Wednesday, 30 January 2019

Beautiful Boy

"There are moments that I look at him, this kid that I raised who I thought I knew inside and out, and I wonder who he is."

I tend to find there is a level of comfort certain audiences are willing to accept when it comes to hard hitting drama. Filmmakers can explore topics up to a certain point, but when it comes to some of the ugliest subjects they try to reel back or gloss the picture in some way so as to avoid crossing a line that will risk making an audience too uncomfortable. It’s an issue I often have with many prestige dramas, films that are committed to exploiting the emotional resonance of a story without delving into the harsher reality within the subject.

Writer David Sheff (Steve Carell) is shocked to discover that his teenage son Nicholas (Tomithee Chalamet) has gone missing. Upon finding him, Nicholas shows obvious signs of drug use which rapidly becomes a severe addiction. As his condition worsens Nicholas leans on his father for support in a long and tumultuous battle to overcome his addiction and resume his life.

When it comes to its broad structure and pace, there is a lot to suggest that ‘Beautiful Boy’ might be more attentive to the difficult reality of its subject. Its narrative is littered with recoveries and relapses as David tries to pull his son away from his debilitating addiction only to be unstuck time and time again. There are crushing moments when any hope both the audience and the characters had is wrenched away and even those closest to Nicholas question whether there is anything they can do in the face of his terrible affliction.

It’s a devastating watch, or at least it should be. While the story beats of the film suggest a gruelling and emotionally draining experience, I found myself falling short of that response through the subtleties of the films execution that seemed frustratingly at odds with its bleak and cyclical tone. Overbearing editing that seems insistent in stressing the horror of the situation when that very emphasis feels unnecessary.  There are also music choices that conform to the same conventions any standard drama would, coming across as manipulative and melodramatic as if the film lacked confidence in the conviction of its own emotional power.

In short it is a classic example that less can ultimately be more. There are scenes which feel promising in their resonance only to be interrupted by needlessly manipulative tools that placed a barrier between the subject and how the film chose to represent it. Rather than enhancing the emotional weight of the scenes these aesthetic choices lessen it, adding a sense of melodrama to a story that was already plenty dramatic enough.

This is especially frustrating when Chalamet and Carell already do much of the heavy lifting with the strength of their performances. Their dynamic on screen are consistent enough so that when Nicholas and David’s usual patterns of interacting with one another is broken, that alone conveys a sign of trouble and elicits an emotional response. Their bond is a driving force of the movie, how they communicate and relate to one another serves as a dramatic crux which provides a narrative to Nicholas’ addiction.

When looked at separately, Carell is definitely evocative as the stable presence in the story. His need to support his son without judgement is one that makes the character effectively endearing, as Carell portrays the confidence David has in his son to rise above his current condition with brilliant steadfastness. There’s such conviction in this part of his performance that when David’s confidence does waver and he begins to lose hope, an aspect Carell also conveys excellently, you feel the full weight of his emotional strain.

Meanwhile, Chalamet has the more tumultuous role as Nicholas. It’s a performance that requires Chalamet to convey the sense of promise and hope just as powerfully as that of despair and depression so as to make the characters constant cycle of recovery and relapse all the more powerful. To sell this with such heft time and time again as Chalamet does is an impressive feat, but what elevates it further is the young actor’s ability to never repeat his emotional output. Each time Nicholas relapses it does not feel repetitive due to the nuance with which Chalamet portrays these falls, each instance takes note of the passing time and ways in which the character has developed rather than simply expressing anguish without purpose.

As I said however, it makes it all the more frustrating that the intricacies of ‘Beautiful Boy’ cannot live up to the broader strength within it. The screenplay’s narrative tool of flashing forwards and backwards is effective at portraying the length of Nicholas’ addiction and the enduring impact it has on those around him, however it also makes for confusing and awkward story beats that don’t leave any room to explore the context around Nicholas and David’s struggles. All of this is to say nothing of how it wastes the women within the story, often reducing David’s current and ex-wife to interchangeable props that exist to relay a specific moral argument to him. They do not come across as fully formed characters so as the movie progresses without bestowing them with any depth, it becomes more and more difficult to remain endeared.

Even the screenplay’s strongest aspects soon begin to suffer as a result of this. What began as a film that defied convention and portrayed addiction as a complex and recurring trial, builds towards a standard climactic end point that while not inherently flawed just feels so at odds with what ‘Beautiful Boy’ established itself as.

Despite two highly commendable performances, ‘Beautiful Boy’ lacks the conviction and the nuance in its own dramatic power to transcend its narrative conventions.

Result: 5/10    

The Rider

"I believe god gives each of us a purpose. For a horse it's to run across the prairie, for a cowboy it's to ride."

It is always intensely fascinating to see a filmmaker tackle a subject and environment that is outside of their own perspective and environment. As a female director who hails from Beijing, Chloe Zhao’s portrait of masculinity set against the backdrop of the American Midwest that we see in her second feature ‘The Rider’ feels so beautifully and painfully authentic that it is astonishing just in its sheer presence. Before even mentioning the lyrical poignancy of the film or its thematic weight, just the most surface level observations are worthy of praise.

