that has less sexual tension or in fact sexual content that ’Fifty Shades Freed’. If your idea of kinky sex is partially clothed missionary between two people who lack any kind of romantic chemistry, then good news because apparently Hollywood is catering to you now!

These various elements almost make me feel bad for criticising the acting, because with a script as horrendous as this you could cast Daniel Day Lewis as Christian Grey and still not have a final product that was even remotely intriguing. So I won’t level too much of the blame on Dakota Johnson or Jamie Dornan. But I will say that it’s fairly easy to tell that they are also checked out of this series by now. Their delivery is so bland and expressionless that it almost seems as if they are actively making an effort to instil as little emotion as humanly possible into every line of dialogue. It also doesn’t help that James Foley’s direction feels so flat that the shot composition hardly even places them in the same frame.

I never thought I would find myself praising ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, but in comparison to this instalment of the series, at least that movie was making a minutia of an effort. There was small trace of the filmmakers trying to bring something from the script. But of course, E.L James promptly stepped in and stamped out that nonsense so has to have the next two movies mimic her work as closely as possible. Philip K Dick was fine with Ridley Scott changing aspects of his novels to make ‘Blade Runner’, but that apparently we can’t such a disservice done to what started life as ‘Twilight’ fan fiction written on a Blackberry phone.

The only solace is that it’s finally over.

Result: 1/10

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

Top Ten Movies of 2017

Wow, just wow. 2017 was a phenomenal year for cinema but I doubt you need me to tell you that. I think what made this year seem particularly brilliant is the plethora of new and fresh talent that burst onto the movie scene. Filmmakers who have either reached the culmination of their careers until this point or just beginning to forge their paths with bold entries in the cinematic landscape. Make no mistake, the filmmakers who broke out in 2017 are the future of the film industry, having already garnered praise for their breakout hits and have left me excited for what they will bring forth next. We saw socially relevant, emotionally enthralling and technically flawless pieces of cinema, and now it’s finally time to go through the very best (and by “best” I mean my specific opinion that someone will likely disagree with).

But as ever, there are plenty of honourable mentions to name. If you had told me halfway through 2017 that there wouldn’t be room in my top ten for ‘Logan’, a movie that added such mythic weight and meaning to the superhero story that marks it as a classic of the genre, I wouldn’t have believed you because of…well because of all that stuff I just said. Speaking of super heroes though, ‘Wonder Woman’ is worth mentioning not just for its quality and entertainment but also for being a major cultural touchstone that in a way (especially considering certain revelations this year) transcended movies altogether. It may not be a superhero movie by genre, but ‘John Wick: Chapter 2’ is everything a fan of exciting and action oriented cinema could ever hope for.

It was great to see Rian Johnson take his unique sensibilities and apply them to the biggest franchise in the galaxy as he helmed ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’. A piece of blockbuster filmmaking that, despite some flaws, is bold and complex enough to leave quite an impression. Then on the other end of the scale, though it may not be complex, Edgar Wright’s ‘Baby Driver’ was a thrilling and masterfully executed ride from start to finish. ‘Free Fire’ was Ben Wheatly at his most playful and anarchistic. Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V Gordon turned their remarkable life story into one of the best romantic comedies in years with ‘The Big Sick’. ‘The Disaster Artist’ was a hilarious, endearing and overall brilliant insight into the story of the worst movie ever made.

There were also plenty of bitingly satirical movies that held a lens up to our societies, an outlook that felt especially cathartic this year. ‘I, Tonya’ is a biopic that makes its message just as much about our judgement of a real life story than the event itself. ‘Ingrid Goes West’ shines a darkly comedic light on obsession in our modern, social media driven culture. Michael Haneke’s ‘Happy End’ showed such a keen understanding of its own subject that it feels like something audiences have been asking for. Also, though it’s more intimate than satirical, Sean Baker wasn’t afraid to address the larger social issues as well as the deeply humane side of the story in ‘The Florida Project’.

