Friday, 30 November 2018

The Miseducation of Cameron Post

"I'm tired of feeling disgusted with myself."

It is interesting how we label certain movies as “disturbing” and what exactly constitutes those disturbing aspects of said movie. We often associate it with the pure reaction of seeing something that unnerves us on a visceral level, which most often comes down to physical mutilation or act of violence. However there is something to be said for the subtler ways movies can disturb us, how certain subjects and practises seem so alien and absurd that it is not until we truly dwell on them and witness them in detail that the horror emerges.

After being caught in a sexual encounter with another young girl, Cameron Post (Chloe Grace Moretz) is sent by her devoutly Christian aunt to an institution called God’s Promise, a centre that offers “gay conversion therapy”. Soon Cameron finds herself bonding with the other teenagers in the establishment, each one of them coming to terms with their own identity and the prejudice surrounding them.  

It is both surprising and entirely inevitable that Desiree Akhavan, the director of this film, cites John Hughes as being one of her biggest influences. The gender dynamics and sexual politics of Hughes coming of age movies were often limited to their own era, but his core themes of identity and disenfranchisement have an enduring legacy which is felt keenly in ‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’. The biggest difference between the two is that where Hughes found humour and optimism in the struggles of his teenagers, Akhavan builds towards a much bleaker and more disturbing picture.

That is not to say ‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’ is incapable of finding humour in certain places. In fact the first act almost seems to enjoy finding comedy in the measures God’s Promise puts in place and the idiotic details of its procedures. From fear that a boy having long hair will attribute to his sexuality to encouraging the girls not to abbreviate their names for fear of making them more masculine, one can’t help but laugh at the stupidity of such “logic”.

However as the film moves along the sense of entrapment truly sinks in as it dawns upon Cameron and the viewer that a facility like this is only the manifestation of a prejudice that is just as prevalent on the outside world. Certain story beats drive this point home with heart-breaking effect and with each impactful moment Akhavan is skilled amount to utilise a sense of quietness so as to allow the true existential horror of the circumstances to really sink into the viewer. Those circumstances are essentially an institution devoted to pushing self-hatred, one that aims to condition its residents to believe that the hatred and rejection hurled at them is entirely their own doing.

This is overtly stated in a scene near the end of the movie. Institutions like the ones presented in this film are emotionally abusive by design, their whole functionality is to tear down the identity young people are trying to craft for themselves. The scene also reminds the viewer that this emotional abuse was not even considered illegal in the 1990s, and in some parts of the world is Stillwell within the confines of the law. Cameron is asked whether she trusts the councillors, and though she trusts them to perform the most basic level of hospitality, she can’t say they do anything to make her feel safe or secure in who she is. To the contrary their mission is to destroy any faith these young people have in themselves.

This scene also showcases just how brilliant Chloe Grace-Moretz is in this movie. The role of Cameron is a decidedly difficult one that Grace-Moretz navigates excellently. She conveys the maturity and emotional stability Cameron has, because despite her predicament she is confident in her own budding feelings. However the versatility of her performance shines through as she communicates the insecurity and doubt Cameron starts to feel as every peer around her continually insists that there is something wrong with her.

The tone of the movie is a similarly brilliant balancing act, reconciling the ambiguous humour with the underlying tragedy to great effect. The intimate staging and direction by Desiree Akhavan takes note of the small moment of freedom as well as the interpersonal relationships Cameron forms there. It is ironic that being sent to conversion therapy allows Cameron to find other outsider with whom she can bond with and relate to. But as the film moves forward it is hard not to be weighed down by the crushing reality of the situation. In some ways the visual language of Akhavan’s film reminded me of other dramas such as ‘Short Term 12’ and ‘Girl, Interrupted’, both of which deal with young people battling their own demons. But where ‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’ sets itself apart is to remind the audience that in its world it is the institution housing those young people is not for their benefit, and far from being internal the demons here are very much external.

Disturbing and emotionally provocative yet simultaneously intimate, observant and surprisingly hopeful, ‘The Miseducation of Cameron Post’ is an insightful work of drama.

Result: 8/10

Robin Hood

"You were a lord, but now you get to be a thief. And I ma gong to show you how."

Sometimes you have to stare in disbelief at studios as they undertake an endeavour that seems utterly destined to fail. One would think that when not even Ridley Scott can adapt Robin Hood to work as a compelling 21st century cinematic property that studios would at least wait before rushing into another ill-conceived attempt to launch a franchise with the popular folklore character. But apparently the critical and financial disaster that was Guy Ritchie’s ‘King Arthur’ from 2017 was not strong enough of an indicator that sometimes you can simply choose not to make a movie.

Having gone from a life of luxury to a war hardened crusader, Robin of Loxley (Taron Edgerton) returns to his homeland to find its people burdened by the oppressive and ruthless Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn). Along with his Moorish commander Jon (Jamie Foxx), Robin forms a rebellion to put an end to the unjust regime and foil to Sheriff’s plots.