Once a rising star on the rodeo circuit, Brady Blackburn’s (Brady Jandreau) life is altered by a severe accident, causing brain damage that leaves him with impaired motor abilities and prone to seizures. Unable to ride, he finds himself aimless and unsure of what his purpose is as he searches for ways in which he can provide financial support to his father and sister.

With her use of untrained actors who are essentially playing versions of their own lives, Zhao’s film is about as close to a documentary as narrative cinema can get. It would be difficult not to overuse the word “truthful” to describe ‘The Rider’ as it truly as a deeply authentic look into an individual’s life which in turn shines a light on the very environment he was born into. It a film which is as much about the backdrop as its characters, a study of masculinity, morality and expectations placed upon someone whose sole purpose in life is suddenly ripped away from them when they least expect it.

The film contains so many faithful examples of the day to day reality that I found myself overlooking some of the most remarkable instances of this. Whether it is the film showcases Brady’s training of horses, or his preparations to ride one, or simply his instructions towards others about to do the same, the nuance of the movement and complete commitment to the story at hand ultimately crosses the line between what one could even consider a performance. Apparently some of these events were not even planned, but simply a natural subtlety which Zhao captured during the shoot. Once you see the film you realise unsurprising that piece of behind the scenes information actually is.

It’s for that reason that I am slightly at a loss for how to describe Jandreau’s performance as it is more a reflection of his own life than any acting role. But then again to render yourself in such a brutally honest light, from Brady’s psychical limitations to his emotional despair of not being able to pursue what he loves, is brave and endearing beyond words. Even without knowing the history of this film’s leading man I found myself completely immersed in his plight and struggle both to piece his live back together and find new meaning from within those pieces.

Zhao is far from obsessed with purely this one man though, her emphasis on the landscapes and rough terrain within ‘The Rider’ reinforces the film’s thematic crux of being just as focussed on the world which Brady inhabits. The rodeo circuit is shown to be a striking and remarkable one, but a profession that can be broken by in a matter of seconds for those performing. The story is populated with others like Brady, who have faced injuries in the rodeo from which they will never fully recover. They are all a haunting reminder of this devastating point, that for all its showmanship and time honoured traditions the circuit has claimed plenty of casualties.

However it would be insensitive to imply that these characters are treated as ghosts whose only purpose is to reinforce a thematic crux. Many of these actors are, like Jandreau, barely separated from their filmic counterparts, and Zhao frames them with such empathy that the scenes involving them make for immensely intimate cinema. The humanity within these interactions, where each small triumph and moment to laugh, is apparent and revelled in. They are still most certainly living, despite their injuries, a point which ultimately ties into an emotionally resonant conversation between Brady and his sister near the end of the movie.

Once you near the end of the movie it becomes apparent that ‘The Rider’ possesses no clearly defined plot, or at least not in the conventional sense. There is no overarching narration or any build towards a climactic conflict. It’s more a collection of experiences that reinforce a theme, a method that can often descend into aimless meandering. However the movie retains that immersive feel for the entirety of its runtime. The strength from which is makes Brady’s experiences and struggles absorbing is how it demands the viewers’ attention. He is framed closely and intimately, allowing us to observe every subtlety within his demeanour.

The way in which Zhao’s film unfolds could most certainly be described as poetic, a lyrical tone that manifests itself within every scene of the movie. In its sweeping wide shots in which it dwells on the landscape itself, the film almost seems to be asking the viewer to ponder the deeper themes at hand just as Brady does numerous times throughout the film. But rooted within all of this thematic storytelling is a narrative of deep humanity. Above all else you can constantly connect to Brady’s own desire to simply follow his dreams while his body refuses to let him. It’s a story we have seen before but rarely has it been rendered with quite the level of expressive beauty as Zhao has here.

‘The Rider’ is a hopeful, heart-breaking and deeply humane vision that blurs the lines between cinema and reality.  

Result: 8/10

Monday, 28 January 2019


"A lot of the time, you feel that our lives are the worst. But if you look in anyone else's closest, you wouldn't trade your shit for their shit."

I feel as I’ve spoken several times over the past few years about first time directors and their tendency to resort to coming of age films as their feature debut. On the surface one could assume that is simply so they can pull from their own life experiences but that does not necessarily have to be accurate. More than any specific story a coming of age film can represent a feeling, a need of urgency or the burgeoning experiences from its subjects. It can also be about a specific era, an environment one might not have been a part of but still shaped them in some way.

In mid-1990s Los Angeles, 13 year old Stevie (Sunny Suljic) lives with his aggressive older brother (Lucas Hedges) with whom he is constantly fighting against, and his mother (Katherine Waterston) who tries to broker peace between the two siblings. Stevie soon falls in with a group of skateboarders and joins them as they roam through the city day after day, looking for meaning or simply something to pass the time.

