Thursday, 31 May 2018

The Tale

"Can you just let me sit with my memories?"

There’s a lot of bravery in portraying certain subjects on screen. You have to risk not only putting your own creative vision out there, but under certain scrutiny it needs to be seen as servicing real people who have been affected by the very harsh reality of what your story is conveying. In the case of ‘The Tale’ that story is an autobiographical one, so to say there’s a level of intimacy in this highly troubling subject is an understatement. If anything that intimacy only serves to make the movie more authentic, as well as all the more disturbing.

Jennifer Fox lives comfortably as a documentary filmmaker and university professor. But when her mother discovers a story titled "The Tale" that Jennifer wrote when she was 13, detailing a special relationship Jennifer had with two adult coaches, Jennifer returns to the Carolina horse farm where the events transpired to try to reconcile her version of events with the truth and come to terms with how it has impacted her life and behaviour.

It is difficult to discuss precisely what makes ‘The Tale’ so impactful, and so relevant, without spoiling some of the film’s eventual revelations. But if you can derive anything from the film’s premise alone I think a viewer can gather some idea of where the narrative is heading. Also it’s not so much in the broader strokes which the film finds its effectiveness but in precisely how the protagonist comes to the realisation of what happened to her. Here Jennifer Fox brings us a film that is harrowing and difficult, but is also deeply important.

Maybe I’m subconsciously aware of this due to the autobiographical nature of the movie, but struck me about the way in which the story was told was the sheer intimacy of the portrait. As an audience we feel completely in tune with what Jennifer is experiencing as she uncovers each new memory. They don’t come in waves of revelation but slowly and surely, piece by piece. We understand the various methods in which she lied to herself, or even if it’s fair to say she lied but rather simply couldn’t comprehend what had happened to her.

It’s on that front that the structure and editing of ‘The Tale’ really stand out as exceptional. Through some sections of the film it morphs into a pure stream of consciousness as new shreds of information come to form a new perspective of a memory we previously thought to know. The editing is masterful in how it manipulates the audience in such a way that their viewpoint of Jennifer’s memories is alters just as her outlook is. The film really captures what it feels like to truly remember something, to have memories and see new details within them.

If anything the film is less about the trauma itself and more concerned with how Jennifer reconciles the abuse she suffered. She lashes out when someone suggests she might be a victim because she hates to think of herself as weak (by her own definition of “weak”) in any sense. The film details her thought process as a child that led her to deny the truth for so many years. It provides a motive for why she manipulated her own life story to be a more comfortable narrative. She alters certain details and blocks others, from convincing herself that she was slightly older in her memory than in reality, to how she failed to notice the fact that she was exhibiting the very symptoms she herself had noticed in other victims she interviewed.

All of this emotional complexity is brought to the forefront by a fantastic performance from Laura Dern. She conveys such an acute sense of Jennifer being a woman gradually opening a well of repressed emotions. As the film goes on Dern’s performance allows these emotions to seep through one crack at a time. She tries to remain courteous, professional and “strong” (again by her own definition) through this ordeal, but cracks gradually appear in her armour. When these emotions come flooding out near the end of the movie it is as cathartic as it is heart breaking.

A good portion of the movie is also occupied by Isabelle Nelisse as the younger version of Jennifer. The young actress brilliantly shows the progression of the character as she is drawn into what will become something more horrific than many viewers can imagine. The apprehension and curiosity she displays is highly evocative, as is her eventual withdrawal and denial. I empathised so deeply with her motives to repress what really happened to her due to a number of complex and conflicting emotions that she conveys perfectly.

I spent the first half of ‘The Tale’ under the impression that its direction was lacking a certain dynamic. But when taken as a whole I soon realised how it was part of an inspired progression through visuals. Jennifer’s current life is initially flat and stable, while her memories are mostly shot using a soft focus and simplistic staging. But as the memories take shape the depth of field increases as each repressed recollection is truly fleshed out. Then the camera takes a handheld and more movement oriented approach when it comes to displaying her modern life, as these emotions gradually unbalance the stability she thought she possessed.

