Monday, 29 May 2017

Alien: Covenant (2017) (Review)

I admire and respect Alien more than I like Alien, the ground-breaking sci-fi from 1979. Innovative to its core and still held as the standard for the genre today, the Ridley Scott-directed picture kick-started his career and is considered the driving force for the sustained interest and genre productions. People throw the word 'iconic' around far too much nowadays but it can absolutely be implied for Alien (and Aliens, its sequel). My general indifference towards science-fiction aside (unless you are Arrival) means that I didn't enjoy it as much as most - but even I cannot deny that it is a well-made, pioneering exercise in the possibilities of sci-fi and can understand why it has cemented itself as one of the most enduring films of the twentieth century. Covenant, the second instalment in the prequel trilogy that began in 2012 with Prometheus, has now been unleashed upon the world like a pod of alien spores - but how does the film stand up for a casual cinemagoer with little investment in the series?

Ten years after the events of Prometheus, the colonisation ship Covenant is heading for a remote planet with colonists and embryos onboard, ready to start a new life. Walter (Michael Fassbender), an upgraded synthetic, is monitoring the ship when a sudden neutrino burst damages the ship, killing the captain and awakening the others. When a transmission signal is detected to a crashed Engineer ship the team decide to investigate the planet and determine whether or not it could be used as a planet to call home. When a deadly alien spore is triggered, the team must quickly launch a rescue mission to prevent further death and devastation to their fleeting numbers. Fassbender returns to the series, as both Walter and David, with Scott taking the directorial reigns once again. The likes of Katherine Waterston, Billy Crudup and Danny McBridge join the cast of the franchises' sixth instalment which acts as the second Alien story chronologically.

Alien: Covenant is a difficult film to assess: you can try to look at it in isolation, away from the impact of the rest of the series, but the intricate web the series has spun is so carefully constructed that each film is viewed as a direct action-reaction-consequence to the others. It represents a blatant attempt to flesh out the franchises' mythology, intended to embroider the series' already complex narrative with further depth and scope, filling in the gaps and supplying answers to the burning questions. The problem with that is you have to be completely invested in the series to care and so passers-by (like myself) are likely to struggle mustering an interest for anything that unfolds - that, matched with a surprisingly minor amount of emotional stakes involved, makes this a for-the-fans picture that alienates general audience by ensnaring itself in its own trappings. Furthermore, the original Alien has been heralded for its effectiveness through its own decision to enshroud itself in a mystery and ambiguity that is very smartly infused into the main point; providing answers to those questions only seeks to undo its effectiveness. Sometimes less is more and by providing more Alien: Covenant is less successful.

On the performance side, it is only really Michael Fassbender that is served anything meaty enough to get his teeth into. Playing two synthetics, David and his upgrade Walter, Fassbender is reliably great, delivering a sharply nuanced performance that highlights both synthetics' similarities and differences, helping to feed into some marvellous plot developments later down the line. The flute scene is easily the standout moment of the entire film, mainly down to Fassbender's disconcerting and mesmerising performance, providing a moment that deserves to enter the franchises' highest realm. Nobody else really gets a chance, with the script failing to flesh out individuals well enough to deliver any satisfying character work; an opening moment that should be filled with devastation attempts to instil an emotional weight for the film to run on, but it only lasts so long and is largely forgotten until a last minute line-drop towards the end of the film. The talented Katherine Waterston thanklessly drags herself through Covenant with a solid performance, all things considered, and will hopefully use it as a platform to move on to bigger and better things, particularly after her terrific performance in last year's Fantastic Beasts & Where To Find Them. No one else really stands out, which is a shame considering the talent involved.

The one thing that convinced me to give Covenant a watch, despite my lacking interest in the series in general, was the beautiful marketing - the trailers were effective, the posters and artwork were outstanding and, helmed by Scott, it would likely impressive at the very least visually. It does, but it doesn't utilise its resources all that efficiently; the scenes are occasionally poorly lit and as beautiful as the production design is, they are not given the opportunity to impress as frequently as you would like. Act one captures most of the beauty, with the sequences of the planet's exploration finding both some excellent cinematography and genuine excitement, wrapped together with Scott's atmospheric direction and careful build-up; from then onwards, it doesn't collapse as such, just fades from notability, overpowered by the frustrating supporting characters and duller palettes and saturations. Scott is always attempting to heighten the intensity and draw audiences in but those on the outskirts will struggle with it, particularly when the CGI leaves a lot to be desired. While they are terrifically and undeniably well designed and conceptualised, the movements of the aliens do not always feel properly rendered or natural, causing stilted movements and a general underwhelming aftertaste.

Essentially, Covenant would work far better by dropping the 'Alien', acting as a standalone picture and focusing on the existential questions it attempts to place centre - rather than its often convoluted mythology. Striving for profound theme work, messages and concepts is all well and good but when the execution is disturbed by a need to self-reference and to fill in the gaps of films gone by, it removes both the mystery that allowed those films to excel and the interest of more casual cinemagoers. Surprisingly, Alien: Covenant alienates casual attendees, seeking to skirt by on the back of previous films; it feels almost wholly for-the-fans, offering little beyond an interesting premise, great marketing and a fantastic dual performance from Michael Fassbender to appreciate. Yes it can be beautiful and yes it can be thrilling (again, the flute scene is superb) but it all strikes you as forgettable and overly convoluted, undoing a lot of the mythology that made the first two films in the franchise so iconic and interesting by attempting to fill in the pieces. You might be entertained and you may be able to appreciate Covenant but unless you are already invested, it feels like a hollow that fails to convince you otherwise. In their marketing, Alien: Covenant declares that the path to paradise begins in hell; I've experienced neither in this franchise so far - and that upsets me.