Jonah Hill has certainly crafted a promising introduction here, regarding both the opening shots of ‘Mid90s’ specifically and the broader potential his career may have. This is a film which possesses a strong level of craftsmanship and clear intent, with its greatest feat of visual storytelling coming in the first scene. Without even a single piece of text to inform us, Hill instantly transports the audience to the heart of the mid-90s with a simple layout of a teenager’s bedroom. His meticulously framed shots that mix in pop culture iconography, stylistic flourishes and general aesthetic choices all convey such a distinct sense of time that the film succeeds in immersing you within its environment in the opening moments.

While as a whole ‘Mid90s’ never quite lives up to the brilliance of those early moments, there are still plenty of brilliant touches throughout the movie. Some of its imagery is almost poetic in its beauty, the performances feel wonderfully authentic and Hill’s ground level view of the subject yields some profound observation on this small stakes narrative. Ironically ‘Mid90s’ suffers from being too middling, stuck awkwardly between a more minimalistic view of proceedings only to then hint at a broader view that it never really follows through on.

It’s especially frustrating for a film in which the main thematic crux is the perspective one’s own life has when contrasted with others. While much of the focus is on the protagonist, as the movie progresses it shifts more to the supporting characters and alludes to their own struggles. But rather than give exposition on the other characters in a way that feels natural to the narrative, the film just outright states each characters backstory in a single moment. Though I can understand it serves as a rare moment of openness for these teenagers, it also feels clunky and somewhat forced. It builds to a relatively contrived third act conflict that ultimately does not add much meaningful substance to the movie.

So somewhere between this minimalist story of teenage layabout in LA and this deep drama regarding young and conflicted lives is ‘Mid90s’. In a dissonance that affects the tone and pace of the film as well, switching between scenes that feel lose and free with others that try to set up or resolve a conflict of sorts. It’s the kind of film where a scene of random house party antics with lead into severe emotional warfare, or the kind where a character will break down in tears only for it to never be resolved or referenced again.

But amidst those teething problems is a film of energy and value. While the dynamic of Stevie’s group is never explored in any great detail, it is instantly conveyed with a sense of great confidence from Hill. His placement of the characters and his attention to the nuances of their interactions is functional enough to tell a story on its own. He is confident enough to let certain character details communicate a story just in their existence. Hill lets their daily exchanges, their dialogue and the places they visits serve as a means to endear you to the group and their routine. Much like Stevie when you become accustomed to their activities and dynamic you feel satisfied at being rooted within this circle of friends.

The group of skaters feel palpably real as a result of the actors as well, with each of the young performers filling in their roles superbly. They handle the chilled conversations and comedic banter with a sense of infectious effortlessness, however it was then a pleasant surprise to see how capably they each handled the more dramatic moments as well. Even if the scenes of high conflict do feel slightly contrived in the broader narrative, the actors in question rarely have a misstep when it comes to conveying how the characters feel in those intense flashes. As much as I complain about the allusions of depth that are never quite fulfilled, it would be interesting to revisit the movie bearing each character’s history in mind and noting how the young actors bared that in mind.

Perhaps Hill titled his film ‘Mid90s’ for the specific reason that above all else it is about a specific time and place. It’s atmospheric and immersive, drawing the audience into its environment and being mostly content to observe the characters within it. The hazy streets of LA shot with an almost dreamlike focus, scored by the iconic and varied sounds of that decade, make for a wonderfully grounded view. I just wish it was more frequently self-reflective than the characters occasionally are.

Well-crafted and clearly personal, ‘Mid90s’ is an imperfect but still capably strong directorial debut. 

Result: 6/10

Sorry to Bother You

"We will have a transformative experience."

In this day and age it’s almost impossible enter a movie completely blind. Internet chatter, reviews and audience reactions can give you a basic assumption of what a certain movie will be before you have even seen it, and that isn’t even taking into account the advertising which aims to try and sell the audience the movie’s conceit, or at least a version that is easily digestible. With all that in mind I was anticipating a surreal experience when I approached Boots Riley’s ‘Sorry to Bother You’, but that does not begin to scratch the surface.

In the city of Oakland, a down on his luck Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) finds work as a telemarketer. Cassius begins to flourish in the profession due to his tactic of using a “white voice” to entice customers and improve his sales. As his own stature escalates however, he comes into conflict between his own career ambition and the needs of his co-workers as they stand and fight against the corporate oppression hanging over them all.

The most striking selling point of ‘Sorry to Bother You’ is the aforementioned “white voice” that proves integral to the plot. A narrative device that is both surreal in execution but contains a strong element of grounded realism to it. I was under the impression that it would allude to the film’s central thematic crux (namely a statement on race relations) and be the high point of the film’s turn into surrealism. However even those already specific expectations were blown completely out of the water.

Though issues of race dynamics and relations do factor into the theme of ‘Sorry to Bother You’, Boots Riley’s film is ultimately far more audacious and daring in what it is saying, as well as how blunt and evocative its statement is. Riley’s movie is concerned with class, capitalism, labour laws, the rights of workers, the media we consume every day and the intersection at which all of these subjects collide. It’s a tour de force of argumentative filmmaking that is as much a scathing satire of modern life as it is an exercise in constantly subverting audience expectations.

