Saturday 29 December 2018


"We are alone. No matter what they tell you, we women are always alone."

One of the unique ways in which movies excel as an art form is their ability to transport us to new planes of existence. We can bear witness to new environments and witness people completely alien to ourselves experiencing their own unique lives. On both the small and large scale, we are given windows into different worlds that shed light on areas we were once completely unaware of, and work as empathy machines to place us within the emotional state of another human being. All of this, brings me to ‘Roma’.

In the early 1970s, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) works as a live-in housekeeper to an upper class family. As she lies on the fringes of the family’s drama but slowly becomes enveloped in it over the course of a year, she herself has to reckon with her own personal issues as her life outside of work becomes decidedly more complex.

The movies of Alfonso Cuaron are not defined by their basic premises. In 2001 he made ‘Y Tu Mama Tabien’, a road movie about sex-crazed teenagers which became a profound statement concerning generational dysphoria and the larger cultural changes enveloping their country. Then in 2006 he made another masterwork named ‘Children of Men’ a dystopian science fiction tale that transcended its own premise to comment on the broader nature of the human spirit, from its ugliest side to its most innocent. These are broad and thematically rich stories framed around the intimacy of a few people and their unique struggles. It is exactly the same storytelling philosophy that drives ‘Roma’.

The very first shot of the film lingers on a water slowly flowing down a stone driveway as it is cleaned, in the reflection of that water we see a distant plane in the sky as it flies silently overhead. Details like this mean that as a viewer you are never unaware of the wider world around the characters at the centre of ‘Roma’. At the same time however, you feel so intimately familiar with these characters that you feel every iota of their own drama as it unfolds. It is an intensely personal story set against the backdrop of a larger one.

You can see this in Cuaron’s visual style. Having shot the movie himself in black and white, there is something surreally distant yet beautifully familiar about the colour palette of the movie. Just as the starkness of the black and white make certain scenes feel all the more emotionally raw, the lower contrast utilised in other significant moments bestows the film with a certain warmth. The sheer variety of environments within ‘Roma’ also gives Cuaron a multiplicity of settings to shoot in unique tones and contrasts.

However, this array of landscapes never feels jarring because of the consistent visual language underpinning the entire production. If ‘Roma’ is concerned with the micro within the macro on a narrative level, it is following the same ideology on a visual spectrum as well. Cuaron rarely uses close ups, intently framing the characters against the wider world which they inhabit. So many shots begin at a medium angle only to pull out and reveal a vast expanse of people, objects, and landscapes.

It is this aspect of ‘Roma’ which distinguishes it as a technical marvel. Had Cuaron played too freely with this technique his tableaus would have risked looking cluttered or chaotic. But he succeeds in finding clarity within them time and time again. Just orchestrating such a scene is a feat in itself, but to never lose sight of the scene’s focus, to choreograph the most gigantic of set pieces whilst drawing the viewers’ attention directly to a single point of focus, is an astonishing achievement. It’s one that would be the highlight of any film it appeared once in, yet Cuaron makes this his consistent visual style.

This integration of empathy and scope is what allows ‘Roma’ to be such an immersive experience. Its imagery is so striking and executed on such a large scale that it can rightfully be called poetic, but it’s a kind of poetry that is unafraid of revelling in the details of its surroundings. Perhaps the great unifier of Cuaron’s personal and technical vision his is affinity for details, for small nuances both in the background of his scenes and the forefront as his characters grapple with the subtleties of their own experiences.

Another important aspect of the hypnotic immersion that ‘Roma’ evokes is the complete commitment from its cast. I hesitate to even refer to refer to them as performances because I was so utterly transfixed by the people on screen to a point where I never even thought of them as actors. There was not a second for which I did not believe in the characters as they were presented. I no longer saw them as recreations of people on screen, they were simply people. They were fully formed individuals whose lives I was watching unfold with as much conviction in their existence as I would for any semblance of reality. As the film climaxes in a series of emotionally fraught scenes I distance myself from the depicted events or draw a distinction between this narrative and the film as a constructed entity. The result was a deeply affecting and achingly personal story from which I had no escape.

Cuaron has stated that ‘Roma’ is a tribute to the women who raised him, and that personal angle is easy to distinguish from the first frame to the last. Not merely in the care with which he crafts each aspect of the movie, but also in its very structure and essence. It unfolds like a memory, but not in a vague or meandering sense. Every scene is carefully constructed and deliberately placed, however the flow from one scene to another refuses to be defined by time or location. It recounts the emotional weight of the experiences these characters undertake, and showcases them with the utmost empathy for what is transpiring.

Ultimately it is difficult to summarise ‘Roma’ through words. The culminated experience of watching the film is such a powerful one that it really must be seen to be believed. It’s a film that makes you forget your own notions of art being a constructed entity. You find yourself completely immersed within the portrait Cuaron has presented, and feel the impact of every narrative turn and character moment as they are displayed before you. It is rare for ambition of this scale and intimacy of this profundity to be reconciled, but that is exactly what ‘Roma’ achieves and it is magnificent to behold.

A technical masterwork where the audacity of its spectacle is equalled only by the deeply personal atmosphere felt for every second, ‘Roma’ is Cuaron’s magnum opus.

Result: 10/10

Thursday 27 December 2018

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

"What makes you different, is what makes you Spider-Man."

Within the 21st century we have seen an abundance of Spider-Man. The big screen alone has seen three different incarnations of Marvel’s famed web head in less than two decades, and that is before we even delve into the TV series, video games and single musical (yeah, that was a thing that happened). But almost all of these iterations return to Peter Parker’s tenure as the wall crawler, which is interesting considering that wide array of figures who have donned the identity in the various comics over the years. That is just way in which ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ distinguishes itself.

Bitten by a radioactive spider in the subway, Brooklyn teenager Miles Morales suddenly develops mysterious powers that transform him into the one and only Spider-Man. Except he soon discovers that far from being the one and only, Miles exists among an array of people who share his unique abilities, and when an interdimensional collision brings them all together, they must unite to stop a madman and save the city, as well as themselves.

