Thursday 29 March 2018


"Your own life just slips away from you."

From a filmmaking perspective, it’s hard not to admire Steven Soderbergh. As well as being an icon of the 1990s American indie generation, he has continued to expand a challenge himself as his career has progressed. His versatility extends from making some of the most entertaining blockbusters ever like ‘Ocean’s 11’ to some of the most experimental films ever to herald from a director of his fame. So less than a year after his crowd pleasing return to the heist genre ‘Logan Lucky’, he now brings us the exact opposite in the form of ‘Unsane’.

Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) relocates from Boston to Pennsylvania to escape from the man who's been stalking her for the last two years. While consulting with a therapist, Valentini unwittingly signs in for a voluntary 24-hour commitment to the Highland Creek Behavioral Center. Her stay at the facility soon gets extended when doctors and nurses begin to question her sanity. Sawyer now believes that one of the staffers is her stalker and she'll do whatever it takes to stay alive and fight her way out.

So if you’ve heard anything about ‘Unsane’ that will likely be the fact that it was shot entirely on an iPhone 7 Plus. Soderbergh is not the first director to attempt this, with Sean Baker’s 2015 indie gem ‘Tangerine’ also utilising an iPhone for its shoot. The immediate question the viewer has to ask is why the director chose to film the movie in this way? What motivates this technique and how does it complement the story at hand? The same would go for any method of shooting but in one that so clearly breaks the mould as much as these aforementioned examples it draws extra attention and demands to be pondered over.

Whereas Sean Baker used the technique to create a sense of intimacy and roughness that matched the dynamic of his characters to the outside world, Soderbergh utilizes the uncertainty and limited perspective that such a shooting technique inflicts upon the story’s presentation. With such a harshness to the lighting and unevenness to the composition of each shot there’s an almost unnerving atmosphere created through the image alone. It’s an effective method of placing the viewer within the fractured mind-set of the film’s main character.

I would not go as far to say that the viewer will not notice that the film was shot on an iPhone, but a viewer who is in tune with what the movie is trying to convey should not question the decision. It feels perfectly in tune with the general mood Soderbergh wants to convey and rarely detracts from the movie on that level. The fact that a majority of the shots are clearly from a handheld camera help give the film a sense of kinetic energy that further builds upon the uncertainty and unease the narrative relies on. So much of the film is about questioning the protagonist’s mental state and subjective view that it allows for the camerawork to be as inherently subjective as possible.

Portraying that kind of fractured mentality always presents a struggle for an actor. However Claire Foy manages to brilliantly portray a sense of duality that has the audience questioning her every move without rendering her character unreadable. We empathise with her uncertainty and her fear of it, but we are also fully aware of her potential unravelling. In fact it’s that clear conflict that drives a lot of the film. As a viewer you are caught between growing attached to Sawyer whilst being constantly aware that her own view of reality could be dramatically warped.

As promising as all of this sounds however, the aspects that make ‘Unsane’ riveting also serve to render it flawed. Though the method of shooting and central conflict within the film are riveting, Soderbergh doesn’t leave much room for them to be developed or thoroughly explored. It’s narrative sustains itself for the first act as the plot is unfolding and becomes intriguing towards the climax, but sags significantly in the middle as things seem to be halted for a while. I think it suggests that Soderbergh seems more interested in seeing the film as a construct rather than Telling a fully realised story.

To that end the pacing and structure of ‘Unsane’ suffer as well. The movie grows increasingly repetitive as the narrative progresses. To a certain degree this does complement the film as it signals Sawyer’s frustration with the establishment that repeatedly shuts her down. But once that message has been conveyed the movie just feels increasingly redundant with each subsequent scene that is then devoted to it. They also serve to make the central conflict slightly less ambiguous which in turn robs the third act of its intrigue. There’s still plenty to keep the viewer engaged but there’s definitely a cognitive dissonance in how the viewer should be absorbing each scene in the context of the overall narrative.

Not without its flaws but intriguing as a construct alone, ‘Unsane’ showcases Soderbergh’s more experimental side to fascinating results.

Result: 7/10

Tuesday 27 March 2018

Recapping the MCU: The Incredible Hulk

Out of all the MCU movies, it seems as if ‘The Incredible Hulk’ is the one that is most regularly forgotten. It has the least amount of fallible continuity and connectivity to the rest of the franchise to a point Marvel literally recast the titular character for his next appearance in ‘The Avengers’. As much as I would love to be the contrarian and proclaim it as an underrated gem, it isn’t.

Ultimately ‘The Incredible Hulk’ contains a lot of redeeming features that prevent it from being a bad entry in the franchise, but it lacks any distinguishing aspects that would mark it as a worthwhile instalment. When you look at it in the larger expanse of the MCU it holds little relevance so is hardly worth revisiting, and as a standalone film there’s still little value to it. That being said it does boast a lot of intelligent and conceptually interesting ideas.

It’s only natural for a character like Bruce Banner that his solo outing serve as a character study, given that his powers are intrinsically linked to his own emotional state. ‘The Incredible Hulk’ makes a point of using Banner’s progression through the movie as a recurring motif. It starts off promisingly here but soon unravels due to two setbacks. Firstly Banner’s arc seems predictable from the outset, rarely defying expectations and never developing any of his emotional turns beyond their most basic level.

The second issue is how the development within ‘The Incredible Hulk’ is paced. The emotional arc is completely disconnected from the central plot, so they don’t feel as if they are complementing the other as much as they are halting each other’s progress. None of Banner’s development advances the plot, whilst the plot never enforces his arc. In that sense the film not only falters as a character study, but also as an action movie. Though the comparison between action scenes and musical numbers is a trope, it’s an accurate one. None of the fight scenes in ‘The Incredible Hulk’ advance the characters so they feel like a secondary feature.