The movie’s existence is in of itself a paradox, simultaneously absurd and unreal beyond almost anything else to hit cinemas in recent years whilst also being so thoroughly grounded in real world concepts that is speaks loudly and confidently about. It is certainly a blunt and direct movie, which could become grating had its theme been limited to just one subject. However Riley traverses such an array of topics that the film avoids growing stale. The fact that his methods of conveying those themes to the audience only grow more overt as the film progresses make the pace and structure of the message even more meaningful. Some have deemed the third act as a twist or harsh left turn, but I would simply regard it as the escalation of what came before it.

It’s rare in this day and age to see an ensemble cast of this calibre so utterly committed to a project this inherently bizarre. However Riley has assembled just such a cast with the likes of Lakeith Stanfield, Tessa Thompson and Steven Yuen who are definitely the most humane voices in this darkly comedic trip. Each actor brings a distinct level of grounded morality that provides some clarity to the more deranged aspects. ‘Sorry to Bother You’ might risk being little more than empty absurdity but the nuance of these characters puts those oddities in a human context that serves as a statement on the real lives affected by these harder to grasp concepts. If you can’t wrap your head around the broader ideas Riley is commenting on then you can at least appreciate the empathetic performance of Stanfield as he traverses his own nightmarish journey.

Other actors like Armie Hammer and Omari Hardwick are very much caricatures, but they are caricatures that serve as stand in for wider ideas. Every character placement, every design choice and every plot point all serve Riley’s powerful and provocative declaration. ‘Sorry to Bother You’ demands repeat viewings as your first outing might leave you awestruck at the sheer absurdity of the narrative, however a closer look will reveal the many subtle ways the film goes about making a statement.  

However it would be easy to focus on the audacity within the script of ‘Sorry to Bother You’ that one may overlook the visual dynamics of Riley’s direction. According to the writer/director he attempted to pass the script around the film industry for several years looking for a director, only to be told and resolve that only he could direct it. Observing the way Riley handles the film’s elevated satire whilst not forgetting the dramatic irony that makes its thematic conceit so ultimately powerful, it’s hard to disagree with that assessment. He ensures that every scene of the film is pulsating and robust, so that it never descends into a simple lecture. As much as I’ve droned on about the direct ways ‘Sorry to Bother You’ communicates with the audience, one should never overlook Riley’s ability to do that with a single image. There are frames of this film that have more to say than the entire scripts of other movies.

A darkly comedic, broadly topical and increasingly absurd tour de force, ‘Sorry to Bother You’ is a proactive and deliriously energetic work of cinema.

Result: 8/10

Wednesday, 23 January 2019

The Old Man and the Gun

"I'm not talking about making a living, I'm just talking about living."

David Lowery’s body of work is one of the most intriguing from any director of recent memory. Just for the sheer variety of that output alone. His 2013 debut from the grounded romance or ‘Ain’t Them Bodies Saints’ to the emotional maturity of ‘Pete’s Dragon’ as well as the lyrical immersion of ‘A Ghost Story’, those three films alone are wildly different in conceit and execution. His latest film is different yet again. A film that is much like its protagonist, suave and deceptively smooth.

At the age of 61, career criminal Forrest Tucker (Robert Redford) is wanted by the law. Having escaped from prison on numerous occasions, Tucker is currently conducting a string of audacious bank robberies across the country. Closely connected to Tucker’s crime spree is detective John Hunt (Casey Affleck) pursuing him, and Jewel (Sissy Spacek) who is fascinated and infatuated with Tucker in spite of his profession.

Despite its directors impressive track record, ‘The Old Man and the Gun’ is not being thought of as the fourth David Lowery film as much as it is labelled the last Robert Redford film. Having announced his intent to retire from acting, this is likely to be the 82 year old’s final on screen role. Part of me has to wonder if Lowery was aware of this at some point in the film’s production as it possesses such a wistful and bittersweet tone. In leans into Redford’s own legendary status and seems to serve as a swansong for his prolific career.

I could be projecting some of this but there truly does seem to be an added sense of weight to ‘The Old Man and the Gun’ when viewed in the context of it being Redford bowing out. First and foremost it is a role that seems tailor made for him, with Tucker’s charm being an essential element to his crimes. Even the victims of his robberies describe him as polite and gentlemanlike, and as an audience you can’t help but agree with them. Despite the criminality of what he is doing, it’s almost impossible not to be endeared by Redford’s bright blue eyes, smooth smile and charismatic tone of voice.

In many ways ‘The Old Man and the Gun’ is an amalgamation of Redford’s finest qualities as an actor. The role requires him to be suave and roguish, but also humorous and deeply sincere. Too far in any direction and Tucker would seem less empathetic, which would in turn lessen the entire film, but something about Redford’s presence bestows that perfect balance onto the entire movie. While the movies does not overtly condemn or condone Tucker, it definitely sympathises with him.