I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a movie that is so adoringly in love with its own medium as much as ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’. This movie is a love letter to the comics on which it is based and the history of animation that has come before it. But most of all it adulates Spider-Man, not just as a character but as a universal concept that explains why the creation has blend such an enduring impact. It is fitting that this is the first film based on the imagination of Stan Lee to be released after the iconic storyteller’s passing. It embodies the core ideas and resonant themes that Lee, Steve Ditko and a generations of writers who succeeded them have bestowed onto Spider-Man. It celebrates his presence within our social consciousness as both an individual and an idea. On the big screen Spider-Man has never been more varied, nor more singularly distilled.

It stands a testament to the thematic weight of ‘Into the Spider-Verse’ that I chose to mention its resonance first rather than the animation. To say that the film looks stunning or is visually stimulating is a frankly criminal understatement. I am genuinely lost for words at what to mention first. There’s the simple fact that every solitary frame within this film looks completely in tune with the visual aesthetics of a comic book. There’s the gorgeous blending of art styles and animation techniques and how they all blend seamlessly together. There’s the way these contrasting styles are so often placed within the same shot and never look at conflict with one another. There’s the way the film is unafraid to veer into the abstract and psychedelic for its more otherworldly set pieces whilst still retaining this grounded clarity to give added weight to its more emotionally nuanced character moments.

But these are the big visual gestures that anyone could notice from a surface glance. When you look closer at ‘Into the Spider-Verse’ you will notice more masterful techniques such as how the grained texture that makes it resemble a printed comic book panel, or the varying frame rates that emphasise specific actions, or the defined outlines that make each character feel so distinct, or the subtle uses of colour and shading that just make the immersion within its vision that little bit more complete. There’s a phrase within animation called “banging the lamp”, named after a scene in ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit’ to describe creative details that are not inherently essential to the film but exist regardless due to the sheer passion and effort the animators put into crafting a fully realised vision. ‘Into the Spider-Verse’ is “banging the lamp” from its very first frame to its last.

The same care and effort has clearly been put into conveying the story of the film as well as its technique. The screenplay by Phil Lord and Rodney Rothman is a masterclass in ambitious storytelling mixed with intimate settings. Amid the array of characters, no one feels lost or short changed. While the core development of the story rests with three central characters, everyone is given a means to contribute to the plot development or thematic arc of the film in some way. Comedic characters are given beautifully rich moments of insight, seemingly one note villains are allowed to reveal surprising amounts of conflict and every secondary character whom Miles encounters along the way has something meaningful to add to his journey.

How ‘Into the Spider-Verse’ effortlessly introduces its various characters and their conflicts is astounding and does so much to help the story move forward at a terrific pace. It revels in and explores the essence of its characters and themes enough to not feel rushed, but never stalls in terms of moving the plot forward at all times. Structurally, it winds each escalating set piece together with superb clarity, starting in the grounded and deeply personal mechanics of Miles home life only to end with a mind-blowing finale that builds upon the action beats of everything that came before it and concludes them in a masterstroke of storytelling.

I have to also shower praise on the voice cast that would honestly be identical to simply listing the cast as they appeared. Shameik Moore effortlessly conveys the shifting conflicts and identity struggle of Miles Moralis throughout the movie. Jake Johnson and Hailee Steinfeld make for uniquely interesting and brilliantly charismatic versions of the iconic web head. Mahershala Ali and Brian Tyree Henry work as empathetically grounded mentors in Miles’ life, whilst Nick Cage, Kimiko Glenn and John Mulaney all bring some wonderful eccentricity to the array. I would also be remised if I didn’t mention the menacing villainy Liev Schreiber evokes in his role as Kingpin.

As I said at the start of this review, what I found most affecting about ‘Into the Spider-Verse’ was its ability to understand the universal appeal of Spider-Man, the reason why Stan Lee struck such a profound nerve with readers when he and Ditko conceived the character. It understands that anyone can empathise with the figure, with the ideas. It evokes the notion that a hero can exist within anyone and that beyond the ability to crawl up walls, what distinguishes a hero are their own personal struggles. If Spider-Man has ever appealed to anyone on any level, it was because of these core ideas which the character personified, and there is not a single moment in which ‘Into the Spider-Verse’ forgets that.

A towering achievement of animation, emotionally resonant storytelling and richly drawn characters. Amazing.

Result: 9/10

Cold War

"Don't despair Zula. Whatever will be, will be."

I don’t want to cast an entire genre in a certain light as if there is anything inherently bad about it, especially since that is an abysmal way to go about experiencing movies. But historical romantic epics rarely interest me on a transcendent level. Again I must stress I do not hold any internal bias against them, but I do have a certain scepticism to a film setting a sweeping romance story that will inevitably end either tragically or sentimentally that ultimately seems to have been placed in a certain historical setting for purely aesthetic reasons. It’s just me personal taste.

Set against the backdrop of Europe in the 1950s, as the continent is gripped by the cold war, a musical director named Wiktor Warski (Tomasz Kot) is set the task of assembling a music troupe to boost the Soviet regime’s artistic credibility whilst also furthering the propaganda machine. One of the troupe members is Zuzanna Lichon (Joanna Kulig), a young singer. Their bond with each other is set to grow and change due to both personal and highly political reasons.

Perhaps what irks me about historical romantic epics is their obsessiveness with details, or rather an obsession with the wrong details. The most lavish attention is given to the most surface level details when it comes to the setting, and the characters themselves risk feeling just as decorative as the props. In ‘Cold War’ writer/director Pawel Pawlikowski avoids that tendency by crafting a film that is light on details and heavy on emotion. You do not feel the historical setting of ‘Cold War’ through an indulgence of costumes or architecture, but through the oppressive atmosphere the movie creates. Every show makes the characters feel small within the frame, mirroring their own insignificance in the face of this wider global struggle.

However that is not to say ‘Cold War’ is without its technical complexities. The framing is constrictive and almost claustrophobic in how it shrinks the characters, but at the same time every shot has a sense of depth to it for how Pawlikowski chooses to stage it. He uses reflections and distortions to experiment with the staging of shots and visually stimulate the audience through nothing more than a flourish of character placement. There are single frames within this film that carry more visual complexity than the entire span of other films from this year.