The result is a sense of dissonance throughout the film that harms its structure and pacing. ‘The Incredible Hulk’ can’t help but feel like two conflicting movies rather than a seamless narrative. It’s not as if achieving that seamless narrative is impossible either since Marvel literally did just that with the processor to this film. In ‘Iron Man’ the decisions of the titular character have real consequences for the plot whereas in ‘The Incredible Hulk’ it seems as if ether one could unfold even if the other didn’t exist.

But as I stated at the start of his review, there are plenty of redeeming qualities to ‘The Incredible Hulk’. One of them is Edward Norton’s performance which, despite not being a stretch compared to his best performances, does a great deal to convey the inner turmoil that is constantly boiling over. While Mark Ruffalo’s performance would tap into Bruce Banner’s more deep-seated psychological issues, Norton’ painted a portrait of a man whose constant emotional management seemed to actually be straining him on a psychical level. There’s a great world weariness to his portrayal of Banner.

The narrative doesn’t really allow the rest of the cast to stand out all that much, but they are all effective with what they are given. Tim Roth’s Abomination may not be the most memorable villain in the Marvel catalogue, but when he is on screen he gives the character a sense of presence that creates a genuine sense of threat throughout. The fact that his transformation into Abomination is linked with the injures he sustained from his encounter with the Hulks one the rare instances n the film in which the characters and narrative actually seem to complement one another. But there’s still not enough depth or motivation for the conflict to feel truly earned.

Perhaps another reason for the conflict between the film’s protagonist and antagonist is that their fight scenes are far from the best directed action scenes in the MCU. CGI is obviously an essential part of bringing the Hulk to life, but director Loiuis Leterrier can’t quite render with any dexterity. His visual style doesn’t possess much variation either, so even if the set pieces of each fight are interesting the way they are presented never feels purposeful. The geography of each action scene is always a little unclear as well, so the scenes never quite flow in the way a truly invigorating action scene should.

Much like it’s tirle character, ‘The Incredible Hulk’ is at odds with itself and never seems to work as a cohesive whole.

Result: 5/10

Pacific Rim: Uprisisng

"This is the way the world ends."

‘Pacific Rim’ might be the quintessential example of how a director can elevate their material. The movie is little more than a showcase of giant robots fighting monsters, but rather than take the cynical or lazy approach, director Guillermo Del Toro injected a genuine sense of craftsmanship and sincerity to the movie. Yes it was big dumb fun, but it was also big dumb fun that had an acute awareness of itself and a creative team that refused to let its genre or high concept limit the amount of effort they put into it. So naturally here comes the corporate line sequel.

Jake Pentecost (John Boyega) is a once-promising Jaeger pilot whose legendary father gave his life to secure humanity's victory against the monstrous Kaiju. Jake has since abandoned his training only to become caught up in a criminal underworld. But when an even more unstoppable threat is unleashed to tear through cities and bring the world to its knees, Jake is given one last chance to live up to his father's legacy.

With all due respect to Steven DeKnight, he’s not Guillermo Del Toro. In fact ‘Pacific Rim: Uprising’ (yay for that generic title right?) is DeKnight’s feature directorial debut, which immediately puts the film as a whole at a disadvantage. DeKnight’s direction is fine but it really lacks the dexterity and weight that would give this sequel any chance of living up to its predecessor. There’s little variation to the way the fight sequences are presented, so as the film dragged on it became a monotonous experience that slowly wore away at my willingness to accept some of the more ludicrous contrivances of the script.

I understand that criticising a movie with the central premise of “robots punch monsters” for scripting issues seems like a non-issue. After all, no one is walking into ‘Pacific Rim: Uprising’ with the expectations of complex characters or an intricately drawn narrative. But it would probably be worth letting the makers of the movie know that as well.

When a movie is praised for “knowing what it is” it essentially means that the film is tonally consistent. In the first ‘Pacific Rim’ the action is the centre of attention, but the film also understands that it is obligated to devote some time to character progression. When that happens the emotions are broad, sincere and obvious. They’re not overemphasised to a point where they distract from the main even but also present enough depth to fill a necessary quota. ‘Pacific Rim: Uprising’ fails to meet that quota for half of its runtime, and then proceeds to let the attempts at character development detract from the action in its second act.

If anything a few of the turns that certain characters take during the movie are unintentionally hilarious. It seems as if the characters make decisions based on what suits the script rather than what would feel natural to their progression. But then again to garner any sense of what the natural progression would be for these characters is a challenge in itself. It’s not just that the people in ‘Pacific Rim: Uprising’ lack depth, but they also lack any strong characterisation at all. The script barely even establishes a precedent for who everyone is and what their dynamic is before suddenly shifting their personalities to try and move the plot along.

This makes it incredibly difficult for the actors to convey any sense of character with their roles. John Boyega is appropriately charismatic in a way that gels wonderfully with the tone the film wants to convey. But the script rarely gives him the opportunity to really bring that attitude to the forefront. Scott Eastwood seems somewhat stagnant, not really possessing much of a presence or purpose. Charlie Day is entertaining purely because I kept imaging his character was just Charlie Kelly who had somehow been drafted into a conflict involving giant robots. It’s much more plausible than the reality the film wants to present at least.

In fairness I wouldn’t accuse ‘Pacific Rim: Uprising’ of outright laziness because it does try in come regards. The fact that the plot is kicked off by a rationale that isn’t just “the portal from the first film opened up again because reasons” should be proof that the script at least wants to serve the audience in a way that feels rewarding. The problem seems to be that the script isn’t sure on how to present those differences within the plot. There are plenty of new avenues that could yield some potential storytelling and accommodate the action fans want to see within ‘Pacific Rim: Uprising’, but the script can’t find the methods to convey those routes.  

A shell of its predecessor, ‘Pacific Rim: Uprising’ isn’t what I’d call awful but it’s also far from what I would call worthwhile.

Result: 4/10

Sunday 25 March 2018

The Strangers: Prey at Night

"I thought we were alone."

So, genuine question; does anyone actually remember ‘The Strangers’? I may not have personally liked the film due to its overreliance on horror tropes and lack of structure but if you enjoyed it on some level then that’s fine. But I highly doubt anyone held it in high regard, or at least not enough to demand a sequel a decade after its release. In fact I’m pretty sure the last time I heard anyone talking about ‘The Strangers’ was in 2008.

