Friday, 10 November 2017

Murder On The Orient Express (2017) (Review)


Kenneth Branagh's film adaptation of Agatha Christie's 1934 novel, Murder On The Orient Express, rolled into UK theatres over the weekend, with the next pitstop in American theatres in the coming days. Assembling what may be the flashiest ensemble cast the year has seen, the mystery-drama stars the likes of Branagh, Penelope Cruz, Willem Defoe, Judi Dench, Johnny Depp, Josh Gad, Derek Jacobi, Leslie Odom Jr, Michelle Pfeiffer, Daisy Ridley, Olivia Coleman and Tom Bateman *and breathe* as the various suspects embroiled in probably the most famed murder mystery of all-time.

When a body is discovered aboard the lavish Orient Express, legendary detective Hercule Poirot must investigate the assortments of interesting characters that shared the cramped space with the murder man, all with the motive and opportunity to kill an evil man. Soon realising everyone is a suspect, he must compile the evidence and catch the killer before they strike again. With the release of this adaptation, 20th Century Fox continue to cultivate their 'blockbuster for adults' slate, which has seen the likes of Logan, A Cure For Wellness, Alien: Covenant, War for the Planet of the Apes and Kingsman: The Golden Circle released this year alone. Does Orient Express keep up the speed, or does it run out of steam?

Lavish, luxurious and theatrical, Murder On The Orient Express is a visually-exciting and striking piece of art that would warrant a cinema trip on a rainy day, if only for the aesthetics alone. They are truly magnificent, with detailed set designs and time-appropriate costumes impressing at every turn, providing the picture with a prestige and grace that allows it to stand-out against the cinematic backdrop at the moment. Alongside some fine hair and make-up elements (and Branagh's Pirot's immense moustache - or should I say moustaches - which would really deserve a paragraph of their own), I can see the film scoring some well-deserved technical nominations come award-season.

Branagh's directorial flair is a large part of the film's success, with an overt theatricality making this essential viewing on the big screen - or in high-definition when it arrives in our homes in a few months time. From the sweeping snow-capped shots to the creeping camera work inside the carriage, almost evoking the movements on another character in the mix, Branagh's work is wonderfully flashy and sumptuously shot. Haris Zambaloukos' cinematography heightens every beautiful landscape excellently, using glass and the idea of facades to dig into some of the underlying theme work subtly and effectively.

A number of stunning set pieces are peppered throughout; a terrific tracking shot that introduces a handful of characters effortlessly in the very first act is the pinnacle of the film; and a second overhead perspective shot as the body is discovered, tiptoeing through cabins and moving characters like they are pieces on a chessboard - or rather, a game of Cluedo, as so many have already highlighted given the film's striking similarities to the popular board game. Furthermore, the final deconstruction of the case, while melodramatic, is powerful in its imagery, bold and exciting as the revelations unfurl. These key sequences really prop the film up through its weaker moments. Orient Express operates rather smoothly for its 114 minute duration too, with just a few bumps in the journey during the middle act's transition into the grand finale.

Of course, Orient Express' major calling is its terrific ensemble, assembled for the variety show-like romp of bygone years. While few of the cast are given anything to really sink their teeth into (and the likes of Coleman and Dench, in particular, are criminally sidelined for the sake of space), they all impress and bear at least part of the weight. A few stand-out emerge, with Pfeiffer making the very most out of her career-resurgence (filed with mother!), providing another formidable turn as one of the train's thirteen passengers; Daisy Ridley digs out some fine emotion, as does Josh Gad; while Branagh is superb as the fabled Belgian detective, hamming up his performance with great exaggeration and excitement, enthusiastically felt by all - audience included. Even Coleman and Dench, while under-utilised, give it their all and each cast member enhances the ensemble splendidly.

Splashy sets, solid direction and a flashy cast do not a movie make though, and the film greatly suffers from a lack of depth. It strikes you as too ostentatious at times, with a failure to delve into Christie’s source matieral is a new or exciting manner; in fact, aside from a couple of obligatory changes to acknowledge the relatively diverse cast (by Hollywood standards), it all feels pedestrian and overly cautious, hesitant to make its own mark. This could have been released in any decade with little disruption to our understanding, rendering the entire film somewhat needless today. While pointless is too harsh a word, because you can find enjoyment within it, the world didn’t really need a  new adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express and this end result sadly doesn’t convince you otherwise.

Screenwriter Michael Green has experienced a great deal of success with his adaptations this year, including Logan and Blade Runner 2049 - but his work here brings little to a well-known tale, struggling to elevate it beyond basic surface details. It doesn't help that the story, by design, is so crowded and cluttered with characters, and while he does attempt to streamline the overall piece, it’s more to the detriment of many, rather than the benefit of few. When you are lucky enough to possess a cast of this calibre, their talents should be embraced - but Green (somewhat understandably) cannot find the space to do so. At least they all have nice scenery to chew, I guess.  Thankfully self-aware, everything is said and done with a cheeky wink and nudge, making it light-hearted and frothy enough to be enjoyed as the serviceable piece of entertainment it is.

While it becomes too formulaic during the second act, hampered by bizarre sequences designed only to deliver variety with the setting (including a glaringly shoe-horned interrogation sequence complete  with a half-assed explanation to try and justify this jarring change in scenery), Branagh gets it back on track for the climax. It's pretty impressive, considering just how cluttered it is with characters, that the film executes a relatively-easy to follow culmination with defined character motives, no matter how bogged down with exposition it is. In fact, the whole final third was well-orchestrated and handled, ending the picture on a solid note.

Murder on the Orient Express is an engaging piece of nostalgia, a good ol' fashioned romp that will entertain if little more. Thanks to a marvellous ensemble and a fine director, it's a mainly well-orchestrated, if ultimately needless piece of cinema. The Agatha Christie Extended Universe (name to be decided) starts solidly and serviceably with this whodunnit tale and while it's not something I'll convince you to dash out and see, it's cinematic, frothy and lively enough to maintain momentum and release steam. Ticket at the ready if the Orient Express is a journey you can see yourself enjoying.

✬☆
(6.5/10) 

Summary: Murder on the Orient Express may be a needless adaptation when all is said and done, but it's serviceable and cinematic enough, bolstered by fine direction and terrific ensemble, to justify its existence.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017) (Review)


The Killing of a Sacred Deer crafts an excruciating atmosphere, clawing its way, mercilessly, under your skin over a shocking, almost blood-curdling 121 minutes. It is an unforgiving, unflinching and taut physciological horror-thriller that paints a stark and striking portrait of revenge and reprisal. You will not be able to shake Yorgos Lanthimos' latest twisted delight for quite some time, playing on your mind and in your conscious for days. The other thing I personally could not shake was why I couldn't make up my mind on it for so long. Even now, it's difficult to explain how I feel about The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

Steven Murphy's attempts to introduce his protégé of sorts, Martin (Barry Keoghan), to his family - made up of his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy) and son Bob (Sunny Suljic) - seems well-meaning on the surface. But, when their relationship becomes more transparent, Steven is offered a deadly ultimatum that pushes him to make a decision no one should ever be required to make. Sacred Deer works more effectively the more blind you are to its concept, so you'll have to take my word for it that it really is a choice no sane person would ever want to make - and please excuse the ambiguity this review is seeped in, because I will enshroud it in as much mystery as possible.

Essentially, Sacred Deer takes an ancient tale of revenge and justice and transports it into a 21st century America setting, with Ellie Goulding picked to score it. Lanthimos and Efthymis Filppou's script has Greek mythology woven throughout its rich tapestry in such a subtle, sophisticated manner that truly elevates the film to greatness and prestige. Already, the creation has proven to be divisive with general audiences, provoking varied reactions in a similar manner to the likes of mother! and It Comes At Night. "It's a metaphor", tells one character and he ain't half wrong; while it's not quite as metaphorically-heavy as the aforementioned Jennifer Lawrence and Darren Aronfosky project, it generates an air of higher-intelligence, more so than your typical horror fare tends to offer. Despite taking clear influence from Agamemnon and borrowing from history's other Greek mythologies - with death being answered with death - it is given free reigns to twist and turn and distort as it pleases, unshackled from convention, to the glee of the film's ardent supporters.