If all of that sounds too delightful though then never fear, as there were plenty of bleak, depressing and disturbing dramas for your viewing pleasure this year as well. Sofia Coppola’s ‘The Beguiled’ took the director back to the sensibilities of her roots, but underpinned them with the attitude only an experienced storyteller could possess. Taylor Sheridan made a striking directorial debut with ‘Wind River’ while Trey Edward Shults’ second feature ‘It Comes at Night’ was a shockingly bleak tale of dystopian paranoia. Yorgos Lathinmos’ ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’ was terrifying on a visceral and existential level. But when it comes to despair, none of these match the sheer insanity that ‘Mother!’ Darren Aronofsky’s twisted tale is probably the closest cinema has come to capturing an actual nightmare on film.

10: Lady Bird
I love a good coming of age movie, but few have shown as much empathy towards their characters and their environment as Greta Gerwig’s directorial debut. Her script shows such a deep affection for not its titular character as she navigates the complex world that is adolescence, but also every supporting player she interacts with. The film never paints its characters in broad strokes either, but rather conveys them with nuance and subtly as they grapple with several conflicting emotions and motivations. It instils a deep understanding of every character and the way they relate to one another, as well as the environment in which this story takes place. That it turn only makes this journey of self-discovery even more fulfilling. The dialogue is intricate and genuine, as are the performances which never break the illusion of these people being real and fully formed. ‘Lady Bird’ is a coming of age movie that captures adolescence in its full spectrum, from humour to heartbreak and everything in between.    

9: Raw
Allegory is a difficult thing in cinema, you risk being either too heavy handed or too simplistic. Yet Julia Ducournau’s film about identity and taboos strikes a brilliant tonal balance. There’s an elegance to the way it handles its shocking subject, and is so visually stimulating that you can’t help but be transfixed even when every primal urge is telling you to look away. It’s an unsettling movie not for its gore but for its psychologically driven character study that applies to anyone. You don’t have to have cannibalistic urges to empathise with the protagonist (but it helps...I guess?), you just need to understand what it’s like to fight against an urge you harbour, or to discover things about yourself that unsettle you. To say the film is unique is an understatement, not just conceptually but also in execution as Ducournau makes great use of provocative compositions and vivid colour to evoke a sense of unease. Despite being meditative and restrained, ‘Raw’ loses none of its brutality.

8: Dunkirk
I’d be hard pressed to think of a film that elicits such a genuine and constant sense of tension of Christopher Nolan’s masterfully assembled war film. It’s a movie that sidesteps contrived character clichés in favour of creating a purely cinematic experience, one that is never fails to create a sense of awe in how brilliant its execution is. Nolan’s technical prowess has never been more on point as he recreates the beaches of Dunkirk and scenes of war more acutely that any way film in recent memory. Hans Zimmer’s score is mesmerising in its consistent and engaging motifs, its ensemble cast are phenomenal and use nuanced moves to give the film an emotional centre. The sweeping cinematography is both beautiful and terrifying. But at the end of it all I still can’t help but be most impressed by Nolan himself, who grapples with the existential dread of war just as much as the visceral side. No other war movie has made me feel as close to the event itself as ‘Dunkirk’. As a viewer you aren’t just watching the conflict, you’re living it.

7: Get Out
Though it’s not my favourite film of the year, if I had to single out any movie that I could say with confidence would still be relevant and talked about in 10 or even 20 years’ time, it would be Jordan Peele’s masterful ‘Get Out’. I spoke earlier in this list about allegory, and Peele’s film doesn’t just find that same balance, it makes it an integral part of the movie itself. Its message is never simplified but rather made experientially more complex and satirical. It uses social criticism to great effect as well as unrestrained emotional resonance to tell its story. But when puts aside the extensive cultural commentary, ‘Get Out’ is still a brilliant piece of horror cinema. Peele’s pure directorial talents evoke such a sense of tension and unease throughout the movie, culminating in a gloriously cathartic third act. There’s also an offbeat sense of humour that makes the film all the more watchable, and he gives his actors fantastic direction that allows the likes of Daniel Kaluuya to bring forth brilliant performances. ‘Get Out’ represents the horror genre doing what it does best, playing to out societal fears as well as the supernatural ones.