Mike and his wife Cindy take their son and daughter on a road trip that becomes their worst nightmare. The family members soon find themselves in a desperate fight for survival when they arrive at a secluded mobile home park that's mysteriously deserted, until three masked psychopaths show up to satisfy their thirst for blood.

One thing that I could not get over with ‘The Strangers’ was how irreverent the whole film seemed to be. Yes it was following the format of a traditional slasher, but the best slashers tend to underpin the killings with a message or some ironic twist of fate for the characters demise. They might poses a fatal flaw or the script might award them a cathartic moment. But in ‘The Strangers’ we just see a relatively well-off couple be tormented and murdered for 85 minutes. So I guess the movie’s horror thesis is that it doesn’t matter how middle class you are, three masked people are inevitably going to kill you in contrived ways regardless.

This all sounds like I’m droning on without actually addressing the movie, which is a correct assumption. At the end of the day I can’t think of all that much to say about this belated sequel. Much like the first movie there I couldn’t find any discernible theme or purpose to it. At most it seems to be an excuse to indulge in some horror clichés, but even then there isn’t any level of self-awareness or subversion that would make their use interesting. Save for a few small details the screenplay is also strikingly similar to the first in terms of its structure and pacing.

Overall these are just a few aspects of ‘The Strangers: Prey at Night’ that separate it from its predecessor. Whereas the first film had the benefit of featuring Liv Tyler and Scott Speedman who were at least competent in their given roles. The cast of this sequel don’t hold up as well, coming off as too detached from the moment or over reacting to a point where their characters become too inconsistent to hold weight. To give the cast credit the script is far from the strongest in terms of characterisation. Like a lot of horror sequels ‘Prey at Night’ seems far more interested in the murderers than their victims, which is saying a lot considering that ‘The Strangers’ barely seemed to care about the victims in the first place.

Though he had returned to pen the script of this sequel, Bryan Bertino is not the director behind ‘Prey at Night’. Instead that role is handed to Johannes Roberts and the film does take a drastic step down in quality as a result. While Bertino’s script for ‘The Strangers’ was peppered with contrivances and clichés, his direction at least endowed a sense of craftsmanship to them. The same cannot be said for Roberts handling of Bertino’s script for the sequel. Each set piece feels completely empty, lacking in detail and leaving a lot of awkward open space in the frame. There’s nothing evocative about the composition and no sense of tension in the way he stages each set piece.

I will say that as the movie progressed I started to notice a slight satirical edge that might have redeemed the film slightly if the makers leaned into it more. But either the film is at odds with itself or wants to have it both ways in terms of how it presents the tropes of its narrative. It’s perfectly fine to make a more playful horror film that indulges in the clichés of the genre. But too frequently ‘Prey at Night’ tries to turn around and demand the audience be invested in the dramatic stakes of the movie.

This is actually part of a deeper problem within the movie. The film never establishes a precedent for its tone. So as a result it alternates wildly in atmosphere and style. There are a few select moment of genuine tension within ‘Prey at Night’, just as there are a few moments of subversive intelligence. But to demand that the audience be just as accepting of both conflicting tones whilst never doing anything to accommodate both of them does nothing but create a dissonance between each act of the plot.

Lacking the craftsmanship of its predecessor, but retaining all of the clichés, ‘Prey at Night’ is an underwhelming sequel to an already underwhelming horror movie.

Result: 3/10

Saturday 24 March 2018

Tomb Raider

"You shouldn't have come here, but I'm glad that you did."

Video game movies; are there any three words that evoke as much scepticism as that? It really does seem that no matter what approach filmmakers take to translating the medium of video games to film they seem to fall short. Whether it’s the overly grim and joyless tone of ‘Assassin’s Creed’ or the gloriously over the top style of the ‘Mortal Combat’ series, there just seems to be something lacking. Another ludicrously flamboyant entry is the original attempt to adapt the Lara Croft series, so perhaps a more grounded reboot can yield some positive results.

Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) is the fiercely independent daughter of an eccentric adventurer who vanished years earlier. Hoping to solve the mystery of her father's disappearance, Croft embarks on a perilous journey to his last-known destination, a fabled tomb on a mythical island somewhere off the coast of Japan.

So it’s no secret that the original on screen version of the famous game series was basically the best Jon Woo movie that Jon Woo didn’t actualy make. As Roger Ebert put it in his original review “the movie elevates goofiness to an art form”. It ridiculous and over the top but it would be a blatant lie to say it isn’t entertaining. It also fits in fairly well with the established tone of the video games on which it is based. Whereas this 2018 movie clearly borrows more from the 2013 reboot of the game series, which tries to re-contextualise Lara as being more than just a blank sex object.

If that is the main goal of ‘Tomb Raider’ then it does a decent job for the most part. It avoids making any broad characterisations regarding its protagonist and actually takes time to establish a cohesive arc that you can trace throughout the movie. Though in terms of introducing her the film does stray into focussing more on what Lara isn’t rather than what she actually is, for the most part they create a decent impression that conveys a strong sense of characterisation. Lara does feel like a fully developed character who I would genuinely be interested in seeing undertake more adventures should this franchise actually get off the ground.

It helps that in Alicia Vikander the filmmakers have found an excellent actor to embody the character while also subtly redefining her. Vikander fills the broad conception the viewers will have of Lara Croft, and occasionally indulges in the iconography around the character, but her performance also manages to subvert a lot of expectations regarding the character. She projects this sense of solidarity but at the same time isn’t invulnerable to a point where the character is impossible to relate it. She strengthens her in one sense so as to make the character more rounded but also shows a hint of vulnerability to evoke a sense of empathy.