Sacred Deer conjures a dizzying blend between the brittle intensity of the central concept (one so very close to being totally unstomachable) with a dry, dark deadpan humour that is wonderfully alienating and awkward throughout. It is a drama, a thriller, a horror and a black comedy in one jaw-dropping package; so many genre and tonal elements would overwhelm most feature-lengths but there's a carefully constructed balance that prevents it from falling to pieces. Lanthimos and Efthymis  stunning script shows frequent signs of imploding, but that's the very point - the situations our characters are in is almost other-worldly, seconds away from consuming them all. They're sitting on a time bomb and that unpredictable and volatile nature ensures the film drags you to the edge of your seat and pins you down, unable to move or peel your eyes away from the crumbling chaos.

Lanthimos' direction is antiseptic, purposely polished to within an inch of its life; the visual cleanliness only seeks to accentuate the true vileness of the thematic content and proposal. Everything has its place so when something is missing or lacking, you feel it profoundly - it's suitably uneasy. The direction is reminiscent of Kubrick's The Shining, swapping the hotel for the hospital and slowly creeping, prowling at low levels, stalking these characters and ready to pounce on them like predators on their prey. Thimios Bakatakis' cinematography is horribly, brilliantly cold and austere, making the most of the beauty in the brutality with striking, powerful imagery laced within.

Sacred Deer has a number of extraordinary performance to help helm the madness, with both Colin Farrell and Nicole Kidman delivering reliably impressive performances and Barry Keoghan following up his terrific turn in Dunkirk with another career-kickstarter. Farrell is tremendous as a Surgeon carrying a heavy weight on his shoulders, with his demons finally catching up with him; as in The Lobster, he is thoroughly engaging in an off-beat but recognisable, obviously human role. He may sound dry and monotonous but he conveys a great deal of meaning, from the fearful to the deadly: one conversation, in which he shares his 'secret', is so outrageous, but delivered so plainly, that you will search the auditorium for reaction. My whole body seized in this moment but didn't unfurl for the rest of the run-length.

Kidman, on an outstanding run recently between her Oscar-nominated role in Lion, her confident control in The Beguiled and Emmy-winning slot in Big Little Lies, is equally as sensational here. She is gracious in a role that rarely demands grace, poised and headstrong in a role that could have seen her crack. It's a testament to Lanthimos' talent that so early into his career he can attract these marquee names to his unique, unconventional projects. Kidman possesses so much steely composure to being with, but it ever-so-slightly cracks with each passing minute as we descend deeper and deeper into darkness, closer and closer to that nerve-shattering resolution that will leave its mark like blood on white. Kidman has been on fire lately - but she may burn the very brightest here.

Wonderfully unsettling, Keoghan is sickeningly great and utterly fascinating as Martin. Triggering a schismatic wave of events, the young actor makes such an impact on the story with a performance that indicates his fantastic supporting turn in Dunkirk wasn't a fluke; he really is here to do incredible things and a real talent set to take Hollywood by storm. Chilling and gut-clenching, he delivers one of the most affecting, enthralling, menacing character interpretation of the year, mastering the deadpan humour and feverish intensity in stunning measures. Co-stars Cassidy and Suljic are two beyond-their-years additions to the film, making this one of the most finely-tuned ensembles of the year, in a film that demands so much from its stars. Cassidy's haunting version of Burn will stay in your head for days, as well the innocence in Suljic's puppy-dog eyes.

Sacred Deer's magnitudinous soundtrack is superbly atmospheric, oozing with an intensity that makes it such an emotionally-punishing watch. The composer-collection is grand and bold, sonically unnerving and perfectly complimentary of the themes, script, direction and performances. Appropriately jarring, from the eerie choir to the building orchestra, the sound is just as important as the visual here and a stunning cacophony of the multiple senses and feelings experienced here.

Five days out from my first watch of The Killing of a Sacred Deer and I think I can say I enjoyed it - as much as you can enjoy a film as dark as this. It struck me as oddly cold at the time, calculating to a fault, and while I left the screening visibly shaking and in actual pain from tensing so much, something held me back. I couldn't fully invest and absorb myself into this incredibly-orchestrated world, for a reason I still cannot pinpoint or define. I'm absolutely certain a second watch will cement my love for this film, as it is definitely a film that benefits from distance, but it didn't quite reach the end-of-year-list-shattering-heights I expected it to. Again, that second viewing is scheduled for next week, so I will update you accordingly.

Lanthimos' The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a sadistic exploration of revenge and retribution, with an unforgivable bite, pervading malice and with one of the most brutal conclusions you will ever lay eyes on. It builds dread like nobody's business, wringing an immense out of intensity out of its central premise to gut-clenching, heart-wrenching effect. It pushes boundaries, perhaps not as furiously as The Lobster, with Lanthimos' signature style folded through and his keen eye for detail and metaphors sophisticated in their incorporation. Boasting a phenomenal band of performances - and affirming that Farrell and Kidman make quite the duo - it's admirable, bold and creative work, warts and all, that you should appreciate. It will hopefully improve further with even more distance too, but one things for sure after first watch alone - you won't forget The Killing of a Sacred Deer.

(9/10) 

Summary: The Killing of a Sacred Deer is an extreme, sadistic, brutal and unforgiving cinematic experience, clawing its way, mercilessly, under your skin. It's utterly impossible to shake. It benefits from distance but one things for sure on first watch - you won't forget the heart-stopping, nerve-shredding, gut-clenching Killing of a Sacred Deer.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

A Bad Moms Christmas (2017) (Review)


Bad Moms was one of 2016's biggest sleeper hits. Riding a positive word-of-mouth wave from its core demographic, Bad Moms turned an impressive-in-itself $23 million domestic debut weekend into an astonishing $113 million smash, delivering a $179 million worldwide cume on a budget of a mere $20 million. In a summer where everyone and their mother felt the heat, Bad Moms cruised to victory because it stood out from the crowd (an R-rated, female-led, female-orientated comedy). It was to reason that a sequel would arrive with us, and just 17 months later, we have A Bad Moms Christmas. I liked the first an awful lot, so will this festive sequel be more of the same to celebrate or a cold turkey?

For Moms (I hate using this spelling - it's Mums - but what can I do, eh? It's a commitment to the art), Christmas is the most stressful time of the year. Feeling the pressure to create the perfect holidays for their families, Amy (Mila Kunis), Kiki (Kristen Bell) and Carla (Kathryn Hahn) decide rebel against the rules and try to enjoy the festivities for themselves; it really looks set to be the perfect Christmas. But with the arrival of their own respective mothers (Christine Baranski, Cheryl Hines and Susan Sarandon), will they be so snowed under hosting and entertaining that they actually forget what family means at the most wonderful time of the year?

A Bad Moms Christmas has no qualms in delivering more of the same, just this time complete with that holly, jolly angle (a sly, clever plot to turn the film into another leggy hit for STX Entertainment, one that you cannot help but admire). After all, why would you mess with a formula that worked out so well the first time? It shows our returning mothers ripping up the figurative (or literal?) parenting rulebook to shreds and having fun for themselves with each other. This time though, that central premise carries a very questionable addition - one that was either missing from the first, or went entirely over my head.

In a montage sequence just over 15 minutes into the film, Amy, Kiki and Carla head to the shopping mall to complete some last-minute bits and pieces; deciding they couldn't possibly do it sober though, they get absolutely sloshed and run amok. They harass numerous shop assistants, get touchy-feely with Father Christmas and steal a tree from a store, creating as much chaos in the process as they flee from the scene, overjoyed with their behaviour. 

I enjoyed it in the moment: Kunis, Bell and Hahn are clearly having fun and it's reminiscent of the joy they had in the supermarket during last year's film, which worked well. But on deeper reflection (and in the total understanding that, in most cases, these film shouldn't really undergo deeper reflection), it becomes problematic. It presents these three women - as dramatic as it sounds - as menaces. Its counter-productive to the overall message and tone of the film, going against everything else the film tries to say or achieves.

