Wednesday, 30 August 2017

A Ghost Story (2017) (Review)

A Ghost Story is like no other film that springs to memory. In the opening act, it delivers a scene that should bore you to tears: our female lead, fresh from a devastating loss that has left her feeling hallow, devours an entire pie over an uninterrupted five minute-plus scene. Just her, just a pie, with a man draped in a white cloth in the background, out of focus, but present nonetheless. The sequence is literally of her eating a pie and you literally sit there hypnotised the entire time. Most of A Ghost Story is like that actually; long, uninterrupted one-shot pieces, slow-burning scenes with little-to-no action or dialogue and rarely a glimpse of real human faces.

It is near impossible to discuss A Ghost Story in a coherent manner. It has left me grasping for words, desperate to place my admiration and respect for the micro-budget picture on paper but greatly failing. More a stream of thoughts and points than a well-formed review (one cautious of spoiling anything for audiences who must approach with an open-mind and willingness), you must bear with me as I try and frame A Ghost Story in an appropriately glowing manner. Of the synopsis, I will simply say the story is a balance of life and death, a cosmic blend of love and loss and wordiness, framed in the most poignant, touching and powerful way. Written and directed in the middle of summer last year by David Lowery, eager to escape the pressures of a major studio blockbuster release, the project is one of care and compassion, with the lead talents - Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara - reportedly working for nothing (or very, very little).

A Ghost Story is a film of great stillness, an endurance test of sorts, operating as a mediative reflection on monumental questions, themes and ideas. With more complex notions contained within its first half an hour than most other films would even dream of considering across an entire feature-length, it ponders and it contemplates and then it wonders a little more, careful to provide enough to intoxicate audiences with in the process. Enthralling audiences through its exploration of humanity and reaction, it coalesces into something far grander as the film progresses and its reach far surpasses the moment the credits roll. A Ghost Story is a film that will stay with you for days, weeks and months.

 It is clear that what A Ghost Story lacks in budget, special effects and scale, it makes up for (in ample measure) in scope, ambition and innovation. All told, creativity and simplicity is key to its success. A white sheet becomes so much more than your homemade, rudimental and perfunctory Halloween costume, adopting a whole new meaning and method of exploring almost unassailable ideologies, with Lowery's self-funded project utilising its idiosyncrasies with a deftness and significance. The cotton threads act almost as a barrier between the land of the living and the dead, a restriction of lovers and as a prevention of reality - much like the idea of time in the film, the sheet becomes a whole new character in and of itself.

If you haven't picked up on it yet, A Ghost Story oozes elegance. Lowery's script is riddled with smartness and sophistication: his writing provides food for thought on a constant basis, reflected in the authenticity and emotional power of its execution. Who else could mix time and existential questions so profoundly, varnished with an indisputable grace? Admittedly, it teeters towards narcissism on infrequent occasions but is otherwise anchored by a tremendously subdued script predominantly absent of dialogue and/or human characters.

Lowery not only excels with the script but behind the camera too, directing the piece in a purposefully controlled manner. He keeps the camera slightly to the right or left of the subject, as if he is afraid to centralise anything; for A Ghost Story, it is truly efficient film-making, conjuring that uneasy atmosphere crucial to the film's success. It is masterful in fact, with the atmosphere and general tone performing most of the heavy-lifting: thematic content along these lines would most likely crumble in less capable, ambitious hands - but Lowery, evoking that perfect, evocative atmosphere through that skilled direction, demonstrates his talent and control as a director. It helps further that the picture is downright stunning, gorgeously shot and as visually compelling as it is thematically. An aesthetic marvel, its beauty hasn't been paralleled this summer at the pictures.

How many others would be so bold with their film-making? Not only is A Ghost Story (partly) self-funded (illustrating the financial commitment to the project), but some of the artistic choices are valiant. The now famous 'pie' scene immediately springs to mind as the 5-10 minute take remains largely uninterrupted, but a number of other examples of unconventional storytelling spliced throughout the film. To avoid spoiling it for anyone, I'll call silence on any other scene but explicitly say a handful of them exist, with Lowery creativity understanding no bounds. Everything is contained within a 1:33:1 aspect ratio, providing audience with the feeling of entrapment and emphasising the notion of eternity, as if we too are trapped under a metaphorical sheet that appears to tighten around us as we progress and fall deeper into the weighty thematics.