As I said at the start of this review, there is bravery in telling a story of this nature. But I can’t even begin to imagine the courage needed to tell one that is this closely related to the artist that is telling it. There are disturbing moment throughout ‘The Tale’ as the film is unflinching and unapologetic in its depiction of the abuse Jennifer underwent. It validates why victims of this kind of abuse feel the need to block their trauma, both consciously and subconsciously.

‘The Tale’ is an intimate story of repression and revelations, told in a way that is equal parts evocative and essential.  

Result: 8/10

Fahrenheit 451

"We're not born evil, we must be made evil by the fire. Then we can be happy." 

I can understand a level of scepticism that comes with any new adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s 1953 novel, especially given that the last attempt to bring the novel to life on the big screen was helmed by legendary auteur Francois Truffaut. But it’s not as if recent events don’t lend themselves to an adaptation of the novel being frighteningly relevant. Also with the talent attached to this version that includes Michael B Jordan and Michael Shannon as well as the directing prowess of Ramin Bahrani, there’s reason to hope for something special.

In the distant future, books are banned and ordered to be burned by the "firemen". One of these firemen is Guy Montag (Michael B Jordan) who along with his superior John Beatty (Michael Shannon), goes about his work without questioning motives, believing he is helping out with the end of seeking knowledge. But all of this is soon to change.

Bahrani’s films have always steered towards being stories of social relevance just as much as they are stories of individuals, and he always strikes the perfect balance between these two goals. One only need to look at ‘Chop Shop’, ‘Goodbye Solo’ or ’99 Homes’ for proof of this. Given that ‘Fahrenheit 451’ is explicitly political in its allegory, in theory all Bahrani would have to accomplish to make a hard hitting adaptation of Bradbury’s novel would be to take his usual storytelling prowess to the sensibilities of a more high concept narrative. But that theory doesn’t quite come across in execution.

The film seems much more prioritised in trying to hit the allegorical beats of the narrative rather than work as a compelling story in of itself. There’s no urgency to the plot or how we are introduced to this dystopia. That might be due to the fact that so much of that dystopia is conveyed through clumsy exposition rather than any solid visual storytelling. There’s not enough substance within the opening act of ‘Fahrenheit 451’ to make the audience feel involved with the plot and instead the movie just trudges forward at the same dreary pace at which it opens.

It’s somewhat baffling because Bahrani’s usually impeccable visual language seems to be severely lacking here. His style which is often achingly humane just comes across as repetitive and derivative here. There’s no visual flair or dynamic movement to the way he films these scenes and as a result the movie just descends into being one flatly staged scene after another, each one feeling more inconsequential than the last. I defy anyone to feel any serious impact as the plot unfolds or to feel the biting social allegories that Bradbury’s novel conveyed so fearfully.

Another issue in making the ideas within the narrative feel connected to our own lives is how the film renders its dystopian landscape as more alien and artificial. It almost seems as if the goal of the production design was to make the world of the fireman feel as separate from our own. It puts a space between the humane core of the story and the social relevance it holds. There’s simply no major impact to be had when these characters experience certain events because they are all so alienated from any potential parallel between their world and ours that would make their plight feel resonant.

This adaptation also fails to understand that certain aspects of the book on which it is based simply do not translate as well to the screen. Truffaut understood this in his version when he worked to make the material fit more uniquely into the medium of film rather than the written word from which it originated. But so much of the dialogue and exposition in this 2018 version comes across as stilted and artificial. As I said earlier Bahrani’s direction falls short of making these conversations feel engaging anyway, but the mechanical nature of the dialogue only makes the issue even more noticeable.

Shannon and Jordan are usually the saving graces of any bad movie either one of them is in. However while I wouldn’t call their performances in ‘Fahrenheit 451’ incompetent, they lack a dimension that would give the characters they are portraying a sense of discernible depth. There’s not enough humanity within Shannon’s portrayal of Beatty for the character to feel sympathetic, which is a problem given that the film repeatedly asks us to relate to his situation. Jordan at least shows more range as he can break out a villainous menace while following the orders of his repressive superiors, but also display a more conflicted vulnerability as he begins to have doubts for his cause. But these different motives are never unified by consistent characteristics or traits so his performance feels highly inconsistent. Any film in which these two actors can’t evoke something from me really is a nightmare dystopia come to life.

