Tuesday, 25 July 2017

Dunkirk (2017) (Review)

Dunkirk is the tenth film from acclaimed director, Christopher Nolan, who has brought to us a number of ground-breaking cinematic pictures; between Inception, The Dark Knight trilogy and Interstellar, the man has continually proven to be one of the most innovative minds working in the cinematic landscape today. Dunkirk is dubbed as a war-suspense film, focusing on the World War 2 events that left 400,000 men stranded on the shores of France as German troops closed in on them, with the subsequent attempt to evacuate them and return the soldiers home. Critics have been calling Dunkirk one of the greatest war films ever and the best in Nolan's glowing filmography to date - but does it live up to the hype it, and the attachment of Mr Nolan, has generated?

Told from three perspectives - the land, sea and air - Dunkirk documents the operation to extract the men and return them to the United Kingdom. The three major story threads are interwoven in the non-linear narrative, covering one week on land, one day at sea and one hour in the air. Nolan's intrigue in time has been explored in the likes of Inception and Memento, with the twisty Dunkirk further demonstrating his interest in the idea. A largely British (and Irish) ensemble cast star in the picture, including Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D'Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance and Tom Hardy.

Dunkirk in a nerve-shattering, unrelenting and intense cinematic experience of the highest, most sophisticated level. Without question, Nolan's picture is a sheer masterclass in atmosphere and tension, crafted by a brilliant mind and executed phenomenally. Of course, and completely unsurprisingly, Nolan is at the very epicentre of the film's success, writing and directing the piece in a way very few could even comprehend, nevermind actually effectuate. The man's imagination and creation is an endless source of inspiration and admiration; on screen, he produces visually captivating and impressive images, bolstered by his ability to maintain the inbuilt tension from first beat to last; off screen, and with a pen in his hand, he constructs an excellent script that expertly weaves the unconventional tryptic narrative and timelines.

Dunkirk's script is an unusual one: restrictive on dialogue and concentrating predominantly on its swirling narratives and the importance of suspense, Nolan treats his audience with respect, throwing the complex idea of non-linear storytelling at them with aplomb. Nolan has never been afraid to place a great deal of trust and assurance in his audience and it has certainly benefitted them, delivering a new wave of smart, sharp blockbusters. That exact notion continues here and the assumption that the audience can piece together the story themselves results in an immensely satisfying picture that only Nolan could nail. He makes it look damn easy too. Every compliment this man is paid is absolutely merited.

Complimenting Nolan's direction is the flawless cinematography brought to us by his previous collaborator, Hoyte van Hoytema. Honestly, can we just hand him the Oscar now? Against such brutality and devastation, Hoytema extracts the pale colours from the sky and the deep blues of the British Isles, to form a visual as stunning as it is powerful; Dunkirk could have easily looked like wet cement, dull and drab to match the bleak evacuation - but shots of the soaring planes and ships inbound cannot help but send shivers down your spine.

Hans Zimmer's sensational score is resolute, absolutely critically in cultivating and progressing the film's never-ending tension. Feeding into the suspense, Zimmer's hugely influential soundtrack choreographs the film and events, acting as the foundation for its narrative strands to dance around, as Nolan and Zimmer, together, ramp up the tension to almost excuriating levels. Something as simple as a ticking clock, in all its overuse as a cinematic device, is completely appropriate, heightening the impact of the race against time. Zimmer ensures the invigorating and enormously important use of his soundtrack never goes amiss and its constant  presence in the picture is one of its many defining features. Blistering and searing, the only thing almost as loud was my heartbeat every single time the soundtrack reached a crescendo. Give this man all the awards, now.

Another highly-praised (and deservingly so) element is Dunkirk's editing. Lee Smith's rapid-fire cutting and stitching together of the various strands and timeline compliments that growing cacophony and encourages the film to move along at the brisk pace it does. At just 106 minutes, the amount of ground and substance the film covers is astounding, but the editing plays a large hand in ensuring it never appears rushed, messy or hacked, which could have been a destructive detriment. Thanks to Smith's control and Nolan's input, those pitfalls are avoided and the film excels.

As with most genre pictures, Dunkirk is a very loud film. It's startling and overwhelming, busy and frantic for the most part as planes fire and the soundtrack (and your heart-rate) builds - but its script remains surprisingly silent. Dialogue is sparse and infrequent, utilised as a method to convey themes of shell shock and devastation, to further benefit the atmosphere, tone and tension and because it is simply not needed. As explained, Nolan trusts his audience to follow for themselves and sees dialogue and language as a potential hindrance to that all important tension and the audience's engagement in the film. Nolan's bravery to do this, a way from the usual conventions of a film like this, is one of the many reasons he is so highly-regarded.

Dunkirk is really an ensemble number and it would be unfair to call anybody the lead, per se. Nolan's conscious decision to cast only actors from the British Isles proves to be an incredibly smart, adding to the film's realism - you genuinely believe this young men are soldiers on the shores of France, fighting their way towards home.

Those on land are a relatively unknown ensemble (for their acting, in the case of Mr Styles) but prove to be a genuine crop of rising stars. Fionn Whitehead has a real career ahead of him in the industry, and his ability to convey so much emotion, fear and naivety through a performances largely devoid of words is astonishing; One Direction member Harry Styles makes his acting debut with a truly credible turn as Alex, another solider fighting for home, with a growing paranoia brought through the effects of the trauma of the battlefield; Aneurin Barnard is powerful as the deer-in-headlights type, struggling with his surroundings; while the more established Cillian Murphy provides a complex turn that allows us to explore themes of PTSD and claustrophobia with a brilliantly captivating turn as a lone survivor.

As their superiors, the likes of James D'Arcy and Kenneth Branagh consider the logistics of a mission as huge and crucial as the Dunkirk evacuation, demonstrating the sheer weigh higher-ranking individuals were forced to contend with. On the sea, Mark Rylance leads the way with his son and ship hand, played by Tom Glynn-Carney and Barry Keoghan, providing some of the most touching scenes of the picture. In such a confined space (and the film really is defined by these suitably uncomfortable set pieces), the trio provide some poignant moments that displays the effects of those left behind in the war. And finally, Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden command the air as pilots, with two reliably fantastics turns. It is rare to see a film with an ensemble bursting with talent with no clear lead emerging; Nolan cleverly avoids temptation and this never becomes an issue - he simply does not require someone to anchor the film, achieving that through his script and direction - and places two much larger entities are the major key players and 'characters'.

Home and hope are two themes continually present throughout Dunkirk, almost manifesting into characters themselves. Cutting through the horror and bleakness of war is this underlying inspiration and drive to reach a home the soldiers cannot see; an unseen salvation. A visual story, with every shot of the sea comes an understanding that home is just beyond it; with every bomb dropped comes the knowledge that hope will lead them home - Nolan places this idea at the forefront of the picture and these ideas become as important as any character. Home and hope never leave the film's sight or core, despite only materialising metaphorically, with an extraordinary balance attained.

Dunkirk is very close to being the perfect film. Only a handful of flaws (very minor in the grand scheme of things) prevent it from achieving the superlative statement though. It has been heavily discussed in the lead up to release but I do feel that the 12A/PG-13 rating restricts it somewhat; I understand the decision to emphasise the suspense rather than the gore of war. in many ways, it should be appreciated - but the film strikes you as somewhat sanitised through its absence of horror. It's an incredibly odd scenario to find yourself in - it works for what the film is trying to do, be and say but feels like a missed opportunity to serve as a reminder quite how harrowing war was - but Dunkirk encounters that problem nonetheless. It doesn't cripple it but instead arises as a missed opportunity.