Lowery is not the only major player in A Ghost Story, with Affleck and Mara attached with an obvious care for the project. Affleck may be hidden under a white sheet for the majority of the film but there remains something fundamentally human about his performance; the way he holds himself, the way he moves is excruciatingly considered, even in his spiritual, ethereal form. Melancholy hangs around him and Affleck, with so little to work with and obviously channeling his infamous natural characteristics and turn in Manchester By The Sea, provides a startling performance in the face of it all. 

Similarly, Rooney Mara delivers a nuanced performance of heartbreak and devastation, with the emotionally gruelling sequences conveyed expertly by Mara, one of her generation's greatest performers. In that pie scene, she makes you feel as if you are the only person in the room, prying on her grief-stricken aftermath with a torturing turn that captures so much emotion with very little substance. It is almost like you are a ghost in her home during the rawest moment of her life. Largely thanks to Mara's fragility in these moments, A Ghost Story is easily one of the most crushing, devastating films I have ever seen.

Already on vinyl pre-order, Daniel Hart's soundtrack is easily one of the greatest examples of sonic impact this year. Haunting, serene and very often mesmerising, the collection of tracks are near faultless in enhancing the atmosphere and emotion of the piece, anchoring an often time-expansive and wondering piece to something intrinsically human to be emotionally affected by. Like Jackie, Arrival and Moonlight, A Ghost Story's score feels individual to itself, like nothing heard before, in the rare instance of being completely recognisable to the film Lowery curates. Its electronic, gentle and stirring, very often in the same key, illustrating Hart's true understanding of Lowery's vision with a score that helps bring to life a complex, advanced idea with ease and clarity.

A Ghost Story asks for patience, and if you deliver on your half of the promise, you will be rewarded with a piece of tremendous, passionate film-making and a deft exploration of love and loss and life and time. I left A Ghost Story with questions - too many to list here - but that is part of its power and its appeal: it stays with you, unapologetically, worming its way into your subconscious. It may sound dramatic but I left A Ghost Story thinking 'I'll never live this life the same again'; very possibly, I will - but the power and profundity in the hours, days (and probably) months that follow your first watch of Lowery's feature-length are unlikely any other film I've witnessed or experienced before. Enthralling as themes of humanity and reaction are uncovered in an unrelenting and hypnotising manner, A Ghost Story is one for the ages - it will defy time.


 Summary: A Ghost Story is a mesmerising feature-length and a hypnotising exploration of love, loss, life, time and humanity. Visually spellbinding and thematically profound, David Lowery's direction is elegant and sophisticated, heighten by two terrific performances and Daniel Hart's extraordinary score. One of the films of the year.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Orphan Black (S5E10) - To Right The Wrongs of Many (Review)

"My story is an embroidery with many beginnings and no end. But I will start with the thread of my sestra Sarah, who stepped off a train one day and met herself"

Orphan Black closed the door on the global conspiracies, personal tragedies and musings on sisterhood that followed the sestras for 50 episodes and five season just hours ago with its series finale. The defining piece of sci-fi thriller television - which cemented lead star Tatiana Maslany as one of, if not the, most talented actress in her field - ended the story of the LEDA clones with the second of two parts (see also, One Fettered Slave), To Right The Wrongs of Many - an episode packed to the rafter with revelations, emotion and power.

Discussing the finale is a difficult one, so please be aware you will encounter spoilers from this point forth.

So there we have it; after a rocky season, Orphan Black deliver one of their finest ever episodes in the form of the series finale. To Right The Wrongs of Many is an episode of halves; the opening half is an intense, nerve-shattering action-thriller, designed almost as a game of cat-and-mouse; the second half is for more reflective, raw and focused on the characters we have come to know and love across these five seasons, following a brief time jump. Orphan Black could have been tempted to throw every single question, conclusion and narrative thread at the wall with the final episode - but by focusing on the series' most important theme - sisterhood - it coalesces not only into a satisfying end for Orphan Black, but one of the series' best episodes to date and a fantastic series finale all round.