I just wish the rest of the movie was as strong. That’s not to say that ‘Tomb Raider’ is bad but at the same time I can’t really call it a particularly memorable movie going experience. The narrative in particular feels generic and a little contrived. Outside of her missing father Lara never feels entirely involved within the story, being more of a passenger than a driving force. As is the case with most action films, the plot is purely a means to hang a series of exciting set pieces. But where ‘Tomb Raider’ struggles is feeling engaging outside of those sequences. It loses a considerable sense of urgency as a result of some awkward pacing.

But when the action does kick into gear it’s suitably rendered. The stunt work is particularly excellent and helps to give a sense of weight to each set piece. There are some questionable CGI backdrops but at least the film compensates by having a clear and concise geography to each environment so it’s never difficult to pinpoint who and where everyone is. There’s also a great sense of escalation to the way the actions scenes are orchestrated throughout the movie.  Rather than jumping straight into giant robots, bikers on wired and magical stone guards, it actually establishes a consistent tone and then gradually builds up the action to a satisfying third act.

Another pleasing aspect of the action is how director Roar Uthaug uses a particularly kinetic perspective to display it. It mimics a video game in the way the camera moves but also plays into the strengths of film that gives the movie a cinematic edge above other video game adaptations. All in all, it’s a method I would like to see paired up with a more involving plot. Between the direction and Vikander’s performance, ‘Tomb Raider’ could yield a lot of potential in the future because while this movie isn’t particularly strong, it establishes a firm precedent for any potential sequels.

A problematic plot elevated by some decent directing, the real standout of ‘Tomb Raider’ is Vikander simultaneously embodying and reinventing the mythos of Lara Croft in a worthwhile performance.

Result: 6/10

Sunday 18 March 2018

Death Wish

"If a man really wants to protect what's his, he has to do it for himself."

Of all the things that we need right now in today’s political climate, an unironic remake of ‘Death Wish’ by Eli Roth is so far down the list of priorities that I can’t even think of an appropriate metaphor to compare it to. Roth is not the only director who has sought influence from the video-nasties, but he does seem to be the only filmmaker who looks at it and exclusively saw the grit and violence without absorbing any semblance of the artistry or subversives that underpinned them (which wasn’t a whole lot to begin with). Settle in because I’ve got a lot to say about this thing.

Forget the plot, no one cares.

Much like the original adaptation of Brian Garfield’s novel, ‘Death Wish’ went through a number of iterations before arriving at the current destination. Whereas the original was once eyed by Sidney Lumet, this updated version began life as a script penned by Joe Carnahan who was also set to direct before being booted by the studio and eventually landing at the feet of Eli Roth. So it’s not the first time we have lost out on a potentially great adaptation of a novel that (though you would never know it from the movies) is a complex condemnation of vigilantism.

I honestly don’t even know where to begin. Do I analyse ‘Death Wish’ with consideration for its implied intent and message, what it has to say about modern society and how it conveys its central themes? Or do I actually judge it based on the merits of the craftsmanship behind the camera? To say the film is tone deaf regarding the climate to which it has been released is an understatement. Rather than bring up any complex ideas or any moral interrogation regarding its hero, the movie places him firmly on the high ground. The posters even describe him as a “patriot”.

However, that being said I think claiming that ‘Death Wish’ has any kind of message is giving it too much credit. Roth wants to make an exploitative vigilante thriller and I don’t think he cares or even realises the political implications of what he is churning out. There’s no political agenda, or at least not a deliberate one, within the movie because that would suggest Roth is aspiring to create anything other than a juvenile recreation of his own twisted cinematic fantasies.

Far be it from me to tell Roth what he can and can’t have fun with. But if you’re going to commit to either a tongue in cheek homage to vigilante B-pictures or try your hand at a genuinely serious thriller then pick one. Roth’s film aims for both (I think, it’s honestly hard to tell) and misses spectacularly, finding itself in the murky territory of a bland and cheap shell of nothingness. It is nigh on impossible to actually be invested in the stakes of the movie when there is not a single logical or consistent narrative point throughout the whole movie. Within the supposed gritty story lies a bottomless pit of narrative contrivances and plot holes that instantly dissipate any semblance of intrigue or tension.

At the same time the film simply isn’t that entertaining, or even at all. It’s flat and stale colour palette make for a dingy environment and Roth’s equally vapid direction gives the action scenes even less weight. The violence never feels impactful, the emotions never feel genuine and neither the themes nor the characters have any hint of believable development. As usual with Roth there is no sense of cohesion from scene to scene which leads me to believe that if he was trying to say anything with the movie I certainly couldn’t pick up on it. But something tells me that even if there was a way to interpret this unengaging slog I wouldn’t want to take that opportunity.

Bruce Willis is such a predictable and tired casting choice that it almost comes full circle and starts to feel miscast in its own right. He brings his usual unvested attitude to proceedings and therefore makes the protagonists descent into vigilantism completely ineffective. Furthermore when Willis is paired up in certain scenes with Vincent D’Onofrio which only highlights his inability to keep audiences engaged even more. At least D’Onofrio seems to be giving some amount of effort that at least establishes a consistent set of character traits, which makes Willis’ grumbling antic even more painful to sit through.

At the end of the day ‘Death Wish’ is a movie that does so much whilst achieving so little simultaneously. If you read into the implications of its moral code then it is flat out horrifying that anyone would think this is worthy of being released. But at the same time to assume the film has any central theme is assuming too much. Roth’s movie is ugly and hollow. It has nothing to say and commits to no single idea beyond paying homage to the most surface level attributes borrowed from the most loathsome sources. I could give more time in reciting why I hated the movie, but it seems like a waste of time given that Roth and Willis hardly seem to care either.

‘Death Wish’ isn’t worth the effort to hate or dissect.  

Result: 1/10

Friday 16 March 2018

A Wrinkle in Time

"Close your eyes. See with mine."

There’s definitely a lot of intrigue to Ava DuVernay’s ‘A Wrinkle in Time’. The trailers alone indicate that it is a highly ambitious work of science fiction and the talent both in front of and behind the camera is clear. DuVernay made a significant mark with 2014’s ‘Selma’ and her involving documentary ‘13th’. The question that remains is whether her transition to blockbuster filmmaking can yield sustainable results or will she face the challenges that so many filmmakers have before her when working under a big budget for the first time.