Just as the imagery of Pawlikowski’s film features a contradiction of terms in how it is simultaneously sparse on details whilst being richly complex, so does the narrative. In broad terms the plot concerns two people falling in and out of love with each other over the course of a decade, and several details of that story seem to be deliberately omitted. ‘Cold War’ does not present the viewer with a coherent love story that can be traced through every cognitive action. It instead becomes concerned with the broader emotional weight of how their relationship develops. One could accuse the film of being overly distant or frustratingly abstract, but by neglecting the story beats that would function as dramatic high points in most other movies, ‘Cold War’ paints a much more striking and intimate portrait.

In many ways the film functions as a memory would. The specific details of why these people are brought together ultimately become irrelevant next to the greater emotional weight of their relationship. The circumstances that bring them together or tear them apart are not worth conveying as far as Pawlikowski is concerned. What matters are the visceral and passionate beats felt by the characters when they are together or apart. It means as an audience member you are acutely aware of the distance between them, or the intimacy of their unison.

None of this is to say that ‘Cold War’ is not also concerned with the relevancy of its own social context. One could read the lack of detailed identities given to the main characters as a statement on the ways people living under the oppressive regimes of mid-20th century eastern Europe had to hide their own identities. One could comment on the film’s bleak monochromatic tone and repressive atmosphere. You could even point to the background observations the film makes regarding the music Wiktor and Zuzanna changes over time. From traditional communist anthems to the freestyle jazz and pop music that seeps in, Pawlikowski never misses a chance to evoke an emotional response through nothing more than a music cue.

But for a film that uses music so effectively to convey a story, ‘Cold War’ is just as remarkable for how it uses silence. It is content to revel in the quiet moments that define this relationship, moments that seem beyond language. It lets the collective emotional weight of the narrative speak for itself, trusting its lead actors to convey the details of the characters emotional state through the subtlest of expressions.  

I worry that this review will be little more than a series of contradictory sentiments. I have praised ‘Cold War’ for being both sweeping and detailed, intimate yet sparse, simple yet complex. None of this even speaks to how beautifully structured the movie is so as to allow these seemingly unconnected scenes to build upon one another, whilst traversing years in such a way that never leaves the audience lost in where the characters are at in their relationship. At the risk of adding another contradiction to this review, I was both surprised and validated to hear that the film was based loosely on Pawlikowski’s own parents. It is a story that feels as personal as cinema can be, whilst also remaining utterly ageless.

With such confident command of his craft, ‘Pawlikowski’s romantic epic is one whose narration and narrative work in perfect tandem to tell an intimate and thematically rich story.

Result: 10/10

Thursday 20 December 2018


"A war is coming to the surface, and I am bringing the wrath of the seven seas with me."

I have long gone past the point of simply disliking the DCEU and am instead intensely fascinated by it as a franchise. In 2017 what many would have assumed would be an assured success on the form of ‘Justice League’ failed to leave an impression on critics or audiences, both of which were much more endowed with far less secure property that was ‘Wonder Woman. Since then they seem to have made a concerted to rely less on contrived franchise branding and more on simply crafting intriguing standalone stories.

Arthur Curry (Jason Mamoa), half human and half Atlantean, is the heir to the throne of a legendary technologically advanced civilisation living deep beneath the ocean. When a conflict within Atlantis becomes desperate, a warrior by the name of Mera (Amber Herd) journeys to the surface to ask Arthur for help. Together they must overcome a tyrannical rule that poses a threat not just to the underwater kingdom, but the entire world.

Without even speaking to the quality of the film itself, purely on a visual level James Wan’s ‘Aquaman’ immediately establishes itself as one of the most outstanding films within the superhero genre. There is something about Wan’s vibrant and energetic tableaus, mixed with the intricate and detailed composition within every frame that one would expect from a seasoned horror director, which bestows a fascinating element to his work of this scale. The same effect can be found in his contributions to the ‘Fast and Furious’ franchise, a quality which you may not palpably recognise whilst it’s there but will absolutely notice its absent when gone, as proven by ‘The Fate of the Furious’ which Wan did not direct.

If I was judging this film on pure visual spectacle then this would be a much more uplifting experience. If anything I’m actually disheartened to say that despite being stunning to behold on a visual level, ‘Aquaman’ is decidedly less capable on a narrative front. That is not for a lack of effort though, as the film suffers from an overabundance of ideas rather than a lack of them. The script bombards the viewer with plot elements, action sequences, thematic arcs, revelations and character moments that it ultimately sinks under its own weight.

Despite a confident introduction which efficiently and evocatively sets up Aquaman’s backstory and the ensuing identity struggle that comes with it, the movie rapidly loses sight of its own focal points as the narrative ploughs forward. As we are introduced to the dazzling world of Atlantis the script hurls one chunk of exposition at the audience after another to a point where it becomes almost exhausting. It’s not merely a case of the movie relying too heavily on one form of exposition, but rather there is simply too much plotting for the film to navigate. The story isn’t broken down into any simple three act structure as much as there is simply the introduction, and then everything afterwards.

The problem with this method of delivering the plot is that rather than the story unfolding with a sense of escalation that evolves into a more urgent flow of events, the movie simply drops the viewer in at the deep end. But once again I can’t accuse the film of not being invested within its own lore and themes, but it seems as if it rarely stops to allow the audience to be as well. However if you are less likely to be endowed with the plot mechanics there are several emotively strong thematic threads to latch onto that work as compelling hooks for certain portions of the movie. Even if they are lost amid the plot they work as intriguing character motivations.

In essence the characters themselves are the most confident aspect of ‘Aquaman’. Both the titular character himself and Mera are bestowed with strong characterisations that inform their actions for the rest of the film, and serve as far more than mere vehicles for the plot. Though several elements of ‘Aquaman’ become muddled and incoherent, these two are certainly not one of them. This also speaks to the strength of Mamoa and Herd’s performances, which are immensely commanding in terms of how they convey their charisma throughout each scene as well as nuanced enough to leave room for emotional development.  