6: Call Me By Your Name
There are two ways of describing Luca Guadagnino’s ‘Call Me By Your Name’. There’s the plot, which in essence is just two people falling in love, and then there’s the way that plot is executed. There’s a dreamlike quality to the movie that is completely encapsulating, feeling so free and yet so focussed simultaneously. It’s elegant and meditative as we just watch these emotions spring forth over the course of a few weeks, and revel in how well these talented actors convey them. Timothee Chalamet and Armie Hammer are intimately brilliant, but the biggest emotional punch may come from Michael Stuhlbarg’s performance which culminates in a scene of such emotional rawness that it sends chills down my spine. Guadagnino’s directions brings a deep richness to the movie, one that is content to shower itself in the intimate details that make a location or a character feel thoroughly real, so much so that to the viewer it may almost feel like a memory they themselves lived.

5: The Shape of Water
There’s unique, and then there’s Guillermo Del Toro. What’s so admirable about Del Toro’s artistry is that it feels so exclusive to himself. ‘The Shape of Water’ is the kind of movie only Del Toro could make, for all his offbeat sensibilities that balance the darkest of fantasies with the most sincere of emotions. On the one hand it’s a love story, but the other it’s also a movie about people whose environments are inhospitable to them. Whether it’s through their physicality, gender, sexuality or race, ‘The Shape of Water’ seeks to give a voice to everyone and does so in the most endearing way possible. The movie is visually stunning, with every shot being masterfully composed and coloured. Then there’s the magnificent score and evocative cinematography, as well as the great performances by its ensemble cast that includes Sally Hawkins and Michael Shannon. It’s a movie that defies any and all categorisation, something that must be experienced for its boldness and wonder.

4: Good Time
A movie so stylistically refreshing that it elevates the story to transcendent heights, ‘Good Time’ is a taught thriller that also acts as a deeply involving character study. That character in question is Connie Nikas, played by Robert Pattinson in the actors best ever performance. It’s a role of such uncompromising courage in portraying such a deeply flawed and seemingly irredeemable character that you can’t but applaud it for that alone. Directors Josh and Ben Safdie bring such a palpable sense of energy to the film in the way they compose and edit each shot together. Their directorial choices create a highly atmospheric movie that is always moving and always suspenseful. Through their masterful use of long takes and intense close ups, there’s never a moment when you don’t feel the ever ticking clock that the characters are aware of or the mounting pressure being placed upon them. The colours are vivid and striking, the soundtrack is emotive and meaningful, and all the while we find ourselves engrossed in these deeply flawed characters and their terrible choices.

3: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Martin McDonough’s career as a director may be brief, but it has been masterful so far and his third feature is his best yet. ‘Three Billboards’ is a movie driven entirely by characters and what brilliant characters they are. They are both wonderfully distinct and amazingly complex, painfully flawed and immensely endearing, and the way they interact and evolve throughout the movie is nothing short of masterful. They are also superbly brought to life by the film’s immensely talented cast, with Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson and Sam Rockwell all delivering great performances. It never shies away from the brutal aspects of its story, but also takes time to dwell in the poetic and emotional moments that elevate the movie to greater heights. McDonagh never treats as characters as caricatures, but rather as living entities whom he clearly has great sympathy for. The humour is dark and challenging at times, but also gives the film a unique voice from which to address a number of societal issues that give it a reach beyond the edges of a cinema screen.