As well as not placing any moral judgement on the story, the film’s tone is also decidedly more laid back and easy going. There’s no forced urgency to the narrative even though it concerns a career criminal, which makes it unique among this genre. There are a few chase sequences but I would describe them as being almost lyrical in tone. There’s a strange beauty to seeing Tucker so completely in defiance of the world around him, accompanied by a tinge of sadness that he seems incapable of knowing enough is enough.

Lowery seems much more intrigued by the nuance in the human interactions within his story. If anything the film is less about Tucker and more about the lives he leaves an impact on. Whether they love him or loathe him, almost every character in the film eventually becomes fascinated and mystified by him. Characters like Jewel know him personally, as she struggles to reconcile the way she loves him as a person with her concerns surrounding what he chooses to do with his life. Other characters such as Detective Hunt view Tucker mostly as this obscure entity, rarely meeting face to face and adamant that he will put him behind bars. However amidst that obsession there is an odd sort of admiration Hunt feels for the aging escape artist.

There really is a lot to marvel at in the approach Lowery and his crew take to executing this story. Any other filmmaker might feel compelled to lean into heavy handed drama or bitter irony, but instead the film flows in an almost fleeting style. It never dwells or indulges in anything but instead observes each encounter as it ploughs forward. It does not aim to explore or understand these characters as much as it simply wants to marvel at their communication with one another. This is never clearer than the scenes with Redford and Spacek, as the film seems content just to be in their presence and revel in their conversations. There are few actors for whom this approach would work, but in the company of legends such as these it seems completely fitting.

If this is Redford’s final film it is all the more poignant that is resembles something that came from his heyday, with cinematographer Joe Anderson doing the utmost to evoke a distinctly 1970s pastiche. I can’t deny that part of this film’s emotional resonance does not come from it possibly being Redford’s swansong, often utilising the actors own prolific legacy to do so. At one point Tucker is asked if he has ever ridden a horse and he answers that he has not, which almost seems like a joke as my mind immediately reverted back to Redford’s iconic portrayal of the Sundance Kid. That is just one small example of how a film can lean on something broader than its own presence to affect us, and in this case it happens to be the on screen farewell of a legend. That being said, speaking personally to Robert, if you ever felt like backtracking this whole retirement thing I would be happy with that.

‘The Old Man and the Gun’ is an eloquent and endlessly charming portrayal of a man who, for better or worse, was completely unforgettable.

Result: 8/10

Welcome to Marwen

"I was a hell of a good artist, and now I can barely write my name. So my dolls have to tell the story."

For the best part of two decades now, Robert Zemeckis has been experimenting with new forms of filmmaking in an effort to blend the possibilities of CGI with the classical storytelling that defined his earlier works. It’s an admirable approach but one that has yielded few results, with many of his animated ventures both critically and commercially whilst his live action efforts failed to capitalise on their potential. With each new film though I retain some sense of hope that maybe this will be Zemeckis’ return to form.

When a violent hate crime leaves Navy veteran Mark Hogancamp’s (Steve Carell) life utterly devastated, leaving him with serious damage to his motor functions, severe post-traumatic stress as well as brain damage that results in him possessing little memory of his own life. Unable to afford therapy, he starts crafting a miniature and meticulous city and populates it with his own WW2 era adventure fantasies, a project that soon becomes a new outpouring or art for him.

‘Welcome to Marwen’ is partially based on a documentary depicting Hogancamp’s extraordinary life and work named ‘Marwencol’. It’s actually the second instance of Zemeckis adapting works of documentary film into narrative dramas, as he took it upon himself to turn the 2008 documentary ‘Man on Wire’ into a dramatized account via the 2015 film ‘The Walk’. While Zemeckis’ restaging was admirable and featured some impressive set pieces (most notably the climactic twin towers high wire walk), it still lacked the lyrical beauty or emotional resonance of the documentary. The same could be said of ‘Welcome to Marwen’ which seems to display an almost uncanny ability to misjudge its subject matter and fail to reconcile what made the true story so impactful.

Hogancamp’s artwork and the presentation of it in ‘Marwencol’ was not reduced to a simplistic, uplifting narrative. It was a violent, dark and sometimes uncomfortable view of someone living a life vicariously through their staging of their own fantasies, tinged with all the sexuality and adrenaline as human desires can be. The fact that the scenes were reflections of Hogancamp’s own life and traumas made it all the more striking. The surface level fact of these scenes being staged with dolls suggests a quirky or whimsical tone but in actuality is angry and complex.  

Taking all of this into account it becomes all the more baffling that the screenplay for ‘Welcome to Marwen’ tries to approach its subject in this stagnated tone. As much as the screenplay wants to stress the importance of Mark’s recovery, it frames his work as an eccentric quirk rather than the very real means of recovery that it actually was. Even putting the real story aside though there is such a severe case of cognitive dissonance throughout the film that it reaches levels that verge on uncomfortable. This simplistic and melodramatic approach seems to out of synch with the horrendous violence that instigates these events that they risk undermining the dramatic tone the movie aspires for.