There are many apt comparisons you could make between 2018’s ‘Robin Hood’ and the aforementioned ‘King Arthur’ movie that was released last year. Both, despite being set in the traditional time period for each respective story, are clearly made with an intent to modernise the properties. From the sets and costumes that mimic more modern aesthetics to the way both of them flaunt their own “grittiness”, there’s a distinct need within both efforts to distance themselves from the old-fashioned takes.

What the two films also share is a certain uniqueness to their failings. For all its issues ‘King Arthur’ was competent on a bare technical level. Ritchie did indeed commit to his vision, but that vision happened to be a bloated and self-serious farce. The same can be said of ‘Robin Hood’, the story choices it makes are executed with finesse and occasional competence, but the story choices in question are simply baffling in how anyone involved in making the film thought they could function as a sincere work of cinema.

Much of the modernisation of this ‘Robin Hood’ is clearly attempting to evoke imagery rooted in the 21st century. From the medieval guards inexplicably wielding riot shields to the towering streets meant to evoke the kind of setting one would find in an urban thriller, no chance for an obvious modern day parallel is wasted. On the one hand it’s admirable to see a film commit so wholeheartedly to this thread, which is exactly what ‘Robin Hood’ does. However the cognitive dissonance between the setting of a folklore tale and a grounded political allegory is too glaring of a gap to overcome. Despite its best efforts the script never marries to two tones and the result is awkward at best and unintentionally hilarious at worst.

The pinnacle of this absurdity is a sequence showcasing Robin’s time in the crusades which is shot, edited, sounded and even colour graded to mimic the media depictions of the Iraq/Afghanistan Wars. Even the structure of the sequence follows the patterns of something set within modern warfare. Troops engage in house sweeps with longbows positioned in place of rifles, lines of soldiers are scattered by overhead “sniper” fire and crossbows are shot with the urgency of machine gun turrets. They even find a substitute for heavy artillery which decimates the area in the form of catapults. It’s nothing short of an exploitative and lazy attempt to make the story feel relevant without putting any actual thought into the ramifications of the parallels being drawn.

See, there is nothing inherently wrong with obvious allegories (I certainly couldn’t profess to be a fan of Darren Aronofsky if there was), but the subtext within ‘Robin Hood’ doesn’t have any underlying narrative to justify itself. It refuses to develop or discuss its own allegories on any meaningful level. That means that all the film has are a series of bluntly drawn metaphors that don’t connect to one another or the central narrative in any significant way. It is all well and good staging your medieval crusade to look like the Gulf War and adding in a backstory of Robin being conscripted to the army for Vietnam War parallels, but what is any of it really serving?

With all that said, reading into the allegorical references of ‘Robin Hood’ may be giving the movie too much credit. Save for some evocative and tonally confused imagery, what we have here is an unimaginative and uninspired retelling that overtly mimics the likes of ‘Batman Begins’ in terms of how it tries to present its origin story. The dialogue is either purely functional in serving exposition or tacky one liners. The characters are all one dimensional props that the writers seemed to hope would be carried by their own recognisability in popular culture (someone needs to tell these people that there aren’t any die hard Little Jon fans who will cheer in recognition of the name). The performances are mostly static with none of the promising actors reaching beyond their normal state. The one exception is Mendelsohn as the Sheriff who seems to be in a completely separate movie, chewing the scenery to pieces with comical effect. He’s evoking Alan Rickman’s performance as the Sheriff, but instead finds himself in a film insistent upon treating his pantomime routine with complete and utter severity.

Tonally confused doesn’t even begin to describe the mess that is 2018’s ‘Robin Hood’, a derivative and uninspired mess with many misplaced attempts at modernity.

Result: 2/10

Thursday, 29 November 2018


"This is about my life. And because it's about my life, now it becomes about yours."

Steve McQueen is perhaps one of the best working examples of a director who can see the innermost themes of a script and use their directorial prowess to bring those themes right to the forefront, thereby elevating the film as a whole. The inhumanity of ’12 Years a Slave’, the cyclical violence of ‘Hunger’ and the inescapable trauma of ‘Shame’. His ability to elevate strong screenplays into great films is unparalleled, and though on the surface his latest film is a more concept oriented thriller, McQueen is still working at his creative peak.

A police shootout leaves four thieves dead during an explosive armed robbery attempt in Chicago. Their widows, Veronica (Viola Davis), Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), Alice (Elizabeth Debicki) and Belle (Cynthia Erivo), have nothing in common except a debt left behind by their spouses' criminal activities. Hoping to forge a future on their own terms, Veronica joins forces with the other three women to pull off a heist that her husband was planning.

One of ways in which a film like ‘Widows’ would appear to be outside of Steve McQueen’s usual oeuvre is that it seems to be driven more by concept than the deeply human dramas which he had helmed previously, or at least that was what I thought upon approaching his latest effort. Upon watching ‘Widows’ however it becomes very apparent that this is just as much an intimately drawn, character driven story which priorities the humans at the centre of its narrative and focuses keenly on them. By the time the heist comes to fruition at the climax of ‘Widows’ I was so utterly enthralled in the tension of the scene both for the consequences every action would have on the narrative but also for the emotionally fallout it would cause.