Now, admittedly, that is something most viewers will look beyond - but it attenuated the rest of the film for me, personally. On the whole, the rest of the film avoids falling in that same trap too often, outside the admittedly funny characterisation of Carla, who can get away with anything because of Kathryn Hahn's balls-to-the-wall delivery. But for the other two (Kiki in particular) it seems out of character and undermining. It's a poorly-thoughtout set piece that I couldn't really shake after. Why, in a female-empowering comedy, would you portray these women in such a rash manner? Maybe I'm over-reacting, so I would love to hear your thoughts on this one.

Both succeeding and failing in the exact same areas, A Bad Moms Christmas most crippling aspect again is its screenplay. More so than the first film,  it appears to be a collection of admittedly-funny, tenuously-assembled set pieces and montages, with flimsy connectivity tissue in between. We jump from sequence to sequence, with only the holiday angle pulling it all together - like the last button holding together your trousers after your Christmas dinner, it's set to burst at any moment in a sort of embarrassing way. Fewer bells laughs but consistent chuckles populate Bad Moms 2, but the script never utilises the game cast to the best of their abilities.  It feels like a missed opportunity, with the ensemble bearing almost all of the weight of the screenwriter's surges. It strikes you as incredible rushed too, assembled in such a formulaic manner to push the product out as quickly as possible, meaning that you never feel surprised or overly-enthused.

As mentioned though, the cast are terrific. They elevate the film tremendously, with both the returning cast and new additions impressing in equal measures. Kunis is again the undisputed focus and charms her way through the middling script, balancing the tone effectively; she bears most of the film's emotional weight and sells it for all its worth. Bell plays Kiki again with a loveable naivety, portraying the super stressed Mom with delight. She's a tremendous comedic performer but can never seem to find a script that can capitalise on her talent effectively. Of course though, Kathryn Hahn absolute steals the show, as sharp and audacious as ever with a delicious and delirious sense of humour and timing. Rather than being solely relegated as comedic relief this time out, she is actually provided a little more substance (albeit very loosely) - advancing her character emotionally very effectively.

Of the new cast, Christine Baranski is a treat. With enough catty one-liners to sink a PTA meeting, the overbearing, high-maintenance mother of Amy is played with a scorching, acidic bite courtesy or Mrs Baranski, taking over Christina Applegate's reigns from the first film. She's terrifically cast as the vitriolic Ruth, sparring and wrangling like the world is going to end and she needs to get every insult out of her body. Cheryl Hines has a lot of fun as Sandy, so desperate to cling on to her daughter in a way that straddles the line between well-meaning and neurotic very effectively. And Susan Sarandon is the truck-driving, money-laundering Isis (and yes, jokes a-plenty about the unfortunate association with the terrorist organisation) (how very creative). She's ballsy and probably not a mother most of us can recognise, painted with very broad strokes, but Sarandon brings an energy and zest you cannot deny. All are well-cast and fill the gap left by the 'bitchy moms' from the first film (who I miss an awful lot).

One particularly misjudged, ill-spirited and sour Santa Stripper moment, and that problematic act one reel aside, Bad Moms 2 is a generally enjoyable slice of popcorn fluff - the sort of which you should never under-estimate at this time of year especially. Scott Moore and Jon Lucas' direction is streamlined efficiently; they get in and out as quickly as possible, providing exactly what they need to and little more in the process. It's accessible, straightforward and uncomplicated. An over-reliance on montages becomes increasingly grating, barely stitched together at times and evidence of a slight laziness from Moore and Lucas. The adorning Christmas decorations and set are rather lavish and the art department sell it well considering it was filmed during the summer.

Other than an incredibly clunky script and a few tonal misfires, A Bad Moms Christmas is enjoyable enough. If you liked the first, this is more of the same; likewise though, if you didn't like the first, this one is not in the business to change hearts or minds, borrowing the same template and very rarely straying from it. As with the first, the cast really make this film, dragging the weak script with them like a heavy Christmas tree from market but seldom being burdened with it. There's no doubt the scriptwriting needs a woman's touch and hopefully it's something the theoretical sequel and spin-offs look towards; until then, the representation of these women don't always feel organic. Its festive angle delivers just enough to make it worth the effort and even though it doesn't reach the heights of the first, it serves its purpose with a funny, never hilarious, Christmas romp. Joy to the world? Not so much. But it’s demographic will lap it up.

☆☆☆
(6/10) 

Summary: There's no denying A Bad Moms Christmas is a lazy rehash of the first with some addition festive cheer to excuse it, but it's entertaining and enjoyable enough because the cast have such fun. It's certainly not in the business to change hearts or minds though, so adjust your efforts accordingly.

Tuesday, 31 October 2017

Breathe (2017) (Review)


Andrew Garfield is on somewhat of a winning streak lately: gravitating from his blockbuster-leading roles to more serious, meatier characters that showcase his talent, the British star scored an Best Actor nomination for Hacksaw Ridge earlier this year, tremendous buzz for Martin Scorsese's prestigious religion picture Silence and an acclaimed stint on the West End with Angels in America. Hoping to add another string to his bow, Garfield takes on the role of Robert Cavendish, a man who become paralysed from the neck down by pole at age 28. Alongside Claire Foy and marking the directorial debut of Andy Serkis', will Breathe find success at the forthcoming Academy Awards?

When Robert Cavendish (Garfield) is given just months to live after contracting polio in Kenya, he surrenders himself to a short life of immobility, ready to die; it is his wife, Diana (Foy), pregnant with their child, who instils him with the will, inspiration and love to continue fighting and truly change the world through their experiences. Garfield and Foy are certainly the leading stars here, with a solid supporting cast padded out with a dual performance from Tom Hollander, Dean-Charles Chapman, Ed Speleers and a brief cameo from Hugh Bonneville.

Breathe is packed to the rafters with emotion, unashamedly tugging at the heart strings and striving to move most to tears. The true-life tale was always going to be an affecting watch, with rousing themes of unconditional love and overcoming adversity - but Breathe has the added poignancy of Robert and Diana's son, Jonathan Cavendish, serving as producer for the project. His involvement in the telling of his parent's story ensures a sensitivity and delicacy is woven throughout the fabric of the film, tender and moving in its approach and execution.

This is all sold through the fantastic, calibrated performances from Garfield and Foy. Well-matched and naturally-charismatic, the relationship is genuine and believable: despite the film's seemingly anxious decision to skip to the narrative's heftier moments, glossing over material that would have provided a more sound foundation for the film, you eventually become swept up in the romance and their commitment to one another.

Garfield is splendid in an understandably physically-restrictive role, capturing the emotion, tenacity and resignation experienced by Robert at varying points through expertly. Garfield is as fine a character actor as they come and this is certainly another terrific performance, somewhat reminiscent of Eddie Redmayne's award-winning turn as Stephen Hawkins in The Theory of Everything. Claire Foy is tremendous too, bringing a well-realised and rendered compassion to the piece; you never doubt their love for one second and Diana's strength becomes Robert's. It's a beautiful, blossoming relationship that serves as an inspiration to us all.

Renown for his motion-capture performances (particularly those that powered the Planet of the Apes reboot to immense riches and acclaim), Serkis steps behind the camera for the first time, helming Breathe with the confidence and stead of an experience, well-versed director. Benefited by some luscious locations and scenery, Nitin Sawhney's gorgeous score and Robert Richardson's impressive cinematography, Serkis nurtures a film of thematic deftness and visual depth, streamlining the 117 minute feature-length efficiently and powerfully. He has obviously looked for inspiration in other successful British prestige-pictures (most notably the aforementioned The Theory of Everything and Amma Asante's A United Kingdom) and incorporate their strengths into his own work. It's very characteristic of that sub-genre and you often will it to find an originality of its own - but its similarities don't take too much away from what is a sturdy piece of film-making.

With so many successful elements in place, it is a shame Breathe's tonal balance is somewhat misguided. While William Nicholson's screenplay courses the Cavendish's journey efficiently, it can be overwhelmingly positive, optimistic and neat at times, without the edge or grit to elevate it further. It becomes monotonous in its mood at times, broken only by a terrific sequence in the final act which takes us to Germany, where we witness the confined, prison-like lifestyles of their disabled people. It's here, with this shift in tone, that the picture illustrates signs of excelling - but it rarely embraces this opportunity and so it remains consistently good, if little more, throughout.