The Neolution baddies meet their end rather quickly, dispatched in record-quick time in a portion contained within the episode's first third. Virginia Coady gets a screwdrivers to the throat courtesy of Helena (and Art), while P.T. Westmoreland gets a cylinder in the head from Sarah - just one of the ways this final episode symbolises the mirror twins at the heart of its story. Continuing from where we left off last week, the first third is relentlessly intense, blistering and scorching, a masterclass in suspense as the game reaches its conclusion.

To have Helena and Sarah, once sworn enemies hellbent on ending the other, claim the freedom of the sisterhood by taking out the Neolution figureheads, the fight is over surprisingly quickly and with tremendous poignancy - and that poignancy doesn't end in the first third either. Soon after Virginia and PT are executed, Sarah is called upon to support Helena's delivery of twins: it is here that some of Orphan Black's best ever scenes play out.

While the finale is too busy to dedicate the hour solely to Sarah (in line with Alison, Cosima, Rachel and Helena's central episodes earlier this season), it provides us with some flashbacks of Sarah, utilised as a way to demonstrate her growth over the course of the series. Flashbacks reveal Sarah's life before Kira and Clones, one in which an angst-ridden, directionless rebel decides to become a mother, followed by the birthing process. She is coached through her delivery of Kira by Mrs S (who left us following her shocking death in Guillotine's Decide); as the birthing scenes parallel, some stunning parallels and symbolism plays out and we come full circle.

At the same point in season one, back in 2013, in an almost identical location, Sarah delivers a seemingly fatal gunshot to Helena; fast-forward (four years in real time) and a similar basement sees the birth of new life, in the form of Helena's miracle babies. In the masterful sequence as the scenes overlap, both Sarah and Helena defy every obstacle thrown at them, often in the grimmest of circumstances, to reclaim their own strength with the support of those that mean the most to them. This middle third of Orphan Black's ending provides the most emotional cathartic sequence witnessed on television in quite some time, an outpouring of warmth and passion and excitement, and every other emotion Orphan Black has ever made you feel across five years.

In its final third, To Right The Wrongs of Many strips things back to the characters, with an emotional, driven and suitable examination of the sisterhood, post-fighting. Each are awarded their own version of freedom; Cosima and Delphine, together and in love, travel the word to cure other LEDA clones with the inoculation; Alison and Donnie return to their suburban bliss and happiness; they happen to be nursing and supporting new mother Helena, raising her newborn twins - Orange and Purple! Wait, no, Donnie and Arthur!

Even Rachel Duncan is granted her freedom, away from the scientist and organisations and synthetic environment that raised her; she is still alone, incapacitated and responsible for some of the most bitter hardship the sister's experienced - but in some way, that is preferable to her monitored existence as the face of DYAD/Neolution/Pro-Clone. While she wasn't granted a happy ending in the way the other clones were, she was given a new beginning, unburdening herself and helping save hundreds of others in the process. She also provides us with means to meet another clone - Camilla Torres - using her knowledge and experiences within the organisations to grant a freedom to others.

The only person not at one with her freedom is the biggest player in achieving it: Sarah is empty, still mourning the loss of Mrs S - a feeling exasperated by her newly-discovered memories of her. After fighting endlessly and tirelessly for her freedom, she does not know how to accept it or use it; she feels she is a terrible mother and a lost cause, unable to stay still and haunted by her previous decisions. All told, she unfairly blames herself for their losses.

It takes her sisters, those who know her the truest, to remind her that we all make mistakes, we are never perfect and she too deserves to reap the rewards of their hard work, as they all are. In Orphan Black's most beautiful scene, Sarah, Alison, Cosima and Helena huddle around a fire in the garden, as their friends and allies socialise in the house, and reflect. It's deeply rewarding, a sigh of relief that - although they will face further difficulties, hurdles and obstacles - they themselves have discovered the importance of identity, unity and strength. They have finally defeated the organisations that have manipulated, victimised and terrorised them, all because they claim to own them as intellectual property. They are free from their shackles and continue to reclaim their uniquenesses and character.