2: Phantom Thread
Anyone who knows me knows that I am a huge fan of Paul Thomas Anderson’s work. With each new film he brings forth his distinctive voice to convey a story with deep reaching themes, compelling character studies and masterful filmmaking, with ‘Phantom Thread’ being no different. The movie is elegant and intricate on the surface, but also deeply unsettling and provocative psychologically. It portrays a battle of wills between two distinctly drawn characters, and offer commentary on themes of obsession, artistry and empowerment. But this depth doesn’t stop ‘Phantom Thread’ from being a subtly comedic film at times, which only serves to make the experience as a whole even richer. Daniel Day Lewis gives an engrossing performance alongside Leslie Manville and Vicky Krieps. The way the film draws you into its all-consuming atmosphere is nothing short of astounding to a point where its runtime simply flies by. Its narrative contains many twists and turns but they come about not by sudden revelation, but through brilliantly nuanced realisations that creep up on the viewer. PTA has crafted many masterpieces over the course of his career, and ‘Phantom Thread’ stands as being equal to his best work.

1: Blade Runner 2049
I would have thought it impossible that any director could hope to live up to the legacy of Ridley Scott’s 1982 science fiction masterwork. But not only did Denis Villeneuve match every expectation with this long awaited sequel, he exceeded them. ‘Blade Runner 2049’ is a masterpiece, a detailed and complex study of what it means to be human, a poetic character study, a nightmarish vision of the future, an emotional powerhouse that builds upon the foundations of its predecessor while taking the conversation even further. It is cinema at its purest but also at its most versatile. To say it’s visually stunning does not even begin to describe the magnificence of Roger Deakins cinematography. It is technically flawless with phenomenal sound design and a stunning soundtrack by Hans Zimmer. The cast are amazing across the board, with Ryan Gosling finding emotion through solidarity and Harrison Ford displaying a kind of vulnerability I have never seen from him before. It’s less of a blockbuster and more of a $150 million arthouse movie, a testament to what a filmmaker can achieve when given the resources to fully realise their bold, provocative and awe inspiring vision. It’s a worthy successor to ‘Blade Runner’ and from me praise doesn’t get much higher than that.  

Monday, 5 February 2018

The Cloverfield Paradox

"Whatever you're doing right now, stop. Go to your children, hold them kiss them, because that's all there is."

With the surprise announcement of another instalment of the ‘Cloverfield’ franchise that promised to bridge the gap between the original 2008 film and 2016’s ’10 Cloverfield Lane’ I found myself a little conflicted. I’d always envisioned the ‘Cloverfield’ series as a possible cinematic equivalent to ‘Black Mirror’, an anthology series that could well be taking place in the same universe but is focussed on telling self-contained stories linked under a singular banner. But, I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t curious to see how the franchise falls into place.

Having spent the past two years on a space station orbiting the Earth, conducting experiments in the hopes of finding a solution to the planet’s ongoing energy crisis, a team of astronauts suddenly start to witness a series of strange events occurring. It is up to the crew to not only work on what is causing their ongoing crisis, but find a solution before it is too late.

So, if you went into ‘The Cloverfield Paradox’ wondering how the film would tie its respective franchise together and provide the viewer with decade old answers, then you may be disappointed for two reasons. Firstly because as a vehicle to shed light on the previous films it is mind numbingly vague and convoluted. Secondly, and more importantly, fitting into the franchise as a whole is the least of this movie’s problems as it completely fails to work even as a standalone piece of filmmaking.

The very opening of the film had me worried and inadvertently set the tone of that was to follow. The first few minutes alone are tonally confused and poorly paced to say the least, attempting to transition from sincere drama to high concept science fiction, moments of humour, character conflict and serious tension all within the first ten minutes. The style of the editing flips back and forth to try and match each of these tones but it just creates a muddled opening that tells the viewer little of the film’s intent. Rather than trying to pace itself and spread the various plot threads throughout the movie it feels the need to cram them into the first section. Worse still is that most of these plot threads are dropped until the point when they reach their conclusion, meaning that when they do it feels jarring and unearned.