Breathe is an undeniably well-meaning, lovingly-crafted film that impresses through its performances and real-life story, rather than its own execution. Serkis is a confident director, possessing a skill set that should see his directorial career dazzle - but Breathe isn't the most memorable vehicle to make his debut with, suffering somewhat from that tonal imbalance. Garfield and Foy are terrific, once again asserting themselves as two of Britain's most talented exports; while unlikely to win either of them many awards, they both provide sturdy additions to their respective filmographies. Breathe might not take your breath away but you'll struggle not to be moved by its powerful, inspirational story.

☆☆
(7/10) 

Summary: Andrew Garfield and Claire Foy's fantastic performances aside, Breathe is consistently good but rarely great. It won't be the award-season heavyweight many hoped, but it is a stirring and poignant biographical romance-drama - and a promising directorial debut for Andy Serkis.

Sunday, 29 October 2017

Call Me By Your Name (2017) (Review)


"Is it better to speak or to die?", ponders Elio for the duration of Call Me By Your Name, Luca Guadagnino's coming-of-age romance-drama based on Andre Aciman's 2007 novel. Already an early award-season darling, Guadagnino's powerful, soaring and sun-drenched rumination on first love, sexual awakening, identity and secret desire has won the hearts and adoration of many, poised to become a timeless masterpiece, as the similarly-themed Brokeback Mountain has.

It's 1983 and "somewhere in Northern Italy" 17-year old Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is holidaying with his parents. Every year, his father invites an academic to stay at their villa to support a research project he is conducting; the confident Oliver (Armie Hammer) arrives, initially causing a stir and earning the wariness of Elio. As they spend more time together however, a passionate relationship blossoms between them, leading to a feverish, sensual summer affair neither will forget.

Call Me By Your Name is as poignant as they come. Just moments into the film, you realise you are watching something truly special, a future classic. Comparisons between Brokeback Mountain, Carol and Moonlight are to be expected, as is typical with LGBT cinema - but Call Me By Your Name easily stand-ups on its own accord, delivering a heartfelt, soulful and lavish romance that, despite its period setting, is completely of the times.

Guadagnino, James Ivory and Walter Fasano transposition Aciman's debut novel perfectly, into a sumptuous screenplay with stunningly poetic language and a sophisticated sensuality, both tender and blistering. Elegant yet seductive (two words that could sum up the entire film) the screenplay is a masterclass in graciously crafting characters and building believable relationships and dynamics. It is a compassionate character study that refuses to prescribe labels or box its characters into corners, illustrating a deft understanding and delicacy of Elio and Oliver's relationship. It possesses a worldliness and confidence that ensures it circumvents the common issues of similar coming-of-age tales and LGBT stories, transcending conventions.

Call Me By Your Name blends genres together seamlessly and with ease, alleviating the perceived heaviness of an extensive 130 minute book-to-film adaptation. From the steamy to the heart-wrenching, the funny to the sweet, Guadagnino's sun-baked feature-length interlaces and juggles multiple tones: it is one of many reasons why this film feels as layered and textured as it does. A surprising helping of humour is integral to emphasising the cultural differences between Elio and Oliver and later, its playfulness, to capture the dynamic of their friendship and togetherness. This tonal concoction is carefully measured and executed masterfully; emotionally-shattering, the layers of this film are intensely, expertly realised.

 Guadagnino's direction is intimate yet grand, expansive yet totally of and in the moment. Shot entirely on one 35mm camera and wonderfully enhanced by Sayombhu Mukdeeprom's distinguished cinematography, the film carries a timeless ambience that verifies it as a classic-to-be. Guadagnino steers the varying emotions experience by the characters (and audience) with confidence and stead, deciding upon the required filming techniques, framing devices and, particularly, tightness to magnify the intended emotion in a natural, authentic way. You find yourself unable to take your eyes off of the vividly-imagined, aesthetically-giddying and dreamy vision conjured by Guadagnino, in one of the year's most visually-accomplished and beautiful film.

Guadagnino transmits the awkwardness of Elio's first sexual escapade, his fragility and euphoria in the arms of Oliver and heartache in the film's final moments, often through the minutest of flourishes. He utilises the natural beauty and warmth of Northern Italy almost as a character in and of itself, as the illuminating moonlight and idyllic scenery facilitate this whirlwind, smouldering romance at the film's very heart. Such achievements in film are very and far between, occurring only a handful of times per year; for 2017, it joins Damien Chazelle's La La Land, David Lowery's A Ghost Story, Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk, Pablo Larrain's Jackie and Barry Jenkins' Moonlight. As you can tell, that's mightily impressive company to keep. Happy to say that after Call Me By Your Name, Guadagnino is what I consider a masterful director.

But this entire vision would be nothing without carefully-selected actors to satisfy every ounce of emotion the screenplay, writing, director and tone wishes to impart. Through Chalamet and Hammer, Call Me By Your Name is elevated even further than the already high-bar for success sits. Well-paired and utterly convincing as star-crossed lovers of sorts, Chalamet and Hammer deliver two of the finest performances of the year. Chalamet is utterly captivating, so expressive with his every emotion: he showcases Elio's vulnerability, his happiness, his solace and nerve with aplomb, providing an utterly flawless performance. Roles of this complexity are once-in-a-blue moon, particularly for younger actors as they are usually gifted to performers with an abundance of experience  - but Chalamet is affecting, transfixing and committed, baring his soul in an unbelievably skilful, extraordinary and mature way. Call Me By Your Name's end credits are infinitely captivating and exquisite, an emotional outpouring and catharsis - almost all of it through the power of Chalamet's unspoken performance. Please, I'll hand him the Oscar myself. This is a career-exhilirasting performance.

Armie Hammer is equally impressive as the cocksure Oliver. Resolute in his affability and a clear anchor for Elio's insecurity, he simmers in his intensity with subtle gestures to convince Elio of his interest. Doing for Chalamet what Gosling did for Stone in La La Land, Hammer's more of a supporting cog in the machine, surrounding the spotlight to Chalamet to cultivate Elio's journey and self-discovery; nevertheless, he still packs the emotional gut-punch of a lead performer into the film, consistently excellent and gracious. Again, it's a career-defining performance and will hopefully lead to more substantial roles for the talented actor. Their chemistry is unmistakable and they breathe life into these already well-crafted characters; they ARE the characters through and through. What a pair of performances.

Threatening to steal the entire film though is Michael Stuhbarg. In what may be the greatest monologue the cinematic landscape has seen in quite some time, he expresses the importance of feeling - be it positively or negatively - the danger of wasted youth and the necessity for acceptance, comfort and sufferance. Note-perfect delivery and a heartfelt execution make it one of the strongest, most memorable film moments of the year, a scene very few could ever forget - particularly those who can resonate and find consolation in the artistic words. You could literally hear a pin drop as Stuhbarg delivers the rousing, eye-watering speech. Tone tone in his voice and the infinite wisdom his character possesses gives the impression that he is talking directly to you; few could manage that intimacy with even a fraction of the success that Call Me By Your Name achieves it with. It is echoed and sustained through the end credits too - an unflinching triumph in emotion and tenderness. Words really do fail to give insight to the final ten minutes of this film so please don't just take my word for it: go and see this film.

When you think the emotion cannot become more prevalent, palpable or powerful, the specially-chosen soundtrack heightens it considerably. Apt for the time period and a reflection of the family and 'canon they would be a part of', Sufjan Stevens' collection (complete with three new songs) solidifies the film's vision tremendously. Aching, uplifting and gentle, Stevens soundtrack transports you to Northern Italy and into the mindset of these characters expertly. It's a very, very accomplished piece. It's not only music scoring the film though, as the Italian ambience and environment seeps into the film, strengthening the realism and your immersion in the film immaculately.

Call Me By Your name truly took my breath away, achieving - if not exceeding - the hype that preceded it. My minor quibbles (strange pacing and a slight emotional disconnect in the first act) can be so easily be overlooked. This is a film I will race back to see time and time again, in the hope of experiencing this level of beauty and power again. It is a sensually indulgent, heart-pounding and sun-kissed future classic, exquisitely exploring the plethora of gorgeous themes through a fantastic screenplay, delivered by a handful of faultless performances and helmed by a masterful, confident director. Call Me By Your Name is a triumph, plain and simple. In response to the earlier question, 'is it better to speak or to die?', when a film like Call Me By Your Name comes along, I choose to speak loud and proud about it.