As dazzling as James Wan’s action sequences are, they too eventually become overcrowded in the plethora of concepts and jargon on display. His work on ‘Furious 7’ often relied on following a single focal point (a car) in a linear direction. However with ‘Aquaman’ there are simply too many moving parts within each shot and sequence to keep track of everything, and the result are scenes which seem devoid of momentary tension or weight. The more the movie bombards the audience with one action sequence after another, the more it harms the broader narrative as even the larger stakes of the story become confused and unfocussed.

‘Aquaman’ is overflowing with ambition, which is both its greatest asset and biggest weakness.

Result: 5/10

Creed 2

"In the ring you got rules. Outside you got nothing, and life hits you with all these cheap shots."

There’s a certain conflict in enjoying the latest instalment of a certain franchise whilst simultaneously hoping it is the last in the bloodline. Everyone wants a film series to end on a creative high point, to feel as if it bowed out with a flourish rather than limping off stage (I was going to use boxing allegories for this but I don’t know enough about sports to do so). With that in mind part of me felt this way after 2015’s ‘Creed’ as it felt like a completed cycle for the ‘Rocky’ franchise, as well as the sheer brilliance of the film itself. Now I have to ask, was that part of me right?

Against the wishes of trainer Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), Adonis Creed (Michael B Jordan) accepts a challenge from the son of Ivan Drago, the man who killed Adonis father in the ring during a 1985 fight. As Adonis and Rocky prepare for the bought, they each find themselves grappling with their own pasts as well as their own personal trials that continue to follow them every step of the way.

Three years after its release I feel as if we do not always appreciate just how remarkable ‘Creed’ was. For such a confident and capable film to emerge from the shadow of a franchise many thought had been put to rest, helmed by a young director in the form of Ryan Coogler who despite impressing the indie circuits with ‘Fruitvale Station’ was relatively unproven. It was a towering achievement of filmmaking that earned comparison to that of the original ‘Rocky’ of 1976. With Coogler no longer in the director’s chair for ‘Creed 2’ I was somewhat nervous as I wondered whether anyone could continue Adonis’ story with the same impactful skill.

In some ways I was justified in being worried. Steven Caple Jr, though clearly capable when it comes to directing, lacks the stylistic flourishes of Coogler which elevated ‘Creed’. I must stress that I’m not demeaning Caple for what is a very confidently assembled directorial effort, but his shots feel slightly less evocative than his predecessor, his cutting has less kinetic energy to it and the punches seem to leave less of a visceral impact.

I also confess to not being a fan of the aesthetic of ‘Creed 2’, with its murkier palette and lower contrast. Again it is less of a glaring issue with the film itself but more of a problem when compared to its predecessor, which stood out from the crowd partly due to Maryse Alberti’s vibrant yet grounded cinematography. That being said, Caple has several striking set pieces to work with which he uses to create several striking compositions. Images like Adonis shadowboxing underwater or the overhead shot of him running through a vast expanse of desert stand as being some of the most memorable images of the entire ‘Rocky’ franchise.

Despite not equalling its predecessor, ‘Creed 2’ is by no means a disservice. Its story is laced with dramatically powerful moments which land with their intended effect due to the script’s clear affection for its characters. It’s this affection which allows the narrative to lead these characters down unexpectedly interesting threads and then explore them to a worthwhile extent. Rather than feeling like heavy handed melodrama, the events that transpire in ‘Creed 2’ simply speak to the need to have the characters develop, whilst progressing in such a way that highlights how strong the characterisation is from the outset.

In some ways ‘Creed 2’ actually manages to create a more complex layout than Coogler’s film. Though this sequel feels less refined in its vision, that could be due to its attempts at creating a more nuanced palette for the characters. The goals of Adonis, Bianca and Rocky are less singular in this instalment. They balance the conflicts and tribulations of their lives as they continue to evolve. Even Ivan Drago,  a character introduced as nothing more than a cold killing machine, is bestowed some emotional nuance in terms of what motivates him to act the way he does throughout the movie, as well as a satisfying resolution to that arc.

This all gives the actors plenty to work with, which definitely adds to the films strengths given how fantastic its cast is. Jordan is unafraid to emphasise the vulnerable aspects of Adonis, and this trait within his performance serves to make the protagonists journey all the more compelling. Thompson meanwhile has more emotional weight to carry in this film due to Bianca having a more immediate impact on the narrative, which she handles impeccably. Once again the character never feels like an accessory to Adonis, but a fully-fledged partner.

Stallone doesn’t quite recapture the evocative depth of his portrayal of Balboa in ‘Creed’ but that is more due to the narrative placing less emphasis on the character. Here Rocky is more assured of his role as mentor, while still giving Stallone just enough to make his presence feel relevant and worthwhile. But Stallone revealed surprising depth in the first film, it is Dolph Lundgren’s turn to do just that in the sequel. The film uses Drago’s previous characterisation to its advantage as it takes a closer look at what was seemingly a monster to reveal the human layers beneath, which Lundgren garners with surprising empathy.

Despite not reaching the heights of its predecessor, ‘Creed 2’ is still a highly capable and emotionally fulfilling instalment of an iconic series.

Result: 7/10

Saturday 8 December 2018

The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

"We all love hearing about ourselves. So long as the people in the stories are us, but not us."

Considering that the American Dream is such a pervasive theme throughout their filmography, it is somewhat surprising that the Coen Brothers have only made one traditional western prior to 2018, and a remake at that. Obviously one could argue that films like ‘No Country for Old Men’ or even ‘Fargo’ display some strong western motifs but in terms of the quintessential western pastiche, ‘True Grit’ remains their only foray into the genre. Until now that is, however this being the Coens there is still nothing traditional about their latest effort.

Telling six tales of life and death in the old west, an array of characters and incidents are on display within this anthology collection. From a singing outlaw (Tim Blake Nelson) to a botched bank robber (James Franco), from an aging impresario (Liam Neeson) to a grizzled prospector (Tom Waits), from a young woman journeying across the prairie (Zoe Kazan) to a stagecoach filled with five strangers.