Summary: Alien: Covenant is somewhat alienating for casual cinemagoers, producing a for-the-fans affair that attempts to get by on the back of what preceded it, which not only undoes some of the brilliance of Alien and Aliens, but creates an empty spectacle in the here and now too. 

Friday, 26 May 2017

Snatched (2017) (Review)

Amy Schumer's brand of comedy is as divisive as the comedian herself. While emerging as one of the most prominent female comedians from the US, she's gathered her fair share of detractors more recently, taking issue with her 'problematic' comedy content and views. Nevertheless, Snatched will hope to match and/or exceed the success of 2015's Trainwreck, a considerable hit for the star particularly at the domestic box office. Teaming up with Goldie Hawn (in her first film appearance since 2002), the mother-daughter comedy is unique enough in the marketplace - female-starring R-rated comedy, as well as Schumer's supporters - to attract its core demographic; but should the rest of us bother to snatch up some tickets?

Emily Middleton (Schumer) is determined to make the most out of a bad situation and invites her cautious mother, Linda (Hawn), to join her on a trip to Ecuador after being dumped by her boyfriend. What they share in familial DNA, they lack in a married personality, meaning the worlds-apart duo will have to quickly learn how to work together when they are kidnapped and held for ransom. In the ensuing chaos, the pair will hope to reconnect after a somewhat strained relationship - and hope to make it out alive to tell the tale.

What you take from Snatched depends almost entirely on what you think of Miss Schumer. She has never really impressed me but I don't have anything overtly against her; beside a couple of eye rolls every now and then, I haven't followed her enough to notice (or take great offence) at anything she says. Snatched follows my general viewpoint on the comedian - it's fine but it's nothing special, a decent way to pass 90 minutes but not one that can be heartily recommended. It will change no hearts or mind and many may struggle to stomach the occasionally self-indulgent antics, geared to conform to Schumer's stick as closely as possible. Relatively speaking, she and Hawn carry the piece nicely and at a mercifully slim 90 minutes, it never has time to grow stale but you sense it definitely could. It is spritely enough to zip through the various set pieces at speed and with enthusiasm, strung together by a just-about there story. Schumer and Hawn put in the effort to make the jokes work, effectively complimenting but then battling the script's inconsistencies at an infrequent pace. It's often a chuckle but nothing delivers a true belly-laugh.

Katie Dippold's script undermines Snatched by plumping for a more conventional, more formulaic route: what could have championed a more unique message and stronger display of theme work fails to register beyond the standard and basics. It goes through the motions, ticking off jokes and narrative beats like a checklist and never striving to be or do more than what is simply required of a comedy. With a combination of the rare R-rating and female lead, something far more interesting could have been presented to us - but instead we get a somewhat messy but generally passable film that could have easily swapped the mother-daughter relationship out for a father-son relationship, only swapping the vagina jokes for penis jokes. It feels disappointingly misguided, conforming to a well-worn structure without ever considering how to push the film for something a little more ambitious. This is all summarised with Wanda Sykes and Joan Cusack's Ruth and Barb, who attempt to offer the film something fun and cooky to work with - but Dippold's scattershot script fails to develop them into something other than supporting characters required for the plot to transition between acts or help one of the leads at convenient times. Dropping in and out on a whim and a coincidence, they become frustrating and reflect, ultimately, the film's downfall - a lack of creativity.

With a sweet poignancy managing to break through at the end of the day, that can be mainly attributed to Schumer and Hawn's chemistry; the two actresses radiate a respect for one another, affording each their own moment - even if this remains The Amy Schumer Show for the majority of its run. Johnathan Levine emphasises that notion, placing her front and centre, although his direction is tight enough to streamline and move the story along effectively, with the set pieces coming in thick and fast and never spending too long dwelling on prolonged sequences. He understands that runtime can make or break a film and, to our relief, realises that there is simply not enough substance to the narrative to drag it out over the 90 minute mark kicking or screaming. It's smart and efficient film-making like this that can really impact the final product and the discipline employed by Levine concerning the runtime is one of the smartest thing about Snatched.

Snatched is recycled plot points and scattershot jokes that adhere rather strictly to an all-too familiar formula that could have been a lot better when considering the components involved. The combination of Schumer and Hawn is decent enough though, wringing the most out of a few scattered chuckles that just about salvages the otherwise predictable narrative from feeling totally redundant. It never make its own mark on the genre and it appears tightly geared to Schumer's comedic persona, meaning that your enthusiasm towards the mother-daughter comedy will depend on your likability and warmth towards the controversial star. No minds or heart will be changing based on this engineered comedy but those partial to a comedy and with 90 minutes to spare on a rainy afternoon may want to snatch up a ticket to this pass the time and have a giggle or two.


Summary: Ultimately, you will take out of Snatched what you put into it; if you head in with a clear dislike for Amy Schumer, this won't change your mind; but those more fond of the star will encounter a decent but forgettable comedy that ropes in a decent Goldie Hawn in for the ride.

Monday, 22 May 2017

Miss Sloane (2017) (Review)

Miss Sloane. Ah. A release on my radar for a few months now but delayed in the UK because, while it was generally considered decent, it threatened to be cannibalised by the more buzzy, more successful award season releases at the beginning of the year - a fate that befell the political thriller in the US. Now, roughly six months after its stateside debut, it makes its way (in a limited capacity) into UK theatres for Jessica Chastain to compel audiences all over again. Is the Golden Globe-nominated film any good and, more importantly, was it worth the wait?