(9.5/10) 

Summary: A ravishing, poetic and soulful cinematic tour de force, Call Me By Your Name transcends genre conventions with a tender rumination on first love and discovery. Luca Guadagnino, Armie Hammer and a flawless Timothée Chalamet deliver one of the most accomplished, sensitive, impressive and affecting films of the year.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Happy Death Day (2017) (Review) & The Babysitter (2017) (Review)


Happy Death Day is the Scream Queens feature-length I didn't know I needed in my life, providing a fun slasher-horror flick specifically aimed at a youthful audience.

The Blumhouse Productions release looks set to continue the studio’s blow-out success, following Split and Get Out's barn-burning runs earlier this year. They are experiencing something of an impressive streak at the moment, poised to the Disney Pixar of horror. Hoping to make an impact in the run up to Halloween and earn that prestigious tile, will Happy Death Day be the icing on Blumhouse's impressive cake of a year?

Happy Death Day follows Theresa Glenbman, who finds herself stuck in a time loop after being murdered by a masked-killer on her birthday. Waking up every time to relive the same day over and over again, she attempts to uncover her killer before her lives are up. Christopher B. Landon helms the teen-slasher to solid effect.

Unafraid to satirise itself and reference others, director Landon manages to ensure Happy Death Day's purposely-repetitive narrative remains surprisingly refreshing. With a new, exciting angle to play with for each cycle, Happy Death Day frequently bleeds fun as we explore Tree's fateful death day. It can feel overly-familiar and fails to provide audiences with anything new - but it's a blast from start to finish. You'll be hard-pressed not to have a good time.

With its teen audience in mind, Happy Death Day restrains its violence, placing a larger emphasis on the narrative over the gore - but it still remains creative with the kills, with a threatening, creepy villain. It incorporates a sharp humour the similar Fox television show excelled at, like a powerful combination of Groundhog Day and Mean Girls. The atmosphere is intense, magnified appropriately as Tree's situation worsens, becoming more dire and life-threatening. He infuses some impressive scene transitions and provides consistent scares; yes, he indulges in some cheap, jump scares but they are poppy and sensational enough to work.

Jessica Rothe looks set to be a star. Her journey across the film is well-dialled, balanced between this unlikeable, bratty sorority stereotype we first meet and the well-meaning broken soul that reveals herself as the film progresses. Rothe completely convinces, earning our support with an admirable performance that sells her fear and repentance very well. She is well-matched to Israel Broussard's Carter, who is charming and endearing. The pair form a genuine, believable chemistry that heightens the stakes and humanises Tree efficiently, breaking down the facade she is introduced with.

Despite a clunky twist it doesn't quite earn and some glaring plot holes - which is supposedly the basis of the theoretical sequel, should Happy Death Day's commercial performance justify it - Happy Death Day is recommended dumb, disposable fun. Lead by the charismatic Rothe and Broussard, Happy Death Day will entertain its intended audience, infused with heart, soul and humanity. It's light on bloodshed, so won't please all - but those after an effective horror with Halloween approaching, Happy Death Day could be something to celebrate.

Summary: It may be purposely familiar but thanks to solid direction from Christopher B. Landon and a star-making performance from Jessica Rothe, Happy Death Day is refreshing teen-orientated, horror-slasher fun from start to finish.

☆☆
(7/10) 


Cotton candy coloured hues and bold, garish set designs seem to meet us at every turn in Netflix's The Babysitter, a terrific little teen-horror-comedy with a self-satirising bite. 

The Babysitter indulges in genre conventions in the best way possible: by tackling them head-on and  ridiculing common horror tropes, The Babysitter taps into a self-awareness that makes it sharper than most will probably give it credit for. Directed by McG, The Babysitter's cartoonish violence may not work for all, but it is a perfect vehicle for this director's bold vision: executed with gusto, a number of exciting set pieces and kills are paced efficiently across the 85 minute feature-length, illustrating a director with the confidence and energy to provide a continually-exciting thrill ride. The intensity and horror is peppered with sharp humour and subversive wit, simply bursting with fun.

The Babysitter's production department craft an exciting number of sets to be coated with blood, utilising striking colours and designs terrifically. Enhanced by Shane Hurlbut's solid cinematography, ensuring these colours pop and tension is heightened with some remarkable imagery, The Babysitter is a visual treat containing strong work from all the behind-the-scenes talents.

Brian Duffield's script can be disorientating at times, but mainly as a consequence of its giddy, fast-paced energy. It too embraces horror mythology and traditions, sprinkling the narrative with horror familiarity: for example, our characters purposely evoke archetypical figures in the genre and the kills are creative and gaudy. Alongside The Babysitters' all-out gore and consistent blood splashes is a surprising amount of poignancy. The central relationship between Bee and Cole is a wholly believable, layered one; coming-of-age elements run through the veins of this film almost as effectively as blood runs from veins. In a similarly impressive way to the much larger-scale It remake, Cole is a character you can actively root for and recognise.

Performed with gusto by the whole ensemble, Samara Weaving leads the cast with a career-kickstarting performance. Playing everything with wink and nudge, she helms the hell-for-leather horror with confidence and conviction, balancing the charming with the menacing perfectly. She's a very striking, skilled performer and elicits an emotional response in the film's barmy ending. If her performance here is anything to go by, she has a fruitful career ahead of her. Judah Lewis is charming and loveable, with a wide-eyed naivety that anchors the audience to him throughout. The supporting cast, consisting of Hana Mae Lee, Robbie Amell, Bella Thorne and Andrew Bachelor, go to town with audacious, purposely-exaggerated performances perfectly suited to the film's tone.

Maybe The Babysitter is too immature at times. While it's pleasantly surprising that satire is interlaced so prominently throughout, it can occasionally comes across as if its mocking the genre in a vicious way, rather than in a playful one. Some have taken particularly offence to its critical framing of the slasher genre. Furthermore, the difficulty of creating something purposely trashy is that it crosses the line into complete parody: The Babysitter does cross that boundary on a couple of occasions, and it's easy to see why people would dislike the film. As someone who loves and misses Fox's Scream Queens every day though, it's a solid blend for me.

The Babysitter embraces its barminess, allowing audiences to do the same. It avoids taking itself too seriously, lapping up the violence and fun and imparting it on the audience. Because of some impressive performances, solid direction and bold decisions, it's difficult not to have fun with Netflix's latest creation. It's perfectly trashy popcorn entertainment, with a distinctive vision and self-satirising bite; a lesson in embracing genre conventions rather than falling victim to them.

Summary: With an impressive vision and a sharp self-satirising tone, The Babysitter is a bold and garish teen horror-slasher production from Netflix, with career-kickstarting turns from Samara Weaving and Judah Lewis.

☆☆
(7/10) 

Thursday, 26 October 2017

Thor: Ragnarok (2017) (Review)


For most - myself included - the previous two Thor films have registered on the bottom-half of our Marvel Cinematic Universe rankings. The 2011 franchise starter is one of the MCU's lowest-grossing entries to date, while the 2013 sequel - subtitled The Dark World - has the weakest reviews of the bunch. The world is beginning to question whether a half-decent Thor film actually existed, or if the Chris Hemsworth-led sub-franchise should be laid to rest. Is third time the charm for Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston and Co? Or does Ragnarok really signal the end - of Thor as a sturdy viable Marvel property?

When a turn of events allows the Goddess of Death, Hela, to break free from prison, she comes to invade Asgard and signal Ragnarok - the end of everything. Thor, without his hammer and away from home, must assemble a team to take Hela, down before the prophecy comes true and Asgard perishes. Alongside Hemsworth and Hiddleston, Mark Ruffalo returns as Bruce Banner/Hulk, while Cate Blanchett, Jeff Goldblum and Tessa Thompson join the cast of the Phase 3 instalment.