A sterile and uninspired adaptation of what should be an all too relevant story, this HBO film is the product of several talented artists who just seem to be missing the mark on this occasion.  

Result: 2/10

Wednesday, 30 May 2018

How to Talk to Girls at Parties

"I feel alive. I feel open."

There are certain films that excel in one area so brilliantly that you almost want to forgive them for the ways in which they are lacking. Such is the conundrum I find myself in when trying to review John Cameron-Mitchell’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s short story ‘How to Talk to Girls at Parties’. Having first premiered at Cannes in 2017 the film has sat in purgatory for just over a full year before finally being available for wide viewing.

Young Enn (Alex Sharp) and his best friends stumble upon a bizarre and eccentric gathering of teenagers who are from another planet, visiting Earth to complete a mysterious rite of passage. That doesn't stop Enn from falling madly in love with Zan (Elle Fanning), a beautiful and rebellious alien who becomes fascinated with him. Together, they embark on a delirious adventure through the kinetic, punk rock world of 1970s London.

‘How to Talk to Girls at Parties’ has so much energy that it almost doesn’t know what to do with it all. There are so many intriguing ideas, emotional beats and narrative turns that the movie becomes weighed down by its own ambition. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t find the film affecting at certain times but I’d also be lying if I said that makes up for the sheer level of irregular moods and styles within the film, as well as how it struggles to keep a hold of them all or develop them in any meaningful way.

To say that the film suffers from tonal dissonance is an understatement. Cameron-Mitchell tries to navigate a spectrum that goes from grounded kitchen sink realism to full on experimental science fiction and quite often the various points on this spectrum at which the film finds itself don’t meld well. It’s hard to know which of the film’s stakes are to be taken seriously or which are just stylistic tendencies, leading to a narrative that feels confused and muddled. By the time the third act rolled around I was still struggling to grapple with exactly what was at stake and what these characters were motivated by.

All of this doesn’t speak to a lack of effort though, because this movie really aims high on both a conceptual and thematic level. ‘How to Talk to Girls at Parties’ raises any number of prevalent themes from generational gaps to political drives. But ultimately none of these themes feel earned or developed. They are raised when the characters directly talk about them but never integrated into the narrative in a way that allows them to evolve or for the discussion to be furthered. There are a lot of stylistic flourishes that don’t feel fully motivated either.

That being said the movie is still entertaining on the surface. Cameron-Mitchell injects the proceedings with a high amount of energy that allows the story to fly by even if the various turns it takes feel out of synch. There’s an undeniable charm to the story that feels like it could be more compelling if it were stripped down to its bare components. At its core ‘How to Talk to Girls at Parties’ seems to be a movie about the human experience, which the film conveys brilliantly in scenes of small successes and failings.

There are also a number of great performances that make the movie standout. For better or worse this is the only film where you can see Nicole Kidman as a punk rocker facing off against Ruth Wilson as a surreal alien entity. Then there’s Alex Sharp who brings a wonderfully innocent charm to his role, whilst Elle Fanning’s excellent alienated outlook is the source for several comedic moments, as well as some genuinely poignant ones as well.  

I also think any viewer can find a lot to admire in the production design of the film. The surreal interior design of the alien cult’s house and outfits is visually stimulating as well as service as a striking contrast to the grey slums of 1970s England in which the story begins. The cinematography also evokes a similar feel, bathing the new landscapes in a bright glow that helps instil the same sense of confusion and bewilderment from the audience which the characters must be feeling. But then it the film’s visual palette can easily revert back to the home town of its protagonist and make that environment feel alien through the eyes of the tourist experiencing them for the first time.

The problem though is that there is nothing to tie these conflicting styles together. The film escalates and descends in tone and style so rapidly that it’s almost hard to keep track of what the narrative is even aiming to achieve. The story of the same name on which ‘How to Talk to Girls at Parties’ is based on is just 18 pages long, meaning that said story has been stretched into a feature length narrative and it honestly shows. There’s a number of half-baked ideas that feel relevant but rarely amount to anything more significant than flashy pulp.  