Elizabeth Sloane (Chastain) is a cutthroat lobbyist approached by Bob Sanford (Chuck Shamata) to lead the opposition of the proposed Heaton-Harris bill that would expand background checks on gun purchases in order to prevent their outright ban. When she laughs them, and their idea to target the message specifically to women, out of the room, she is then approached by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong) to lead the effort to support the bill. Ultimately agreeing and taking most of her staff with her, she begins to mount the case, with the support of her team and Esme Manucharian (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), attempting to build support and win crucial votes for the divisive bill. The film not only examines both the personal and wider politics of lobbying but also considers the motivations and human effects of gun control, demonstrating a system operated through moves and countermoves, a notion that Chastain (and the screenwriter) proposes to us in the brilliantly effective cold open. As soon as she opens her mouth at the beginning of the film and says the following, I knew the film had me well and truly in its grasp; "lobbying is about foresight, about anticipating your opponent's moves, and devising counter measures. The winner plots one step ahead of the opposition and plays her trump card just after they play theirs. It's about make sure you surprise them - and they don't surprise you".

Saying Jessica Chastain is a brilliant actress is like saying water is wet or the Pope is Catholic - it is a widely-accepted fact that no one can dispute, with just a glance into her impressive filmography acting as concrete proof. Here though, she delivers her best performance in quite some time; it is truly shocking that this is the same woman who played the ditsy and guileless Celia Rae Foote in The Help. She is absolutely transformative and utterly captivating, playing the titular Sloane with an unwavering determination and grit. She is a firecracker, as ever, detailing her transformation with an icy resolve and skilful precision that ensnares you in her grasp immediately. Gugu Mbatha-Raw gives a startling performance as Esme, a confident, emotionally-driven character in the relatively emotionless world of lobbying. On mid-point development, performed so excellently by a commanding Mbatha-Raw and a well-capitulated Chastain, is emotionally enriching and pushes the narrative forward to another twist that reminds audiences of the discordant nature of their work, remembering to place the human effects at the centre. They work as an excellent team with an intriguing dynamic that absolutely calls for a spin-off. Director John Madden is a really capable talent, crafting a piece that avoids feeling flamboyant or indulgent, firmly allowing Miss Sloane to lead the way. His direction, much like Sloane herself, is sophisticated and sleek, calculated and often cold, establishing an atmosphere that remains intense and alluring throughout.

Miss Sloane The Character is fleshed out well by screenwriter Jonathan Perera, crafting scenes that showcase both her talent and poise in her day-to-day role, as well as some more farcade-shattering moments taking place behind closed doors. He peppers these instances in every now and then to develop and humanise the seemingly unbreakable figure, a notion that only makes us root for her further. While very little time is afforded to secondary characters, largely painting them with broad strokes and stereotypes, it allows Sloane to grow and evolve over the course of the brisk 132 minute runtime. In fact, by the time the credits were rolling, I wanted to continue following this character - understanding her backstory and seeing where she goes next. It takes skill to install that desire in an audience, particularly after over two hours in their company - but Perera, and Chastain of course, are up to the task and exceed in winning audiences round. Structurally, the film benefits from the in medias res technique utilised and it actually works to the film's advantage - usually, it is my pet hate in cinema (as you can see here, here and here) but it pays off as well as it did in last year's Sully, two rare examples of the technique not completely failing a film. The script is taut and tense and riddled with some expertly crafted dialogue that captures the natural prowess of Miss Sloane, impressing continually.

Moving on to the narrative, and while it can be incredibly predictable at times, it nevertheless thrills.
A central twist revealed at the end of the film, ironically, appears both clearly signposted and emerging completely out of the blue, borrowing a well-worn convention from the thriller genre but failing to do the leg work in building up to the moment by its own accord; that said, when the big moment arrives, it is executed in such a pleasing way that it left me with a grin plastered across my face and in awe of Sloane and her wile. It is a really difficult and contradictory thing to explain - as disappointed as I was with the build-up, willing the film to delve further into the character of Jane (a fantastic Alison Pill) and her relationship with Elizabeth, the powerful sequence creates an irrestiable charge that feeds into the core of the piece - but the effect could be heightened further if the film did a little more legwork in the lead up to the moment. While still one of my favourite moments of the year, with a little more narrative weight placed into the reveal, it could have been even stronger than it is in its current form.

Miss Sloane is a mainly satisfying watch and despite a handful of flaws (mainly in the way of narrative predictability, as well as underdeveloped supporting characters), is undeniably thrilling, powerful and potent example of film-making. It will not be for everyone with the political aspect likely to put people off (and likely, but certainly unjustly, explains its Academy snub earlier this year) - but for those looking for a robust, sharp and sophisticated female-led thriller, Miss Sloane is the place to start. In less skilful hands, this could be a disaster, but Chastain is one of this generation's brightest and most talented stars, and so you are compelled to watch the mesmerising life of Miss Sloane unfold on screen, with a desperation to see more of this scathing character and the empire she - and the film-makers - have built in such an accomplished, masterful way.