Meg Murry and her little brother, Charles Wallace, have been without their scientist father, Mr. Murry (Chris Pine), for five years, ever since he discovered a new planet and used the concept known as a tesseract to travel there. Joined by Meg's classmate Calvin O'Keefe and guided by the three mysterious astral travellers known as Mrs. Whatsit (Reese Witherspoon), Mrs. Who (Mindy Kaling) and Mrs. Which (Oprah Winfrey), the children brave a dangerous journey to a planet that possesses all of the evil in the universe.

There’s so much to like about ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ conceptually. From the empowering messages to the blind ambition of the movie. But as for execution, sadly a lot of it falls frustratingly flat. In fact the way the movie chooses to convey it’s themes to the screen almost undercuts the conceptual elements that I did enjoy. ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ is both massively convoluted but also over simplified to a point where the movie seemed to flash before my eyes. On that front I suppose I could say it was decently paced since I never felt myself growing bored, but at the same time I also never felt fully invested. Almost as if was caught in some kind of nether-space.

The problem is that while the overall message of the movie is impressive, for a young girl’s insecurities to feel as significant as the fate of the universe, the narrative is so condensed that none of the emotional information has time to sink in. Nor in fact does a lot of the plot exposition as it all seems over simplified to a point where I started to question the flaws within the movie’s internal logic before the first act was over. It tries to condense the plot of the movie to a point where the themes it wants to raise don’t feel adequately explored to have any discernible impact on the audience.

As far as DuVernay’s handling of the CGI heavy design goes, it’s a mixed bag to say the least. On the one hand her direction does give the movie a sense of energy that allows each set piece to feel engaging on a visual level. But at the same time none of the effects possess any dexterity or weight to them. Everything has this over glossed feel that creates a dissonance between what’s real and what is a computer prop. I suspect DuVernay knew the limitations of these effects since she shoots a lot of the characters in tight close ups to try and draw the eye away from the CGI. But if anything that just creates an awkward visual language to how each character is presented.

With so much focus on each actor’s face that doesn’t leave them a lot of room to embody their characters on a physical level and the result is that, like the film as a whole, they are all caught in a meditative position. I wouldn’t necessarily call the performances bad (save for a few awkward child performances), but at the same time I’d be lying if I said I every actually saw any of the actors as their characters. They sink into the world around them to such an extent that they are little more than pretty accessories. They serve as points of interest and little more.

I think the first act is the strongest because the entire film feels like its own first act. There is a real sense of intrigue when the movie begins but as the plot unfolds the pace just stays at the same pitch and speed. There’s no increasing urgency to the narrative or escalating tension to the stakes as they present themselves. By the time the climax of the film arrived I found myself struggling to care about anything that was happening. The only inking of investment I felt was within the sincere emotions that the film kept hinting towards. It’s in those areas in which you can see most of DuVernay’s craftsmanship as the details she puts into her protagonist are clear and concise. But like everything else in ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ those details are never developed into a fully functioning arc. It can’t help but feel vague and meandering, as if it’s lost within a sea of its own ideas.

High on ambition, but low on development and focus, ‘A Wrinkle in Time’ is a sincere but ultimately unfulfilling experience.

Result: 4/10

Tuesday 13 March 2018


"You need to know what's inside, so do I."

Films like Alex Garland’s ‘Ex Machina’ represent science fiction is at its most affecting. It takes high ideas and futuristic concepts but uses them to explore basic human emotions that are applicable to us all. It explores the way advancing technology can fundamentally change human nature not just on a physical level, but also on a moral one. It was an incredibly impressive directorial debut. Though it may be hard to believe, his second feature is even more ambitious and perhaps even more stunningly rendered.

When her husband (Oscar Isaac) becomes critically ill following his latest mission, a biologist (Natalie Portman) is recruited to the organisation that assigned him that mission. She and a team of scientists undertake and expedition into a mysterious zone called the Shimmer to try and identity its source. All but one of the previous explorers have been killed, and the mysteries that lie within prove to be beyond what any of them could have comprehended.

Unlike most science fiction films of recent memory, Garland’s ‘Annihilation’ doesn’t seem to fit into any singular category. The only way I can describe the film’s progression without spoiling it is to say it begins in the realm of Cronenberg or Carpenter and steadily builds its way to the likes of Kubrick or Tarkovsky. It begins as an unnerving journey into the unknown and climaxes with one of the most transcendent pieces of filmmaking I’ve seen from any film in recent years. It seems to carry the influences of all the filmmakers I listed earlier, but is also so distinctly unique and visionary that it demands to be pondered and obsessed over.

But ideas are nothing if they are empty, and ‘Annihilation’ immediately involves the audience by underpinning the outlandish premise with grounded human emotions. It uses these emotions as a through line to give the whole movie a connective tissue. There are emotional hooks that drive the characters and lure the audience into their plight. Though some are definitely explored more than others, the level of strong characterisation and subtle empathetic links does wonders for the film’s evolving narrative.

Much like the characters, as a viewer you’re both curious towards and dreading what will be found at the centre of the Shimmer. Garland displays such a mastery of atmospheric filmmaking here that you barely even notice the environment as being distinctly alien. It’s familiar but also eschewed and as the tension of the situation mounts it strays further into the realm of the unknown. Whereas any other movie with a finale like that of ‘Annihilation’ might feel like too strong of a turn, Garland crafts such an immersive world that it feels like the only natural progression for the story.

This owes a lot to the film’s highly distinctive soundtrack and visuals. Much like every other element of the film they evolve to suit the rapidly changing climate. The score begins as a homely, comforting element but slowly morphs into an electric driven nightmare. The cinematography uses a soft focus for the films first act but once the team descends past the Shimmer we get to witness a high contrast hell scape that as visually stimulating as it is unnerving. Even in some of the more horrific moments I found myself unable to look away for a second.