Stylish and enjoyable, but never focussed enough to amount to anything more meaningful, ‘How to Talk to Girls at Parties’ is a unique but somewhat unfulfilling experience.

Result: 5/10


"The only thing worse than being incompetent or being unkind or being evil, is being indecisive."

There’s always something so enticing about a directorial debut. A completely clean slate that represents both the promise of a new movie that could yield a new style from a potentially gifted filmmaker, but also the idea that this first feature could be the first of many to come from said filmmaker. Obviously this is all somewhat ambitious and every year we see dozens of new releases from upstart directors, but it’s always great to see one emerge that really feels like something promising.

Childhood friends Lily (Anya-Taylor Joy) and Amanda (Olivia Cooke) reconnect in suburban Connecticut after years of growing apart. Lily has turned into a polished upper-class teenager who has a fancy boarding school on her transcript and a coveted internship on her resume. Amanda has developed a sharp wit and her own particular attitude but all in the process of becoming a social outcast. Though they initially seem completely at odds, the pair eventually bond and hatch a plan to solve both of their problems.

My introduction to this review might make the reader think that ‘Thoroughbreds’ is some ground-breaking work of brilliance, which it is no. It’s a solid, darkly comedic thriller with a tight execution and some excellent performances from its cast. But what makes the movie exciting on a broader scale is how distinctly and firmly first time director Cory Finley has control and command of his craft. ‘Thoroughbreds’ flips through multiple genres, dives into the psyches of numerous characters and covers some intriguingly deep themes without ever feeling strained over its 93 minute runtime.

‘Thoroughbreds’ is one of the few films I would describe as being comedic whilst also not being particularly funny. While that may sound like a contradiction in terms what I mean is that the movie has the pacing and flow of a comedy in that it has the ability to breeze past certain narrative details that would otherwise slow the story down. There’s a briskness to the way the narrative unfolds that actually works to make the movie that much more engaging. On paper the plot has the trappings of a twisted psychological thriller but through execution the movie felt much more watchable than something of that genre.

But what makes the film feel distinctive is how it navigates these trappings without ever shying away from the substance that bestows a greater level of depth to the characters. The dynamic between Lily and Amanda is especially engaging, with their interplay throughout being a highlight of the movie. The direction also does a lot to convey their developing relationship. Finley deliberately places them on opposite sides of the frame and uses a completely symmetrical shot/reverse shot pattern to display their conversations during the film’s first act, only to then gradually bring them closer both psychically and metaphorically as the film progresses.

These two characters are also elevated by the truly fantastic performances by Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor Joy. There’s a coldness to Cooke’s role that makes her an initially intimidating presence, but the mannerisms with which Cooke uses to embody that character make her oddly relatable. Her characteristics never come across as empty quirks but instead a fully rounded individual. On the other hand there’s Anya Taylor Joy whose performance deliberately showcases more empathy and vulnerability, but loses none of the determination and confidence that eventually brings these two women together.

‘Thoroughbreds’ also happens to be one of the final films of Anton Yelchin, whose supporting performance in the film is also wonderful to behold. Much like the protagonists, Yelchin initially comes across as a one dimensional character but then subverts that expectation to bring a truly surprising level of depth to the character. It stands as a testament to Yelchin’s talent as an actor and why it remains such a tragedy that his career and life was cut short.

As I said at the start though, ‘Thoroughbreds’ stands out for being a real display of potential from its writer and director. Cory Finley displays such a capable grasp of visual storytelling which he employs numerous times within the film to tighten the movie’s pacing even further. There’s no clunky exposition save for a few overtly told backstories and even those moments serve the characters development. The meta-narrative of these moments of openness communicates how the characters have become more trusting of whoever they are opening up to. Finley’s efficient direction also keeps the movie’s various moods strung nicely together. Just as there are many sharply humorous moments within ‘Thoroughbreds’ there are also sections of chilling tension. But these never feel at odds with one another.