Summary: Miss Sloane, masterful and enthralling - both the character and film, that is - overcomes its minor flaws to deliver a sharp, thrilling piece of cinema that cements Jessica Chastain's position as one of the time's greatest, most consistent actresses.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Colossal (2017) (Review)

How much sense does a film have to make for it to be enjoyed? That is a question that plagued me not only during the runtime of Colossal, but even now, hours later, attempting to accumulate my thoughts on the Canadian-Spanish production. Directed by Nacho Vigalondo and starring Anna Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis and Dan Stevens, the picture - an amalgamation of genres and tones - has stumped me, so do bear with me as I attempt to translate my ramblings into something a little more substantial.

Struggling with unemployment and alcoholism, Gloria (Hathaway) is kicked out of the New York City apartment she shares with boyfriend Tim (Stevens) and returns to her Middle American hometown. Reuniting with childhood friend Oscar (Sudeikis) and although a functioning alcoholic, she accepts a part-time to work in Oscar's bar and frequently joins in on late-night drinking. Meanwhile, the destruction of South Korean city Seoul by a monstrous kaiju happens to coincide with Gloria's drunken stumbling back home, through a playground holding more power than meets the eye. Alongside Hathaway (firmly the lead), Sudeikis and Stevens, Austin Stowell and Tim Blake Nelson star in the film that works better in concept than execution.

Originality runs through the veins of Colossal, rendering a unique vision and narrative that can be appreciated for its often unconventional and boundary-challenging take on the monster genre. It is admirable that the film is willing to tackle so many genres and tones head-on but the film falls flat on occasions, symptomised by the film's disorientating tendency to shift genre and tone so frequently. It aims to be and do so much - science-fiction, black comedy, action-thriller and horror elements are attempted - hindered further by a misguided effort to marry the best of both worlds; the wide-appeal of a mainstream hit and the unique characteristics of a smaller-scale indie. With so much bubbling in the cinematic pot, it all ends up diluted with nothing standing out, on a narrative front, to praise; that's not to say any of the elements are bad per se, just inadequately realised and unjustly underdeveloped. Essentially, it never coalesces into the sum of its parts, ultimately delivering promising snapshots of the film(s) it could have been if a more definitive path was chosen. Thus, it seems only right to say the script is Colossal's biggest weakness.

Linking in with that, Colossal struggles to find the right footing to begin with; not only does it play its cards far too early, with act one disappointingly rigid (again, in an attempt to balance the characteristics of an indie release and a mainstream hit) and underwhelming. Thankfully, it relaxes into a second and third act more aplomb, even when in need of tightening the transition between the two acts. Putting the weak execution aside and acknowledging the fact that the concept and narrative is genuinely terrific, the film often towers over its competitors in the marketplace because of its deft and profound approach to theme work. The script, as incoherent and overcooked as this review, to its credit nails the incorporation of metaphors and parallels into the fold, demonstrating an excellent understanding of alcoholism and the path it can lead you down.  Thus, it seems only right to grant the script a pardon, mainly because its attempt to handle and juggle so much simultaneously is at the very least admirable.

Letting the script go for a minute (because of the trouble it is causing me to balance this argument), everything else involved is at the very least solid. Anne Hathaway delivers an excellently balanced and considered performance, perfecting the (often dark) humour well but never forgetting the weight of the matter at hand, providing a suitably complex turn as Gloria. Precise characterisation (important for narrative development) and the thoughtful portrayal of alcoholism encourage a character that the audience can root for, while recognising her flaws; there is certainly more to her than meets the eye and Hathaway pulls it off effectively. Jason Sudeikis, in a more dramatic role than expected, is solid enough as Gloria's seemingly helpful friend and manages to handle the meatier content surprisingly well - that is, until the very final moments demand something more emotive and it all becomes a little cringe-worthy. Still, a decent performance shouldn't come undone by a few weaker spells and Sudeikis is surprisingly sturdy in the role for the majority of the time. Stevens takes on a rather thankless, uninspired role but it is nice to see the talent on screen more. Vigalondo is more than capable in the director's chair, skilfully infusing the more fantastical elements of the pieces into the real-life, crafting a fine balance between the two. While the South Korean-set scenes are the most vibrant and enjoyable of the piece, there is enough technique throughout the rest of the film to be impressed by; he wonderfully uses angles and frames to demonstrate power and weakness of the characters and their respective developments. He is also great in reinforcing the thematic content of the film, detailing the content through some strong technical flourishes.

Why then, with so much good running through the film AND the offer of the originality we all crave in cinema, do I feel so indifferently about the end product? Besides the general unfocused tone and messy classification, Colossal is a little incoherent on the narrative front - we get a very brief explanation to the events of the film, including a few juicy, exposition-driven flashbacks but it is unsatisfying, like a last minute 'oh, we have a hole we need to get out of'. For a film striving to break conventions, it feels formulaic; for a film so inventive elsewhere, any explanation strikes you as surprisingly dull. It is disappointing, even with an impressive ending and profound consideration of the themes at hand, that you cannot fully buy into it. Melodrama sometimes consumes the film and we are left with a problem - one that prevents you from letting the film sweep you up in its own quirky little way.

I've never had more difficulty writing a review, hence my late night questioning. I absolutely admired what the film wanted to do, how it executed its carnage scenes and the profound thematic content  itconsidered but could not otherwise warm to it or accept it in its final packaging. Great performances and direction do most of the heavy-lifting but Colossal attempts far too much to be productive and in juggling so many elements, tones and genres, fails to stick the landing and make it all worthwhile. It feels like a concatenation, rather than a satisfying, wholesome product, striving so desperately to be multiple things that it forgets how to master one of them efficiently.

This is one I'll really need more opinions on, so be sure to drop a comment down below or on my socials!