Despite so many successful elements parading Dunkirk as one of the year's very best, it is Nolan's control that allows it to shine and succeed; control of tone (something that could have felt woefully misguided in less capable hands); control of the script (striking a balance between necessary dialogue and suspense); control of sound (the soundtrack and mixing linked so intrisincially to the tension required); control of characters and performances (they are more representations of the various individuals found on the battlefield). I should be surprised at how assured it is - but I am not.

With Dunkirk's brutality comes a a beauty and with its complexity comes an understanding, resulting in a cinematic experience so considered, visceral and expertly rendered that it will be remembered for years to come. Dunkirk will be held up as an example of what cinema can, and should be. Many directors would love to have that longevity and appreciation for just one of their films - Nolan has, to my counting, a third in the terrifying, shattering Dunkirk. Go and see it, seriously.


Summary: Dunkirk is a film of extraordinary control, tension, power and skill. Christopher Nolan delivers a cinematic experience that must be seen to be believed, building the film (through his magnificent direction, smart script, the brilliant ensemble and Hans Zimmer's masterful soundtrack) to an excruciating level that only a master of his craft could achieve.

(If you haven't already, be sure to check out the ranking of Nolan's nine previous films to Dunkirk over on Through The Silver Screen, from a similar group of people who brought to you the Marvel Cinematic Universe Showdown).

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Orphan Black (S5E7) - Gaggle or Throttle (Review)

We were promised a good episode in 'Gag or Throttle' and that is exactly what Orphan Black delivered. Is season five matching the highs of seasons gone by? No. Does Gag or Throttle change that? Not really. But it does return the series to the season one/two vibe that many argue is the series' highpoint and places one of the most misunderstood clones, Rachel Duncan, at the forefront. Continually intense and reeving the series forward towards the grand finale, Gag or Throttle is a satisfying episode; and, for the first time in what feels like forever, we get an appearance from the five main clones!

Let's go against the trend and speak about the closing moments of Gag or Throttle first, because what a final few minutes they were to experience. Shocking, devastating and nauseating, Rachel's actions at the end of episode seven suggest a new day is dawning on Pro-Clone. Maslany's performance as Miss Duncan here, an episode after losing her mother and in the midst of experiencing a major identity crisis of her own, is perfect: as expected, she nails Rachel's physical and mental breakdown and realisation expertly. In front of our very eyes we see the transformation of a confident woman acting with aplomb to a desperate and fragile being questioning her role in the Clone Game. It all culminates in a blistering and eye-watering moment that while change her life forever and leaves us with an excruciating wait until next week, as we await the consequences of her actions.

As we have seen for both Cosima (Ease For Idle Millionaires) and Alison (Beneath Her Heart) this season, we receive an enlightening view into our clones' backstory. Rachel takes centre stage here, with an opportunity to examine her childhood, development and status as a self-aware clone in a sterile environment, paraded around scientist and moneymakers. As is clear in the those closing moments, it has finally taken its toll on her and the flashbacks are infused seamlessly, completely illuminating her insecurities; we know Rachel is driven, but not quite to the extent of killing one of her own; we've always sensed her fragility but her facade comes epically crumbling down; we've had the idea that Rachel wants to do the right thing, even when acting on behalf of the wrong team. Putting Rachel in the spotlight shifts the focus back to the human impacts and consequences and it really allows the episode to shine. All our clones are in a desperate spot - and Rachel too has reached breaking point, with a farther way to plummet.

Kira's stint at DYAD continues and poor Sarah and Mrs S are trying to dig for as much leverage as possible to get her out of her, particularly after Cosima's confirms Neolution's intentions to harvester her eggs to restart human cloning. We are given a beautiful scene in this episode where Sarah and Kira Skype and the latter attempts to convey some important information; their relationship has been continually rocky but this moment cements the mother-daughter bond Orphan Black has always mastered. As we've seen through Rachel and Susan, Mrs S and Sarah, Alison and her kids and, in a sense, Cosima and Charlotte, the show's examination of mothers protecting their kids and families is asserted further, a key theme that proves Orphan Black is one of the most feminist shows out there. It is simply another string in Orphan Black's bow and provides another excellent opportunity to let their arrows fly.

Alison (and Donnie) returns! Hooray! After a four episode absence, she returns with a new hair do and rejuvenated outlook on life; in the two scenes she features in, she is an absolute delight and threatens to steal the episode completely. It's been a rather dark and heavy patch since Beneath Her Heart and Orphan Black has truly missed Alison's ability to lift the whole episode with just a few minutes afforded to her suburban affairs and hilarious life. While I am praying she gets her bangs back as soon as humanly possible (and wish Orphan Black put more aside to cover the wig budget), having Alison back in the show is a joy - and it could not come soon enough.

Cosima is back on dry land after an escape from Revival with Charlotte and, frankly, the more time we spend away from Island Neolution, the better. Rachel is a much better fit for the Island, exploring her power struggle with P.T. Westmoreland and Virginia Coady in such a confined location is genuinely interesting; on the other hand, Cosima, her talent and her potential were wasting away, like a drain on our resources and time. Her reunion with Scott was a beautiful moment, with their friendship being one of the most enduring on the show and truly special to watch. We get a brief glimpse of Helena and it looks like she is ready and raring to make her return - let's hope she finally has something to do next week (even if her fate is increasingly concerning).

Gag of Throttle's direction is sensational. It is one of the most accomplished episodes of Orphan Black and helps skilfully blend the past and present with precision and sophistication. David Frazee returns behind the camera and performs some truly wonderful things; whether it is ringing every drop of intensity out of the final scene or highlighting the emotion in Sarah's eyes after her call with Kira, Frazee performs something rather magical here. He is a diverse director that operates incredibly effectively within the 45 minute he has and, given that he is returning in two episodes time, we should see more of his talent in the penultimate episode.

Mark's reappearance hardly fills me with excitement. Ira's death at the end of last week's episode, now confirmed, resting alongside Susan, was the perfect way to usher out the Castor Clones - so for another to return here feels like a poor decision. In no way a reflection of Ari Millen's talent but instead through design, the Castor clones are simply a shadow of the LEDA clones and too much time focused on closing out their story subtracts crucial minutes from the more important and exciting LEDA storyline. As always, those two elements are bound to cross over but I'm not yet convinced Mark's return is needed.

After the first watch of Gag Or Throttle, I was impressed; after a second, it became one of the strongest hours of The Final Trip. Whether it is because we are spoiled with the show, the one thing the episode lacks is a multi-clone sequence but even with our three favourites communicating over webcam, we ignite the spark of earlier seasons and the enduring theme of sisterhood again. In all honesty, it has been a rocky path for Orphan Black, juggling the pressures of the final season - but Gag or Throttle, while imperfect, suggests we are back on track - and, considering a teaser trailer has been refused to us for the first time in the show's history, Clone Club should brace themselves for next week's 'Guillotines Decide', which promises to be one of the best episode in the show's five-season history. As always, we will see...

Episode Grade: A-

TTMMVPAAFAMRP (The Tatiana Maslany Most Valuable Player Acting Award for a Multi-Role Performance): Rachel Duncan

Saturday, 22 July 2017

Lana Del Rey - Lust For Life (2017) (Album Review)

Lana Del Rey's Lust For Life arrives to us after the longest interval yet: almost two years since 2015's Honeymoon, her latest collection has been proceeded by singles 'Love', a soaring and anthemic ode to the important of love and freedom; title track 'Lust For Life', a dreamy and sultry collaboration with long-time friend The Weeknd; and a section of promotional numbers, including the thoughtful 'Coachella - Woodstock In My Mind'; the hip-hop 'Summer Bummer' with ASAP Rocky and Playboi Carti; and the seductive 'Groupie Love'. Since her career-defining debut album, Born To Die and its extension, Paradise, Del Rey has struggled to match both the success and general audience interest in her - Lust For Life may very well change that and absolutely deserves to.