There’s also an affinity for details in Finley’s visual language that, while sometimes come across as gratuitous in that I can’t really place how they serve the story, do help to single his filmmaking out as a distinctive presence. This also extends to the characters which through nothing more than the way Finley frames certain people at certain times are still allowed to breathe amid the fast moving plot. ‘Thoroughbreds’ is the kind of movie which flies by and yet still has plenty of substance to dig into.

Tightly placed, meticulously crafted and boasting a number of great performances, ‘Thoroughbreds’ is a highly impressive directorial debut from Cory Finley.

Result: 8/10

Monday, 28 May 2018

Have a Nice Day

"I'm just passing through, don't worry about who I am."

The issue of style over substance is always a difficult one to distil. Certain movies go to great lengths to infuse their style and substance together so that they complement one another for each moment of screen time. But then again other movies go to the lengths of making points relating to how the style is the substance, and style need not be motivated if it itself is the main driving force behind a film’s creative outlook. In essence one has to make a judgement on the film’s story and decide whether the specific stylistic choices hurt or hinder the movie as a whole.

Xiao Zhang is a young driver working for a brutal gang, who decides to steal a bag of money from his employers. This prompts a city wide chase from several nefarious people from questionable backgrounds who are each driven by their own conflicts to procure the stolen money and in turn are drawn into a bloody and messy conflict.

There’s no question that the actual plot of Liu Jian’s crime film isn’t that original by way of its own merit. There are contrivances littered throughout the plot and hardly any involving turns in the overall structure of the movie, what you see within the first five minutes is basically what you get for the remainder of the movie. However it distinguishes itself through the method of how said plot is told and while it still flawed, it’s certainly intriguing to witness.

As I said earlier, ‘Have a Nice Day’ is the kind of movie in which the style is the very essence of the film and why it leaves any impression. The background of each frame is richly drawn and layered, but the character animation itself is simplistic and somewhat stilted. Perhaps alluding to the fact that in the grand scheme of things the environment around these characters is what matters, and their personal struggles are crude and meaningless in the end.

That would certainly match the tone of the film’s dialogue, which is littered with allusions to the broader economic situation that motivates these characters. They all share in a constant struggle to make ends meet, in a world that is rapidly embracing globalism and merging of cultures. But Liu doesn’t seem intent on making a statement on these issues as much as he just wants to observe them. He uses them as a means to frame his characters and then allows his escalating crime story to unfold.

Perhaps that is also where ‘Have a Nice Day’ stumbles. It’s central plot and thematic conceit are intriguing for the first half of the movie but gradually begin to wear thin with no greater detail to characters or theme. The film feels underdeveloped as the plot continues to trudge forward and the characters refuse to be fleshed out or endowed with any kind of depth. We only know the basic motivation of the main character Xiao and even then this drive isn’t explored to any greater detail than what is immediately presented to us.

It also doesn’t help that the story goes through several non sequiturs and detours just to arrive at the same destination. The film attempts to structure itself but none of these pacing decisions come across as purposeful or meaningful in any significant way. Also, as inventive as the various stylistic quirks within the movie are, they can’t help but defuse any atmosphere the film had built up to that point within the scene. I understand that they were deliberate placements but they seem to work in contrast to certain creative decisions that were made prior to their inclusion.

But despite these narrative flaws, there’s still a lot to admire within ‘Have a Nice Day’ which marks it out as one of the more unique filmic experiences so far this year. Firstly the wonderfully dark sense of humour that permeates the movie is noted right from the start and crops up to brilliant effect throughout the film. It lends itself to the overall satirical feel of the film and gives some of the more brutal scenes an added sense of depth. None of the violence within ‘Have a Nice Day’ feels contrived because it’s clear that it serves a purpose wither within the story or the greater thematic conceit that the film is trying to communicate.

‘Have a Nice Day’ the kind of movie that I can admire more than love. It clearly has a subject to discuss and makes sharp commentary on broad social issues within the environment in which the story is set. But the film also feels too awkward on a narrative level to really draw me in. I struggled to feel invested or involved in what was happening mainly because the film seemed to take every opportunity to ensure I wasn’t, which in turn made its ultimate impact much less prevalent.

Stylish and artfully constructed, but too distant to feel compelling, ‘Have a Nice Day’ is an flawed but still highly intriguing work of cinema.