Make no mistake, ‘Annihilation’ is a deeply unsettling film. I think part of what makes it so affecting in that region is the way it varies the kind of horror in which it deals. There are shocking moments of visceral dread, which stomach churning body horror. Then there’s the emotional level of seeing characters you empathise with being put through this kind of trauma. But finally at the end comes the existential dread that feels ambitious, profound and so thoroughly earned. The movie is patient and elusive enough so that the finale which raises more questions than it answers still feels completely fulfilling. It invites you to dissect it as much as it is content with just allowing the viewer to back in its atmosphere and emotional weight.

In a film that contains long stretches of no dialogue the cast do an excellent job of conveying a great deal through their physicality alone. They all make for engaging screen presences and have a good dynamic as a group, with the script giving them plenty to work with in terms of crafting unique reactions to the events around them. Portman in particular gives such a performance that is brilliant in how measured it is. She feels as if she is using every second of screen time to create an impression. The cast are so good that it makes my only minor issue with the film more prevalent. The dialogue can’t help but feel too overt at times, spelling out exactly what the characters are thinking rather than alluding to it.

For most other movies those stray lines of dialogue wouldn’t be an issue, but in ‘Annihilation’ where everything is so beautifully ambiguous they stuck out a little. But it’s that ambiguity and sense of intrigue that drives the film and demands that it be revisited and interpreted. Films that are as bold and brilliant as ‘Annihilation’ will always be important because they are visionary in a way that few films dare to be.

Bold, beautiful and breath-taking. ‘Annihilation’ is an ambitious and highly profound piece of science fiction cinema.

Result: 9/10

The Hurricane Heist

"We're about to be crushed by the biggest storm of the century."

Cast your minds back to 2001, when the very first instalment of one of the world’s most successful franchises came onto our cinema screens. ‘The Fast and the Furious’ was a thinly veiled remake of ‘Point Break’ about drag racing (perhaps the least cinematic sport imaginable) and probably would have been forgotten by now had it not spawned the juggernaut of a film series that followed. Well apparently it’s still 2001 because the director of said movie is back with a film that feels like it came from the early 2000s in every regard.

A team of tech hackers embark on a $600 million robbery from a coastal U.S. mint facility at the same time a disastrous Category 5 hurricane is set to strike. The remaining people left in the deserted beach town are a meteorologist (Toby Kebbell), a Treasury agent and the meteorologist’s ex-Marine brother. Together they not only must survive the hurricane, but also stop the mastermind thieves from accomplishing the heist of the century.

Is there some kind of clause in Toby Kebbell’s contrast that prevents him from being in a good movie that doesn’t contain monkeys? That’s not really relevant to the review but I wanted to say it anyway. I also wanted to fill up space because I ask what, in this or any reality, is going to surprise you in a review of a movie called ‘The Hurricane Heist’. Is it even worth me giving you my opinion on this movie? You knew what this was going to be from the title alone, and if you had any inkling of hope then the choice of director, trailer and full premise should all have affirmed what you should already know.

In all fairness though there is some aspect of ‘The Hurricane Heist’ that leans into the inherent silliness of its premise and title. But I genuinely can’t tell how much of that is intentional. Even if it is, some knowing winks to the audience are not enough to save this avalanche of so-bad-it’s-good filmmaking. It feels like a straight to video movie attempting to capitalise on the success of a recent blockbuster. The difference is that this time it accidentally ended up in cinemas. The films various set pieces essentially amount to a bunch of sequences that feel like cheap recreations of an action scene from a much better movie. By “much better movies” I mean something like ‘Twister’, that’s the level we’re at, when I have to describe ‘Twister’ as being “much better” than something.

The plot is littered with so many contrivances and inconsistencies, from the opening frame to the last. Characters make decisions that are completely irrational and contradict everything the movie attempts to establish about them. They attempt to give the character a backstory to explain his traumatic history with hurricanes (because apparently we needed a reason to fear a natural disaster?) and both the concept and execution of the scene is unintentionally hilarious. At one point I honestly started to wonder if the film was incorporating elements of the supernatural into its plot, because there is no way you could be invested in the stakes of this movie and have any consideration for reality.

As I said before, one could think this is all in the name of being intentionally ludicrous. But the movie is so tonally confused that it transitions from the dumbest of reality defusing action scenes, to supposedly serious drama in which it asks the viewer to be invested in the character drama. To which I say no because the actors look about as bored and bland as the CGI effects. In both cases there is no sense of life, weight or energy to any of these elements as they appear on screen. It seems as if the films goal was to fill the screen with as many poorly composited CGI effects as possible, then cut to a reaction shot of a half asleep actor. That’s the pattern it repeats for its entire runtime.

The direction also does a woeful job at conveying any sense of space or scale. It’s odd because the one thing I can usually count on for most disaster movies are some decent wide shots of massive destruction. But in ‘The Hurricane Heist’ I honestly found it difficult to pin down where anything was at any given time. Much like the special effects, the direction keeps insisting that something is happening. It just seems very conflicted over whether or not to tell us precisely what is happening. I can’t exactly place that much blame on director Rob Cohen though since the screenplay has an inherent flaw when it comes to action scenes. Namely, visual storytelling is hindered slightly when it’s all taking place in the middle of a hurricane. You can coordinate the best gunfights and most exciting car chases, but they lose some of their impact when I’m having to squint through torrents of CGI rain to see them.

The tagline if “Make it rain”. Do you honestly need me to tell you what to think?

Result: 2/10

Thursday 8 March 2018

Game Night

"I've always enjoyed the camaraderie of good friends competing in games of chance and skill."

I feel like this thought goes through my head with almost every mainstream comedy movie that comes out now, but there seems to be a distinct lack of actual filmmaking within many comedies today. There’s not so much an issue with the writing or acting, but in terms of directing I find that many movies in the genre just end up being lightly edited improvisation rather than a constructed movie. I should probably stop soon before I start reciting the Every Frame a Painting video on Efgar Wright.

Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie's (Rachel McAdams) weekly game night gets kicked up a notch when Max's brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler) arranges a murder mystery party complete with fake thugs and federal agents. So when Brooks gets kidnapped, it's all supposed to be part of the game. As the competitors set out to solve the case, they start to learn that neither the game nor Brooks are what they seem to be.

Another thing that mainstream comedies mostly avoid is a darker edge to their comedy. It seems that a lot of comedy writers haven’t heard of the philosophy that all comedy is based on tragedy. But therein lies another problem, because too many comedies confuse darkness for mean spiritedness. It’s a kind of comedy that is neither funny nor witty but certainly nasty and unpleasant to watch. Basically it’s a difficult balancing act, which is why it comes as a pleasant surprise that ‘Game Night’ not only finds that balance but also creates a thoroughly entertaining film out of it.

The entire premise justifies the darker moments of comedy but the film is also unafraid to lean into the absurdity of it as well. Better yet is that these conflicting tones rarely undercut one another. The stakes feel real enough to be invested in the plot and the comedy feels rich enough to a point where the film is enjoyable. There’s a good level of intelligence to the way the humour is assembled as well. In a few moments it actually reminded me a bit of ‘Arrested Development’ (and not just because Jason Bateman is in it). Though it never reaches those transcendent heights there’s a similar wit running through the movie.

I think what helps tie a lot of the film together are the characters. They are well defined from the outset and usually act in accordance with how they are characterised. There’s never a moment of someone doing something irrational simply because the writers needed to make a joke. Every action feels motivated and in line with what the character was established as. Despite being simplistic, the characters all have distinct personalities as well. They’re not categorised into groups or types to fill a function. They each feel like rounded people with their own identities. The result is that as the movie progresses and said characters start to develop it feels rewarding as well as hilarious.

‘Game Night’ is also really well paced, which for a lot of comedies isn’t even a recognizable term anymore. Each joke and scene feels played to its full potential rather than being stretched out to a point where it’s more painful than funny. I can’t begin to describe how refreshing it is to see a comedy movie with genuine structure to it. It’s not a collection of actors riffing that goes nowhere. There’s genuine development and progression as the film goes on.

The cast are also terrific. Jason Bateman has been under utilised by Hollywood for far too long and it’s brilliant to see him using his comedic talent to the best of its abilities. His sardonic presence is on full display, but like the movie itself he’s allowed to drift into more absurd territory. Rachel McAdams fully commits to her role as well, conveying a great sense of humour through her performance. But I think the standout is Jesse Plemmons, whose role is less significant but highly memorable turn as a character who is so creepy that you’re almost caught in an awkward crossroads of whether to laugh or be unnerved, and it never fails to be brilliant.

There are a few issues with the film overall, but they are mostly in regards to its “objective” quality rather than any entertainment value. In all honesty I doubt anyone looking for a good time out of this movie will be too bothered by these faults. But for what it’s worth the direction feels a little lacking at times, struggling to convey moments of action. It also falters sometimes as it occasionally feels like it isn’t making the most of certain jokes. It’s difficult to describe but I just get the sense that a better sense of framing and composition could make some already funny jokes outright hilarious. There are also a few clunky lines if dialogue and scenes of exposition that feels out of tune. I get that those lines are necessary to move the plot forward but it comes across as a case of putting form over function as far as the movie itself goes.

Surprisingly hilarious and boasting a number of brilliant comedic performances, ‘Game Night’ is a thoroughly entertaining comedy.

Result: 7/10

Wednesday 7 March 2018

Red Sparrow

"They gave me a choice, die or become a sparrow."

It’s always intriguing to see a movie being sold as a mainstream genre entry only to actually be a twisted subversion of said genre that will likely leave most audiences highly uncomfortable. Basically anyone who went to see this movie hoping to get a cheap eyeful of Jenifer Lawrence is going to have sit go through some very heavy themes and uncomfortable levels of violence and they’ll also be made to feel a little guilty given what the film is actually about. Put it this way, I feel sorry for the couples who saw this movie hoping for a good time.

When Russian ballerina Dominika Egorova (Jenifer Lawrence) sustains a career ending injury, she finds herself in need of a job. Through familial connections she accepts a government job that requires her to put aside her humanity and use her sexuality as a means to seduce and extort information from powerful targets. This throws her into a dark and twisted labyrinth of mystery that soon becomes a deadly and destructive game.

We’ve all seen a spy movie in which a sexy seductress tries to foil our daring protagonist. But luckily our protagonist is always made of stronger stuff and has the courage to stick his dick elsewhere. So there is definitely something interesting in the concept of trying to deconstruct that archetype, especially in today’s climate. The problem with ‘Red Sparrow’ though is that there’s this dissonance between the themes of the movie and its central narrative. Some of the more provocative elements of the story are compelling, but they are not connected or explored to an extent that makes them feel functional.

This isn’t so much of a problem during the first half of the film in which we see the gruelling training of the protagonist. At least there the theme of the film relating to sexuality is acting as the driving force of the plot as well. We actually get to see the brutality and emotional consequences of this method of spying and it makes for an involving watch. However as the movie continues to unfold it loses a lot of those distinctive elements and gradually morphs into a fairly generic spy thriller. Not only does this create a sense of tonal dissonance between the first and second half of the film, but you also lose a lot of that intrigue that made the first half feel compelling.

What makes matters worse is that the second half is predictable in how it unfolds which undercuts any sense of mystery the film was trying to build up. There’s a sense that ‘Red Sparrow’ wants to have it both ways in how it treats its narrative and protagonist. On the one hand it wants to keep the viewer in the dark regarding what the main characters state of mind and evoke a sense of political intrigue, but at the same time it’s also predictable to a point where a lot of that mystery simply doesn’t exist. The it also wants to create emotional beats within the story that don’t feel earned because the film never established where the characters were at in regards to how they relate to one another.