This is easily her most cohesive and accomplished collection to date. Each of the sixteen tracks that form the album are distinct enough to be remembered in their own right but form an atmosphere and tone that wonderfully elevates the overall piece. In a complete turn of events and subversion of expectations, a underlying optimism can be found turning through the whole piece, marking a new direction for Del Rey - an enigmatic woman known throughout her career for her revolving door of identities and sad lyrics. Lust For Life instantly feels like a labour and craft of love and happiness; yes, the emotional, heartbreaking Lana surfaces on occasions, but this is unlike anything she has done before. It breaks your heart, mends your heart and does it all again. It is simply phenomenal.

To throw a well-worn phrase out, Lust For Life feels like an authentic, raw and completely powerful effort. It has the ability to take you to transport you to a new world, and while Miss Del Rey, real namer Elizabeth Grant, has done that before, this time it is more profound. Below you can see the first ranking of all the tracks contained in the album, after a handful of listens, which is subject to change.

13 Beaches (5/5)
Love (5/5)
Beautiful People, Beautiful Problems (feat. Stevie Nicks) (4.5/5)
Tomorrow Never Came (feat. Sean Ono Lennon) (4.5/5)
Lust For Life (feat. The Weeknd) (4.5/5)
Cherry (4.5/5)
God Bless America - And All The Beautiful Women In It (4/5)
Coachella - Wordstock In My Mind (4/5)
Where The World Was At War We Kept Dancing (4/5)
Change (4/5)
In My Feelings (4/5)
White Mustang (4/5)
Groupie Love (feat. ASAP Rocky) (4/5)
Get Free (4/5)
Heroin (3.5)
Summer Bummer (feat. ASAP Rocky and Playboi Carti) (3.5/5)

Average score: 4.18/5

Lust For Life has been in my life less than 48 hours but it is already a firm favourite in both Del Rey's discography and my wider all-time favourites. It may not be as repeat-worthy as the likes of Born To Die and Paradise but it is successful in demonstrating Lana's beautiful lyricism, talent and craft, as well as her unmatched ability to conjure a a near perfect collection, tone and atmosphere through her music. It takes over from Katy Perry's Witness as album of the year and acts as a beautiful showcase and assertion of her position and prosperity in the industry.

Lana Del Rey, take a bow. 

Tuesday, 18 July 2017

The Big Sick (2017) (Review)

ODEON treated audiences in the UK to The Big Sick for their latest Screen Unseen, a surprise screening event that only reveals the identity of the film you have booked tickets for when the lights dim and the footage begins to roll. Before the secret screening, I knew very little about The Big Sick (for starters, I had been calling it the wrong name) and aside from the generally positive buzz it was picking up in conjunction with its limited stateside release, it had otherwise passed me by. Was it worth slapping down a fiver (or in my case, my Limitless card) for this film? Or should I have called in sick?

The Big Sick follows the blossoming relationship between Kumail (Kumail Nanjiani) and Emily (Zoe Kazan), an interracial couple struggling to contend with cultural differences, clashes and understanding. When Emily is struck with a mysterious, life-threatening illness, Kumail is forced to reconsider whether love is worth losing his family, particularly after meeting Emily's unusual parents - Beth (Holly Hunter) and Terry (Ray Romano). With his career as a comedian stalling and his love life being prescribed to him by his well-meaning but pushy parents, Kumail must decide what is best for him in this terrific little gem of a film.

Based on Nanjiani's real-life story, The Big Sick is as heartfelt as they come. What may be dismissed as a sentimentality to begin with quickly progresses into something far more stirring than its simple premise would give it credit for, crafting a rather lovely and warming picture. It shifts between genres  and tones so efficiently, pushing you close to tears moments after it makes you giggle out loud. By merging romance and comedy - two of the most demonised and divisive genres in Hollywood - The Big Sick manages to eclipse the competition, crafting a well-tuned and sharply balanced picture that is far more accessible by utilising both genres simultaneously, rather than relying on one more heavily than the other. 

In fact, the script in general is where a lot of the success lies. As well as the more typical themes of identity, family and love, beneath the surface exists some potent themes and thought-provoking content that instals the film with an air of sophistication and prevents it from simply towing the line. Cultural differences on both sides of the coin rear their ugly heads and provide some heady issues to explore. Racism, unfortunately still an issue in society, is thrust into the spotlight when an audience member heckles our protagonist during a stand-out routine, questioning his affiliation with ISIS simply because of the way he looks; before this, a well-meaning but woefully misguided conversation with a white character sees our lead questioned about his opinion on 9/11. 

Rather thankfully, the reaction to this comment in the buzzy screening was one of genuine shock, eliciting a number of gasps - but the stun was even more pronounced when he retorts with an ill-advised joke about Muslim's losing '19 of our best guys' in the tragedy. In only a game of Cards Against Humanity would this sentence be otherwise found. However it demonstrates the film's terrific ability and enthusiasm to tackle taboo and tricky themes that many other films would skate over or completely ignore. Arranged marriages in the Asian community are scrutinised in the same environment as white, middle-class privilege is, proving that the film really seeks to challenge stereotypes and preconceived notions some may hold in our society. Real-life couple Nanjiani and Emily Gordon, who pen the script, bring their real experiences into the frame smartly and satisfyingly and the film is all the more stronger because of it.

The Big Sick features four fantastic lead performances and a few decent supporting roles to boot. Kumail Nanjiani is very sharp as... himself. He remains endearing and loveable throughout, awkward and charming as he attempts to navigate culture and personality clashes, determined to please his family but live and love the life he wants. His wonderful chemistry with Zoe Kazan - who gives a solid performance herself - sells the film for all it is worth, ensuring you are as invested in their relationship as possible. They each have a firm understanding (probably due to Nanjiani's lived-in experiences) of how far to push certain scenes so, even in the more dramatic and darker scenes, the comedy is infused just enough to prevent a tonal derailment while never detracting from the meatier moments when they arrive sporadically.

Holly Hunter and Ray Romano are equally as impressive, initially building a wall in front of them that eventually begins to crumble as they spent time with Kumail over the course of the film. We see these characters mature in their outlook and develop their relationship, in an attentive and natural manner. It rarely appears forced and it always feels rather raw. The ying to the others yang, Hunter perfectly handles the emotion while Romano provides most of the humour, although each are willing to partake in the other's craft. The supporting cast is padded out with a fine mix of talent, such as Aidy Bryant, Bo Burnham, Anupam Kher and Zenobia Shroff, although Kurt Braunohler is the certified scene-stealer, spot-on with his comedic timing and firing on all cylinders throughout.

Michael Showalter presumably operates on a minor budget with this piece (no production budget has been confirmed or estimated for the Amazon Studio release yet) but the results are skilled and neat. It purposely strikes you as a personal and natural story - at times almost as if it is in the style of a documentary - without flashy movements or conceit. This helps to cultivate the very raw, natural and honest story you are presented with, striving to demonstrate and place the story of the lovers at the centre. After placing Emily and particularly Kumail at the forefront, it genuinely feels that you know them as a friend by the time the credits rolled, from the long-running jokes to their personal quirks; while the performances are to thanks for that, it is Showalter's solid direction and helming of the ship that keeps it on track.

