Thursday, 19 October 2017

Flatliners (2017) (Review)


Flatliners dared us to cross the line. It's underwhelming box office figures suggest very few followed that advice though - and those that did ripped it to shreds. Of course, the 2017 film is a sequel to the 1990 original - which was hardly the most well-liked film - and hoped to spawn a new franchise for the struggling Sony Pictures, but it looks to be dead on arrival. Is the film really as bad as that 5% Rotten Tomatoes approval rating suggests, or has it been unfair attacked?

As with the original, the film follows five medical students attempting to learn about the afterlife. After conducting controlled near-death experiments - flatlining - they are brought back to life to report their findings. As it becomes obvious that something has followed them back into the real world, the students must learn to fight their new demons to survive. Ellen Page, Diego Luna, Nina Dobrev, James Norton and Kiersey Clemons lead the film as the medical students exploring the after-life, while Kiefer Sutherland returns as a new character because this is most definitely a sequel, not a remake (despite IMDB continuing to list it is a remake).

Calling Flatliners one of the worst films of the year, like many others have, would be the easiest option here. Honestly, Flatliners is not a good film - but neither is it the colossal failure most would have you believe. It feels odd trying to defend a film that one cannot knowingly recommend to a friend, but it simply does not deserve its now infamous reputation or fervorous, hateful reception. Critics appeared to jump on this one immediately, picking at its dying carcass in delight, and I'm not too sure why.

Maybe my expectations were lowered to rock-bottom levels approaching Flatliners: I rather disliked the original, the incoming reviews were disastrous to say the least and, frankly, it looked pretty poor. Does the film deserve my pity? Probably not. It's uninspired, conventional and a little bit dull at times. It's not even entertaining enough to justify its existence; but there are worse films to waste your time on. 

Director Niels Arden Oplev reimagines the picture with a solid-enough vision: the nightmare sequences are particularly well-realised, with a genuine sense of horror incorporated into the mix. Although it seems unbalanced in terms of tone and genre - with a definitive, sudden difference between the two halves of the film - it embraces it in a way that is goofy, camp and trashy enough to work visually. In comparison to the original too, it helps that you can actually see what is going on, with some decent cinematography from Eric Kress enhancing the set pieces. 

Ben Ripley's spiritless screenplay is responsible for most of Flatliners' downfalls. Despite working with an intriguing concept, and just like the original, the botched execution means that little enthusiasm can found throughout the narrative. It all feels rather pointless actually, like a slog for Ripley, experienced by the audience too. Admittedly, Ripley lands an admirable third-act twist many doubted it would actually stick with, showing that the potential is there but it goes largely unfulfilled and for every moment that works, there is another that doesn't work.

But the biggest flaw here is the uninspired characters. With next to no characterisation between them, little separates the four medical students undergoing the flatlining process. As we watch a film play out that forces us through the same build-up, flatline, dream, nightmare cycle, we rely on the characters to provide a new experience each time - but there's no personality to any of them. They all experience the same thing; they are react to it in the same way; they all deal with the same agitation and guilt. What do we have that makes watching the same cycle play out four times worthwhile? Very little. It becomes dull and repetitive, and with no meat to these characters, it becomes very difficult to sympathise with many - if any - of them at all. 

Any emotion you feel towards them is down to the best efforts of a cast held hostage to their weak counterparts. Most are forced to deliver melodramatic performances that delve into horror tropes as predictable as they are annoying, and while passable on the whole, the cast deserve better. Page helms it with any emotion and hint of a backstory that appears unresolved, while Clemons is the best of a tortured bunch. Norton feels miscast, while Dobrev takes on the archetypical female-in-a-horror-film role. Luna is the only one provided with something of a little more substance, but his character (while in the right) is treated as a burden. 

You can find entertainment in Flatliners. If it came on the television one day, you may consider keeping it on the in the background. While obviously flawed, it is not a complete disaster and I actually prefer it to the original. Despite all their might, the talented cast cannot save a weak script and the direction isn't creative enough to elevate it either, indulging in horror tropes and conventions at a disappointing rate.

✬☆
(4.5/10) 

Summary: Dead-on-arrival but not as awful as the reviews suggest, Flatliners perishes at the hands of a weak script and dreadful characters, despite solid efforts from the cast and lowered expectations all-round. Please, do not resuscitate.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

The Snowman (2017) (Review)


The Snowman tries with all its might to follow in the footsteps of the incredible Gone Girl and unfairly-dismissed The Girl On The Train: it is a film adaptation of a best-selling crime-mystery-thriller; it aligns itself carefully for award season glory with a mid-autumn release date; and assembles a promising cast, with at least one well-loved British talent; helmed by a director with prior award-season success. It is unfortunate that, while watchable, The Snowman lets such a promising opportunity melt away in front of our very eyes.