There is a similar level of awkwardness regarding Carell’s performance. It’s Carell’s sincerity that usually works to further both his comedic and dramatic roles, but in ‘Welcome to Marwen’ he seems lost as to when and where to apply that sincerity. I don’t doubt the screenplay hardly made this task any easier but Carell’s performance does little to suggest someone grappling with their own trauma as much as it is a drastically sliding scale of tones. There is no connective tissue between the two versions of Hogancamp he is portraying, the victim of a violent attack and the eccentric artist taking photographs of dolls.

The film’s narrative is split between Mark’s attempts to navigate the real world and his own stories that play out in his constructed miniature world. It’s a method that in this case either feels needlessly heavy handed or frustratingly shallow. In some cases it stresses the fact that Mark’s dolls reflect people within his own life to such an extent that it actively impedes the central story, but at the same time it never devotes any substantial time to those characters in the real world for their Marwen counterpart to carry meaning. It sacrifices worthwhile drama for over the top action sequences which do little to further the central themes the film seems to be aiming for.

Whether those animated sequences even work at all on their most basic functionality is also up for dispute as they venture deep into the uncanny valley effect. Though this is a highly subjective topic, it seems to me personally that the CGI does not possess the fluidity or dexterity needed to appear natural. In fact realism does not even need to be the goal, a simple sense of consistency to the way the figures moved would be convincing enough. However as I stared at Steve Carell’s face composited onto a stilted CGI figurine I couldn’t help but fail to be immersed within the story of Marwen. When all is said and done though, any issues I had with the animation was simply the tip of the iceberg for an unbalanced and poorly conceived approach to this story.

‘Welcome to Marwen’ is a tonally unbalanced and emotionally empty experience that waters down its subject whilst adding needless, self-indulgent flourishes.

Result: 2/10

Wednesday, 16 January 2019

The Favourite

"Favour is a breeze that shifts direction all the time."

It is easy to simply dismiss the work of Yorgos Lanthimos as being inherently perverse and strange, but beneath all of the eccentricities within his films lies a profound statement both on the absurdity of the individual as well as the madness of the dynamic around them. Whether it is the lives of the children in ‘Dogtooth’, the lovers plight in ‘The Lobster’ or the sadistic plan for revenge in ‘The Killing of a Sacred Deer’, you can marvel at the oddities of the characters themselves but would be remised if you didn’t ask whether they are the product of the environment they inhabit.

In early 18th century England, a frail Queen Anne (Olivia Coleman) occupies the throne. Her close friend, Lady Sarah (Rachel Weisz), governs the country in her stead, while tending to Anne's ill health and mercurial temper. When a new servant, Abigail (Emma Stone), arrives seeking work, she slowly starts to build up empathy with the aristocracy surrounding her and grows closer to the queen as vicious rivalries begin to emerge.

On the surface this seemingly eloquent period piece with a screenplay which he had no part in writing would seem like somewhat of a far cry from Lanthimos’ other projects, dare I say one that seems more strategically suited to awards favour than anything else. However any fears I had that this would conform to convention were quickly dissipated as I realised that the world of ‘The Favourite’ is one of exploitable systems of power alongside ruthless individuals willing to undertake any means necessary to survive within that system.

Like all of Lanthimos’ previous efforts there is a delicate balance of tone on display here. ‘The Favourite’ seems constantly caught on a razors edge between the most absurd comedy and the darkest drama. What you may laugh at on the first viewing could later reveal itself to be a striking statement on the films depraved systems of power and the even more depraved humans that occupy it. In fact that might summarise the overall effect of the film, aspects that seem inherently absurd are treated as such, but the script refuses to overlook the very real and troubling emotional fallout each one of these oddities leaves in its wake.

A criticism I sometimes see being levelled against Lanthimos’ work is that his high minded concepts and absurdity leaves little room for genuine humanity, a criticism which I can sympathise with even if I personally disagree. However ‘The Favourite’ displays a shocking amount of empathy for its characters. Beneath all of their eccentricities and brutal rivalries, with each one we see a motivation that is surprisingly relatable.  From Anne’s insecurities over whether or not her friends or allies truly love her or are just exploiting her position of power, to Sarah’s staunch and steadfast belief that her advice and guidance to Anne will yield the best results for the country as a whole, as well as Abigail’s need to feel secure and assured in her status rather than constantly fighting for survival. You can distinctly see the deeply human flaws and drives in each of these characters.

These three strong female leads are further complemented by the strength of the performances portraying them. Olivia Colman, Rachel Weisz and Emma Stone are all truly magnificent in the film, each one turning in what could be called a career best performance. Each of them conveys such a distinct first impression that it becomes all the more amazing when they so brilliantly subvert that impression and use it as a means to convey a deeply affecting character arc. Colman resists the urge to reduce Anne to a caricature and instead paints a portrait of a vulnerable and intensely insecure woman whose main desire is to feel loved and respected by those around her. Stone and Weisz duel for Anne’s affections in a game of wits and strategy that is made all the more engaging by the layers each actor brings to their role, gripping the viewer in something as inconsequential as their turn of a phrase.