Showalter's direction, alongside Michael Andrew's chirpy and generally lovely score, bring the package together tremendously. It is instantly clear that those working on the piece have a genuine desire and care to make the film as successful and polished as possible, providing an instantly loveable, charming and delightful picture. It may not scream to be seen on the big screen and box office big or small, it is destined to find an audience some place down the line - just make sure it's sooner, rather than later please.

The Big Sick is weakest though when it comes to wrapping up its story. Simply, the third act does not understand how best to bow out, spending a long time playing and teasing fake endings for a solid twenty minutes. It becomes rather frustrating that after such a sturdy and pleasant experience, the ending is somewhat botched in the search for the most satisfying ending. Because of the false starts and general pondering of the final third, the film feels unnecessarily inflated and in need of a tightening that would represent a stronger end product. 

A handful of minor issues with the first act aside (most notably its slight conflict in discovering and asserting the most appropriate tone at the beginning), The Big Sick is a sturdy romantic-comedy that strays from conventions just enough and goes deeper than most with its thematic material to impress and stand-out. It is warming, thoughtful and charming film-making, presenting the light and fluffy elements of the premise alongside the sharp comedy and sobering themes that come with the true life story. It is very easy to dismiss the genre, but when it is as smart, well-written, clever and utterly delightful as this, can you really moan about it?

The Big Sick understands when the penny drops and lets it fall with a knowing wink and nudge, proving that comedic timing runs in the blood of the film, thanks to the wonderful actors that participate. It really is quite the delight, with a sharp and smart script that goes deeper than expected and impacts you harder than imagined. It leaves you feeling warm and glowing, a pick-me-up if you, like our female lead, are a little under the weather...


Summary: The Big Sick is a delightful little gem that deserves you time and attention. Its smart script, brilliant cast and potent themes challenge your expectations and present you with the perfect pick-me-up for the next rainy day.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Orphan Black (S5E6) - Manacled Slim Wrists (Review)

Brace yourselves Clone Club, because we are now into the latter half of Orphan Black's fifth and final season, after passing the halfway mark with last week's Ease for Idle Millionaires. The infamous episode six now arrives as we gear up for the climax to the clone conspiracy: in this slot in previous seasons, we have seen the death of major characters (Paul in 3x6 and Kendall in 4x6), major character development and narrative progressions (Helena and Sarah escaping Castor camp, witnessing the days before Beth Childs' suicide) and a whole lot of intensity, as the show changes footing and heads all guns blazing for the final stretch. What schismatic events lay in store for us in Manacled Slim Wrists? How will it change the show moving forward into the remaining four episodes?

After last week's episode regained a focus, placing the Revival camp in the spotlight and the science angle at the forefront, the show opens up once again and expands its focus to include Sarah and a returning Krystal. After praising last week's episode for taking a moment to pause, recollect and streamline its focal point to one of its many branches, 5x6 gives the show a refreshed focus and ability to juggle various plot strands simultaneously. Arguably unlike Let The Children & Childbearers Toil, most of it is successfully here and we are rewarded as viewers with a well-tuned balance between the darkness of Neo Island, the emotion of the Sarah-Kira-Rachel triangle and the comic relief and rather bad-ass adventures and tribulations of Krystal Goderitch. For once this season, each branch is as interesting and exciting as the last - even the Neo Island!

We cover an awful lot in episode six - a sign that the finale is fast approaching - meaning that the episode, once again, flies by. The inner workings and power play of the deft minds of Revival are explored in great effect, with the tug of war between Virginia and Susan - with P.T., somewhat gleefully, left in the middle - absolutely fascinating to watch; I think it's pretty clear who won too. I'll be somewhat relieved if this is the last we see of the Revival Island as it has been somewhat of vacuum to our time and resources this season, but at least it ends on an improved, insightful note that offers food for thought moving into these final hours.

Pleased to report that Krystal remains an absolute delight. Our unaware clone, god bless her, brings a different type of comic relief than Alison or Helena (both of whom this season is missing hugely) and the OB team know how to use her; that she continually falls into these huge revelations but fails to fully connect the dots is a stroke of genius and by giving us only fleeting glimpses of her manic life, we are rewarded with some genuinely hilarious moments. We probably couldn't stomach her on a more frequent basis so it is admirable that the Orphan Black team manage to bring her back just when we need her to inject a little fun into the season. Oh, and wasn't it a treat to see Tom Cullen (Maslany's long-term boyfriend) make his first (and probably last) appearance on the show.

Sarah's appearances are short but sweet this week, largely utilised to help guide Krystal through her encounter with a new (but ultimately insignificant) piece in the DYAD/Neo/Cosmetic game. Her relationship with Kira is beginning to heal and Rachel's facade is beginning to crack and diminish somewhat; when Mrs S warns her 'there will come a day when you need us', you sense that the day will be coming soon. On the topic of Mrs S, I am chuffed that season five has used her as efficiently as they have - Maria Doyle Kennedy is a wonderful actress and her scheming as Siobhan is always thrilling to watch. Even she seems shakier than usual though, as if the game has really spiralled out of her control - let's see where her sources take her next.

Sarah as Krystal, even for such a brief couple of moments, killed me. After last week's science/theory-heavy episode, Manacled Slim Wrists more fun by design. We haven't had too many clone swaps and fun this season (saving it for the finale?), so just the tease we get this week makes me excited for what they have in store for us. Of course, Cosima has the meatier aspect to contend with, with some truly dark and dreary material on Neolution Island. With all of this though, it goes without saying that Tatiana Maslany gives it all her all as usual, making for a satisfying episode, mainly because of the diverse performances the episode registers (the ditzy Krystal to the devastated Cosima). It showcases her endless talent tremendously, just as we start to take it for granted.

As ever, the direction here is solid. David Bezmozgis makes his debut on the show, providing a clever and sophisticated episode; what struck me here is the use of natural light - it streams in from windows either directly behind or infront of the character, protecting shadows and building up this intensity Orphan Black is largely defined by. All of this is emphasised by the wonderful art team: what they do with so little is pretty impressive - did we all notice it was Beth's apartment with a groovy Krystal revamp? The sets are bursting with life, detail and flourishes and deserve more appreciation.

Manacled Slim Wrists' big blow comes in the form of at least one (confirmed) death - with the potential of a second victim to the episode six curse hanging in the balance. As we await final confirmation on the latter, things are not looking the rosiest for them, that's for certain. The deaths are a big deal moving forward in the final stage, but are played out more for emotional value than shock reaction here; we should see the fallout next week and what it means for the bigger picture. The devastation here feels rather contained for now - unlike Paul and Kendall's demise at the same point in respective seasons - meaning it lacks the schematic reaction and catharsis. We also have another horrific death skated over - I hope we learn next more next week, as it was passed off in one line in this episode. We are definitely working towards something massive though, and the showrunners promises something huge is in the pipeline for episode 7. Maybe the 'episode six' is delayed one episode this season.

Overall, Manacled Slim Wrists is a solid episode, but in comparison to the whole series, it continues the trend of the season five - it lacks a slight spark. It is not quite up to the usual 'episode six' standard - the moments are big but not schismatic, powerful without shaking the series to the core - but the bar was unfathomably high considering The Scandal of Altruism is still my favourite ever Orphan Black episode, with Certain Agony on the Battlefield not too far behind. Manacled Slim Wrists is a melting pot of tones and themes and genre, successfully progressing the series towards its end point - but is not always the most satisfying thing. For example, Krystal's investigation is incredibly fun and we do get some handy advancement but is ultimately unnecessary, while the Revival stint has been plentiful but unfulfilling.