The Snowman follows Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender), an elite but troubled crime squad detective in Oslo, who investigates the disappearance of a young mother on the first snow of winter. An elusive serial killer, nicknamed The Snowman, is feared to be rising again - and looks set to kill with every fresh snowfall. It's up to Hole and promising new recruit, Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), to track him down before he strikes again,  and blood stains the snow again.

You can accredit The Snowman's disappointment to one of two variables: either, the film's source material - Norwegian author Jo Nesbo's best-selling novel - does not provide the film with a sturdy-enough foundation on which to develop the film on; or the botched page-to-screen translation, headed up Hossein Amini, Peter Straughan and Soren Sveistrup, fails to identify the elements that made the novel such a success and smartly infuse them into the screenplay. Without reading the 2007 novel, it's difficult to make an assertion either way: but my gut reaction leans towards the latter, as notable narrative deviations have supposedly been made, which disfigures the starting point completely.

The Snowman just doesn't have the momentum to keep audiences in the palm of its hand. It starts promising enough, introducing its core mystery and crime in a smart, alluring way: the sense of fear and dread looms large over the case and the tension slow begins to escalate, as the detectives sense the work of a serial killer. Early on, we see a handful of effective set pieces, genuine mystery and strong storytelling. But as we approach the finale, the story becomes increasing preposterous and lazy, taking itself far too seriously for its own good. There's little respite to the brooding mood that hangs so bleakly over the film, which becomes even more transparent as we descend into that underwhelming final stretch. It feels predictable, formulaic and rather generic, endlessly borrowing elements from more successful films and television miniseries.

While Gone Girl has comments to pass on society and The Girl on the Train made assertions about gender, The Snowman has nothing beyond surface-level additions to develop it into something better, stronger, more operational. It feels like an oddly-empty spectacle filled with unmemorable characters, despite the intriguing central concept it considers and some high-level intensity contained within the first half. Claire Simpson and Thelma Schoonmaker valiantly attempt to edit the film together effectively - but the film makes bizarre jumps, allows characters to complete fade into obscurity and ditch sub-plots when that are no longer required, as if crucial scenes went missing between the production and post-production process. Simpson and Schoonmaker can only paper over the cracks so well and their efforts, while admirable, cannot save The Snowman from melting away.

While the characters lack substance, the cast do their best with them. Fassbender plays Harry Hole (I laughed numerous times) effectively but it won't go down as a career best; his main character traits seems to be that he quite likes a drink and continual disappoints his family but lacks the backstory to expand on this. Thankfully, Fassbender is a talented man and just about brings enough likability to this once-sharp detective - it just doesn't feel particularly inspired. Rebecca Ferguson is weighty as Katrine, providing emotion and magnetism as the latest addition to the Oslo's police force. Toby Jones makes a blink-and-you-miss-it cameo and J.K. Simmons leads an interesting sub-plot that completely vanishes as his character is sidelined later in the story.

Fortunately, The Snowman possess some truly captivating imagery to keep audiences (at least visually) engaged. Directed by Tomas Alfredson, the icy landscapes of Oslo provide an excellent and rather stunning backdrop, enhanced by Dion Beebe's terrific cinematography. Its grand, chilling winter landscape cultivates the tone that begins so promising well, as does Marco Beltrami's soundtrack; it won't win awards and it feels like a copy-and-paste job at times, but it is serviceable and helps add some excitement to the otherwise to an increasingly lacklustre affair.

The best way to describe The Snowman is as follow: it is like two jigsaw puzzles were mixed into one box - a straight-forward adaptation from the author, and the director's vision, who took artistic and narrative liberties of his own. When it then came to assembling the end-product, they discovered that a handful of each puzzle's pieces were missing; because they had already committed to it, they tried to scavenge together something that bared resemblance, if only vaguely, to a complete film. As such, the final result is an imperfect, un-synced amalgamation of two competing visions that never coalesce into one satisfying whole. Scenes seem to be missing and things fail to fall into place, prompting an unsatisfying jumble and upsetting missed opportunity.


But here's the thing. Crime-thrillers are my genre when it comes to cinema, so even one that feels as scarcely passable as The Snowman will receive my time and effort - and very probably, at least some enjoyment. If you're the same, you might find The Snowman frosty but watchable; I'm hardly recommending you rush out to catch it while in cinemas but I won't be against you doing so if it encourages studios to continuing funding the genre in the future. While the immense talent on paper struggle with all their desperation to turn this choppy, flat picture into something stronger, it never really comes together in a truly satisfying manner and a film positioned as a potential year-end favourite abandons all hope by the time the credits roll after a particularly weak final act. Fine but not the hoped-for smash.