Co-creators play two of the most important roles in To Right The Wrongs of Many: writer and director. Graeme Manson structures the final episode to perfection. Containing the Neolution defeat in the first third allows more time to be spent with Clones & Co. Every major clone (other than Krystal, who I would have loved to have seen make a brief appearance) is permitted at least a moment to bow their individual stories out with, while even managing to find time to check in on our supporting characters. Be it the mountain of theme works injected into the script, the beautiful parallels and symbolism of the pregnancy and sisterhood or the deft and satisfying way the story is rounded out, Manson excels.

John Fawcett provides us with some of Orphan Black's most sophisticated and impressive technical work ever. His decision to parallel the birthing scenes allow the show's central themes, such as family and sisterhood, femininity and personal agency, to shine. The emotion of filming these scenes last and wrapping for the very last time clearly heighten the emotion, but it is his talent and skill on display that balance the potentially cluttered episode out and guides it to the position as one of the show's greatest episodes. Similarly, the multi-clone sequence - the longest the show has ever attempted - captures the most appropriate tone imaginable for one of the series' last scenes, with some of the most breathtakingly beautiful scenes to boast.

The production design team fire on all cylinders here too: from the beautiful sets (Alison's lavish garden is my absolute favourite and the perfect location for the most monumental scene of the episode) and the effective lighting (the first half is dark and claustrophobic, while the rest is lighter, more hopeful in a way); the costumes and make-up (the final multi-clone scene using outfits that perfectly epitomises each clones) and special effects (which go by unnoticed, a real sign of sophistication); the show has mastered operating on a smaller-than-desired production budget. The art team are among Orphan Black's most unsung heroes but their efforts and contributions are clear and greatly appreciated in this closing chapter.

One woman has commanded Orphan Black from the very start though. Even throughout the most questionable decisions undertaken and misfires made by the narrative, Tatiana Maslany has never dipped below outstanding. Very often faultless, her portrayal of every LEDA clone has earned her countless awards and recognition has redefined 'strong female roles' in television, elevated by the writing team of course. In this final ever episode though, between the four-clone scene, dual pregnancy or rousing speech about surviving, defying, unity and evolution, she is incomparable. Every ounce of emotion, power, poise, dedication and craft she possesses is lovingly poured into this final collection of performances with clear effect.

Hollywood may not know what to do with Tatiana Maslany moving forward. I pray they do. She is, in my mind and without question, the best actress of her generation and Orphan Black will provide her with hours and hours and hours of showreel.

To Right The Wrongs of Many fixes a handful of mistakes the final season has committed along its cluttered way and provides one of the series' most superlative episodes. It should be admired for doing the impossible: tying up nearly every loose end while teasing a few options should it wish to continue in the future - and it feels totally appropriate and natural. Yes, Rachel could have joined the sestras in the back garden to officially bury the hatchet and unite as one - but that was never Rachel and the show refuses to provide us with a facade of depiction - something tremendously admirable.

Poignancy, parallels and symbolism elevate the episode and it strides very, very close to perfection. Some elements feel a little too loosely tied but that's part-and-parcel of approaching a series finale for a show as expansive and complex as Orphan Black. To Right The Wrongs of Many is exquisitely crafted, written and structured by Manson, visually masterful because of Fawcett, artfully designed by the rest of the team and performed to absolute, reliable perfection by the likes of Evelyne Brochu, Jordan Gavaris, Kristian Bruun, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Kevin Hanchard, Josh Vokey and Skyler Wexler and most specifically, Tatiana Maslany.

But, for all its memorable characters, moments, quotes and performances this show will be remembered for across its  five-season history, one thing will forever stay in my mind...

Helena, a once psychotic serial killer knocking off her lookalikes one by one, reaches for her diary, minutes before the credits role. The night is drawing in and her sestras' lives feel still for the first time in forever. Surrounded by the army of sisterhood consisting of Sarah, Alison and Cosima (and brother-sestra Felix, with the rest of her family snug in the house), she tells us; "(This) is a story about my sestras. I call it Orphan Black". In that moment, five seasons worth of conspiracies, fights, losses, love and Tatiana Maslany masterclasses come together in the most perfect, appropriate and timeless manner.

So long Orphan Black. You have been splendid. Thank you.

Episode Grade: A+

TTMMVPAAFAMRP (The Tatiana Maslany Most Valuable Player Acting Award for a Multi-Role Performance): Sarah, Helena, Cosima, Alison and Rachel.