Thus far, Orphan Black's final season is lacking the scintillation we've come to know and expect - but it still has time to get back on track and I'm optimistic for the future. Let's get Helena and Alison back though, yes?

Episode Grade: B+

TTMMVPAAFAMRP (The Tatiana Maslany Most Valuable Player Acting Award for a Multi-Role Performance): Krystal God-eritch.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

War For The Planet of the Apes (3D) (2017) (Review)

War For The Planet of the Apes supposedly concludes a trilogy that has continually demonstrated to Hollywood how to reboot a property correctly and effectively. The cinematic franchise has earned critical acclaim every step of the way and this, proceeding Rise and Dawn, appears to be a culmination of 20th Century Fox's efforts. Even as rumours of a fourth instalment of the reboot series circulate, many will still see this as the closing film of a trilogy as smart as it was emotional. The War is here - and be warned, it is an emotional, stirring experience.

The events of Dawn have left the humans and apes in a more bitter and hostile place than ever before and, despite Caesar's best attempts at a ceasefire and numerous offerings of peace, the war rages on. After soldiers attack the Ape's home and leave many of them dead, Caesar decides once and for all to end the war and take action against the man who brought them such pain - a mysterious Colonel  (Woody Harrelson) raising an army to finally destroy the Apes. With the escalation of threat and bloodshed, the war comes to a head with casualties on each side. 

War For The Planet of the Apes is quite literally the anti-summer blockbuster: it is bleak, heavy and very dark, standing out against the lighter, frothy summer entertainment we otherwise contend with. With as much brain as it has heart, it is a searingly smart, trenchant piece of cinema with a plethora of themes and parallels that are seamlessly infused into the writing. Mark Bomback and Matt Reeves' screenplay once again considers and develops the prominent themes of the series, including an examination of humanity (or a lack of it) and society, hierarchy and ranking, alongside a biting commentary about the crosshairs and politics of war.

This Matt Reeves-directed piece in particular draws some notable parallels to concentration camps and slavery and is all the more pensive because of it, grounding the series in a pragmatic way that ensures it is stark, emotive and sincere in its action and execution. While these themes are not always handled in the most subtle manner, it enhances the picture in a profound and touching way. Reeves further capitalises on the uncomfortable atmosphere with some smart camera work: in the first half in particular, a masterclass in tension, items are off-centre in the frame, creating a darting movement with the audiences eyes to really emphasis that uncomfortable nature of war. It's really terrific stuff. In fact, the entire first act is top-class film-making of the highest pedigree, laying the foundations for an incredibly taut and tense 140 minute film - all topped off stunningly with a breathless finale as powerful as it is meaningful. Honestly, the opening and closing stretches of this film are near faultless.

It is impossible to discuss a Planet of the Apes film without noting the sheer groundbreaking achievement and technical wizardry that brings this world to our screens. The magnum opus of special effects, the detail and flourishes utilises to bring the Apes to life is astounding and awe-inspiring, with each tear drop and hair expertly renders. It is impossible to discuss the film without gushing about the technical accomplishments of this film (and indeed the Apes series), matching the impressiveness and splendour of 2017's Best Special Effect Oscar winner, The Jungle Book. Reeves helms the picture skilfully and proficiently,  balancing the real and the digitally-created with a deftness. I would be shocked to see this left out of the Academy Awards race early next year. Another award-season worthy element of the picture is Michael Giacchino's emotionally intense soundtrack that excellently scores the major scenes of the film, and emphasises the power in the smaller moments (for example, the stunning moment Luca places a flower in Nova's hair).

While the human actors are impressive (Woody Harrelson, one of the most consistent performers of our time, is towering as the enigmatic Colonel, while Amiah Miller delivers a beautiful nuanced and heartfelt performance absent of words as Nova), the true marvel of the picture rests with the actors characterising the Apes - no one more so than Andy Serkis. Serkis' range of emotion shines here, made possible through stop motion technology, and he is simply phenomenal: the compassion in his voice, the kindness and drive in his eyes and determination in his stance marry together to provide his most talented performance to date, not only of the franchise, but of his career to date. It is simply jaw-dropping. The emotion is palpable every step of the way, anchored predominantly by Serkis. Of course, a number of other performances impress throughout, with Steve Zahn's scene-stealing performance as Bad Ape is most likely to be a talking point, alongside the warming and impassioned performance of Karis Konoval as Maurice, a personal favourite of mine. In all honesty, everybody impresses in this piece, with the casting team deserving a pat on the back for perfecting the ensemble carrying the weight of the film.

What disappoints most with War For The Planet of the Apes is how much it drops the ball with its middle act. After an astounding opening third, the second act resorts to lazy script writing and developments that interrupt the momentum and flow: one plot advancement is so frustrating that you cannot help but shout furiously at the screen, angry that the writers decided to proceed with such a simple and convenient decision that threatens to undermine an otherwise intelligent and sharp film. Ultimately, that middle patch is lazy - a word that should never be associated with this franchise - but thankfully, you can just about let it slide and the film collects itself in time for the solid climax. It is disappointing that it slacks in middle narratively, but it remains potent thematically and atmospheric enough tonally to power the film through to its extraordinary, almost cathartic finale.

War's 3D conversion may not be completely necessary but it is well-rendered and one of the better examples of 2017. While convinced it will remain as engaging and visually impressive in standard format, the 3D works in emphasising the visuals and attention to detail, which is never a bad thing.

War For The Planet of the Apes is a tremendously powerful, bleak but beautiful blockbuster providing a suitable break from the lighter, fluffier entertainment of the cinematic season. In my eyes, it surpasses the solid 'Rise' and impressive 'Dawn', rounding out the trilogy on top form. This entry has solidified the Planet of the Apes series as one of the shining examples of rebooting done correctly, crafting a genuinely thoughtful and formidable collection of films that will be reflected on in years to come with fondness, acknowledging its power in the marketplace and ability to bring both brains, brawn and heart to the table.


Summary: War For The Planet of the Apes is the perfect summer anti-dote: as bleak and dark as it is smart and stirring, the final instalment in the successful reboot trilogy is a franchise high-point, crafting an emotional, powerful and cathartic blockbuster experience.

Sunday, 9 July 2017

Orphan Black (S5E5) - Ease For Idle Millionaires (Review)

Orphan Black has always operated on sturdier ground when it decides to focus in on one of its many plot strands; while it is undeniably thrilling to have a handful in the mix across the season, some of the poorer episodes - last week's Let The Children & Childbearers Toil, for example - becomes far too messy for the little show that could to handle. In this final season, we have so much ground left to cover that it could become very easy for the show-runners to throw everything at the wall in the hope that just some of it sticks, all in the hope of tying up some loose plot strands. In a number of cases, the busier episodes often register in the series' lower echelons for being too cluttered for its own good. Thankfully, Ease For Idle Millionaires homes in almost entirely on one part of its story, lead from the front by Cosima; unfortunately, it is the element I have the least interest in. However, in balancing the science with the more human aspect they always excel in, Orphan Black manages to craft a careful balance and delivers a solid episode to mark the half way point of The Final Trip.

Ease For Idle Millionaires is a speedy episode. When you think about it, the episode covers so much ground and is literally bursting with a staggering amount of new information across just 45 minutes. Kira's healing powers are explained (a plot point that has been looming over the story since season one), with more information on Rachel and P.T. Westmoreland's next big plan coming into the fold. As well as this, the forest's mutation is explored and more of Neolution's ugly history is dug up. Idle Millionaires uses its episode to reveal more to its audience but in keeping it almost wholly focused on just the one branch of its narrative, it feels like a rewarding and fulfilling episode - particularly in comparison to last week. This is how you streamline an episode to get the most out of it: it is chock-full of advancements and developments but contained in one part of the arch that prevents complication and messiness. Writer Jenn Engels gets a lot of the credit for this one.