Summary: Colossal has one giant issue - it tries to be too much. It has some truly fantastic ideas, great performances, sturdy direction and uniqueness but it never coalesces into a satisfying whole, creating a rather frustrating (and ultimately underwhelming) experience.

Friday, 12 May 2017

Their Finest (2017) (Review)

Offering rest-bite from the blockbuster storm, the British-to-its-core Their Finest is a warm and charming war drama-comedy examining the scarce but significant input women had into the film industry during the Second World War. Based on Lissa Evans' novel Their Finest Hour and a Half, it is a film of 'authentic optimism' at a time when the country needed such, following a team of writers who were tasked with instilling a positivity in the citizens left behind through the propaganda films they created. Starring Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin and Bill Nighy, this unassuming little film left such a big impact.

The British Ministry of Information approaches a film-making team to create a morale-boosting film about the Dunkirk evacuation during the Battle of Britain and the London Blitz. Catrin Cole (Arterton) is brought in to write the female dialogue and teamed with fellow screenwriter Tom Buckley (Claflin) to collaborate on the project. 'The Nancy Starling' stars Ambrose Hilliard (Nighy), a fading actor of the big screen, and must champion the brave efforts of both the British on the front-line and their American counter-parts, required to appeal to both sides of the Atlantic. Directed by Danish director Lone Scherfig, the Lionsgate release continues their diverse film slate in their post-Hunger Games world, ultimately delivering a film unrestrained by franchise conventions or specific true-to-life facts. All told, Their Finest lives up to its name in more ways than one.

Surprisingly robust and neatly structured, Their Finest is a stellar and enriching experience that informs as well as entertains with gleeful, crowd-pleasing abundance. Clocking in at 117 minutes, the war-drama smartly infuses a satisfying helping of comedy into the mix, inspiring a lovely tonal balance that ensures the film remains fresh and sharp for its longer-than-anticipated runtime. Utilising the film-within-a-film structure terrifically, the editing process has aided in joined both strands of the narrative together, uniting them efficiently and complimentary. From Evans' novel comes a screenplay by Gaby Chiappe that is skilful in building characters and generally crafting a story deeply rooted in authenticity, true to the times and refusing to less the impact - or horror - of war. It's not always ground-breaking in its storytelling and the occasional moment feels a little too familiar - but it takes risks and executes them, on the whole, rather well indeed. It's carefully rendered nostalgia prevents sentimentality from seeping through that often, adding up to a crowd-pleasing effort you cannot help but look back on with fondness. Simply brimming with heart, soul and charm, the Lionsgate release crafts a truly touching piece of cinema that operates on a number of levels effectively to deliver a startling insight into the lives of those left behind - including their contribution to the war effort.

Beautiful set pieces are showcased alongside some handsome production design, with thought and care going into each and every set-up. Some stunning directorial flourishes are present, intriguing with a look at cinema of the past and the way the (propaganda) films were created with significantly less technology and resources on hand. Lone Scherfig balances a sharp contrast between the beautiful imagery at play - seen most notably during the Devon-set sequences - and the dull and drabness of the city during the air raid sirens and bombings; as well as this, she presents the film-within-a-film with real insight, delving into how films were created in the era. It's really lovely to see. Everything strikes you as well-thought out and considerate, self-assured yet intimate; Their Finest is a film of genuine emotion and authentic optimistic - a phrase appropriately peppered throughout. Scherfig makes magnificent work of the on-location scenes, set in gorgeous countryside or seaside destinations - making a rather charming and crafted piece shine even brighter, accentuated by Sebastian Blenkov's wonderful cinematography. All of this married together by Rachel Portman's glorious score, highlighting both the film's humour and emotion perfectly.

And, of course, we then have the performances. Arterton is a diamond as Catrin Cole, equally fierce and reserved, powerful through a quiet, understated performance that demonstrates her (often overlooked) skill as an actor. Conjuring a beautiful chemistry with Sam Claflin (again, another under-appreciated but superb actor in the industry today), whose Buckley is a well-meaning, if slightly tactless individual, they are a delightful match. It is thanks to the pair that some of the most stirring moments are as affecting as they are, packaged absolutely heartbreakingly in one of the film's final sequences - and the film's highlight - set in the movie theatre at the premiere of their film. While Arterton (and Claflin to a degree - the women are the centre, after all) most certainly lead the way, the rest of the cast is packed out with an ensemble of talented people; Bill Nighy is typically great, this time injecting his performance with some absolutely stellar comedic timing that easily makes him a stand-out of the film. As his character develops into a more humanised, understanding person by the film's end (including another poignant scene), it is once again a testament to Nighy (and the screenwriter) that across this relatively short film, we see more progression encapsulated in this one character alone than most franchises can even dream of across multiple films. We are treated to some solid supporting turns to from most of the cast, with Rachael Stirling, Helen McCrory and Eddie Marsan particularly impressive in their smaller roles.

Their Finest, as a title, is no misnomer - it really is a fine, fine example of British film-making. A few smaller, minor issues - some of the thematic work feels a little too on the nose and predictable, with the self-referential love triangle easily the weakest element of the piece, particularly when the intended end-point appears so transparent - can easily be forgiven. It tugs on your heart strings, lifts you up and inspires, while quietly informing and educating audiences without ever overwhelming. It takes the majority of its themes - women's involvement in the war effort - and subtly incorporates it into the narrative, without ever straining too forcefully to emphasise. It avoids feeling over sanguine or sugar-coated, continually remembering the dangerous backdrop we are in the midst of, appropriately capturing the uncertainty of the era. This snapshot into the British way of life at such a defining time in our history is one that should be revelled in by all - and one that we can most certainly continue to learn from. As the only person in the theatre on a rainy afternoon, it is a shame many others didn't get to experience the warmth of this film - while it allowed me to openly weep without fear, I am confident this film will find an audience who will embrace it with open arms.