But ‘The Favourite’ is by no means just a showcase for the actors themselves. Lanthimos may not be working with material that is as overtly outlandish as he has in the past, however he has lost none of the visual dynamism or striking frames that shone in his other directorial outings. The film is littered with wide angles designed to isolate the characters within the settings and alienate the viewer in accustoming them to this unforgiving world around them. In contrast to these wide shots however are an array of uncomfortable close ups that are unafraid to capture the characters at their lowest and ugliest moments. If ‘The Favourite’ holds a sense of humour that most period dramas do not, it also contains a greater sense pf pain and anguish that most do as well.

Despite going against the grain of most period dramas however, ‘The Favourite’ does not sell itself short in terms of aesthetically representing the era. The costume design by Sandy Powell is beyond exquisite, often conveying elements of story and character entirely on its own. The gorgeous set design and lighting is something to behold as well, particularly when framed by Lanthimos and his director of photography Robbie Ryan.  

With so much of the film’s world built on lavish aesthetics designed to mask the flaws of humanity, it becomes all the more striking to see those weaknesses put on full display through the writing, performances and direction which are keen to highlight every single one of them. At its core this is a film of desperate people each striving to achieve their own desires, with each of them using the power structure around them to their full advantage. It’s a brutal war of words, with the dialogue between the characters often being the thing which inflicts the most pain.

That being said, some of the most haunting moments of the film are also some of the quietest. In particular the final few moments are a truly evocative series of revelations regarding how these characters really stand when all is said and done. You may find yourself unsure of who to side with throughout ‘The Favourite’ but its final shot is a heart breaking realisation for all involved that their ultimate choice was likely the wrong one.  

A thrilling duel for power between three acutely drawn and deeply sympathetic women, shot with a visual tour de force by Lanthimos, ‘The Favourite’ is an eccentric masterwork.

Result: 10/10

Thursday, 10 January 2019

Green Book

"So if I'm not black enough and if I'm not white enough, then tell me who am I?"

Peter Farrelly’s latest movie does have the connection to his best known work in the sense that they are both road movies. One would think that is where the similarity between ‘Green Book’ and ‘Dumb and Dumber’ ends however there is a narrative catharsis plots involving lengthy road trips and stories of self-discovery, so as absurd as it sounds perhaps Farrelly could benefit from adopting the storytelling methods that endeared us to the likes of Harry and Lloyd, only in this case with a context that allows for far more gravitas.

Dr Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) is a world-class African-American pianist, who is about to embark on a concert tour in the Deep South in 1962. In need of a driver and protection, Shirley recruits Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen), a tough-talking bouncer from an Italian-American neighbourhood in the Bronx. Despite their differences, the two men soon develop an unexpected bond while confronting racism and danger in an era of segregation.

At the time of this review it is difficult to review ‘Green Book’ outside of the controversy surrounding the film. From Shirley’s family denouncing it as a work of fiction to what many have viewed as an undeserving awards sweep as well as screenwriter Nick Vallelonga’s, let’s call them, unfortunate comments. It is a shame that such controversy has shadowed a film that I should otherwise be achingly excited for. You would be hard pressed to find two more exciting and committed actors nowadays than Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen and the notion of seeing them on screen together is a tantalising one.

It is safe to say that the chemistry of Ali and Mortensen essentially carries ‘Green Book’ and is far and away the strongest element of the film. They each fully immerse themselves within their respective characters and completely disappear into the roles. Each of them have a unique talent of unfolding the layers of their characters at a gradual rate, slowly easing the audience into their personas so as to make each character revelation feel both surprising and fulfilling. It’s this common approach that allows them to bounce off each other with a brilliantly dynamic sense of energy. In a film where the emotional beats of each scene so often lies on the little interactions between Shirley and Tony, the two actors portraying them never fail to convey the importance of those moments.

Outside of the wider socio-political context that makes certain elements of ‘Green Book’ more problematic (more on that later), structurally the movie flows at a respectable pace. Farrelly does indeed know how to employ a lighter touch that makes his road movies feel well paced. Heavier scenes that literally announce the movie’s intent are spread evenly throughout so as not to weight down any one particular act, while still building towards and emotionally fulfilling climax that is appropriately uplifting and undoubtedly affecting.

However, it’s when ‘Green Book’ states its thematic conceit that it becomes decidedly more problematic. Part of the main narrative within the film is to draw a comparison between Shirley and Tony, both in terms of their own understanding of one another as well as the prejudice they are both subjected to. At this point you might begin to see an issue. I will not pretend that classicism is not a prevalent issue and undoubtedly impacts many people. But within the context of when ‘Green Book’ is set, to make a comparison between it and the systemic racism experienced by black people living in America is hardly what I would call apt.

While Tony within the film is shown to deal with prejudices regarding his mannerisms and conduct which to him are nothing more than a by-product of his upbringing, even within the context of the movie these pale in contrast to the issues Shirley faces to which they are compared. Perhaps ‘Green Book’ could benefit by remembering the significance of the very thing it is named after. Tony is subjected to sneering while he travels the country, whereas Shirley need a travel guide instructing him on how to find accommodation that doesn’t come with the risk of being subjected to harassment and violence. As well-meaning as this concept of unity between the two is, their circumstance within this era are very much not comparable.