Thor: Ragnarok launches with a slow, spluttered start. "Here we go, I thought. After a shockingly good year for superheroes, Ragnarok would put a damper on it with a disappointing feature-length that signals Thor is beyond saving". Complete with an awkward, forced cameo from Benedict Cumberbatch's Doctor Strange and a laboured, haphazard attempt to balance the various tones and genres bubbling away early on, Ragnarok exhibits signs of repeating past mistakes early on.

Thankfully though, it irons out the creases after some mild panic, paving the way to an altogether stronger, funnier and entertaining Thor sequel. Taika Watiti's first major studio blockbuster release is a comedy disguised as a superhero film in all honesty, and imparts a fresh vision on the MCU. His spectacle is one of terrific colour and exhilarating set pieces, thanks to his sharp execution - and the humour in Eric Pearson's screenplay - benefiting from his bold, often audacious approach to the film. While it is easily identifiable as a Marvel flick, it is unique and bold enough to stand out from the crowd, with Watiti's signature comedic style running through the veins of the film. Watiti's funny work aside, a lot of the film's hilarity comes from Joel Negron and Zene Baker's well-tuned, sharp editing skills. It helps feed some of the visual gags excellently and streamlines the film efficiently: even at 130 minutes, it never seems to overrun or outstay its welcome.

Visually, it is incredibly exciting. From scrapyard wastelands to cosmic space travel, gladiator rings and the reliably grand Agard, the production design is tremendous and Watiti explores them in with energy and enthusiasm. While there is the occasional dodgy piece of CGI, for the most part it remains impressive and daring, popping with colour and enhanced by Javier Aguirresarobe's fine cinematography; one scene in particular - the trailer-friendly gladiator smackdown - is a stand-out, with truly phenomenal scale and beauty. Later, in the streets, the planet of Sakaar comes to life joyfully, with visual marvel at every turn. Watiti proves once again that he is a tremendously reliable director, bringing freshness and excitement to the MCU, seventeen films into their journey.

Pearson's screenplay breathes new life into these characters, three films into their arc. More self-aware now than ever before, Thor's arrogance has been toned down and replaced with a charm after becoming more at-one with life outside Asgard. His character arc is more substantial and his growth as a character in notable now, thanks to Pearson's efforts - he indicates that time has passed and Thor has been rushing around doing good by all. Rather than being the brunt of the jokes (something that had begun to grow tiresome), Pearson provides Thor with his unique brand of sarcasm which moulds him into a far more enjoyable, entertaining and likeable character. Similarly, Pearson develops the Thor-Loki dynamic terrifically, providing new weight to their relationship moving forward.

Ragnarok is perhaps stronger at advancing the characters than the Avengers story and that's totally fine. Some may complain that the film feels inconsequential at times, and they'd be justified in seeing it that way - but for the Thor universe directly, and the characters that populate it, it conveys the high-stakes efficiently. Without entering spoiler territory, Ragnarok's character developments will be felt in the films to come (notably, the forthcoming Infinity War), even if the narrative feels unconnected in the moment. Disney have spent the past four or so films telling more standalone stories and for the characters, it really works. Oh, and Ragnarok is responsible for my new favourite MCU addition - Korg. Korg, I love you.

Because of the strong writing, the cast excel. Hemsworth gives (arguably) his best, certainly funniest performance in the role date, facilitated by this change and development in Thor that transitions him from an irritant to a charmer. Homing in on his fantastic comedic muscles - as seen in Ghostbusters (2016) - he supplies one of the year's strongest comedy turns, nailing the timing, delivery and tone with confidence and conviction. Hiddleston is dependable as Loki, with his unwavering loyalties between right and wrong; while Mark Ruffalo is fantastic as Banner/Hulk, discovering a formidable chemistry and dynamic with Hemsworth's Thor, a combination we have (surprisingly) seen little of and now want to see more of.

Some new arrivals grace our screen in Ragnarok, and for the first, a popular Internet slaying will be utilised: Cate Blanchett slays. YAS QUEEN. She is absolutely mighty as Hela, delivering everything with a snarling bite and acidic tone. She crafts a menacing character hellbent on destruction, with her intentions deeply-rooted in her character's backstory, ticking two boxes at once: while I wouldn't go as far as to suggest they have completely overcome the MCU's most common 'lacklustre villain' problems, she does a pretty stellar job at conquering that pitfall. Tessa Thompson is a joy as Valkyrie, bas-ass and utterly convincing in the role; she is a new team member we should definitely want to see more of in the future. Jeff Goldblum does a stellar job as the Grandmaster, perfectly nailing the eccentricity and disillusionment that comes with the character. It's a joy to see Rachel House (after her rib-shattering hilarity in Hunt For The Wilderpeople) - I just wish her role was a little more substantial. The cast really are the film's calling card, going hell-for-leather with this wacky story that would likely crumble without their commitment.

Ragnarok's use of music - something the MCU is making more integral with each passing film, likely due to the success of the Guardians franchise - is well-constructed and thought-out. Led Zeppelin's Immigrant Song make two riotous appearances to book-end the film, while Mark Mothersbaugh's score conjures an appropriate 70s tone. It solidifies the overall vision of the piece, selling the cool, breezy, enjoyable sequel bonanza with ease.

Just as the world was beginning to question whether a half-decent Thor actually film existed, Ragnarok pulls up to prove the naysayers wrong. It starts on very uneven footing, threatening to derail film entirely - but by the time it hits its stride half an hour or so in, it transforms into yet another entertaining Marvel picture. Perfect popcorn cinema. It's genuinely hilarious, with a director at the top of his game, a committed, naturally funny cast and sharp screenplay elevating Ragnarok considerably, particularly when it is compared to the mediocre-at-best entries we have seen before it from the Thor trilogy. Despite initial fears and a bad track record, Thor: Ragnarok is an absolute blast, a riotous smash worth seeing.

✬☆
(7.5/10) 

Summary: Thor: Ragnarok keeps the momentum going for the MCU and the wider superhero genre, crafting a colourful, entertaining and pretty hilarious feature-length that assembles a fine team of talent with the confidence and vision to deliver easily the strongest Thor film to date.

Wednesday, 25 October 2017

The Florida Project (2017) (Review)


The Florida Project is about life. It doesn't complicate itself with unnecessary plot deviations and avoids throwing itself through hoops to beef up the structure - it is simply about being. Told through the eyes of a child living in poverty - growing up in the shadows of, but so far away from, the Happiest Place on Earth - the film explores her relationship with her single-mother and the world around with a bittersweet intimacy. The Florida Project may very well be one to watch this forthcoming award season - and the terrific little gem deserves to shine.

Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) causes mischief around The Magic Castle, the extended-stay motel she resides at with Halley (Bria Vinaite), her mother, and other low-income families in America. Despite growing up in the shadows of Disneyland, her life is a distance away from the euphoria and privilege typically associated with it. Clear victims of the 2008 recession and housing crisis that followed, The Florida Project explores housing insecurity, negligence and poverty of America's lower-class citizens in in Sean Baker's latest feature-length.

Films like The Florida Project are in danger of exploiting the characters and situation they centre around. It is required to walk a very fine line and the success rate is very hit and miss, reliant on whether the film is helmed by a director with the skill to balance it appropriately. Thankfully, Sean Baker is a perfect fit and excels by imparting his vision in an authentic and truthful way. Baker's screenplay, co-written with Chris Bergoch, is not pressured by conventionality allowing us to explore these characters more freely; it feels like we may be living next door to them, presented with so much realism. All the characters populating the motel are all individuals, as well as representatives of the bigger issue spread across America and the world.

We were all Moonee once and The Florida Project captures that playfulness and youthful energy perfect. It illustrates the joy of childhood in a truly touching, moving and note-perfect way, resisting the need to tie itself to forced narrative development. In response to that, Baker's direction is incredibly taut and absorbing for the most part. Tightly focused on Moonee to elicit heavy emotion, or playfully swirling around her during adventures with her friends to show her care-free, spirited attitude, the film's various, clever techniques are evident without ever becoming pretentious. It feels intimate and personal to this one motel and all its occupants, encapsulating life around the motel in a thoroughly detailed and profound way. Restrained in scale but wide in scope, Baker's direction elevates The Florida Project to impressive, gorgeous heights.