Though the protagonist is somewhat mishandled in how she stands within the plot, I can at least praise Lawrence’s performance. She gives such an unflinching view of her subject that feels courageous and unyielding. Her accent is a little inconsistent through the movie but she compensates by bringing a great physicality to the role. Quite often she’s able to convey a sense of identity through her character’s movement rather than her dialogue. In fact considering the character’s background as a dancer that’s actually quite a brilliant way of embodying her back story as a means of complimenting her current actions.

I just wish the movie itself used a similar method of variation when it comes to exposition. Too often the expositional scenes of ‘Red Sparrow’ boil down to a series of conversations that are repetitive in tone and visual language. The pacing also suffers a lot as a result. At 2 hours and 20 minutes the move is a slog to get through, with each passing minute only feeling even longer as the plot drags on. Most of the interest I had in the first act dissipated a long time ago and I found myself waiting for everything to wrap up as quickly as possible. Francis Lawrence definitely has a measured approach to raising tension and this does work well when the plot has enough substance to make the narrative feel involving. It also has the added benefit of making the moments of violence feel even more impactful due to the way they contrast with tranquil scenes. However once the plot loses steam everything else is dragged down with it.

‘Red Sparrow’ is an intriguing concept that feels involving for the first act, but slowly weakens in interest the longer the movie goes on.

Result: 5/10

Monday 5 March 2018

90th Academy Awards Summary

It figures that the year in which I’m too busy to give my official predictions on who I think is going to win each Oscar is the same year in which I probably would have got most of them right (and now there’s no way to prove it). It was a predictable affair as far as the winners went but if there is anything to be learnt from last year’s ceremony it’s that surprises are both overrated and not always welcome. It’s especially pleasing given that most of the favourites to win were thoroughly deserving both in the performances they gave this year and for their careers as a whole.

The ceremony itself was enjoyable overall in my opinion. Jimmy Kimmel did a decent job hosting yet again and even though I was expecting to be bombarded with a series of jokes relating to the mix up last year, it actually wasn’t too overbearing. It was also gratifying to see him take a stand and actually name drop the likes of Weinstein. Rather than tip toeing around the issue that was hanging over all of Hollywood during 2017 he tackled it head on. The whole jet ski running gag was also a funny addition. Though it does make me worry that in 10 years’ time people are going to look back on Gary Oldman and Sam Rockwell’s speeches out of context and wonder why both of them keep mentioning a jet ski.

Speaking of which, the winners in the acting categories were all very well deserved amid a slew of extremely tough competition. Rockwell’s performance in ‘Three Billboards’ managed to evoke such hatred and empathy for the same character over a matter of hours that it’s absolutely worthy of awards recognition. Though I was slightly more partial to the likes of Laurie Metcalf or Leslie Manville winning Best Supporting Actress I was still pleased for Allison Janney as her performance was terrific. The same goes for Gary Oldman, because despite not being the biggest fan of ‘Darkest Hour’ personally, I think Oldman’s performance and career as a whole is absolutely worth some recognition at long last.

But the show stealer has to be Frances McDormand with a well deserved win among a plethora of hugely talented nominees who each gave incredible performances (seriously, Best Actress this year was a stunning line up). But it was her speech that resonated just as much as her amazing performance that put her there. It was a truly inspiring moment to watch and genuinely spoke volumes about where the film industry should be going in the future. For it to come at the end of such a troubling time in Hollywood made it all the more powerful. It lent some much needed perspective on how things are, and how they need to be. Plus I found her laughter to be both unnerving and weirdly adorable, so there’s that.

It was also a night of breaking barriers on account of Jordan Peele becoming the first African American to win an Academy Award for screenwriting. I figured that ‘Get Out’ would earn itself a victory here and as the night went on the thought of it taking home the top prize even started to cross my mind. The fact that Peele has achieved this with his first feature film is a testament to the power of fresh talent and for what it means to tap into the vein of social relevance through the art of filmmaking. I look forward to seeing his illustrious career as it unfolds.

More socially relevant presentations came in the form of a brilliant feature that spoke to why representation is so vital within the film industry. I could offer any argument that was given in those few minutes, but I think it’s best to just be reminded of what Kumail Nanjiani said. “Some of my favourite movies are by straight white dudes, about straight white dudes. Now, straight white dudes can watch movies starring me and you relate to that. It’s not that hard, I’ve been doing it my whole life.” So, we know who is hosting the 91st Academy Awards now right?

In other great news, Roger Deakins finally won an Oscar which is good considering that if his work for ‘Blade Runner 2049’ wasn’t rewarded with an Oscar I think I would have rioted (and by “riot” I mean “type angrily on the internet”). It’s great to see Deakins finally being rewarded after 14 nominations (most of which he should have won for by the way) and getting the top prize for what might be his masterpiece as ‘Blade Runner 2049’ truly is one of the most visually stunning movies ever made. It also took the best Visual Effects Oscar which was also thoroughly deserved. It was also great to see ‘Phantom Thread’ take home Best Costume Design. When your film is literally about the profession you’re nominated for I think you should probably receive an Oscar for it. I can also say it’s safe to bet that Mark Bridges probably didn’t think he would receive a jet ski due to his work on the film when he first signed up for it.

But the biggest winner of the night was Guillermo Del Toro and ‘The Shape of Water’. Del Toro’s work as an auteur has been astounding and it’s so brilliant to see him break through the stigma’s of awards shows by bringing a gothic fantasy romance about a woman falling in love with a fish (with undercurrent themes relating to repression, abuse and expression) take home the most awards as well as the biggest ones. Much like his long time friend Alejandro Innaritu did three years ago with ‘Birdman’ Del Toro picked up awards for Best Director and Best Picture. Can we also acknowledge how hilarious it is that Guillermo checked the envelope as he went up just to be absolutely sure? Though it may not have been my personal favourite of all the nominees, ‘The Shape of Water’ was a truly phenomenal and deeply personal movie that absolutely deserves recognition. Just to repeat, a movie about a woman having sex with a fish won Best Picture. How often does that happen?