The film races forwards with its narrative but never takes the time to endear the audience to that narrative, or the characters either. The closest ‘The Cloverfield Paradox’ gets to establishing a character dynamic is some contrived conflict that feels completely unmotivated. There are so many character moments throughout the movie that feel as if they are intended to have so much more weight than what they actually deliver. While the lead character Hamilton does have a compelling backstory, it’s addressed so sporadically through the script that it feels like a last minute addition. The others feel like caricatures who act without rhyme or reason, and whose only contribution is to lend themselves to a few inventive death scenes.

I was at least expecting some good performances given that ‘The Cloverfield Paradox’ boasts a solid cast. But even the likes of Daniel Bruhl and David Oyelowo seemed somehow stilted, as did Chris O’Dowd and John Ortiz. Whether it’s due them being given poor direction or that they had too little to work with from a character standpoint, none of them hit the mark. It also doesn’t help that the dialogue is hammed and simplistic as well. Once again, the only saving grace is Gugu Mbatha-Raw as Hamilton, but maybe that’s just due to having some tangible character to work with. It’s a decent performance but nothing that ever evoked an emotional response from me.

As it moves into it’s second act ‘The Cloverfield Paradox’ looks as if it might be finding its feet as it seems to be morphing into a kind psychological science fiction horror film, in a similar vein to ‘Event Horizon’. Sadly, much like ‘Event Horizon’, it’s also clichéd and overly manipulative. The sound design in particular is atrocious, with any scare being preceded by an insultingly predictable sound effect that will give away the result long before it occurs. Loud noises, quick edits and a constantly shaking camera create one insufferable jump scare after another. Even when it’s not using cheap tactics to try and scare the audience the editing takes on a mind of its own, with a number of action scenes towards the end of the film being almost incoherent.

I can at least say that the cinematography and visual effects of the film were well done, and it has an inkling of ambition to it that is commendable. But when it comes to uniting the ‘Cloverfield’ franchise the film is somehow even more infuriating. Ironically, at one point in the film a character shouts “You can’t have it both ways” which is a lesson ‘The Cloverfield Paradox’ should bare in mind. The film wants to be ambiguous and vague in how it links back to the franchise as a whole, but in also explicit in ways that feel pandering and predictable. But even when you take those explicit ties to the previous two films they simply don’t make sense. It’s just a mess through and through.

‘The Cloverfield Paradox’ fails as both a standalone film, and as an entry in the series as a whole. It’s in equal parts incoherent, clichéd and idiotic.

Result: 2/10

Sunday, 4 February 2018

Phantom Thread

"Reynolds has made my dreams come true, and I have given him what he desires most in return; every piece of me."

There’s a beautiful re-watchable nature to all of Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies. They are in films in which I feel like I could explore endlessly, and always garner something new from them every time I revisit one. Not only that, but the more aware you become of what Anderson is trying to say with each specific film he makes, the more you realise just how masterfully he executes those intentions. For that reason it is hard to say exactly where ‘Phantom Thread’ ranks among his filmography after just one viewing, but what I know for sure is that based on my first impression Anderson has another masterpiece to his name.

In 1950s London, renowned dress maker Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day Lewis) and his sister Cyril (Leslie Manville) are at the centre of British fashion, designing and shaping dresses that are praised as magnificent works of art. When Reynolds meets a young waitress named Alma (Vicky Krieps) she becomes a fixation for his obsession and slowly becomes drawn into a fierce battle of wills regarding artistry and subject.

For the past few years PTA has been growing decidedly more experimental with the structure of each film he makes, reaching a high point with the incoherent ‘Inherent Vice’. But ‘Phantom Thread’ subverts that pattern, being more linear in terms of structure, narrative and pacing. However, in doing so PTA has interwoven such brilliant themes into the movie and focussed in on the nuances of his characters that allows the viewer to become intimately familiar with them and their motivations. Much like ‘The Master’, PTA’s latest is first and foremost a character study, one that is both deeply fascinated and deeply empathetic towards its flawed characters.