All of this is stunningly enriched by some of the finest cinematography the year - nay, decade - has seen (watch out Dunkirk, Blade Runner 2049, we’ve a new contender in town). Alexis Zabe's perfectly-caught cotton candy skies and the colourful houses, eye-popping street art and glorious Florida sunshine make for a visually-captivating, expertly-coloured film that is empowered to thrive and dazzle at his masterful hands. It never becomes ostentatious or artificial, and avoids overwhelming the audience and distracting them from the characters. Complete with a timeless sheen, The Florida Project is a dead-cert for a Best Cinematography nomination come award season.

More so than most though, The Florida Project relies on it cast to pull it through. Without a concrete story and prominent set pieces, you need to be reeled in by the characters and the actors that bring them to life. In Brooklynn Prince, they have found a star. Talented beyond her years and more skilled than her limited experience would imply, she carries the weight of the film on her shoulders; while many would shudder at the thought of an inexperienced pre-teen anchoring their film, Prince shows it can be done, passing the test with dazzling, flying colours. She is able to portray a wide range of emotions, energetic and enthusiastic and with an unshakeable likability. Very easily, Moonee could become a bratty child you actively root against - but Prince has the talent to charm and delight. If this is any indication, she has a tremendous career ahead of her.

Bria Vinaite is a new find and is equally as impressive. While we run into a few issues with the character's journey (more on that later), Vinaite depicts a bad mother struggling against a world seemingly against her in a sophisticated way. She is an unpredictable, volatile and (at times) detestable person - but Vinaite possesses a conviction and confidence and you genuinely believe she cares about her child. She does wrong, but most of the times, means right, as ill-advised as she is. Like Prince, Vinaite is in for a solid career on the back of this and I can't wait to see her shine. The two sell their relationship fantastically well, crafting a believable dynamic.

Williem Defoe is the more established cast member, and the circling discussion of a Best Supporting Actor nod is entirely justified. With an arguably more subtle turn as Bobby, the motel manager, Defoe conveys a substantial amount of the film's underlying subtext: when he scares off a paedophile, he emits the impression that this is simply part of life at the motel, defending the children that often terrorise him, with a genuine concern for their welfare. Defoe carries an air of compassion, becoming the father figure - especially for Moonee - than many of the single-parent children experience. It's not the loudest or boldest performance and the fear is it will pass many people by, but Defoe deserves recognition for his accomplished portrayal as Bobby.

Where The Florida Project squanders some of its potential though is during the final sequence. While the message and idea of the kids running off to Disneyland is powerful and effective in theory, the execution feels odd. We witness a distinct change in directorial style and visual, tone and pace, provoking a jarring, disorientating shift that occurs at an inappropriate time - by the time you have acclimatised to the switch, the credits are rolling. It takes you out of the moment a little, ending the piece on a slightly soured note.

The most crucial stumbling block occurs through the character of Halley. During the final third, the script turns her into somewhat of a monster: after failing to chastise her child and frequently neglecting her, she physically steals and attacks innocent people. It becomes a sign of the scriptwriter's temptation to heightens the stakes but they push it too far to be redeemed during the finale. It doesn't want to villainies her - wanting to depict her as a loose-cannon, lost in the system - but her actions make it too difficult not to experience some resentment towards her by the end. It is no reflection of Vinaite's skilled performance, existing in the script's final third and attempt at dramatising the finale.

Supposedly, when The Florida Project made its UK debut as part of Odeon's Screen Unseen, there were a number of walkouts. Some may find the 'no story, just life' tale directionless and aimless - but for those appreciating unconventionality, The Florida Project is a film of real beauty, grit and realism. Poverty in the shadows of Disney, a symbol of euphoria and privilege, Baker's feature-length uncovers some timely, appropriate themes with a raw depiction of lower-class America. It is bold, striking and - at times - magical, illustrating freedom and deprivation in an enlightening, insightful way. The Florida Projects does the almost-impossible - it transports you back in time, to your own childhood, with the free-spirited joy of a seven year-old exploring the world with wide-eyed awe.

★☆
(8/10) 

Summary: Sean Baker's The Florida Project is a bold, magical and visually astounding 'no story, just life' feature-length that exposes some harsh American truths, while facilitating the birth of two stars, the continued success of another and furthering a promising director's career.

Saturday, 21 October 2017

Geostorm (2017) (Review)


Geostorm could have been a lot of fun. Its first teaser-trailer was rather effective, exhibiting some immense barminess that allows these end-of-the-world disaster films to operate most efficiently. As a slice of fun, dumb entertainment, Geostorm could have cooked up a storm. Now, excuse my French, but the only type of storm Geostorm is, is a sh*t storm of the dullest, most eye-gouging proportion.

Dean Devlin's feature-length directorial debut sees Mr Gerald Butler's Jake Lawson attempt to save the world from a potentially earth-destroying storm, caused by malfunctioning climate-controlling satellites. Jim Sturgess, Abbie Cornish, Ed Harris, Alexandra Maria Lara, Andy Garcia and Robert Sheehan star alongside Butler in this mind-numbing, abysmal and pain dreadful excuse of a film, in which everyone involved should be ashamed of. Long-delayed and continually-shelved, it is easy to see why Warner Bros rejected the film to the very pits of their schedule for so long.

Easily one of the year's absolute worst, Geostorm fails in every single area. Honestly, Warner Bros earned this stain against their name the minute the fatal decision to cast a new, barely-qualified director reigns to a $120 million production was made. Without the experience, guidance or skills to execute a film even approaching adequacy, Dean Devlin (who also produces and writes the piece) crumbles under the pressure of taking on such an overwhelming undertaking. His direction is directionless, with bizarre framing decisions and uncomfortable angles utilised to help cover up the fact the post-production team have attempted to salvage the piece with dubbing (presumably with a better script at hand, as hard as that is to believe).

It attempts to emulate many-a-successful disaster films through a paint-by-numbers formula, but fails in spite of the incredibly predictable structure utilised for guidance. Considering this has all been done, in not particularly impressive films, Devlin worsens these tricks further, culminating in an embarrassing feature-length that should be scrubbed from memory. Can Butler's Lawson work on that next please?

Visually, it's an empty spectacle magnified to eye-gouging scale by some atrocious special effects. At times it can be passable - but all those moments can be glimpsed in that first teaser trailer, and the remainder is downright atrocious. At one moment, a giant tidal wave approaches Saudi Arabia (maybe? I'm not definite on that, my eyes were busy bleeding) and it honest-to-goodness looks like an effect lifted straight from Windows Movie Maker, rather than something one of Hollywood's major studios, handling a nine-digit budget, have actively paid for. Substandard at very, very best, at least the film is consistent in being a mess on all fronts. 

From the very second the exposition-heavy, poorly-written voiceover opens Geostorm, the metaphorical writing was on the wall and Devlin's actual writing was on the floor, belonging in the nearest rubbish bin available. If the extraordinarily awful reviews weren't already an indicator and - like me - you wanted to make your own decision, those opening 30 seconds confirm that you are in for pretty torrid time with this one; heartbreakingly, it gets no better either. One sequence, possibly the very worst of the year, sees a computer-wiz cut down a lengthy speech to the precise words required to string together a wordy warning about sabotage and danger, at the touch of a button. Not only is the convoluted plan vapid plot advancements in the history of plot advancements, but it insults the audience terribly. Being subjected to this level of undermining paying consumers made me not want to go the cinema again. Genuinely.

Laughable dialogue and writing induces eye-rolls at every turn, failing even the very basics in storytelling. Whether its the flat characters, cringeworthy encounters, the nonchalant indulgence in genre conventions or predictable narrative tropes, Devlin's script (co-written with Paul Guyot) is a melting pot on how to destroy a once interesting idea. I genuinely struggle to comprehend that this was the final product and not an incredibly awful first or second draft. Absolutely no care to provoke meaningful relationships, a substantial story or layered characters can be evidenced here; it is as if they surrendered to the idea that this was conceptualised for no other reason than to hopefully create a new Gerald Butler-led franchise on the back of his 'Has Fallen' success.