To give credit where it is due, before I shower praise on McQueen I also have to commend Gillian Flynn for a truly masterful screenplay. Flynn’s script is one that functions on numerous levels. First and foremost it works as an utterly gripping exercise in the heist genre. It is abundant with twists and turns without becoming overly convoluted. It keeps the stakes and potential consequences of the heist in focus at all times whilst slowly building an intricate and detailed portrait of how the characters will enact their plans. On a broader scale it brilliantly builds tension through the movie’s pacing and structure to allow for the tension wracked finale to play out with perfect clarity, but leaving just enough room for a few final surprises that managed to shock me with every revelation.

But beyond the confines of its genre, what Flynn accomplishes in her script for ‘Widows’ is a deeper exploration of character and theme than many heist movies allow for. Whereas many movies present a motivation for the characters and stop, Flynn gives us an insight into her characters own conflicts with their motives. We see their fears and insecurities, their doubt in their own ability and how those moments of weakness inform their development across the movie. There is also a lot to be said about the wider socio-political themes Flynn weaves into her script. ‘Widows’ is as much a story about the environment that has contributed to the circumstances the characters find themselves in as it is about the people themselves.

Of course, having an ambitious undercurrent that deals with themes of class, economic changes, race, political hierarchy, gender dynamics and abuse would risk overshadowing the central narrative of any movie. That is where McQueen comes into the picture. So many of these ambitious themes are told through a visual motif that it stands as a testament to McQueen’s trust in his audience. He places small details in the language of his visuals that allow any viewer to pick up on the broader scope of what his film is saying, as well as making it all the more rewarding to revisit.

McQueen’s ability to convey an entire miniature narrative through nothing more than his own directorial prowess is astonishing. Scenes are able to exist outside of their basic functionality and transcend the perception of what we think a heist movie to be. Perhaps my favourite moment is a seemingly simple scene that involves two characters talking on a short car ride. What they are saying informs their characters and dynamic, but what McQueen chooses to show is even more valuable. He has the camera remain outside of the car as it drives, focussing not on the conversation but instead the landscape and noting how the slums of Chicago so rapidly turn into pristine mansions. It paints a portrait of a city divided by wealth, with lines so acutely drawn that you can narrow the disparity down to just a few streets away. It’s filmmaking that is so subtle yet so deliberate that it is simply astounding.

As impeccable a job both Flynn and McQueen do of injecting a sense of humanity into the film, it is the performances that really drive the compelling narratives home. Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki, Michelle Rodriguez and Cynthia Erivo are all outstanding as the central heist perpetrators. Their determination is always on display, and works alongside their discomfort to make them all the more compelling. They are all unique enough to function as captivating individuals while simultaneously sharing a fascinating dynamic at having been united by this common cause.

Meanwhile the many forces standing in their way are equally fantastic, from Colin Farrell’s sly politician who is bestowed with surprising depth as the film progresses, to Daniel Kaluuya’s sceney chewing magnificence as an unhinged sociopath. When you also have the additions of Liam Neeson, Carrie Coon, Bryan Tyree Henry and Robert Duvall to the cast, all of whom are turning in excellent supporting performances themselves, it really is an ensemble to behold.

‘Widows’ is the kind of thriller than functions on several levels, which makes it enthralling on the first viewing and involving on every subsequent one.

Result: 10/10

Thursday, 22 November 2018


"A thousand year army, needs thousand year soldiers."

For all the success it’s had in other mediums, it is somewhat surprising that it has taken this long for the concept of Nazi zombies to make its way onto the big screen in this kind of mainstream capacity. What is less surprising is that it comes with the backing of JJ Abrams, who has been using his producer credits to affective use on original and intriguing genre experiments for the best part of a decade now. Having spent so long in the realms of franchises it is interesting to see Abrams’ return to a property with no existing IP, and it will be intriguing to see if he can garner a whole new “mystery box” to indulge in.

On the eve of D-Day, American paratroopers drop behind enemy lines to penetrate the walls of a fortified church and destroy a radio transmitter. As the soldiers approach their target, they soon begin to realize that there's more going on in the Nazi-occupied village than a simple military operation. Making their way to an underground lab, the outnumbered men stumble upon a sinister experiment that forces them into a vicious battle against an army of the undead.

War and horror are genres that can often be thought of in one. Evoking the horror and inhumanity of war is something filmmakers have been striving to do with their cinematic portrayals of conflicts for decades now. But to see a movie with the dressings of a war film populating itself with overt horror elements is an entirely different, but interesting, approach. ‘Overlord’ certainly isn’t fusing horror with war in the same way Francis Ford Coppola or Stanley Kubrick would fuse the violence of combat with existential dread. Instead it brings forth our more explicit fears of being attacked by hordes of the undead (which I won’t lie, is definitely something I’ve contemplated more than mere existential dread).  