Thank you for joining me for these weekly reviews. Do keep your eyes peeled for future Orphan Black posts. This isn't the end of my writing and adoration for a show I have admired, enjoyed and loved with every fibre of my being. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Saturday, 12 August 2017

Atomic Blonde (2017) (Review)

The world has a James Bond, a Jason Bourne, a John Wick and a Jack Reacher, alongside countless others. For a brief time, we had an Evelyn Salt (but that franchise is on the back-burner) and Susan Cooper awaits her highly-deserved sequel. While plentiful for the men, the spy genre remains a little meagre for the women; enter Lorraine Broughton. Charlize Theron leads the way in Atomic Blonde, David Leitch's solo directorial debut, which seems to have been promoted before every major Hollywood release this summer.

Shortly before the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, MI6 agent James Gasciogne is shot and murdered by KGB agent Yuri Bakhtin, who steals the List; a piece of microfilmed concealed in a wristwatch, detailing the name of every active field agent in the Soviet Union. Lorraine Broughton (Theron), a top-level spy for MI6, is dispatched to Berlin to recover the List and assassinate a double agent, Satchel, who has sold intelligence to the Soviet for years and played a role in Gasciogne's death. Lorraine makes contact with agent David Percival (James McAvoy) to help track down Spyglass, a man who has memorised the List, and aim to lead him to safety. The action-spy-thriller could very well launch a franchise - but is it worth seeing Lorraine Broughton's first outing?

Atomic Blonde sure is slick. It recognised a missing piece in the cinematic landscape (a female spy-thriller) and decided to plug the gap by delivering an original, entertaining genre piece to weather the interest. To call it the 'female John Wick' may sound like a disservice but Leitch's effort is clearly inspired by the success of similar, male-led action-flicks while managing to form an identity and tone of its own. 

That tone is defined largely by Blonde's sleek visuals and direction. Hyper-neon glows and splashes curate a visually impressive picture helmed by Leitch's confident direction. One particular action set-piece, the now famous stairway onslaught, is superbly choreographed, stitched together like one long, impressive take. It is a truly thrilling watch and the beautiful settings (with fantastic production design all-round), fuelled by the uneasy Berlin backdrop, create a unique identity for the picture to boast. Leitch's direction is surprisingly confident given that this is the first time behind the camera alone (he collaborated with Chad Stahelski for John Wick), gifting audiences a glossy final product to be entertained by. Tyler Bates' soundtrack and score offers a helping hand too, operating tremendously well by highlighting the all-important backdrop, atmosphere and tone of Atomic Blonde.

Of course, Atomic Blonde would not be what it is without Charlize Theron's fantastic turn as MI6 agent Broughton. Theron is easily one of our most talented stars, with her award-winning and transformative turn as one of the most prolific female serial killers in Monster (2003) and her iconic role as Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road proving as such, each likely to go down in history. Lorraine as a character is another notch to add to her belt and a new franchise is there for the taking, should this one perform a little better overseas than it currently is in the US.

Charlize Theron delivers an icily sophisticated performance with control and poise, radiating an enigmatic presence from the first frame until the last. Appropriate given her characters required deception as a spy, she remains a continually mysterious and somewhat hypnotising figure and, given the film's ending, you get the sense that we are only beginning to scratch the surface with her character. Whether it's stilletto-stamping or stairway tumbling, she is clearly committed to the role;  Theron is Atomic Blonde's strongest card and the film indulges in playing it - giving audiences what they want - over and over again.

The film's supporting cast are also a solid bunch. James McAvoy, often overlooked by Hollywood, provides a committed turn as a 'is he/isn't he' agent operating in Berlin. As their escape route narrows and the pressure rises, Percival and Lorraine's relationship becomes increasingly difficult and their dynamic continually shifts, fuelling the intense atmosphere compounded by the Cold War backdrop. Sofia Boutella (aka The Mummy's saviour) is endearing as an undercover French agent, blindly and naively stumbling around this dangerous world; Eddie Marsan is reliably great as Spyglass, an important key in securing and protecting the List; and Bill Skarsgard is promising as a mission assistant, slick and confident similar to Kingsman's Eggsy. Toby Jones, John Goodman and Til Schweiger are under-utilised but seemingly well-aligned for the theoretical sequel.