In all honesty, the science of Orphan Black is often one of the weakest elements on the show. It is not that it isn't well thought-out or accurate but more so that it is the characters, themes and performances that we keep coming back for, opposed to the numerous science-led factions or experiments; so, this week's decision to infuse the strongest element of Orphan Black - its startling look at humanity, most notably through the character of Cosima - is a very smart one. 

Episode five's best scene comes at the end of the episode and places Cosima with a moral dilemma that heralds back to the nature versus nurture dichotomy that has dominated the series: should she wait for nature to make the call or put something/something out of its misery? For this reason, the morally-sensitive Cosima has always been one of the most endearing characters; while she is a scientist looking for results and cures, she never wishes to infringe on personal rights and boundaries, nor does she wish for the subject to experience discomfort in her search for answers and cures. In a science-heavy episode, Cosima's lead role helps balance what could otherwise be an overpowering and overwhelming episode rotating around the arguably weaker side of Orphan Black.

Because of this, a lot of the episode's success comes down to Tatiana Maslany's performance as Cosima - and it is one of her best this season. Cosima's humanity and sensitivity has always been a defining trait and Maslany provides a number of moments for that to shine through, delivering a sensational and harrowing performance. We can witness every ounce of pain she is experiencing in the moment and all the devastation in the world as she fights for what she believes in. It leaves her character in a precarious situation moving forward and Maslany will no doubt impress every step of the way (as she always, always does). She's terrific as Rachel and Sarah here too and while we are missing some comic relief at this stage (please come back to us Helena/Alison), next week looks set to change that when a familiar face rejoins us.

It is not only Cosima in the spotlight this week, as Delphine (and her great hair) make a welcome return. That moment we all assumed was a wedding in the trailer turned out just to be a fancy meal and classic Orphan Black willingly led us up the garden path. Delphine continues to be an incredible but slightly frustrating character, disappearing almost always, but providing us with enough incentive to keep us hanging on her every word; you fully, wholly and truly understand she is firmly in Cosima's corner but every now and then we get glimpses into the person she once was, and the character we fear she may become again - despite the very fair assumption that Cophine is end-game, it doesn't make their dynamic and back-and-forth all the more intoxicating. And what a treat it was to go back to the very end of season one, in the form of a flashback, to fill in some of the gaps (and the aftermath) of a moment that was otherwise papered over - in the thrill of the season two premiere, said scene was largely swept under the rug, so going back to that moment was incredibly satisfying. Evelyne Brochu doesn't always get the most from Orphan Black scripts but she sure as hell makes the most out of her fleeting reappearances in and out of the frame.

Last week's shining inclusion was the examination of family ties, relationships and dynamics, and that continues well into this week; Sarah and Kira's relationship is finally on the mend and we can all breathe a sigh of relief; Rachel and Susan's power tussle has some new light cast over it, and watching them jostle for the upper hand is continually fascinating; while Ira, now firmly an outsider, is falling to the Castor glitch - once again working to show Cosima's human side, she is the first to snag on to Ira's deteriorating health and the implications of his death (one of the very, very few remaining Castors, we assume) are massive. Will Mark is arguably still in the wind, a potential death in the brotherhood could be catastrophic at this stage, no matter how minor Ira may appear as a character. Personhood and identity continue to play an important role in the show's thematic framework also, with some touching reveals about Cosima's parents and accepting who she is incorporated in superbly. The show has absolutely mastered these themes and continue to do so well into The Final Trip.

The first and only Orphan Black episode to be directed by a woman (Helena Shaver) is a terrific little piece with a number of flourishes to ensure the episode is a visually-engaging one. An uneasy notion is created as we worm our way through various set pieces on Revival, with that discomfort carried on through to the Neo dinner. We also get more insight into the beautiful production design, with some lovely sets appearing for the first time - the living quarters are explored in more detail too, as are the fascinating details of the yurts - and demonstrate the terrific work by the art department through the whole season. They are very often overlooked but their talent, commitment and dedication to this series does not go amiss on this blog!

As I say, Ease For Idle Millionaires is a good episode but it focuses on the element - the science - I find least interesting in Orphan Black; I far prefer the more intimate, personal sisterhood side of the series. With Cosima at the forefront though, and with the episode spliced with some enlightening flashbacks and some terrific theme work, there is more than enough here for Idle Millionaires to zip along at a brisk pace, dropping numerous plot reveals and delivering us to the mid-way point of The Final Trip, with more than a few bumps, deaths and plot twists on the journey. Episode six is always a notorious one (Paul's death, Kendall's murder etc) so with Cosima locked away, Helena in a covenant, Rachel taking a private helicopter to god knows where and Alison firmly missing in action, I'm bracing myself for a big one.


TTMMVPAAFAMRP (The Tatiana Maslany Most Valuable Player Acting Award for a Multi-Role Performance): Cosima. Sweet, caring Cosima.

"You gave me life. I know you can take that away. You can't take away my humanity"

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming (3D) (2017) (Review)

Spider-Man entered his third big-screen reincarnation in a supporting capacity in last year's excellent Captain America: Civil War, but the time to prove himself in his first solo, starring outing is now. The titular Homecoming not only cites the prom at Midtown High School that occurs towards the end of the film, but becomes a meta reference to the webslinger's triumphant return to Marvel after its middling stint with Sony. Alongside the new deal (which sees Sony maintain creative control over the character but allows Marvel to infuse him into the Marvel Cinematic Universe and control the merchandising output), a new actor takes the reigns: Tom Holland dons the red, black and blue spandex suit following his cameo in Civil War, this time utilising the feature-length to get the ball rolling for the already planned franchise and to set the stage for his prominent feature as an Avenger. 2017 has already given us three good-to-great superhero films (Logan, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, Wonder Woman) and suggests somewhat of a revitalisation after 2016's uninspired efforts - so does Spider-Man: Homecoming continue that trend?

Bypassing the origin story (after all, we have already seen two in as many decades and we all know that Uncle Ben dies by now), Homecoming concerns itself with Peter Parker trying to find a balance between his real life and his time as a 'friendly, local neighbourhood superhero' come 'Stark Intern'. Itching to join the Avengers following his part in the Berlin mission, Parker eagerly awaits contact from Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) for his next task - but Stark and Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau) are eager to shield him from the danger that comes with being an official member of the Avengers. One part superhero blockbuster, one part coming-of-age tale, Spider-Man: Homecoming has been praised for its light tone and rather simple story, representing much required rest-bite for the increasingly complex Marvel Cinematic Universe. How successful is Homecoming and is it worthy of its position in the most consistent superhero cinematic universe?