Perhaps my favourite quality of the Coens is the range of emotions their movies, as well as their career as a whole, are able to encapsulate. From the tragic to the comic and everything that falls between, the duo often weave stories of such brutal violence yet bizarre beauty that it is hard not to stare in awe at their tonal command. ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ inherently has more opportunity to reach across this emotional spectrum, since the stories (despite being linked by time and environment) are all separate narratives in their own right. Any one of them could have functioned individually as a short film, but when told in this order they paint a surreal portrait of exactly how the Coens view the old west and the stories that came from it.

‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ features the Coens at their funniest, but also at their most haunting. The opening tale which gives the film its name features some of the best and most bizarre physical comedy the directing duo have delivered in many years. But then the third segment, titled ‘Meal Ticket’, is one of the most silently harrowing narratives I have seen Joel and Ethan ever recite. Its implications and imagery have stayed with me long after it and the film was over.

In fact one thing I can say as a testament to how strong the storytelling and command of craft is here that all six stories have at least one aspect that still lingers in my mind. Though some are certainly stronger than others they all leave a lasting impression and strike a perfect balance between the abstract and the realistic. Some are remarkable for that they say about the human condition and the metaphorical weight they carry, others find value in the intimate and grounded drama they display.

Another benefit to the Coens crafting an anthology film is that it allows them to fill an array of parts with gifted character actors. With what was already a keen talent for assembling terrific ensemble casts, here the brothers have assembled six separate microcosms, each one of which is cast perfectly. Going through each one would be too lengthy, so instead I shall just list the absolute standouts of the group. Zoe Kazan evokes such poignant empathy through her performance that it’s impossible not to be endeared by the plight of her character. Tim Blake Nelson is comically brilliant as the titular Buster Scruggs. Harry Melling gives a haunting performance that is low on dialogue but high on soliloquies. I was also pleasantly surprised by how nuanced Tom Waits was in a performance that is essential to how affecting the segment ‘All Gold Canyon’ is.

‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ marks the second occasion on which the Coens are not working with their usual director of photography Roger Deakins. But before you despair, rest assured that Bruno Delbonnel manages to create a striking and picturesque palette in his own right. Having coloured ‘Inside Llewyn David’ so beautifully, it’s gratifying to see him use that same monochromatic technique applied to six different stories which works wonders to create six highly distinct atmospheres. The harsh winter of ‘Meal Ticket’ seems worlds away from the lush green valleys in ‘All Gold Canyon’.

I can sympathise with those who may find the stories within ‘The Ballad of Buster Scruggs’ to be too obtuse, over indulgent and lacking in depth. They are all fairly simplistic on a narrative level (even more so if you were to break them down on paper), but the way the Coens frame them against the western backdrop bestows them with a huge sense of weight. The outline around each story also makes it clear that they are fables, valued for their simplicity and strong core messages. Perhaps the Coens greatest statement in this film is to comment upon the very nature of stories themselves. They note that the ones which last might not endure for their depth or multitudes, but instead for their most basic themes and empathetic characters.

An ambitious and sprawling anthology that can be ridiculously comical whilst also being harrowingly heart breaking, this is a western that is purely Coen-esque to every degree.

Result: 8/10

Wednesday 5 December 2018

Eighth Grade

"Just because things are happening now, doesn't mean they're always gonna happen."

Coming of age movies appear to be an obvious choice when making a directorial debut. Recently we have seen the likes of Greta Gerwig and Jonah Hill making the transition from performing to directing in the form of a semi-autobiographical coming of age story. Now one can also add Bo Burnham to that list as he delivers his own story of teenage disenfranchisement, ‘Eighth Grade’. Despite his protagonist being female, which on its own brings some interesting and insightful creative choices, Burnham has clearly put his own story on the big screen here as well.

Thirteen-year-old Kayla (Elsie Fisher) endures the tidal wave of contemporary suburban adolescence. She remains quiet and disconnected with her peers in school whilst regularly expressing herself through her YouTube channel. Now she must make way through the last week of middle school the end of what has until this point been disastrous eighth-grade year for her.

Perhaps the assumption that Burnham sought inspiration from his own life to make ‘Eighth Grade’ is a surface level and convenient comparison. To assume that just because Kayla has a YouTube channel and to immediately connect it with Burnham’s own career beginnings is possibly a knee jerk reaction. However I think the assumption is rooted within a deeper look at the film, simply because Burnham portrays introverts and anxiety so acutely that I have to at least ponder that he could relate to the intense personal awkwardness felt by Kayla in some shape or form.

Much like the causes of anxiety and awkwardness, I find myself being unable to pinpoint exactly what creates such a visceral feeling of that very emotion throughout ‘Eighth Grade’. Maybe it’s his tendency to frame Kayla as she is seen by others, or to frame others in the manner in which she sees them, immersing us within her point of view. The way Burnham stages his scenes also works wonders to create a palpable atmosphere in which we are conscious of every characters movements and gestures. Before long we too are sucked into Kayla’s fears of being judged by all those around her.

But I would be lying if I said a major contributor to this was not the performance from Elsie Fisher, which is utterly remarkable. The contrast between and equal conviction with which Fisher portrays the introverted girl in middle school to the one that offers life advice via her YouTube channel is staggering and in itself conveys a central theme of the film. There are no broad gestures in Fisher’s performance. Instead a well-defined character laced with nuanced and subtleties that feel so brilliantly constructed to contribute to her character but also completely naturalistic in how Fisher delivers them.

‘Eighth Grade’ truly is a study of Kayla that in turn makes a statement about adolescence in the modern world. None of these statements feel preachy or overly sentimental though. Instead they are communicated via background details and small hints in conversations that paint an acute portrait of the environment kids now have to grow up in. Burnham avoids giving any easy answers to his audience. Just as one could point to the films portrayal of social media and the damaging impression it can leave on an individual’s self-confidence, it’s also used as a means of communication that can enable people to pursue friendships.