(5.5/10) 

Summary: This Jo Nesbo adaptation will tide genre fans over until the next page-to-screen film translation or television miniseries - but for those after something a little more substantial, The Snowman will, disappointingly, melt away the further you head into the jumbled blizzard.

Saturday, 14 October 2017

Loving Vincent (2017) (Review)


Loving Vincent is an astonishing work of art. Or rather, works of art. Around 115 talented artists are responsible for individually hand-painting the 65,000 frames that make up the 91 minute feature-length oozing with creativity and passion. Crafted entirely from oil paints on canvas, the same technique used by Vincent Van Gogh - the film's muse and centre - the British-Polish co-production is  the world's first fully-painted feature-length and a stunning, poignant and tender artistic triumph.

Loving Vincent begins one year after the death of the great painter, Vincent Van Gough, and follows Armand Roulin's attempt to deliver a letter, written by Vincent, to his brother, Theo Van Gough. Along the way, Roulin meets people who were around Vincent during his final days and starts to question why Vincent would would take his own life after making a breakthrough with his mental health - or whether it was all a cover-up for murder. 

Loving Vincent is a marvellous piece of art that carefully prevents turning its uniqueness into a gimmick, as many feared it would. It is quite fair to say that every frame is a painting, because they quite literally are, creating the most visually jaw-dropping film of the year by a country mile. While adapting to this new style of 'animation' may be a tricky thing for some, the audience are slowly eased in to the distinctive style by a confident and passionate pair of directors; Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman's seven-years-in-the-making effort clocks in at just a shade over 90 minutes, and manages to cram in almost every emotion under the sun in that timespan - heartbreak, anger, comfort, resilience and spirit bubble under the surface as the Starry Night swirls and the Cafe Terrace sparkles with life. It is an undeniable masterpiece. Their labour of love is careful not to place all of its cards on its jaw-dropping visuals, peppering its script with some heady, potent theme work.

As well as the strong themes spliced into the script, Loving Vincent's narrative more than serves its purpose, delivering an intriguing mystery crime drama mash-up. It explores the final days of the gone-before-his-years artist, the people he was surrounded with at the end and his volatile mental state that led to his early demise. It refuses to dish out blame to those who wronged him and it never lionises Vincent, presenting him as a misunderstood human who made his mark on the world after his time. It considers the good and bad within us all, the pressures we place ourselves under and the value of our freedom and artistic license, incorporating these narrative flourishes stunningly.

A talented cast breathe even more life into Loving Vincent with some excellent voice performances. While it may take a few moments to acclimatise to some of the accents, which feel a tad out of place at times, they are generally impressive and help provide further emotion and weight to the story. Douglas Booth is a magnetic lead, searching for solace as he commences his journey to appease the task at hand; Eleanor Tomlinson provides a stunning, stirring turn brimming with warmth and energy; while Helen McCrory is strong as a domineering, matriarch figure, stern and stone-faced but eventually warming to Roulin. Outside these stand out performance, a number of talented populate the piece: Saoirse Ronan, Jerome Flynn Chris O'Dowd and Aidan Turner all deliver substantial supporting performances, enlivening these character effectively.

Clint Mansell's gorgeous soundtrack truly enhances the emotion embedded within the script, crafting a rousing selection of tracks that enriches the film perfectly. Creating a lavish spectacle both visually and sonically, it is subtle enough to avoid distracting from the main narrative but prolific enough to be fully appreciated and recognised by the audience. It may go down as one of the strongest soundtracks of the year, suitably tender and captivating without ever overpowering.

Plenty to love but not without its flaws, Loving Vincent suffers from a reliance on its formula. It is structured to fall in and out of timelines, to uncover more of Van Gough's final days - but it means momentum is never sustained and the stop-start rhythm prevents the film from becoming its greatest self. Furthermore, the film requires more time to breathe: while 91 minutes is an appropriate length, a tightening in other areas could provide the film with an extra few minutes to streamline its story a little more cleanly.

Loving Vincent is a profound, unique and stunning affair, without a shadow of a doubt. A few jolts in the road aside, the gorgeously-rendered rolling landscapes, artistic boldness, touching story and fantastic cast certify the picture as one of the greatest cinematic experiences of the year. Its uniqueness never becomes a gimmick and the rich visuals are a testament to the skill of the artists whose labour of love and dedication to their craft is showcased for the world to see - and I really hope the world sees it. Loving Vincent is a jaw-dropping feat, every frame quite literally a painting, and a stunning portrait of humanity that will be held up for decades to come.