A movie like ‘Overlord’ lives and dies on its tone. There are no cheap thrills to be found within a self-serious affair that refuses to acknowledge the ridiculousness of an inherently ludicrous concept. At the same time however, too many knowing winks to the audience can dissipate any sense of tension or sincere stakes within the narrative. It’s a delicate line to walk and ‘Overlord’ treads it with excellent care. The film revels in its own high concept outlandishness whilst also wonderfully indulging in the genuine tension of its plot. In many ways it’s somewhat reminiscent of the eary work of John Carpenter, a filmmaker who dealt in eccentric concepts without ever thinking himself above the material.

Perhaps it works because, like Carpenter, Avery finds the humanity amidst a high concept splatter-fest and grounds it through strong characterisation. Part of that is through the performances of the cast, which brings me onto another major link to Carpenter in the form of Wyatt Russell. The son of frequent Carpenter collaborator and living legend Kurt Russell, Wyatt is uncannily like his father in terms of screen presence and serves as the epitome of why ‘Overlord’ works. Russell is charismatic, funny and committed without ever straining himself to achieve any of those things. He transitions from one mood to another effortlessly whilst uniting them as part of a single solid character. He elicits just enough sympathy and humanity for the sincere human moments to feel compelling but exudes in equal measures an infectious swagger which allows you to cheer at the pulpy entertainment value.

In many ways Avery handles the tone of the overall film in the same manner. ‘Overlord’ is at once bombastic and gory to wonderful effect in how it indulges in the over the top blood soaked thrills whilst also taking itself seriously enough to commit fully to the genre hybrid it represents. It holds enough tension and genuine fright within its set pieces to fulfil its promise of horror whilst also capturing the bombastic energy of a traditional war film. In simple terms the film knows what it is. It trims any fat or excess in favour of simply executing the idealised version of the genre experiment it set out to be.

So it comes as no surprise to say that the film is blunt and simplistic. By no means should you go into ‘Overlord’ expecting any degree of complexity or nuance which in some regards is a shame since the film has the potential to craft a more emotionally subtle narrative. Though that seems in contrast with my praise for the film being appropriately self-aware,  the craft of ‘Overlord’ is strong enough that it inadvertently leaves room open for a deeper exploration of its characters and setting. Despite a phenomenal opening and closing act the film loses some sense of substance in the middle, and the inclusion of some could have helped alleviate the empty space felt between each gory set piece.

As a singular piece of genre experimentation though, ‘Overlord’ is appropriately entertaining and rewarding for what it promises. There may not be any subtext to find but in its place there are some terrific practical effects and thoroughly enjoyable action set pieces which are very clearly laced with the DNA of horror. The plot is fast paced and energetic to a point where it sometimes feels exhausting but on the other hand it’s refreshing to see a movie with this kind of concept obviously placing trust in its audience to keep up with the plot and not talk down to them.

‘Overlord’ doesn’t sell any of its genres short, instead it commits to each one of them with equal enthusiasm and weaves them together in a work of pure pulp enjoyment.

Result: 7/10

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald

"Newt, you've never met a monster you couldn't love." 

In our world of modern franchises, it’s easy to take the ‘Harry Potter’ series for granted. The way the films build and populate a world with endless imagination, populate it with intimate characters and have them navigate an intricate and tightly plotted narrative so masterfully over the course of those 8 movies is nothing short of a miracle. Watching them together is like witnessing some of the best long form storytelling in modern cinema, a span of movies which are all strong on their own but form something even greater than the sum of their parts.

As dark wizard Gellert Grindelwald (Johnny Depp) creates panic, violence and chaos across the world as part of his plan to raise an empire of pure blood wizards to rule over all non-magical beings, Albus Dumbledore (Jude Law) enlists his former student Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) in an effort to thwart the threat. With the wizarding world growing increasingly divided, loyalties are tested amid the danger that lies ahead.

It’s worth remembering the nuanced mastery with which the ‘Harry Potter’ series furthers the narrative, characters and tone of the franchise with each successive film, because the makers of ‘Fantastic Beats: The Crimes of Grindelwald’ have not. While the first film in this spin-off franchise had its flaws, it was laced with a charm and simplicity that allowed its emotional resonance to land with satisfying impact. The same cannot be said of this second instalment which trades simplicity for utter bewilderment as the script weaves together one load of exposition after another that comes across less like a film and more like a Wikipedia article.

That is somewhat harsh given that David Yates does bestow the film with a sense of visual flair. There are plenty of engaging set pieces in which Yates versatile camera work and the pristine cinematography of Phillipe Rousselot create an engaging visual palette. Furthermore it’s worth noting just how seamlessly the visual effects artists in the film blend the magic of ‘Fantastic Beasts’ into the pastiche of the world. Every spell and charm has a clear dexterity to it which remains consistent throughout the movie. Little additions like the impeccable sound design and lavish set/costumes never fail to make this wizarding world feel fully realised.