Result: 6/10

Friday, 25 May 2018

Deadpool 2

"Doing the right thing is messy. But sometimes, to do what's right, you have to fight dirty."

Though it was only 2 years ago it’s almost difficult to imagine a time before ‘Deadpool’ (I mean it isn’t really but for the sake of this introduction pretend it is). It was a time at which financial gain and out of the box thinking were not considered compatible aspects of a comic book movie, or certainly not on a large scale. The movie felt like a breath of fresh air because that’s precisely what it was, an amazing new section of the genre that resonated with audiences on a massive scale. The question is though, how does a sequel to such a movie remain as fresh and resonant?

Wisecracking mercenary Deadpool is still living the fast life when he (Ryan Reynolds) meets Russell (Julian Dennison), an unstable teenage mutant in dire need of support. When Russell becomes the target of Cable (Josh Brolin), a genetically enhanced soldier from the future, Deadpool gathers an elite force of mutants with the goal of protecting the young mutant from his technologically advanced hunter.

There’s a tendency with movies that are surprisingly successful to lose some of their charm with the sequel. A studio will see an easy opportunity and try to manufacture the same kind of passionately driven intent that made the original any kind of phenomenon in the first place. In fact if any sequel would fall into this trap I was particularly worried that it might be ‘Deadpool 2’ as the violent, satirical, fourth wall breaking stylistics of the first movie could easily confuse any executive into believing that it was merely the surface level elements that drove the first film to success and not the deeper and more resonant themes.

With all of that being said it is a pleasant surprise that ‘Deadpool 2’ is not only a worthy successor, but as a piece of cinema it might just be even more impressive than the original. The biggest improvement would be the framing, cinematography and composition. Though Tim Miller brought a great sense of kinetic energy in his direction of the first film his framing seemed a little flat and uninspired at times. However, under David Leitch’s direction (or as the opening credits of this movie put it, “One of the guys who killed John Wick’s dog”) ‘Deadpool 2’ makes great use of varying compositions and angles. Even in the scenes which lack action Leitch finds ways to make the scene layout feel dynamic and involving.

At the centre of that frame is, as always, Ryan Reynolds as the titular merc with a mouth. Reynolds once again brings great comedic timing and such charisma to the role that it is honestly hard to see Wade Wilson as anything other than the character. It’s obvious that Reynolds pours so much of himself into the role that he can’t help but render him as a fully realised entity. An aspect of his performance as Deadpool that seems to be overlooked is how capably he handles the dramatic moments. For all the big laughs (and there are plenty) I never had trouble being invested in the dramatic moments as well thanks to Reynolds commitment.

The idea of featuring any sense of sincere drama in a movie with the kind of violent and comedic undertones as ‘Deadpool 2’ might seem unlikely. But much like its predecessor ‘Deadpool 2’ manages to underpin the action and one liners with a character driven storyline that truly endears the audience to what is unfolding in front of them. It establishes its characters but then seeks to peer into them and uncover their motives, history and humane flaws. It genuinely caught me off guard when the third act came around and I realised just how invested I was in this mismatched group of characters, even if the story preceding it does drag occasionally due to some poor pacing. The emotional beats feel earned and rarely come across as manipulative. Of course the added benefit that ‘Deadpool 2’ has is that the instant a moment does start to feel melodramatic they can turn to the audience and be in on the joke.

Obviously these moments would hardly land with the same resonance if they were not held up by such a talented array of supporting performances. Josh Brolin begins his turn as Cable exuding the appropriate amount of menace whilst being a pitch perfect counterpoint to Reynolds turn as Deadpool so that their interactions are a true highlight of the movie. But Brolin also specialises in taking these seemingly one note characters and adding a layer of humanity to them, which he executes brilliantly here. Zazie Beetz is truly fantastic as Domino, striking just the right level of grounded attitude to make both the character and her interactions with the other players of this world feel believable. It’s difficult of me to give away too much of what makes the other actors precisely so brilliant without revealing some plot details or hilarious comedic turns, but rest assured that everyone is committed to delivering a brilliant punchline.