First and foremost, Tom Holland is terrific as both Spider-Man and Peter Parker, fulfilling the promise and potential he granted audiences with during his minor role in Civil War. My heart is still with Andrew Garfield's interpretation of the webslinger but Holland is a worthy and talented individual who brings so much to the role of Peter. With ease and enthusiasm, he handles the humour, with his excellent comedic timing providing some genuinely hilarious moments, as well as more than ably delivering the heavier, darker moments of the plot - which are notably few and far between in comparison to MCU's other chapters. More than successfully, he embodies both Spider-Man and Parker, understanding the difference between the two and allowing that to shine through to us. It is a tremendous performance and instills excitement within me as we head towards Infinity War next year, to see how he will fit into the character dynamics and bounce off the other Avengers. As a matter of fact, the film features solid performances all round; Robert Downey Jr and Jon Favreau utilise their supporting turns effectively and one familiar face making a return towards the end of the film is a complete joy; Zendaya, Laura Harrier and particularly Jacob Batalon present promising characters that will hopefully play more significant roles moving forward; and Michael Keaton delivers a menacing performance as the film's villain even if, once again, motivations prove to be somewhat sketchy and the film, to my recollection, passed up on making a Birdman reference. C'mon guys, lazy, lazy, lazy...

Jon Watts takes the director's seat with decidedly mixed results. Everything is shot and directed in a capable fashion but it never approaches anything overly impressive; it is evident looking back into his thin filmography that Watts does not have the experience with action - or with a mammoth budget like he is contending with here - to craft or create anything special or memorable with these scenes. The moments are fine (the Washington Monument and the ATM robbery are among the better set pieces) but do not come close to the Airport showdown in Civil War, or the falling city in Doctor Strange, or the Battle of New York in The Avengers, or... you get my drift. Admittedly, Watts has a firmer control and displays his talent more so in the quieter moments of the film: the opening video diary segment is a genius way to introduce this character all over again, playing with that youthful angle superbly, while many of the scenes set within the school are full of energy and life. Those emotionally-driven moments are never flashy or loud, but rather subtle and astute, representing a strength in both the script, the performances and Watts' direction. Emotion (and intensity, of course) is further emphasised by Michael Giacchino's score, a bold and exciting collection perfectly suited to the moments it underpins. Watts, by no means whatsoever, does a bad job directing Homecoming, and for a man helming only his fourth feature-length, it is quite the result - but with the high bar set by previous Marvel pictures, it cannot help but feel somewhat underwhelming. 

Homecoming's script is a both a source of immense strength and disappointment. It is certainly riddled with fun, featuring colourful developments and despite its unneeded, extended runtime, it does fly by in a whirlwind of charming dialogue and refreshing revitalisations - but it all feels somewhat inconsequential on reflection. Even as the film plays out, it rarely achieves the momentum required to drive the film forward to a place of great emotion, or meaning, or weight. Many have praised that as a welcoming breath before we step into the Age of Ultron sequel (and Thor: Ragnarok) but it strands the first MCU Spider-Man feature-length as an incidental stepping stone to the next chapter in the story. What should have been a crowning moment for the series, a 'welcome home' coronation of sorts, ultimately turns into a passing fanfare that struggles to amount to much in the grand scheme of things. That is not so much a criticism as it is recognising what worked for me and what did not and the film does introduces characters effectively and lays the foundations for the new franchise - but it cannot strike you as disappointingly empty. One prime example of the script's success is during a twist leading to the film's third act finale, that elicited an audible gasps and jaw-dropping excitement from the crowd, demonstrating how nimble the script can be when it is firing on all cylinders. To say that Homecoming is a failure is completely unfair though, as the film does feel like a revitalised and fresh take on the franchise that had begun to feel like stale goods. As a Spider-Man film, Homecoming is a success; as an entry into the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it is less secure.

Spider-Man: Homecoming is a fun (and surprisingly meaningful) film that lacks the stakes of Marvel's latest releases: how that rests with you will entirely influence your enjoyment of this film. Homecoming's fresh and youthful energy allows the Marvel/Sony blockbuster to feel like a refreshing and vibrant new take on the series, with the film benefiting from the coming-of-age narrative it considers; the balance of Peter and Spidey's life is something Homecoming nails and allows this new incarnation to shine. Considering the biggest complaint surrounding the two films that made up The Amazing Spiderman franchise was its complexity, Homecoming plays it safe - something that, unfortunately (in my eyes anyway), results in a film too inconsequential for its own good. While you cannot deny the fun you have with Homecoming, and there are numerous elements that distract from its comparatively minor flaws, it feels like a stepping stone to the next bigger, bold chapter. It is not the success I hoped it would be; but it is far from the failure I expected.

UPDATE: On second watch, the film's flaws become less pronounced and the film moves at a quick and breezy pace, making the adventure a fun and refreshing one to experience. It struggles with a lack of consequences and the 3D hinders some of the action sequences but the comedy shines through even more so and can actually be appreciated for putting on the brakes somewhat. This 2D rewatch (seriously, the film is so much better in 2D than 3D, which I'd argue actually takes away from some of the action sequences) pushes it up to the same level as Wonder Woman and Guardians, confirming that the 2017 superheroes are on a role. Thor: Ragnarok next - what have you got for us?


Summary: Spider-Man: Homecoming is a refreshing, breezy and fun take on the famous webslinger, assembling an impressive cast led by the fantastic Tom Holland and generally avoiding the pitfalls of franchise-building - but the wider-stakes are considerably low, making the first entry in Spider-Man's second reboot feel oddly inconsequential.

Wednesday, 5 July 2017

The House (2017) (Review)

Comedy is the most divisive genre out there. I've said it time and time before but what makes one person laugh can make another roll their eyes into the back of their skull; it is so selective. More than many though, my opinions towards these films tend to challenge the general consensus: last year's critically-thrashed The Boss made me cackle with laugher while the acclaimed and heralded The Nice Guys went completely amiss on me. Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler's The House has been received even less favourably than Melissa McCarthy's Boss; does this mean I'll love it? Even more so when you consider my absolute love for all things Poehler? Well, erm...

College is expensive and after losing their daughter's scholarship, Scott (Ferrell) and Kate (Poehler) decide to launch an illegal casino in the basement of their friend's house to raise money for her tuition. As with most comedies, the premise acts only as a vehicle for the shenanigans and farce of the situation, with the talented actors riffing and improvising. Alongside Ferrell and Poehler, Jason Mantzoukas, Nick Kroll, Ryan Simpkins and (in a jaw-dropping moment) Jeremy Renner join the cast, all helmed by comedy director and one half of the the writing team, Andrew Jay Cohen.

While Poehler is easily one of my favourite comedians of the moment, Ferrell has never been my cup of tea, making the pairing an interesting one to say the least. Thankfully, Amy's natural charm helps dull the grating Ferrell's inclination towards the wide-eyed, over the top shtick he always gravitates towards; it is present here, but a little more digestible because of her. Unfortunately, the script does neither of them many favours at all and it is only by their natural talents that they get by here, creating some funny moments but nothing more. They often feel restricted by the characters who are one-dimensional as they come, fuelled only by Scott's poor mathematics skill, Kate's love for her daughter and... not a lot else. It is fair to say you don't come to a film like this for the character work and development, but The House barely even gets them off the ground. Ferrell and Poehler are wholly to thanks for their characters because the script pretty much gives up on them early on. Everybody else is decent enough, including Mantzoukas who brings a committed performance to the fold, including a genuinely shocking 'omg' cameo from Jeremy Renner (I would love to know how they swung that) but are facing an uphill battle with lacklustre characters and writing.

Simply, many of The House's problems boil down to the script. I certainly chuckled a handful of times and did have a smile on my face for the most part, but nothing is memorable and I'm having a difficult time recalling anything noteworthy. Except for one scene that is enough to convince any director to give Amy Poehler a flamethrower in every single role she undertakes, it is oddly flat and uninspired through, lacking a sparkle that is imperative for a film like this - particularly one that sells itself on the name of its leads, in this case, two of the most popular comic actors working in Hollywood. It is utterly forgettable and the unfulfilled potential is damning, but in the moment it is a frothy, fluffy slice of light entertainment that scrapes through by the very skin of its teeth. Like a hangover after the type of night our duo host, you'll not remember much of it the next day.