There is also a lot to be said about the performances as the ensemble cast fill out each one of their roles with brilliant precision, even if they ultimately end up fighting for screen time in an overcrowded landscape. Eddie Redmayne carries a compelling awkwardness as Newt that once again makes him unique among franchise protagonists but also conveys the deep seated passion for the world around him which drives most of his actions with believable conviction. There’s a disappointing shortage of Jude Law as a young Albus Dumbledore but his confidence and sincerity combined with Law’s unique affinity for world weariness does wonders to establish a real connection between this younger incarnation and the one we are more familiar with. Meanwhile the likes of Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, and Alison Sudol retain the best qualities from their previous outings in this franchise.

It really is a shame that such an impressive array of talent has been burdened with a script as awkwardly plotted and bloated as this. JK Rowling worked wonders in terms of framing each ‘Harry Potter’ story as a mystery, inhabited by compelling and relatable characters, for the reader to solve along the length of the book. However her script are decidedly less skilled as they meander along with no narrative thrust or central hook. Instead characters transparently intended as nothing more than set ups for more interesting arcs in future films awkwardly bump into each other to form a bare bones narrative that can carry an audience to promises of more meaningful events to come in the next instalment.

The film succumbs to the worst tropes of modern franchise filmmaking, namely that makes its own narrative entirely redundant. There’s plenty of talk over where ‘Fantastic Beasts’ is going with seemingly little regard for what it’s doing now. It genuine seems as if the entire film was purpose built to serve as a prelude to its own sequel. Scenes have no real pace or urgency to how they unfold as they attempt to drag out a narrative arc over such an overly long expanse that it becomes bloated beyond recognition. Characters are almost deliberately placed to be static so as to avoid depleting their interestingness for future films. But meanwhile the film still insists on making these characters feel involved with the plot even though they have nothing to do nor any purpose within it.

‘The Crimes of Grindelwald’ also succeeds at the unique feat of being both overly complex and shockingly underwritten. The need to stave off any meaningful development in order to drag the narrative out for five films demands that themes and characters remain in their initial state for the entirety of the film. Motivations are not expanded upon, actions are left unresolved and consequences remain completely absent. If anything the film seems to bend over backwards to regress some characters to where they were during the first ‘Fantastic Beasts’ so as to allow their interaction and dynamic with the rest of the cast to play out in the same manner all over again.

Perhaps the greatest disappointment of ‘The Crimes of Grindelwald’ is what it represents in the broader scope of ‘Harry Potter’. It was unique among franchises as a series devoted to developing and exploring its subjects with every subsequent film. When watching the series you can’t simply skip a film partly due to each single film furthering the broader narrative, but also because you would miss out on a worthwhile viewing experience. ‘The Crimes of Grindelwald’ breaks that cycle. A movie manufactured to elongate a franchise and nothing more, a franchise that honestly has me worried that the damage to the legacy of ‘Harry Potter’ may have only just begun.

All the qualities which made ‘Harry Potter’ as magical as it was are the very same qualities ‘The Crimes of Grindelwald’ could do with remembering.

Result: 4/10

Friday, 16 November 2018

An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn

"Although I don't know quite what's going on, I'm having a great time."

Cinema of the absurd is a delicate balancing act. When describing films that belong in that category (or want to be labelled as such) but fail to live up to expectations critics can throw out descriptions such as “hollow”, “surface level” or “trying too hard” which can all sound like vague and somewhat hard to define constructs. The reason for use of those terms is simply because so much of absurdist cinema is rooted in the bare emotional response is evokes from the reviewer. It’s difficult to condense that kind of subjectivity into a cohesive train of thought.

When a hired gun (Jermain Clement) is sent to retrieve the money a donut shop owner stole from a convenience store, the assassin and the thief’s wife Lulu (Aubrey Plaza) run away together. They find themselves at a posh hotel where a mysterious musician by the name of Beverly Luff Lin (Craig Robinson) is performing.

Another issue with judging absurdist cinema is to know what criteria from which to judge the movie in question from. There’s no semblance of realism, dramatic tension, purpose or palpable consequences to grasp so it immediately makes any critique of such seem pointless. Yes I could say that ‘An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn’ is an almost incoherent movie with no connective tissue or prevalent theme to engage the viewer in any dramatic sense and it could well be true. But one could just as easily make the argument that the film never desired to be any of those things.

It is obvious from the start that Jim Hosking’s world is one that is divorced from any specific time or location. The deliberately stilted performances from Aubrey Plaza, Emile Hirsch and Jermain Clement are often to focal point of each scene as the camera almost seems to revel in their own lack of naturalism. There’s an offbeat and deadpan undercurrent to almost everything the actors and visual style of the film present, which for a brief time managed to create a humorous setting that had me engaged in which direction the film would take this tone. The answer was nowhere.