This modernity also bestows the film with a unique feel compared to other coming of age films. Rather than navigate the conventional school cliques Kayla has to move through a warzone of social media. It gives her interactions a level of ambiguity and uncertainty. Whether it’s body image, self-esteem, friendships or romantic pursuits, ‘Eighth Grade’ is keenly aware of the ways in which social media has forever changed the way we see each other and ourselves. However that is never the forefront of the movie, which is always focussed on Kayla as a character, instead allowing the statements on technology to fester in the background.

I was interested to see that many have labelled ‘Eighth Grade’ as a comedy. Now, I wouldn’t the fact that there are several comedic moments throughout the film. But I would also say that certain scenes in the film evoked visceral level of discomfort I’ve experienced in a long time. It’s not just mere cringe humour, but a deep feeling of awkwardness from being attached to a character and fearing for their own position. It’s in these moments (which I will not spoil) that the film offers an insight into gender dynamics and sexual education that transcend most coming of age fables. Many films can capture certain moods of adolescence, but few can use those to speak towards what we may be facing later in life and have to grapple with right now. I wish the film had discussed this in more detail but to even attempt such a feat is worthy of high praise.

A tightly constructed and intimately drawn portrait of introverted youth that is as evocative as it is insightful, ‘Eighth Grade’ is a fantastic debut for both its director and lead actor.

Result: 8/10

The Hate U Give

"Violence, brutality, it's the same story but with a different name."

It’s been what one could call a heavily provocative year of filmmaking to say the least, and in some cases the provocative subjects in question which these films are dealing with have been long overdue for an examination. This adaptation of Angie Thomas’ 2017 novel comes in a year where two other films have also dealt with a similar subject (I would specify but in doing so I would risk spoiling those films), so despite how desperately an exploration of that subject is needed the question is what does this conversation do to stand out?

Starr Carter (Amanda Stenberg) is constantly switching between two worlds; the poor, mostly black neighbourhood where she lives and the wealthy, mostly white prep school that she attends. The uneasy balance between these worlds is soon shattered when she witnesses the fatal shooting of her childhood best friend at the hands of a police officer. Facing pressure from all sides of the community, Starr must find her voice and decide to stand up for what's right.

Movies have a unique ability to transport viewers to new places, see the world through a different lens and experience something that they have always been unfamiliar with. ‘The Hate U Give’ achieved this in its opening scene, showing me something that I have personally never been confronted with. The scene involves Maverick Carter, played with empathetic stoicism by Russell Hornsby, instructs his children on how to interact with police officers in such a way that will prevent them being arrested or even killed. It’s such a powerful moment made all the more impactful by the sheer matter of fact way in which the film delivers it. This scene is not stating an opinion or a theory, just a tragic regularity in the lives of certain people. 

These family exchanges provide a framework for many of the conversations and themes within ‘The Hate U Give’. They cover a range of topics, most notably the barriers and obstacles facing black Americans on a day to day basis. Once again it is not just the statement within these exchanges that carries weight but the banality of how they are spoken. These inequalities come to feel like a depressing status quo and when these conventions are finally broken it feels all the more monumental.

That kind of quality rests just as much on the strength of the performances as it does the nuances of the screenplay. In the role of Starr Amanda Stenberg shines (I am so sorry) for conveying a sense of conflict and turmoil throughout the movie. Even before the inciting incident Starr is a young woman torn between two very different environments, fitting into both but fearful she actually doesn’t properly belong in either. Stenberg makes these internalised fears evident from the outset and as events around her spiral out of control she combines Starr’s external and immediate worries with her pre-existing ones. But rather than being eternally depressed Stenberg brings out a more rounded persona for the role. In every respect Starr feels like a teenager who struggles but also laughs and loves, which only further pushes the theme of these inequalities affect fully formed human beings on a daily basis.

Structurally the movie does suffer slightly in terms of how it is weighted. Outside of its powerful opening ‘The Hate U Give’ becomes slightly too reserved through its second act. Certain conversations, despite being highly important to the film and its central message, feel somewhat repetitive and poorly paced. Though there are a multitude of powerful moments the connective tissue in between is not nearly as engaging or insightful. In fact the sheer breadth of what film ultimately tries to address risks overshadowing the central message towards the conclusion of the narrative. At 133 minutes I started to feel as if I was watching the extended cut of an already excellent movie. The result, while still very commendable, lacks the tightness to be truly transcendent.

However, as I said there are plenty of impactful scenes which in the moment completely eradicated my worries of pacing and structure. One could criticise it for lacking subtlety but I would counter than issues such as this don’t leave much room for subtlety, it’s a message that deserves to be spoken loudly and clearly. Furthermore I was surprised by the level of visual nuance director George Tillman Jr was able to deliver. Small visual cues that reflect Starr’s own conflict of identity such as the warmly lit glow of her own neighbourhood compared to the more pristine yet colder school halls. Even Starr’s own face seems to be cast in a different light from one location to another, looking paler and washed out, externalising her own need to fit in with her predominantly white classmates.

‘The Hate U Give’ illuminates a subject that is in dire need of a powerfully spoken statement, and the movie delivers on that with confidence and clarity.

Result: 7/10

Monday 3 December 2018

The Girl in the Spider's Web

"I could never figure it out, why did you help everyone but me?"

It is a great shame that the planned sequels to David Fincher’s ‘The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’ never came to fruition. I understand that Fincher’s meticulous filmmaking style may not mesh with studio mandated release schedules for a profitable franchise, but as someone who’s in the minority of thinking that Fincher’s 2011 remake is superior to the original Swedish version it is disappointing to think that we were denied a potentially great franchise. Anyway, here’s this other thing which isn’t a continuation but also isn’t a remake either. So yeah.

Fired from the National Security Agency, Frans Balder recruits hacker Lisbeth Salander (Claire Foy) to steal FireWall, a computer program that can access codes for nuclear weapons worldwide. However when the codes and a young child are stolen by Russian thugs working for an unknown source, Lisbeth finds herself in a race against time to save the boy and recover the codes to avert disaster.