Andrew Jay Cohen does better as a director than as a co-writer. Thanks to some lovely production design (honestly, the casino is beautiful and the provider of some really great shots), he operates in a slick way that keeps the runtime at a merciful 88 minutes. Many would be tempted to have a comedy with two of the genres firecrackers as their leads overcook, dwelling on their improvisation and efforts, but Cohen knows when to restrict the film and crack on with things; the film wastes no time to start with either, jumping into the main narrative in just a couple of minutes, helping maintain that tight-ish runtime. Now, if only Cohen could have injected some life and excitement to pick things up every now and then: it just remains so flat throughout. With no disrespect intended, it is like an SNL sketch that runs on for far too long. 

It is a shame that The House never learns how to utilise its plethora of talent effectively. Ferrell and (particularly) Poehler are two of the most consistent comedians in the industry - no matter your personal view or interest in them - but even they cannot find much life here. The script is like an SNL sketch stretched out over almost 90 minutes, which would be fine if it provided our duo and their supporting players with some stronger gags, but it does not, leaving them to do the heavy lifting - and there's only so much you can do revolving around such a thin idea. But, with a film like The House, you should know what to expect, so if you temper your expectations appropriately, you can find some light, frothy entertainment in The House. This Amy Poehler and Will Ferrell's double-hander is serviceable but there's nothing here to bring the house down. I'll see myself out.

(And just so you know, at least two of these four and a half stars are for Amy Poehler and her flamethrower.)


Summary: The House cashes-in because of the natural talent of its two leads but is an otherwise wasted opportunity. It's surprising flat but at a merciful 88 minutes, you can just about find enough to be entertained by in this frothy but forgettable comedy.

Tuesday, 4 July 2017

The Circle (2017) (Review)

Katy Perry commemorated the release of her fourth studio album, Witness, with a 96-hour livestream. Across the four day event, Perry was broadcast live for the world to see, with fans attaining unique access to her life, witnessing everything from cooking lessons, socialising with her friends, mediation and yoga and therapy sessions. The remarkable event lured in 49 million users from over 190 countries and helped push the 'Firework' singer over 100 million followers on Twitter, meaning she became the first ever person to achieve this milestone. 'Nathan, we came to read a review of Emma Watson's new film The Circle...', you may be shouting at your screen, but that dump of information (about an album you should definitely go and buy/stream, depending on what the cool kids do nowadays) will feed into an important point I'll be making further into this review...

Mae Holland (Watson), thanks to an influential friend, manages to snag a job at The Circle, a powerful internet corporation co-founded by Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) and Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt).  Beginning with a simple job in customer relations, Mae quickly rises on the company's ladder and is eventually selected for an assignment to trial the Circle's latest technology. Coming to realise the implications of the new technology on the future of humanity, her adoration rapidly becomes a great fear, as questions regarding privacy, surveillance and fundamental freedom are questioned and threatened by Circle's new, possibly lethal innovation.

Dave Eggers' 2013 novel of the same name lays the foundations for this techno-thriller (although it would appear that many artistic liberties have been taken), with the original author offering a hand to co-write and adapt the novel alongside the film's director, James Ponsoldt. After its box office underperformance and critical panning in North America, Netflix, rather ironically, took the film under its wing as a site exclusive. As we all understand, the technological landscape is continually evolving, meaning that when the novel was written and eventually released, the world was a completely different place; thus, by the time The Circle arrives with us, four years have passed and we are considering a future that has, arguably, already passed us by. In the world of 24-hour live streaming, Facebook live and Snapchat stories, most things presented to us in the film are already a reality, available to fuel humanity's desperate need for a constant cycle of updates. We've been there, we've done that, so The Circle is stale and pointless. Even Netflix itself was operating on a much smaller scale during the novel planning and production process, demonstrating just how quickly this industry evolves; in aiming for a near-future, dystopian-esque world, the filmmakers have missed the boat and allowed the world they dramatise to pass them by.

In all honesty, that would be excusable if the film could at least manage to explore the human condition and the wide-spread implications of this increasingly evasive technology in a satisfying manner - but it does not. Bubbling under the surface are intriguing themes that are either completely ignored or only lightly scratched at, never providing the bite the commentary so desperately needs to be a success. While I cannot comment on Eggers' source material, the film's screenplay is inconsistent  tonally and cannot decide on how to frame the characters and present plot developments, struggling to string it all together in a cohesive or entertaining way.  It literally alters between being painfully on the nose (explicitly obvious and referential) to being far too ambiguous (either because it cannot make up its mind or because it simply runs out of ideas) in the space of a few scenes. It simply boils down to the weakness of the script, playing with an idea that the writers seem to have given up with half way through the page-to-screen translation process.

Like an Instagram filter though, the film's palette and cinematography accentuates some of the colour and luscious setting, making it look fairly pretty actually. James Ponsoldt's direction is solid, with an appropriate use of footage taken from different devices, if only to emphasise the technology angle in case it had gone amiss on audiences. Some shots, painfully, fail to match up and no scenes springs to mind as particularly noteworthy - but it is an otherwise capable job by Ponsoldt, who at least attempts to alleviate some of the film's issues. Danny Elfman, a very talented composer, provides a decent if unspectacular soundtrack for the film, scoring moments appropriately. Unfortunately, much like the film though, it is all a bit forgettable.

The Circle's cast again formulate a semi-decent effort to distract from the screenplay and narrative issues; Emma Watson is tolerable and the accent is not quite as grating as everyone made it out to be; Tom Hanks is underused, appearing in a glorified 'recurring' capacity, opposed to the starring role the 'name above the title' would have you believe; Karen Gillian does a formidable job with what she is given to work with, attempting to detail Annie through her own natural charm; while John Boyega could have been written out entirely - in fact, I'm not too sure what he was doing at all, other than being horrendously cryptic. Seriously, can someone clear that up for me? Rather than the individual actors, the biggest disservice provided, once again, is the script: a central relationship, so crucial for a third-act development, is practically non-existent. What should have been an aching moment for audiences and characters alike registers no more than a light sigh, because, by the time the dreadful third act rolls by, we simply do not care. We couldn't give a hoot about the will-they, won't-they relationship because the writers have not dedicated any time to flesh it out in a natural, earnest way; it is as redundant as the film itself.

In reference to my opening ramblings about Katy Perry, we are already living in the dystopian time The Circle attempts to dramatise, as she demonstrated last month; the world Perry gave us access to through her Witness World Wide weekend illustrated the once unfathomable possibilities technology offered us and while inherently geared for positive in this instance, it can no doubt be abused and misused. The Teenage Dream popstar invited fans into her world for the weekend and while the livestream itself was turned off 96 hours later, the social media footprint would not be; the therapy sessions and meditation classes are immortalised forevermore, most likely in bitesize gif and meme form, or through clickbait-y headlines reminding of our every online movements, at all times. The Circle fails not only because it arrives with us way past its sell-by-date (which the screenplay does nothing to help) but because its doesn't have the confidence, means or understanding to push themes and ideas further; simply, it never considers more than a future we have already arrived in and is the cinematic pinnacle of unfulfilled potential. While the direction and performances are passable, little else convinces us that The Circle is anything other than stale film-making.


Summary: The Circle's attempt to depict a future we are already living in renders it completely pointless and stale; it hints at interesting ideas only to watch mercilessly as the screenplay sends it crashing into an abysmal third act. Think of the worst Black Mirror episode and put The Circle below it.