Losing none of the entertaining factors nor the emotionally resonant beats that made its predecessor connect with audiences, ‘Deadpool 2’ is most definitely a worthy sequel.   

Result: 8/10

Friday, 4 May 2018

Love, Simon

"I'm done living in a world where I don't get to be who I am."

I feel like some of the best movies come about by taking a relatively familiar style of genre and injecting it with a more progressive twist. We’ve seen this take effect within almost any genre from superhero blockbusters to noir and basically everything that falls in between. It’s a method of illuminating an intriguing study of a new subject whilst adding newfound sense of energy to a familiar premise. Wouldn’t you know this just happens to be related to a movie I just watched?

Simon (Nick Robinson) is a teenage boy attending high school in suburban Atlanta, Georgia. He has to navigate the daily trials and tribulations of high school like any of his peers, but for Simon in particular life is currently a little more complicated because of one simple fact; he’s gay. Having yet to tell his family or friends he struggles with his own identity and knowing who to trust.

I did walk into ‘Love, Simon’ with some trepidation. Mostly I was worried that this kind of movie was a few years too late in that it’s message was somewhat pandering given the more accepting nature of our more civilised society. After all we now have movies like ‘Call Me By Your Name’ in which the sexuality of the main character is completely inconsequential. But of course, that’s a slight misconception. The reality of life, and the life the characters of ‘Love, Simon’ leads is that any search for identity can still be difficult. Despite the great steps we’ve made we still can’t help but box kids into believing that the status quo is to be heterosexual. Put it this way, no one feels the need to come out as straight.

On top of that, the stakes of coming out are still real and prevalent to anyone in that situation, which is what ‘Love, Simon’ conveys brilliantly. It establishes this atmosphere of playful anxiety in which the protagonist is in the same situation as the audience. Sure it’s easy to presume that everyone will be accepting of your openness, but it’s another thing entirely to actually take that step because the truth is that you’ll never know exactly how everyone will react.

Especially if you’re in the war torn battleground in which empathy and tolerance go to die, otherwise known as high school. Greg Berlanti’s direction does an impeccable job of placing the audience directly within the atmosphere of Simon’s school life. We come to understand his daily routine, the dynamic he has with his friends and allude to the larger picture of where he falls within the school as a whole. Which also wonders to create stakes for Simon having to come out because it risks disrupting that dynamic both he and the audience have become endeared to.

The direction also keeps the movie suitably grounded, which matches the screenplay and performances perfectly. The cast manage to make every character within ‘Love, Simon’ distinguishable without becoming to caricatures. Each performance feels layered and empathetic, which works in tandem to how the characters are treated within the screenplay. The movie could take the easy route of merely pitying Simon but instead it tries harder and achieves a much greater sense of emotional connection.

The truth is you don’t have to be within Simon’s specific situation to relate to him. This is a story that anyone who has struggled with their identity during high school (which is basically everyone) can empathise with this story and the many turns it takes. The dialogue is believable enough so as not to alienate the audience but is also witty enough to be engaging. In fact there are a lot of inventive elements within the screenplay that toy with audience expectation and create a very surprising order of events. The premise had me thinking that the structure of ‘Love, Simon’ would be easy to predict when in reality it is refreshingly smart in how it unfolds.

But just as the structure subverts expectations at some points, it tries to force certain aspects of the film to conform to where it suits the movie’s pacing rather than when it feels natural. For instance, and without spoiling anything, in order to raise stakes for the third act the movie gives a reason for Simon to fall out with his friends that feels somewhat contrived. It’s not that their motivation for this fallout isn’t understandable but it does come into conflict with who each of these characters were established as earlier in the film.

Overall that is a minor flaw though, because ‘Love, Simon’ contains such a broad palette of human emotions that it’s hard not to be endeared and effected by its various turns. At times it’s the most hilarious comedies I’ve seen thus far this year and at others it’s one of the most endearing dramas. But one consistent thing through the movie is how inspirational and uplifting it is, both for the film itself and what it represents in our cinematic landscape.

‘Love, Simon’ is a wonderfully engaging and evocative coming of age drama.