(8.5/10) 

Summary: Loving Vincent is a stunning, tender and committed artistic triumph. While not without its flaw, it is a phenomenal technical accomplishment, elevated to dazzling heights by a stunning cast, gorgeous score and touching story that unleashes the artist inside us all.

Friday, 13 October 2017

The Death of Stalin (2017) (Review)


The Death of Stalin won't be everyone's cup of tea: my mother proclaimed it as 'the worst film all year' but I've seen people who absolutely love it, putting it at the top of their year-end list. It once again comes down to comedy being a wholly subjective entity. Screened early as part of Odeon's Screen Unseen series, the film will probably earn a cult following upon release - but I can't see it being an easy sell for general audiences.

The Death of Stalin chronicles the Soviet power struggles occasioned by the death of Joseph Stalin in 1953, as his various cabinet members try to scrap their way to the top. His key ministers consists of Nikita Khruschchev (Steve Buscemi), Georgy Malenkov (Jeffery Tambor), Vyacheslav Molotov (Michael Palin), Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale), Anastas Mikoyan (Paul Whitehouse) and Mezhnikov (Jonathan Aris). Packaged as a drama-comedy and written by Armando Iannucci (who also directs), David Schneider, Ian Martin and Peter Fellows, based on Fabien Nury and Thierry Robin's graphic novel of the same name, there is so much testosterone flying around that you would be forgiven for believing that women didn't actually exist in Soviet Russian in the 50s.

The Death of Stalin is defined by its ridiculousness: partly-delirious, partly-dull and always scattershot in structure and consistency, the elements are in place but the execution disappoints. The four-person writing team are scrapping almost as viciously as Stalin's committee members to ensure their voices and ideas are heard and fulfilled, leading to an uneven and jumbled screenplay: the film's most lethal flaw. To its credit, The Death of Stalin manages to envision these characters well enough, with some sharp dialogue provided, but the period comedy-drama lacks clarity. How do Stalin's members rank? We have titles flying around left, right and centre but we are without the context for audiences to rationalise this information. Who does these character represent and what are they dynamics between them? We sense the 'Boy's Club' vibe loud and clear but it fails to consider the inner-workings of the group. When the scheming begins, we have no sense as to how and why a support network is formed, and whether it's genuine, because the film cares more about lame insults to bother with the mechanics of the committee and characters.

Stalin felt over-complicated on a frequent basis, something you can attribute to too many cooks spoiling the broth. If it's not an infuriating sexual assault joke, it's a venomous insult; and if it's neither of those things, it's a swear word.  Some of the one-liners land and the comedic timing is almost impeccable, but most of it fails to stick and many more are completely forgettable when all is said and done. Adapting from a graphic novel is already shaky ground to begin constructing your project on - but the writers seem to cling to one central idea and so the tone becomes stale and monotonous. Act one had won me round but the further we venture with this one idea, the more concentration dwindles.

Armando Iannucci won me over with his ambition and his direction is undeniable solid. With some tremendous production and art design across the various sets and costumes, perfectly suitable to the tone and environment, it is a visually formidable piece - particularly when you consider that this is a British production, a notoriously difficult industry to gather funding in. The visual scope exceeds the scale of the production and Iannucci dances with these production elements effectively. Generally, his work is solid if little more and he helms this barmy idea with confidence, even though the script lets him down completely: it constantly walks the tricky line of comedy as satire but there's no variety in the tone, or focus in the writing, and so it becomes a unsatisfying, scattered muddle.

Ultimately, it is the ensemble cast that prevent The Death of Stalin from being a complete wash-out. They are a committed, sharp bunch with high levels of experience and skill between them. The comedic timing is terrific, mastered by the leads and supporting cast alike. There's no weak link in this chain: although stand-outs emerge, almost everyone receives their moment to take control and shine. Simon Russell Beale will likely earn most of the acclaim, with a purposely savage and ferocious performance as power-hungry, lion-like Beria, chief of the secret police. Likewise, Steve Buscemi supplies a sweeping performance as the malevolent Khruschchev, continually ready to strike. Rupert Friend plays the unstable son of Stalin in a performance that frequently threatens to become melodramatic - but Friend has a control that prevents it from doing so, a true testament to his skill and talent. Every one of these real-life figures possess an animalistic quality, which is helpful for the actors (and, in parts, the audience) in envisioning their counterparts. It's just such a shame that this does not come from the screenplay itself, as so much clarity could have been offered with a more streamlined, focused screenplay with less people squabbling to have their idea heard.