Summary: Their Finest is just that - a well-thought out, lovely and stirring piece of British cinema that is as entertaining as it is informative, as funny as it is emotional. Bolstered by wonderful performances from Gemma Arterton, Sam Claflin and Bill Nighy, Their Finest is filled to the brim with an unassuming heart and charm.

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Orphan Black's Best Moments To Date

You have (probably) seen my ten favourite episodes, you have (hopefully) seen my season five wishes and you (may) have seen my season five predictions. Now, just one month out from the premiere of The Final Trip (!!!), I bring to you the best twelve scenes in Orphan Black's history.

Why twelve? Well, because I have no self-control and could not narrow it down to ten!

Honourable mentions: Helena takes down Rudy, Krystal snoops at Brightborn, Alison divulges her murderous secrets to Cosima, Cosima plays Alison on the campaign trail, Helena does some house chores, Jesus Christ Superstar, Delphine Lives, Sarah meets Alison and Cosima, Krystal meets Sarah, Helena saves Alison and Donnie, Alison's stage tumble, Krystal finds Delphine.

Oh, and that Air Italia sequence. We say no more.

Without further ado...

12. Sarah sees a girl who looks just like her... (S1E1)

Kicking starting the entire series, the excellent premise is brought to life when Sarah sees Beth - a girl who looks just like her - commit suicide on a train platform, setting the fire for the whole season to burn off. It's a truly exciting moment, intriguing audiences from the very opening moment, as the revelations slowly begin to unravel over the course of the episodes that follow. In these opening moments, we are introduced into a fascinating world that has never been forgotten across the four seasons that follow. It all comes down to that moment on the train's platform; Beth's actions and Sarah's reaction - and what a terrific moment it is.

 11. "Give your sisters all my love" (S3E10)

At the end of season three, Delphine is on limited time but takes a moment to visit Cosima, as an unofficial goodbye. After a season that sees the lovers separated, it unites them in a truly touching and emotional scene, in which Delphine promises to protect them at all costs - and that may include with her life. The relationship between the two scientists is one of the most beloved elements of the show and this sequence showcases that strongly. While we know it is not a permanent goodbye now, we truly believe it is - thanks to Maslany and Evelyne Brochu's committed performances and chemistry.

10. Cosima and Sarah's suicide attempts (S4E7)

After the game-changing events of the previous episode (more on that soon...), the sisters are at their lowest point and Cosima and Sarah, in particular, are struggling. As Sarah's journey begins to parallel Beth's and Cosima, following her discovery about Delphine, is willing to sacrifice her own life for her sisters, they are both on the edge. It's devastating to see the pair so low and the way their stories overlap - providing an opportunity for Felix to be the knight in shining armour - is terrifically-executed and distressing. Maslany is wonderful and illustrates both the pair's similarities and differences in their self-destructiveness, supplying a cathartic moment that propels the series forward towards its end-game.

9. Clone-ception (S3E1)

Sarah impersonating Rachel interrogating Alison playing Sarah. Ah, the joys of Orphan Black. In this masterful scene in the middle of season three's premiere episode, the clone swap is well and truly underway as Ferdinand is escorted around DYAD and requests to see supposedly-captured clone Sarah. Saying Tatiana Maslany is incredible is like saying water is wet or the Pope is catholic, but it is in these scenes that her talent truly shines. Her nuanced qualities and traits for each character is carefully infused into her performance - even when playing clones acting as other clones - creating an intricate and complex performance that she makes look easy. It is incredible that you can recognise the character, even when they are playing another clones, because Maslany understands just how to balance the performance. Flawless, flawless work.

8. A Beth-centered memory (S3E6)

"It was never Beth I loved". When Paul speaks these words to Sarah before sacrificing himself to enable her escape, a new revelation breaks that offers so much insight into his previous actions. It answers a number of questions - including why he continued to help the sisters, even when on the other side - and delivers an appropriately emotional ending for his character. Interlaced with flashbacks making his death even more heartbreaking, his final bow waves goodbye to a long standing regular with a real heroism.

The episode also includes a beautiful moment in which Sarah hallucinates Beth. Delving into the latter's relationship with Paul, it brings the mysterious character - one we barely even know despite her suicide sparking the events of the series - into the fold, emotionally insightful and painful to watch. Stunningly-executed, it harks back to the series' opening moments flawlessly and features one of the greatest lines of the series -  "We do terrible things for the people we love - stop asking why, start asking who". The Beth-infused moments of S3E6 are magnificent, greatly aiding one of the best episodes in the show's history.

7. Beth emotionally berates Paul (S4E1)

"You're hollow", Beth tells Paul as she holds a gun to his head in the season four premiere episode. While playing out in the midst of a flashback episode and with the complete understanding that she does not pull the trigger, the emotion is palpable and draining for the audience who are witnessing her crumble. Beth is reaching her breaking point and her desperation is plain as day, causing audience's hearts to break even more for her. The entire episode is full to bursting with nuggets of new, insightful information but this cry for help is the sharpest and the hardest to witness.