The tone that ‘An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn” establishes immediately is the exact tone that the rest of the movie is played. There is no escalation, no development to the narrative and no broader goal that the movie can aim for. Instead it ploughs forward with this one note execution for a painfully long amount of time to a point where it started to actively detract from my enjoyment of the movie. As the narrative refused to develop in any meaningful way I found myself becoming all the more frustrated at what was unfolding in front of me.

The comedic moments of the film fail to land for the same reason the absurdity also feels shallow. There is no sense of perspective to ground the viewer in what lens we should be viewing this world through. It becomes impossible to distinguish between what story beat and what is a meaningless exercise in ridiculousness, just as it becomes impossible to distinguish between comedic moments and stylistic awkwardness. Though this phrase gets all too frequently and with not enough virtue behind it, the film really is style over substance.

If I’m going to indulge in a cliché of film criticism I may as well elaborate. The style of Hoskings is very clearly to have his film untethered from any sense of reality, but even in this madcap world there has to be a piece of recognizable truth for the audience to latch onto. Whether it’s a character, story beat or emotional thread, the audience has to be able to latch onto some facet of understanding to get a grasp of the world and allow the ensuing absurdity to be effective. Both the dramatic and comedic sides of David Lynch are excellent examples of this, relying on emotional weight or familiar characteristics to further whatever twisted oddity the filmmaker is delivering.

If I could continue the comparisons to Lynch, what that director also favours are scenes that feel purposeful in their strangeness. Whether or not there is a decisive “meaning” to what he puts in his films you can at least be assured that it furthers the films theme, story or atmosphere in one way or another. Meanwhile in a movie like ‘An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn’, so many of the punchlines just seem to be characters randomly flailing their limbs. Even then there’s no reason or consistency to sad flailing. It’s randomness caused by a need for randomness that doesn’t serve to complement any other kind of randomness, lacking in any visual flair, compelling components or interesting aspects.

Weird with no purpose and flat with no meaning, ‘An Evening with Beverly Luff Linn’ is an absurd comedic fable gone horribly wrong.

Result: 3/10

Wednesday, 14 November 2018

Bohemian Rhapsody

"There's only room in this band for one hysterical queen."

There are certain films that have me inclined to be more forgiving when it comes to their actual quality. In some cases I’m willing to overlook flaws or shortcomings either due to the sheer entertainment said film offered me or a fondness for the subject matter. However hard I try to overlook both of those factors in most cases there will inevitably be something that manipulates me into liking it more than the sum of its parts would assume. Anyway, are you wondering what I thought of ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’?

In 1970, an Indian-British Parsi college student named Farrokh Bulsara joins a local band named Smile as their new frontman. With the band changing its name to Queen and the frontman changing his name to Freddie Mercury. Soon Queen’s fame skyrockets and the band find themselves on a rollercoaster ride of fame and fortune, just as Mercury begins to question his own personal identity.

If I was looking for an easy comparison to make between ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and another film of similar quality in broad thematic strokes then I would draw a parallel between this 2018 film and the 1991 biopic ‘The Doors’. Both are films that attempt to draw too broad a picture of their subjects, distort the historical facts that lean into a more dramatized story, fail to cast their subjects in a new light or dive deep into their own psyches, but are also anchored by a terrific lead performance. They each play like Greatest Hits compilations which celebrate the bands’ success but never dive deep into the substance of what drove them or illuminate them in any meaningful way.

If I were to look for another comparison to make between ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and another movie then that would have to be ‘Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story’ (which clearly not enough people have seen). Dexter Fletcher’s film indulges in the tropes and trappings of any music biopic that are now so familiar they were being parodied more than a decade ago in the aforementioned ‘Walk Hard’. The broad structure and pace of the movie that involves a young band becoming unlikely successes, falling out under the pressure of their fame only to then reunite for a life changing live performance (during which every significant member of the protagonists life reconciles with them) is about as generic an execution as one could imagine for this kind of story.

It’s understandable why ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ opted for this structure of storytelling since Queen, while legendary, were not the tumultuous band that would give ample material for a biopic of this nature. I don’t want to come across as if I’m undervaluing Queen as they were one of the most phenomenal music acts of all time. However they were celebrated and adored within their own time as well, with a rostra of hits that have only gained even more popularity since. They never had a huge break up or fallout, merely some hiatuses, and they enjoyed many years of sustained success and popularity.

Obviously it goes without saying that the deeper nuances of its subjects would make for compelling drama. But ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ seems too hesitant to examine those aspects on any meaningful level. Instead it is more content to allow the music of Queen and a conventional story formula to entertain its audience. As much as I would like to pride myself as being above that kind of manipulation, I’m really not. The result is that despite its shortcomings I found myself thoroughly entertained by the film in its momentary state. In fact a few scenes are wonderfully electrifying in how they so acutely capture an infectious sense of energy. They pulsate with the rhythm of Queen’s music and revel in the iconography of a band that, perhaps more than any other, truly deserves to be revelled in.