Result: 8/10

Truth Or Dare

"The game is real. Wherever you go, whatever you do, it will find you."

There seems to be an increased reliance on gimmicks when it comes to horror movies now, particularly within bad horror movies because the fact that their plot was written around a premise becomes abundantly clear. I think it’s with the intent to draw in a younger audience by crafting a horror movie around something that they can relate to. Every teenager has played truth or dare at some point right? (if you haven’t then just be thankful). At this point I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if we get a ‘Never Have I Ever Movie’.

Olivia, Lucas and a group of their college friends travel to Mexico for one last getaway before graduation. While there, a stranger convinces one of the students to play a seemingly harmless game of truth or dare with the others. Once the game starts, it awakens something evil a demon which forces the friends to share dark secrets and confront their deepest fears.

Actually since typing that introduction I remembered that there was a whole sequence within ‘Unfriended’ that used Never Have I Ever as the premise for a sequence that was apparently supposed to be scary but in all honesty just came off as ridiculous. That being said if you thought that was ridiculous then ‘Truth Or Dare’ will expose you to entirely new levels of stupidity masquerading as a horror film. It’s a rare kind of horror film that is so inept that I almost want to recommend it.

What makes ‘Truth Or Dare’ uniquely bad is that the screenplay or narrative in of themselves are not horrendously awful. Make no mistake they are still contrived, formulaic and as logic defying as any terrible slasher. But they are not bizarre enough on their own to make this movie feel enjoyably terrible. That is due to the execution which just feels so awkward and meandering in how it tries to convey any mood or information to the audience.

Even the establishing scenes which have the goal of introducing the characters and environment more than evoking any sense of fear, still come across as woefully misguided. The actors are so often filmed in awkward close ups that just come across as jarring rather than uncomfortable. This alone would not be enough to ruin a movie, but the particular directorial choices made during this first act manage to highlight the other awful aspects of the movie.

Think of it as a snowball effect. Bad acting makes already awful dialogue sound even more artificial, which is then highlighted by the contrived and awkward style of direction, which are subsequently edited in a manner that draws even more attention to them. In the first act of ‘Truth Or Dare’ I can’t recall any basic establishing shots or even a simple shot/reverse shot. Many filmmakers within the horror genre have used more unconventional methods of shooting to evoke an unsettling atmosphere but the effective examples of that have strong casts and screenplays to work with. In this case it just comes across as painfully superficial.

The whole thing is only made more hilarious due to how blatantly obvious it is that the movie was written by people attempting to pander towards younger audiences with absolutely no understanding of youth culture. If someone my age started talking in the same way as some of the characters in this movie then I would instantly have to assume something supernatural was taking place due to how stilted it is. The fact that the characters stating this dialogue are all superficial blank slates whose behaviour and motivations change constantly throughout the movie creates a cast that is so inconsistent in their dynamic and actions that I defy anyone to describe any of their personalities.

The weak way in which the characters are written almost makes me hesitate to criticise the cast because it’s hard to imagine anyone elevating this material. All in all they make for what might be the least compelling cast of characters that it’s humanly possible to conceive of. Their dynamic at the start of the film tries to allude towards the way their interaction develops and dictates their decisions later down the road but neither the actors nor the screenplay possess enough nuance to make those setups not feel painfully obvious. Then at one point the screenplay demands that the actors pull off a more menacing persona as they become possessed which none of them are capable of conveying either.  

But these characterisations are nothing compared to the frankly laughable attempts to induce fear within ‘Truth Or Dare’. This is a more subjective aspect of criticising the movie but there are so many instances in which the movie presents a visual that is supposed to be frightening but instead elicited laughter from me. It’s hard to explain but some moments within the film are simply hilarious. Maybe it’s the inherent ridiculousness of these images and the way they are rendered, maybe it’s the complete commitment the movie has on insisting that a literal ear to ear smile is immensely frightening. Whatever the reason, the genuinely frightening moments within ‘Truth or Dare’ make it one of the least affecting horror movies in recent memory.

Lazy and uninspired in a way that makes even the more unintentionally hilarious parts difficult to endure, ‘Truth Or Dare’ represents all the faults of modern horror.

Result: 1/10