6. Helena's self-sacrifice (S3E3)

Switching from murderous psychopath to guardian angel as the show has developed, Helena's self-sacrifice in season three to save her Castor brother is a sobering and harrowing moment. With a chance at freedom around the next corner, she instead decides to end the suffering of her brother clone and put him out of his misery. Of all the deaths on the show, this is one of the most affecting. It pushes the show into dark territory - but my god is it a beautiful, provoking moment revealing new information to who I'd argue is the show's most complex character.

5. Rachel abducts Kira (S2E9)

Setting up the second season finale terrifically, Rachel - reeling from the discovery the clones were barren by design and following a sequence showcasing her desperation and disillusionment  - steals the only child of a clone in a shocking moment that seems glaringly obvious on reflection. Maslany - once again - executes the clone swap expertly, dressed as Sarah but with Rachel's nuances in tact, with the startling "pleasure to meet you, Felix" holding the capacity to send shivers down your spine. Sarah's shock quickly follows and sets in motion a series of events for a completely gripping finale.

4. Rachel wants a seat at Neolution's table (S4E10)

As a character, Rachel has wavered most. From the first season, her intentions have been shrouded in mystery and deceit, switching sides on a regular basis; at the end of the fourth season though, her position could not be clearer. In an intensely-crafted and delivered speech that sets the wheels in motion for the final season, Rachel promises to use the clones as engineered lab animals for future cloning experiment - this time for the benefit of Neolution and corporation. Maslany's performance is reliably great, with a searing tone and seething impact for the future of the series. The slow, creeping movement and direction of the camera enforces a menacing feeling, with the fantastic production design - an entirely black room, with just one overhead source of lighting - absolutely terrific. A truly powerful scene.

3. The Big Clone Scenes (S2E10, S3E1, S3E10)

Ah, the big clone scenes. Although a cheat to include them as one, we've had three to date featuring the four main clones - season two's dance party, season three's dream sequence and dinner party - and each are wonderful and ambitious as the last. Frequently we see how two clones interact but it is a sheer joy to witness when, all in frame, they are able to let loose and enjoy each's other company. Oozing with fun, they are offer insight into the dynamics between the four (Sarah, Cosima, Alison and Helena) from their individual dance moves or their perceptions of each other - particularly Helena's image of her sister in season three's dream sequence. It's a rather lovely opportunity to see these clones, happy and together as a family. Here's to more in the final season!

2. Helena and Sarah reunite in bloody circumstances (S2E4)

Helena and Sarah's story ended on a rather shocking note at the close of season one, with Sarah supposedly killing her twin sister with a gunshot. When Helena returns though, clad in a blood-stained white dress in front of a tortured Sarah, jaws hit the ground; audiences knew Helena survived but we had no idea how the mercurial character would react to the sister that tried to kill her. As she menacingly approaches a shocked Sarah, the intensity is at fever pitch and the director keeps that sustained through an excruciating two minutes. When she ultimately falls to her knees to help and embrace her wounded sister, it becomes a beautiful moment that finally unites the two are allies, rather than enemies.

Not only does this sequence provide the first real 'OMG' moment, in terms of the technical skill used to bring Orphan Black to life, but with its beautiful imagery and almost poetic nature, it wonderfully demonstrates the show working beyond the surface level. As well as providing new dynamics for the show moving forward and a killer demonstration of the incredible technology it goes on to master in later episodes, it is a moment as thrilling and tense as well it is emotional and satisfying. It has almost never been topped...

1. The final ten minutes of The Scandal of Altruism (S4E6)

The Scandal of Altruism is television at its finest. Orphan Black's creme-de-la-cream combines character developments, action-beats and emotional gut-punches in an episode that simultaneously provides answers to over-arching questions and offers even more questions to ponder. Nothing though - absolutely nothing - will prepare you for the episode's final ten minutes, a television masterclass in emotion and power.

Utterly gut-wrenching and jaw-dropping, it provides a moment that, if you have invested in the show, shakes you to your absolute core. From Kendall's heartbreaking murder as the season's villain finally emerges to the soul-destroying performance from Tatiana Maslany as Cosima, it is relentlessly tense and harrowing. Watching her only hope for a cure die slowly in front of her eyes ("tell your sisters I'm proud to have been part of them all"), worsened by the revelation that the love of her life is gone ("Delphine Cormier was shot dead"), Cosima's reaction is channeled as a cathartic moment for all the sister's troubles up until the point. In the same stretch, Beth Child's story comes full circle. In the very final shot we see her, broken and desperate to save her sisters, approaching the train platform in which she takes her life. As the soft, melancholic piano music plays over her devastating goodbye with Mika and that final, devastating breaking point.

 In the most exquisitely performed scene of the entire show, you are stunned into silence, not only because of Maslany's performance (as both Cosima and Sarah), but because of the thirty-six hour arch that has lead to this point culminating in such a shocking way. So much rests on the final ten minutes working and it certainly succeeds, shaking the very foundations the show was built upon, leaving our protagonists - and viewers - at their most vulnerable. It not only acts as a soft reset, aligning figures for the final four episodes, but allows us to head into this upcoming fifth and final season with great apprehension as to what other twists lie down the path.

BONUS: Alison and Donnie. Twerking. Money and glitter everywhere (S3E6)

Orphan Black nails the lighter moments, most prevelant during the Alison and Donnie sub-plots. From the drug deals and campaign trailers, their relationship features a comedic tone in gleeful abundance - the one that always stands out though, is the season three celebrations. The once highly-strung couple dance and twerk, in nothing but their underwear, as cash and glitter flies left, right and centre. I love it.