‘Green Book’ could have avoided this if it were to employ a narrow focus on these two men and how they overcome their initial impressions of one another, and to a certain extent it does with the result being the film at its best. But it repeatedly aims to address broader topics and in doing so exposes how na├»ve and simplistic its conceit actually is. The film only makes these flaws more apparent when it makes a comment on Shirley’s own educated background serving as a barrier between him and the black populace. Of all the ways to make a comment on the state of race relations in the 1960s, the story of a white working class guy teaching a black musician to reconnect with his own culture is not the way to convey that.

‘Green Book’ is uplifting enough but risks oversimplifying its historical setting in favour of a more easily accessible narrative.  

Result: 5/10

Mary Poppins Returns

"Nothing's gone forever, only out of place."

For the past few years we’ve become gradually more used to the concept of a legacy oriented sequel. A film being revived decades after its predecessors release and finding popularity in the collective status that property has built up over years to accumulate legions of devoted fans, which makes them all the more inviting as well as all the more terrifying. Potentially a huge market to tap into and entertain, but also a huge base to risk disappointing. When it comes to Disney, this particular revival concerns one of their most widely loved and enduringly popular properties of all.

Now an adult with three children, bank teller Michael Banks (Ben Wishaw) learns that his house will be repossessed in five days unless he can pay back a loan. Just when all seems lost Michael and his sister Jane (Emily Mortimer) find a familiar face from their past revisiting them, their supposedly magical and unorthodox nanny named Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt).

In some ways you could think of ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ as Disney just broadening their horizons, using the same tactics that have served them well in capturing the nostalgic affection of those who grew up watching their animated features of the early 1990s to now reach those who have childhood memories attached to ‘Mary Poppins’. So with 54 years’ worth of collective childhoods behind it there is a lot of weight already behind this sequel. A film that shares a lot of the strengths of its predecessor as well as its weaknesses.

Much like the character herself, ‘Mary Poppins’ is in the unique position of feeling both ageless and completely of its time. It succumbs to many of the conventions of a classical Hollywood musical that would eventually cause the genre to stagnate. It’s musical set pieces function more as convention than necessity, its direction feels inherently stage-like and its plot is somewhat meandering to put it lightly. However it’s complete sincerity, strong thematic through line and more than a few transcendent moments mean it continues to appeal to children as each new generation passes. Whether Rob Marshall’s sequel will endure for 54 years itself is yet to be seen (I’ll come back and edit this when such time has passed) but it goes above and beyond to try and replicate the magic of the original.

It comes as no surprise that Disney would recreate the production design and aesthetics of the original down to the finest detail. But in making a film designed to be a successor to ‘Mary Poppins’ would call Marshall’s weaknesses as a filmmaker become his greatest asset. His musicals have a tendency to feel deliberately staged, as if wanting to immerse the audience in a Broadway performance. While not inherently lesser, it’s a technique that leaves a lot to be desired in terms of the unique power film possesses as a medium, so the end results feel cluttered and awkward. However by adopting this technique once again Marshall has indeed replicated the visual language of the 1964 film. The movement of the camera, timing of the edits and framing of the characters work to create a sequence of images that is unmistakably drawn from the influence of ‘Mary Poppins’.

Save for a few modern touches such as CGI and colour correcting, ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ has the palette of a film that could have been made immediately after the first movie. It helps that the film essentially recreates the tone and scenario for each and every one of these sequences, from a beautifully rendered hand drawn animation sequence (which really is astonishing) to a more tactile and stunt based performance orchestrated by London’s working class characters. We are treated to gravity switching antics, sombre and narratively fulfilling number and an uplifting free spirited finale. In fact more than one of the songs overtly references the soundtrack of the original either through sampling or directly lifting a few bars from its music and weaving them into these new numbers.

All of this means that one could obviously accuse ‘Mary Poppins Returns’ of being overly derivative of the original, which is a valid criticism. It makes no effort to re-contextualise or expand upon any element introduced 54 years ago. However, I would also note that you would struggle to argue that the filmmakers ever wanted to achieve anything besides that. Their goal was to recapture the magic that generations have felt when viewing a particular film, either through its aesthetic or just a specific mood and atmosphere.

Which brings me to Emily Blunt’s performance which will no doubt be the talking point among most people in terms of how well she recaptures or reinvents the iconic character Julie Andrews brought to life. In all honesty it feels restrictive to simply reduce both actors to one doing an imitation of the other. Blunt’s performance is so fully realised and impeccable from the smallest of mannerisms to the broadest emotional beats. In fact it was in those minute details that her performance reveals just how remarkable it truly is. It’s obvious just from the bare aesthetics that Blunt has assumed the role excellently, but when the camera truly observes her as she works her magic and we as an audience are left to marvel at the nuances of her expressions and the flourishes in her movements, you simply see her as that character and nothing else. One could almost say her performance is (wait for it) practically perfect in every way.

‘Mary Poppins Returns’ is a charming and faithful tribute to what so many continue to adore about its predecessor, even a little too much for its own good at times.

Result: 7/10