The movie’s opening scenes instantly familiarise the viewer with Reynolds’ daily routine and identity. We become acutely aware of his he operates and views the world around him. Much like the dresses he makes, the world comes in a sweeping and constant pattern of which the design choices may change but the interwoven technique remains the same. That is, until certain narrative beats in the film’s story start to take, and when they do we feel as usurped as Reynolds does. PTA so brilliantly establishes the key characteristics and activities of Reynolds so that when the movie does take an unexpected turn it feels all the more surprising as a result.

Unlike any other PTA movie I’ve seen though, the twists in ‘Phantom Thread’ creep up on the viewer with almost malicious intent. The luscious world we are introduced to isn’t pulled out from under us, but rather slowly manoeuvred away in a masterful display of tonal balance and nuanced pacing. The changes in the narrative of ‘Phantom Thread’ feel shocking, but never jarring. It allows the movie to be immensely subversive and provoking. There are so many prior elements to the movie that are cast in a different light once certain revelations unfold, so much so that you’ll likely want to watch it all over again instantly.

Another aspect I adore of PTA’s movies is his ability to address the full spectrum of human emotions and ‘Phantom Thread’ is no different. The movie can be frighteningly sinister at times, but also highly comedic in a subtle way. These various moods never feel at odds with one another, but rather complement the film as a whole. It’s not just one endless atmosphere but a plethora of engaging moods and emotions both expressed by the characters and projected from them. Even when the script is bringing forward some of its deepest and darkest themes, it still finds way to weave some subtle character humour into proceedings. In fact there’s an argument to be made that how humorous the movie is depends upon your outlook, I could easily imagine a different viewer finding some of the moments I found comedic to be disturbing and vice versa.

Those themes in question are weighty to say the least. PTA uses ‘Phantom Thread’ as a means to address artistry, obsession, control, objectification, privilege and dozens of other interlinked ideas that will probably seem more prevalent once I have a chance to revisit the film. But even on the first viewing I can tell that PTA is unpacking a lot of material here. His study of characters and his study of theme are also perfectly in tune, as in the film never feels like it’s side-lining one to take way for the other. They both unfold and develop at exactly the same pace.

While the core of the film is fascinating, the way it’s packaged and executed is exceptional. Though there is no credited cinematographer PTA reportedly shot the film himself with the assistance of several visual consultants, and the result is impeccable. The framing and composition never puts a foot wrong, making the film engaging and involving before a word has even been spoken. Jonny Greenwood’s accompanying score is also phenomenal, complementing and contrasting with the film itself to create an impression I haven’t score achieve in a long time.

Of course, a large part of the focus on ‘Phantom Thread’ is that it apparently represents Daniel Day Lewis’ last role on the big screen. If that is indeed true then ‘Phantom Thread’ would be a fine farewell. Anyone expecting a scenery chewing performance akin to that of Lewis’ last collaboration with PTA ‘There Will Be Blood’ may be surprised. Lewis isn’t the kind of actor who will repeat himself and in portraying Reynolds he has created a character with much more nuance and restraint. His performance is measured and often invites the viewer to try and uncover Reynolds motivations and emotions. It’s a performance that draws the viewer in but then remains ambiguous over the exact details of the characters inner state.

But ‘Phantom Thread’ is as much a battle of wills as it is a singular character study. Leslie Manville is exceptional as Reynolds iron willed sister, as is Vicky Krieps as Reynolds new muse. She enters the movie in a seemingly vulnerable and naïve state only to draw in such strong determination that it’s as shocking to the viewer as it is gratifying, and the ensuing conflict that comes from these three key personalities interacting is some of the best cinema you’ll see all year. To see these various components in such perfect working order to bring an artist’s vision to life is a unique thing to witness, and ‘Phantom Thread’ is a prime example of the kind of filmmaking that is truly extraordinary.

Exquisitely assembled, thematically rich and spanning the full range of emotions from light hearted humour to sheer philological terror, ‘Phantom Thread’ is another masterwork from cinema’s finest modern auteur.

Result: 10/10