I’m finding it increasingly difficult not to compare ‘The Girl in the Spider’s Web’ to Fincher’s 2011 film. Firstly because it’s simply unfair to enter any film expecting to be on the same level of David Fincher, secondly because this version is intended to be a clean slate and should therefore be treated as such with no back catalogue to live up to, and lastly because it’s really convenient and easy to do so. The two approaches to telling Lisbeth’s story are almost polar opposites in terms of method. Save for the sleek cinematography and soundtrack, everything that set Fincher’s film apart from generic contemporary thrillers seems to be absent from this latest effort.

I was at least hoping that Fede Alvarez could deliver some visual flair and heightened tension when it came to his direction, and in some regards he does achieve just that. In mostly comes in quitter scenes, ones that feel more inherently claustrophobic and are driven less by large scale spectacle and more by the volatile nature of the characters present. It’s here that the director of ‘Evil Dead’ and ‘Don’t Breathe’ reminds us what made those two movies function as well as they did. Certain scenes of conversation have a palpable air of suspense to them that momentarily makes me want to forgive the movie’s other shortcomings.

But on the other hand it only serves to highlight how disappointingly weak they are. As I tried to let myself be absorbed by these more intriguing moments, I was reminded of how little characterisation had been given to some of the movie’s most significant players. It treats the characters less like a complex psychological thriller and more like a middle of the road Bond movie. Characters don’t drive the plot as much as they are merely vehicles for it, something that can guide the audience to another overblown action set piece.

Not only are those set pieces in question weightless for the amount of tension they hold, but they clash fiercely with the few inspired moments the film has. Taut psychological suspense leads into inflated car chases and stunts that, while impressive on a technical level, do little to immerse me within the grounded stakes that the film wants to establish. I suspect many fans will be disappointed by the Bourne-esque approach to ‘The Girl in the Spider’s Web’ and how counterintuitive it is to what this series began as. But beyond that the action scenes seem at odds with what that very same film wanted to present itself as just moments earlier.

If Alvarez had a tough predecessor to live up to in the form of Fincher, then Claire Foy has even more of a pedigree to uphold in her performance. Noomi Rapace’s singularly driven performance was so intense that it single handily elevated the entire film it was within, meanwhile Rooney Mara was equally phenomenal in the 2011 remake. It is immediately clear that Foy does not have the script to give her a characterisation worthy of those two performances, but with what she’s given Foy definitely turns in an accomplished performance. She sells the determination of Lisbeth with commendable conviction, and just as the film occasionally shows signs of  intrigue so does her role when she is allowed to embrace the more vulnerable parts of the characters psyche.

However on the whole the presentation of Lisbeth is perhaps the greatest failing of ‘The Girl in the Spider’s Web’. In previous iterations that character has contained multitudes and conflicts by wanting to be strong in the face of adversity whilst never being reduced to her past traumas, all in the name of battling against the misogynistic society which shaped her. Here though she is little more than a commodity, a blank slate crafted to appeal to as wide a demographic as possible. Again it comes down to the simple fact that Lisbeth doesn’t act as a driving force to the plot, instead she is merely in service to it. For a character as iconic and as revered as her, that might be the most frustrating aspect of all about this film.

A generic thriller that reduces an iconic character to just another moving part in an otherwise forgettable movie that does anything but defy conventions.

Result: 3/10

Sunday 2 December 2018

Outlaw King

"Whether you fight for god, or country, or family, I do not care. So long as you fight."

There are mentions of William Wallace throughout ‘Outlaw King’ as the events of this film almost seem to live in the shadow of those now famed events, and the characters look back to Wallace’s actions and try to learn from his victories and failings. That almost serves as a strange meta-narrative for ‘Outlaw King’, a movie about a medieval Scottish rebellion that will inevitably earn comparisons to ‘Braveheart’ for its subject matter alone. Though I would not regard Mel Gibson’s film as flawless by any means it is a daunting comparison given its enduring legacy and popularity.

After being crowned King of Scotland, legendary warrior Robert the Bruce (Chris Pine) is declared an outlaw and forced into exile by the English. Rallying the support of some nobles from across Scotland, Bruce begins planning a revolt that he hopes has the strength to overthrow the English and reunify his homeland as one kingdom.

David Mackenzie has a skill for crafting films that don’t fit into any specific genre classification. Right up to his most recent efforts such as ‘Starred Up’ and ‘Hell or High Water’, each of them had the dressing of a certain genre but defied expectations by engaging in strong character studies, interpersonal dynamics or larger socio-political themes. On a basic technical level ‘Outlaw King’ is an impressive achievement, however it lacks a certain substance that would elevate its story to compelling levels and feels disappointingly conventional compared to what we have expected from Mackenzie.

Another disappointment is Chris Pine’s performance. Despite usually carrying a great sense of charisma and gravitas with each of his roles (most of all in his previous collaboration with Mackenzie, ‘Hell or High Water’), there’s a pervasive flatness to his portrayal of Robert the Bruce in ‘Outlaw King’. I can’t fault Pine for his accent and it would be unfair to say there are any glaring errors in his acting in a momentary sense. But over the course of the movie it feels as if there is a distinct lack of range on display. Maybe Pine was trying to convey a sense of a man heavily repressing emotions but if that is the case the film never follows this as a key theme. Instead I was left with an impression that Pine’s performance seemed mostly static throughout the movie, rarely generating a sense of urgency, desperation or passion from Bruce’s crusade and the cause that motivated it.

That being said, it is not as if the script gave Pine much substance to work with. While Bruce’s actions are chronicled in great detail there’s not much time devoted to his personal trials. So much of the film seems determined to place Bruce within his historical context that it hardly stops to examine him on a personal level. You could leave ‘Outlaw King’ with an understanding of what Bruce did (or not since complete historical accuracy and movies have never really meshed well together) but not much of a compelling narrative as to who he was. The film doesn’t provide much of characterisation for him nor does it present an evocative arc.