This all builds up to the final scene which re-enacts Queen’s legendary Live Aid performance. As a momentary feat of filmmaking and storytelling it is a stunning thing to behold. A scene that completely encapsulates the energy, excitement and atmosphere of such an iconic moment in music history. As the songs blast out you feel the weight and power of each one, you sense the hold Mercury had over the thousands of people who were watching live and just as they did, you become utterly hypnotised by his command of his craft.

Except of course in the film it is not actually Mercury but Rami Malek, though you could be forgiven for forgetting that. ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ truly lives and dies on Rami Malek’s performance which is both towering in its ferocity but also stunningly intimate in its nuance. This is no cheap imitation as Malek goes above and beyond to embody the mannerisms and tiny characteristics that made Mercury the icon he was. His movement and body language tell a story in of themselves, as he seems to demand the attention of every single scene he is in. Perhaps I should be disappointed with ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ (and to a certain extent I am). Queen were too unique and innovative to deserve such a basic and formulaic telling of their story. But any excuse to revel in their greatness is something I can’t quite resist.

As entertaining and indulgent as it is, ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ plays it too safe and too secure to live up to the greatness or intrigue of its subject matter.

Result: 6/10

Tuesday, 13 November 2018

The Other Side of the Wind

"What he creates he has to wreck, it's a compulsion."

I’m tempted to begin this review with an obligatory “can you believe this is happening” kind of mantra which does seem a tad cliché. However it really is impossible to overstate how monumental it is that Orson Welles’ final dramatic feature, long regarded as one of the best unfinished films ever made, has reached its audience. More than 40 years after Welles first started filming his planned comeback and three decades after his death, ‘The Other Side of the Wind’ has finished its long awaited road to being completed and released.

Returning from a lengthy hiatus in Europe, revered and legendary filmmaker Jake Hannaford (John Huston) struggles to finish his troublesome and unconventional comeback film titled The Other Side of the Wind. In the midst of filming he throws a lavish party to celebrate his 70th birthday where both his life and art are placed under intense scrutiny.

Whenever I review a film I try to place it within the context of what conditions it was made under, as well as what it is trying to achieve. It goes without saying that is a decidedly difficult task when it comes to judging ‘The Other Side of the Wind’. Though this finished version is said to mirror Welles vision as closely as possible, one can never truly know what the auteur planned for his complex character portrait. How much of this project is confined to the filmic landscape of its time and how much is influenced by the legacy that it carries?

For the opening few minutes I was worried that the end result would be more of a Frankenstein like creation than a cohesive film. Those of us who know Welles as the master of patient and atmospheric filmmaking that brought us ‘Citizen Kane’ and ‘Touch of Evil’ may be in for a shocking surprise. The deed focus and long takes of Welles early work is replaced by intense close ups and frenetic editing that fully immerses the viewer into the chaotic battleground which the film industry of the 1970s is rendered as. It’s an incredibly disorienting experience that the viewer must gradually grasp with as the film progresses.

Before you even dig into its narrative, ‘The Other Side of the Wind’ already establishes itself as unlike anything Welles had attempted in his career. His visual versatility is staggering and arguably elevates the late auteur’s talent to a new level of appreciation. Even at this late stage of his career Welles was pushing the boundaries of how cinema could be rendered. It’s intriguing to even ponder how the film would have been welcomed had it been released during his lifetime.

But despite these deviations from Welles’ traditional oeuvre, it is easy to spot the thematic similarities that tie ‘The Other Side of the Wind’ to the rest of his career. The ambition, structure, flair for eccentricity and core character portrait are classically Welles at heart. The protagonist of his last film has much in common with the star of his first. Both are enigmatic men epitomising the conquest of their own industry, but clearly lack that humane connection which could define them as people. The difference comes with how elusively Welles presents Hannaford in comparison to Kane. This snapshot of Hannaford does not provide answers to his longings as Citizen Kane did, instead it examines the way his art conflates and interacts with his life, legacy and momentary status. We only witness Jake Hannaford go about his life for a single evening, and yet we feel as if we have every vital piece of the puzzle that represents him as a person and artist.

It’s a role that truly allows John Huston to dominate the scenery. The screen legend growls and chews his way into the part of Hannaford with stunning intricacy. There’s a distinct spark of charisma within Huston’s performance that makes Hannaford’s reputation as a creative genius more than believable. At the same time however Huston allows the aged bitterness of his character at this exact moment to greatly inform the character as well. It’s a delicate balancing act that Huston conveys with fine precision, at once mighty and towering in his performance but also never above being broken down by whoever can cut into the core of this complex man.

It would be easy to assume that Hannaford is intended as a reflection of Welles himself, and in many ways that is understandable. Most characters in the film seem to be intended to mirror some prominent member of the 1970s film industry. From Susan Strasberg as a thinly veiled spoof of Pauline Kael to Peter Bogdonavich who does a wonderful job of essentially playing himself. As an upstart director who worships the altar of Hannaford, Bogdonavich has plenty of scenes alongside Huston in which he holds his ground exceptionally well.