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That (probably) wraps up my countdown until the final season of Orphan Black. The fifth season premieres on June 10th and be sure to check back for weekly reviews for the final ten episodes!

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

A Dog's Purpose (2017) (Review)

How much should we let expectations impact our ultimate enjoyment of a film? As a film lover and blogger, it's a question that has always plagued my writing and thoughts, when the film ends and the film fades to black. Expectations are something I generally try to avoid partaking in but it is very often impossible, with bias perhaps seeping into all our judgments. I really hope it doesn't seep into my writing but I'm almost certain it does; it's inevitable, as hard as you may try to circumvent it. Because of my rock-bottom expectations for Lasse Hallstrom's A Dog's Purpose, is it the final outcome - a somewhat enjoyable experience - clouded by my initial skepticism? Or is it really an watchable film to begin? It's a very difficult line to balance.

A Dog's Purpose focuses on a dog whose life is shown from his birth to his death, followed by his various reincarnations. Coming back as a different dog breed each time, we follow each reincarnation through the eyes of the dog (all voiced by Josh Gad) and his various owners and their stories, ultimately searching for a dog's purpose in life. Although the title lays out a lot of the film's theme work and it is executed through decidedly rose-coloured, family-friendly and somewhat sanguine glasses, it took me by surprise how central this theme would transpire to be. Alongside Gad, Dennis Quaid, KJ Apa, Bryce Gheisar, Juliet Rylance, Peggy Lipton, Britt Robertson, John Ortiz, Kirby Howell-Baptiste, Pooch Hall, Luke Kirby and Logan Miller star in supporting roles throughout the film, as the various owners of the Bailey, Ellie, Tino and Buddy.

If you've seen the trailers for A Dog's Purpose, you've basically seen the entire feature-length. The element of surprise is almost non-existent, delivering an incredibly predictable and formulaic story. In between the two bookmarks exist a few shorter, snappy stories - intended to provide something with a little more bark; in particularly, one story possesses some genuine shocks, with the ability to crack even the hardest of hearts. Generally, these stories, no matter their flaws, move at a speedy enough pace and keep the film ticking over nicely, structurally benefiting the picture (although that first story could do with a little trim, maybe affording the time to stories two or three) with a concise pacing and approach. Even the opening and closing stories contain enough to be enjoyed and engaged with; they are never inspired or boundary-pushing but entertaining and warming nonetheless. They provide the light entertainment this film strives so nonchalantly for.

Shamelessly manipulative, the tears and the smiles and the emotion and the laughs do not feel earned in the slightest, phoned in only to ring the most out of its fluffy premise. It's melodramatic and tonally jarring, plastered with a sentimentality that cannot help but leave a sickly feeling when you leave the theatre. But it's a sweet sickening feeling, if such a thing exists, with some genuinely lovely moments that you cannot help but connect with. Moments of heartbreak and devastation are peppered throughout the piece and the certain stories push the thematic musing into darker territory than you expect, demonstrating something with a little more substance than you would like to give it credit for. Its five-person writing team (W. Bruce Cameron, Cathryn Michon, Audrey Wells, Maya Forbes, Wally Wolodarsky) just about manage to string together a screenplay - but it lacks a genuineness, leaving most of the heavy-lifting to the adorable canines on display and some brief sparks of inspiration during the smaller stories. It's such a contradictory thing to say but despite recognising the manipulative nature of the film, you can still feel an emotion running throughout it - and even the hardest heart will feel a surge of emotion at times. In the right frame of mind, accepting what is going to be in front of you, you will find a disposable enjoyment in A Dog's Purpose - and animal-lovers in particular will lap it up.

Josh Gad brings his most naive, optimistic vocal performance as the four dogs the film trails, delivering a jolly performance that massively contrasts the moments where the film gets downright unpleasant and upsetting. Elsewhere though, he does a fine job of narrating the story and engaging audiences, with his work surpassing the quality of the material afforded. In supporting roles (after all, the dogs come first) spread out through the film, the rest of the human cast does a satisfying job. No one stands out for the right or wrong reasons, simply providing new backdrops for each reincarnation to explore. Lasse Hallstrom does a fulfilling job as director, discovering some terrific ways to link the story cohesively and avoid it feeling too fractured and episodic, while still managing to give each chapter its little flourishes. And, if we had an animal Academy Award equivalent, I'm sure we'd have a few four-legged nominees on our hands.

A Dog's Purpose is the film you expect only fractionally better, particularly if expectations are rock-bottom. It is simply light, fluffy popcorn entertainment, with a family-friendly model and predictable narrative path playing out on screen. Although manipulative to the highest degree, we lay witness to some raw, moving moments that will melt the hardest of hearts. It's far from a great film and it's likely you will have completely forgotten the film even exists within a week - but to pass a rainy weekend or with a couple of hours spare, A Dog's Purpose might just do the trick. It proves an interesting case to examine the impact of expectations on your eventually enjoyment in a film and I think A Dog's Purpose benefits from lowered expectations, ultimately providing some fine, disposable fun at the pictures. A Dog's Purpose panders for an emotional response but very much like a puppy, if it's already got your attention, you will lap it up. I was dragged into A Dog's Purpose but enjoyed considerably more than I care to admit.


Summary: A Dog's Purpose is manipulative and shameless in doing so but if your expectations are adjusted low enough, you'll be able to lap up the canine cuteness - it even threatens to melt the coldest of hearts, no matter how hard you try and resist.

What is the most prominent example of expectations either benefitting or hurting your enjoyment in a film?