It was always going to be an uphill battle - creating a film about Soviet Russian power struggles - and you have to admire Iannucci's ambition. Essentially, The Death of Stalin is so scattershot that feels like a Saturday Night Live sketch stretched to feature-length runtime; like most episodes of SNL though, it's pretty hit and miss as to whether it lands. There will be people who enjoy The Death of Stalin more than I did (and certainly more than my mother did) and I admittedly chuckled a handful of times but the farce becomes too stale and inconsistent to be enjoyed and by the time the credits rolls, the whole affair is tiresome.

★★
(5/10) 

Summary: Despite an impressive ensemble cast and clear ambition from Armando Iannucci, The Death of Stalin is too scattershot for its own good. It takes one singular idea and stretches it into a feature-length, lending to a disappointing and inconsistent end product.

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Home Again (2017) (Review)


Not every film is a masterpiece and not every film is designed to be one. Sometimes, all you need is a slice of easy, fluffy, satisfying entertainment to pass the time and fill your heart with joy. On the same weekend we received Blade Runner 2049, Reese Witherspoon's Home Again arrived in the UK; a charming romantic-comedy that does exactly what it says on the metaphorical tin and very often indulges in its simplicity.

Home Again focuses on a 40-year young woman, Alice (Witherspoon), who feels her youth and vivaciousness slipping away as she tries to mature and move on after a recent separation and relocation back to her old stomping grounds. Letting her hair down for the big birthday, she meets a group of three film-makers and ends up inviting home to stay in her home. When a romance sparks between one of them, a young director more than a decade her junior, she begins to question what she has let herself in for.

Home Again doesn't take many risks at all. It strays as humanly close to conventions without becoming completely dull and utilises the typical comedy formula to reliable effect - including a unneeded reliance on third act conflict. But, you would be seriously hard-pressed to leave the film without a warm, fuzzy feeling, no matter how much you want to resist it. It is the true definition of a guilty pleasure and has no qualms in indulging in that notion, always bursting with charm and delight. Hallie Meyers-Shyer makes her directorial and screenwriting debut with the piece, bringing the female-fronted comedy to the fold with enthusiasm and energy: it's a surprisingly confident piece of work for someone only making their debut, firmly marking her as one to watch in the near and distant future. 

Meyers-Shyer's script provides the actors with a strong basis for the screwball shenanigans the group face and it carries this high-energy spirit from first frame to last, despite how predictable it can feel at times. Interlaced with some solid consideration of themes - including a reflection on the pertinent Hollywood age gap, a set-up which Home Again gladly inverts and tackles head on -  it feels fluffy and fun without becoming completely disposable. Visually too, this is a beautiful film. It helps that we are very often surrounded by shiny surface and luxury at each and every turn, set in the sunny Los Angeles and populated by beautiful people. 

But where Home Again truly excels is through its loveable cast and likeable characters. Reese Witherspoon is as charming here as ever, with a natural charisma and warmth that makes her instantly relatable and engaging. She provides audiences with a bubbly performance of this self-aware woman coming to terms with ageing: she's not the spring chicken she once was and, amidst a painful separation, looks to reinvent herself. Witherspoon holds herself with such elegance and grace, and this is the frequently-amusing lead performance she (and we) deserves more often.

The supporting cast are a fine bunch too: Nat Wolff, Jon Rudnitsky and Pico Alexander are all endearing performers and while Teddy, George and Harry are defined largely by broad brush strokes, the characters are likeable and affable, handling the emotion and the humour effectively. Michael Sheen makes a handful of passing cameos to decent effect and Lola Flanery and Eden Grace Redfield deliver a pair of solid performances as Alice's two daughters. This really is Witherspoon's show through and through though and she makes the best use out of it, shining often.

Home Again is an obviously flawed piece of film-making that takes the safest route to its predictable destination - but it does so with warmth, charm and a tremendously likeable cast in tow, who elevate the film beyonds its clear limitations. It's the perfect slice of fluffy, frothy entertainment; humorous without being hilarious; good without being great; and sharp without being conceited. Reese Witherspoon is fantastic and I really hope this open Meyers-Shyer up to an abundance of opportunity in the near (and distant) future, because she proves herself to be a promising director and screenwriter - with more experience under her belt, she'll excel. I had an absolute blast with Home Again: it is 97 minutes well-spent I'd watch at home, again.

★★
(7/10) 

Summary: Home Again isn't the smartest, the funniest or the most original film to grace our screens - but it is an enjoyable slice of light, frothy entertainment in its purest form. It could be a new guilty pleasure for many.