However, the biggest catastrophe here (of, as you can tell by now, many) is the disastrous pacing and pervading dullness. Watching this film again is less preferably than watching paint dry, or grass grow, and undoubtedly a cheaper, less frustrating experience. Crushingly dull, utterly soulless and unintentionally laughable, it drags its heels from start to finish. A telltale sign of a writer out of his depth, struggling to string together a remotely coherent piece, it tires to paint-by-numbers and borrow from elsewhere, but fails even that. I have never walked out of a film, but I can dangerously close here (and, on reflection, I wish I had). Bored out of my skull and holding out for that moment I stepped back into the torrential rain, downpour and winds of Dudley, Birmingham, few films have every pushed me to this level of apathy. It's a total slog that should be used as an anaesthetic in local hospitals.

Lacking any definition or clarity in plot and lacking insightfulness towards its subject matter (climate change), Geostorm operates only as another exhibition for Butler's action star 'skills' - and it's embarrassing even by his standards. He surely has another mindless action picture in the pipeline and it won't dent his career too much but some effort would have been appreciated. When he's not looking smug or racing around a preposterous space station, he's... well, I'm not sure what he's doing to be honest. How he was ever the one qualified to oversee this 'Dutchboy' experiment escapes me, likely because the script was cutting corners and dodging the need to explain anything that happens.

Unconvinced of Jim Sturgess' leading man credentials anyway, this is not the type of film he should be leading if push came to shove. He looks lifeless at times, although his relationship with Jake's daughter, played by Tabitha Bateman, is more convincing than the one with her on-screen father; Bateman is pretty poor herself with some contrived emotion; while Abbie Cornish provides a laboured performance as the kick-ass female the film fights to make her out to be.

Zazie Beetz is promising but her attempt at comedy feels forced and unnatural; Robert Sheehan, an actor of fine talent, performs with a horrendous, unrecognisable accent; Andy Garcia is force-fed some woeful one-liners that could be lifted from anyone 'save the President from this uncontrollable threat' movie; and Ed Harris performs with the least amount of subtlety you've seen in your life. These poor performances should probably be attributed more to the script that pushes all these actors into an inescapable corner - but they took on the project, so they take on the brunt of these issues. 

Geostorm is a car crash of a film. An unmitigated disaster of the dullest. You owe it to yourself, your friends and your family to warn them about the soul-destroying Geostorm. It is your moral duty to prevent those you know and love from subjecting themselves to this abysmal excuse of a film. It could have been a so-bad-its-good flick, frothy and disposable, but instead it commits every film-making sin in the book and crushes your film-loving soul in the process.

Oh, and it ends on a narration as god-awful as the opening narration.

☆☆
(1/10) 

Summary: It is your moral duty as an upstanding citizen of this fine world to prevent those you know and love from subjecting themselves to the abysmal, mind-numbing and soul-destroying Geostorm. Worst film of the year? Very probably.

Friday, 20 October 2017

The Party (2017) (Review)


I knew nothing about The Party. As a matter of fact, it was a last minute addition to my film schedule for the day, if only to pad out the afternoon somewhat. I had not even seen a trailer or poster, only a single still of Timothy Spall when checking the cinema's listings. There's a lot to be said about approaching something as blindly as possible, particularly in the typically marketing-saturated cinematic environment we live in; The Party is a film that truly benefits from that conceit, crafting an endlessly-joyful, consistently-sharp surprise.

The Party concerns itself with a dinner party between friends, hosted by Janet, the new shadow minister of health for the opposition party, which descends into an ensuing comedy of tragic proportions (as the poster so elegantly puts) with each successive revelation and tribulation. The Sally Potter-directed picture stars Emily Mortimer, Cillian Murphy, Kristin Scott Thomas, Cherry Jones, Timothy Spall, Patricia Clarkson and Bruno Ganza as the eclectic bunch attending a party they will all wish they didn't bother RSVP-ing for.

The Party is a less of a film than it is a brilliant, hypnotic farce. The 71 minute feature-length, shot entirely in black-and-white and contained within one setting, sprawling out over just a few rooms, is totally unique in the cinematic landscape. It takes a singular idea and stretches it into a weighty, meaningful piece (unlike The Death of Stalin, for example), feeling urgent and lively at each unpredictable turn. Potter's sharp, satirical screenplay is chock-full with smart, believable dialogue and the characters that populate it are more than your typical genre staples. Installing a biting sense of urgency allows the film to fly-by in a flash, becoming one of the rare instances this year where you find yourself willing a film to be longer than it actually is. With an enthusiasm and restraint, Potter's screenplay sets the wheels in motion for a black-comedy that a terrific ensemble embrace and go to work on.

Every cast member here is on top form. Impeccably played by all involved, the group dynamics are a constant source of excitement: be it the venomous verbal sparring or an unspoken hostility and subterfuge, there is rarely a dull moment with this effervescent group to keep us entertained. No weak chain to speak of, there are a handful that rise above the rest; Mortimer's steely composure begins to crack as her life comes crumbling down around her, responsible for a good portion of the film's emotion; and Murphy is a triumph as the cocaine-taking, unhinged accountant from the city, losing the plot bit-by-bit. But is is Patricia Clarkson, with masterful aplomb, who shines the brightest as the straight-talking, pot-stirring April. Every acid-tounged line spit at the friends she turns on - in its conception and delivery - is met with hearty belly-laughs from the eager audience, lapping up her retorts and retaliations with gay abandon. She is truly outstanding and I want her to be a guest at every dinner party I attend. When the others can wrestle the limelight away from Clarkson, they excel, with all performers receiving a moment at the centre they revel in.

Both timeless and modern, The Party is so effective because it is always on the money. Amongst the middle-class nightmares, a Brexit-related air hangs over the piece - which would otherwise be a totally depressing thing considering it is all we hear on our news channels at the moment - but it only helps in energising the razor-sharp satire that pervades throughout. Drenched in black and white, Potter's stylistic decisions help enforce a theatrical quality that appears quintessentially British, heightening our enjoyment in The Party. While intrigued to discover how this plays outside the Brexit-land, it is completely effective in tapping in to the time we live in. Contained in one house, without frills and purposely low-scale, these exact scenes could be happening in the house three doors down from you, a large part in the film's charm. There's no need for massive set pieces because the storyline, cast and visuals do more than enough to engage audiences.

Even amid the love and politics musings, the added, hidden poignancy of its messages and the sorry state-of-the-nation captured, there exists a complete hilarity in the whole situation. From inappropriate records scoring key moments to the continuous chiming of a mobile phone (reminding you that life continues outside these four walls), humour is always at the forefront and rarely lost in the farce. An onslaught of witty one-liners - usually from Clarkson's April, I might add - will be the most remembered element of The Party but it's worth nothing that Potter exercises the restriction and control to balance the piece effectively, understanding when enough is enough. While mentioning earlier that the credits seemed to come round too quickly, Potter avoids the age-old saying, 'too much of a good thing...'. Maybe the riotousness would be lost if it became looser with its timing and for that we should appreciate a director keeping on top of their project.

Perhaps one flaw of The Party is that it ends stronger than it begins. The first quarter takes a little too long starting its engine, spluttering out of the starting gate without the grace it ends on. On a couple of occasions it appears to lose sight of some of its characters, thrust back into the foreground when the plot needs a shake-up: that's not a particularly bad thing, just frustrating to witness. I do wish it had a few more minutes to flesh out some ideas as well and it probably won't hurt too much taking it closer to 90 minutes than 60 minutes.

Despite initial trouble to get itself off the ground running, The Party becomes a truly funny satire on love and politics, a calamitous farce that becomes increasingly humorous; far-fetched but still grounded in middle-class reality. A riotous affair, helmed excellently by Sally Potter, provides us with one of the most impressive ensemble performances of the year - although Patricia Clarkson steals the show with her pitch-perfect acidic bite. Clocking in at just 71 minutes, The Party packs in more laughs, satire and poignancy than most would wish, turning its tragicomedy into a roaring success.

★☆
(8/10) 

Summary: From the riotous to the poignant, Sally Potter's The Party taps into the state-of-the-nation with a smart, sharp comedy populated with hilarious characters and brought to life by a truly fantastic cast. Patricia Clarkson should be at all dinner parties.