In fact just beyond the individuals who are represented in ‘The Other Side of the Wind’ the film as a whole seems to be a biting satire of entire filmic movements. From the avant-garde European cinema that was dominating the global stage in the early 1970s to the auteur driven wave that was about to revolutionise Hollywood. Forty years on we see Welles commenting and dissecting these very movements as they were happening, still ahead of his time.

But to continue the notion of asking whether or not Hannaford is Welles’ self-portrait, it would be an oversimplification to simply say yes. There are unquestionably elements of Welles’ own being thrown into his central character, as there were with almost all of his protagonists. Maybe it was indeed an attempt by Welles to hold up a mirror to his own life, and if that is the case there are tragic levels of self-loathing to be found. But among other things the aging director made it clear he refused to be painted in broad strokes. Hannaford, much like Welles himself, is easy to examine but almost impossible to summarise.

‘The Other Side of the Wind’ is Orson Welles hidden masterpiece, a film of such versatility, biting satire and intimate drama that is showcases a side of Welles that may surprise us all.

Result: 9/10  

Sunday, 4 November 2018

Bad Times at the El Royale

"It's a game that all starts with a simple choice; which side are you on?"

Drew Godard has been in a somewhat unlucky position for most of his biggest successes. Though I’m sure he would disagree on account of not being a huge egotist who demands credit for everything, I personally find that Godard’s significant input with each project is overlooked. His efficient direction on ‘The Cabin in the Woods’ was overshadowed by Joss Whedon’s inventive screenplay. Then Godard’s own screenplay for ‘The Martian’ was not the recipient of praise like Ridley Scott’s direction of that film was. Hopefully that will not be the case here.

Seven strangers, a cleric (Jeff Bridges), a soul singer ((Cynthia Erivo), a salesman (Jon Hamm), twi sisters (Dakota Johnson and Cailee Spenny), the manager (Lewis Pullman) and the mysterious Billy Lee (Chris Hemsworth) cross paths at a rundown hotel in Lake Tahoe called the El Royale. Over the course of one night the venue becomes a seedy battleground as old secrets arise and hidden motives show their true selves.

As the writer and director of ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’, this is Godard’s first film that is solely his creation, one that can showcase his own creative scrip executed in his own specific vision. Though Godard’s work has always possessed a flair for ambition, there is something extremely high minded in how his latest project is conceptualised and executed. On the surface it is an entertaining whodunit with several character threads balanced in pleasing tandem. But the more one allows ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ to linger the more you become aware of how culturally ambitious and socially aware it truly is.

Godard may have set his film within the confines of a rundown hotel involving a handful of characters, but through those elements he paints a broad portrait of an entire era within American culture. When you dwell on what brought each of the characters to the specific place of the El Royale and how that ties them into the greater social trends of the era of history in which the film takes place, it becomes all the more evident that Godard sought to tell a story far larger than just seven individuals.

It might be important to bear that in mind when watching the film because if you insist on viewing it as an intricate character study then the film does fall somewhat flat. The characters are compelling and each are equipped with their own evocative backstory, but few of them really experience an arc or sense of development across the movie. The hyper stylised mystery even made me feel reminiscent of Tarantino’s ‘The Hateful Eight’, with the main difference being the point of focus. Tarantino was obsessed with the individuals of his story, whereas Godard is obsessed with the environments that created his individuals.

The fact that he is intent on showcasing the wider context around each character means Godard is given the opportunity to showcase his visual dynamism as a filmmaker. Throughout the film he crafts several incredibly evocative and picturesque shots. There really is a lavish indulgence to the look of ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ which is hard not to soak in. Even as the film itself overstays its welcome with an excessive runtime the visual splendour never falters, with an array of environments to compose some truly breath-taking imagery.

In that sense I can understand how some would criticise the film for being little more than an excuse to string together several impressive set pieces together, in fact that format of the film seems literally purpose built for that structure. But Godard’s script contains enough intrigue to keep these set pieces cohesively involving. Each characters backstory is inserted with impeccable timing and structured so that is rewards the audience for being involved within the films momentary narrative. Though there are many flashbacks they never feel obligatory. In the meantime Godard treats us to some hugely entertaining interactions between his twisted ensemble and some magnificently tense moments of pure cinema.

Another means in which ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ is a pure showcase is from an acting standpoint. The ensemble cast each fill their respective roles excellently, bringing a level of emotional involvement for the plot to work on a more meaningful level, but also never losing those charismatic snapshots which makes the film simply entertaining beyond measure. To say this film is character driven is an understatement, as it is the characters and their interactions that determine the entirety of the plot. It is difficult to give away precisely why each actor is so brilliant within their specific roles without spoiling the film, so I will simply say that they were all terrific and that Cynthia Erivio was the standout because she is truly exceptional.

With its ambitious storytelling and entertainment factor more than compensating for it’s more flawed aspects, ‘Bad Times at the El Royale’ is an intriguing and invigorating experience.

Result: 8/10