It’s for this reason why the battles, while technically brilliant, do not feel as involving as they should. ‘Outlaw King’ goes out of its way to lecture the audience about the historical significance of each conflict but lacks the personal investment that makes the difference between spectacle and involvement. Mackenzie shoots these action scenes with brutal ferocity that is very striking to behold. Each clash feels hard fought and the impact of every confrontation is keenly felt on a raw, visceral level. It’s just a shame that none of that is applied to a more intimate staging. When Wallace cries out in ‘Braveheart’, first and foremost we feel an individual with all his passion and charisma, which in turn ripples backwards to inspire thousands. That is where the emotional impact comes from.

‘Outlaw King’ is worthy of being compared to ‘Braveheart’ in the scope of its production though. The impeccable costume design and wide environments make for an epic spectacle. Cinematographer Barry Ackroyd allows the full sweeping weight of the landscape to fill the screen and the result is a highly immersive palette from which to stage some picturesque set pieces. The score and sound design are also worth commending, one communicating the epic scope of these historically meaningful battles whilst the other communicates the intimate grittiness of daily life and brutal battles.

There are so many inklings of interesting themes throughout ‘Outlaw King’, many of which are brought up directly through the conversations characters have. The price of ruling, the sacrifice of rebellion, the courage to persevere when all seems lost. All interesting concepts but none of them are explored or pursued by the script. Instead it seems content with trudging from one battle scene to the next, which not only creates a repetitive pace to the movie but leaves behind any compelling narrative that would have made Robert’s cause emotionally resonant. It’s tragic to see such effort put into recreating epic battles only to realise I had no reason to care for them.

‘Outlaw King’ is appropriately epic and technically proficient, but lacks any intimate emotional involvement to make its story feel compelling for its entire runtime.

Result: 5/10


"Every time I come around, you monsters got me feeling like a monster in my own town."

Powerful subjects often require powerful statements. I say this because a film like ‘Blindspotting’ does not tread lightly around its own topic, nor does it approach it with a huge degree of nuance. But if you were looking to criticise the film for that then I would direct you back towards my opening sentence, films that cover the ground that this film does need not be subtle. The issue they are discussing is both too important to go unnoticed and too provocative as is to pretend that there is any understated way to approach it.

Collin (Daveed Diggs), is a convicted felon trying to get through the last three days of his probation without incident. He and his friend Miles (Rafael Casal) work for a moving company located in Oakland. Determined to keep a lid on things, Collin finds that increasingly difficult due Miles’ short temper and volatile persona. Their lives are further complicated by an incident Collin witnesses one fateful night.

The outspoken nature of ‘Blindspotting’ is just one of the many ways that the film reminded me of Spike Lee’s early work, in particular his 1989 masterpiece ‘Do the Right Thing’. Both deal with themes of race relations on a systemic and individual level, both are highly stylised works of filmmaking with kinetic camera movements and vibrant editing choices. They both blend high drama with low comedy and crucially they each begin as laid back “day in the life” kind of stories before escalating into something with far more gravitas.

However for all their differences it’s worth noting that ‘Do the Right Thing’ was Lee’s third outing as a director, whereas ‘Blindspotting’ is the first from its director Carlos Lopez Estrada. For a debut feature it displays an astonishing command of craft and confidence of style. Its visual dynamism effortlessly guides the viewer through Collin and Miles’ routines, making their mundane exchanges, moving jobs and downtime feel completely involving. It’s at these moments when the movie’s tone is most playful, so therefore Estrada allows his own stylistics to be at the forefront, often putting them to great comedic effect.

These moments of humour that are laced throughout the movie make its high drama feel even more impactful. Estrada has such confidence in tone that he knows when to pull back the kinetic camera work and quick editing to focus on the human conflict unfolding in the scene. He allows his actors to emote and puts a tight focus on them when they do, sometimes to an uncomfortable yet immensely cathartic effect. Perhaps the best example of this is a scene in which two characters recognise Collin from an earlier encounter and begin to recall a story. What we think will be a humorous anecdote, with a stylised visual language to match, gradually morphs into a major turning point in our understanding of the story and characters. It deepens our context on the history of these people and provides motivation for their dynamic now. At no point does this shift to drama feel even remotely strained. When the anecdote is over Estrada lets his camera linger on those who are most affected by it as they react, and this sudden halt lets us feel their emotional turbulence so acutely.

Another aspect of the movie you feel whilst watching it is the unabashed adoration Estrada has for Oakland. ‘Blidspotting’ establishes such a refined sense of environment and shoots it so beautifully that it is hard not to feel the passion the characters do for where they live. With just a handful of characters the movie paints a portrait of a world that extends far beyond these people. As the film escalates it becomes all the more apparent that its statements also reach far beyond the individuals of its story. ‘Blindspotting’ carries great ambition in its themes and states them with blunt force. Though it is far from subtle, overtly stating its theses’ at numerous points, it is undeniably powerful.

That power is backed up by the excellent performances given by its relatively small cast. As the movie unfolds both Collin and Miles are bestowed with additional layers of depth that make your preconceptions about them all the more impactful. David Diggs projects such a convicning sense of carelessness in his portrayal of Collin that it is all the more impactful when we learn all that is weighing on him. Though I would consider Collin the protagonist of the film there is just as much of a compelling arc given to Miles as we uncover his temperament. Rafael Casal’s performance is seeping volatile energy which sometimes manages to evoke tension in a scene all on its own, as we fear when Miles will explode. But as our understanding of him becomes more complex, so does the persona that Casal conveys. But outside of the high minded drama it is worth noting how well these two actors execute their comedic moments, so much of the humour within ‘Blindspotting’ rests on their ability to tell compelling arcs whilst being funny and they each do just that with ease.

Though my comparison between ‘Blindspotting’ and ‘Do the Right Thing’ was meant as praise, I do think it’s worth noting how tragic it is that these issues are still so pervasive. Each film goes about making a statement on the intricacies of race relations, whether that be on a personal level or on a systemic one. What Lee had to say was radical in the late 1980s, when most major movies seemed to treat prejudice as a thing of the past. ‘Blindspotting’ highlights how essential it is that films like this continue to exist, and continue to make their statements very clear.

Stylish, vibrant and energetic on a visual level, but backed up with a masterful blend of subtle comedy and heavy drama, ‘Blindspotting’ is a supremely confident directorial debut.   

Result: 9/10