With so many excellent elements in Atomic Blonde, why does it leave you feeling so cold? Atomic Blonde stumbles the most because of its self-confidence. There's a fine line between operating with aplomb and being overly self-indulgent and narcissistic and, rather unfortunately, Atomic Blonde crosses that line more often than desired. It lacks the fundamental charm, heart and soul of other genre pieces and takes itself far too seriously to be thoroughly enjoyed; it is still a good time and you can appreciate the path it chooses to take, but it never truly satisfies an insatiable appetite for a female-led spy-thriller. In all honesty, you feel distant and oddly withdrawn by the end of it: maybe a second watch is in order to appreciate this one more fully.

Hampering further is its pace and momentum. The result of an unnecessarily confusing and scattered storyline, Atomic Blonde throws so much up in the air that the final twenty minutes are a rush to collect it together and tie off the loose ends in a satisfying manner; it just about manages to do so but the film never digs its heels in enough to provide it - or you - with the energy to power this caper through. Again, it comes back to a lack of heart and soul, with a surprising lack of emotional stakes; it cannot avoid leaving you cold and withdrawn.

Therefore, it is easy to diagnose that Blonde's faults lie in its script: Kurt Johnstad's screenplay is too wildly uneven to be fully enjoyed, corrosive to an otherwise enjoyable, thrilling action flick. While it masters the atmosphere and digs out an appropriate tone, the storyline is oddly confusing and cluttered, attempting to be clever but over-stepping the line with a grandiose view of its own talent and skill that hinders your engagement - and appreciation - for the picture.

Atomic Blonde doesn't quite do enough to feed an insatiable appetite for feminist-fuelled thrills and spills but is entertaining enough, even when struggling to achieve the high expectations many held it too. Its lush visuals and outstanding production design (particularly when considering its budget), sophisticated direction, brilliant central performance from Charlize and use of music make it a worthy watch (as well as the terrific stairway action sequence) - but it is not quite the smash success it was lined up to be.


Summary: Atomic Blonde is not the flat-out success many (myself included) hoped for - an uneven pace and narcissistic attitude hinder it - but Charlize Theron's performance, the neon-splashed visuals and solid action sequences make this stylish spy-thriller worthy of your time and attention.

Friday, 11 August 2017

Detroit (2017) (Review)

Detroit could not arrive at a more politically-unstable time. Leaving an early preview screening of the Kathryn Bigelow historical-drama, a notification appeared on my phone, revealing that Don*ld Tru*p had threatened North Korea with 'fire and fury', with the dictatorship state retorting with supposed plans to launch a nuclear bomb to test the presidents' threats. As of this moment, we have not entered World War III - but who knows whether that will be the case by the time I hit publish on this review.

Detroit documents the 1967 riots and police raids, which sparked one of the largest citizens' uprisings in the history of the United States of America. It is largely based around the Algiers Motel incident during the racially-charged 12th Street Riot and places the race tensions and discriminations of the time under the spotlight. Because of her critically-acclaimed previous releases, The Hurt Locker (which earned her an Oscar for Best Director) and Zero Dark Thirty, Bigelow's Detroit arrives on a wave of hype, with high-level expectations in tow.

Detroit is a long and heavy film; 143 minutes long and heavy, to be exact. In striving to tell a monumental true story, Detroit steers itself as closely to the facts, information and documentation available as possible. It is both a blessing and curse that Bigelow is so invested in the story she is telling: on one hand, it demonstrates an admirable drive to finally tell a story history has (inadvertently or not) ignored, in the most enlightening, truthful way possible; on the juxtaposing hand, it prevents Bigelow from viewing the end product in a decisive light, causing her to be unbelievably (but understandably) light-handed when it comes to editing, tightening and cutting the film down to a more appropriate length, clearly worried she would be providing a disservice to the people the story follows and documents.

What that leaves us with is a very bloated, occasionally messy and unfocused film with a brilliant, searing and faultless film hidden within. Its extra padding (and there is SO much of it) provides a unfortunate detriment to the scenes and sequences that work, with its inability to restrain itself putting an damper on the entire viewing experience. Runtime is very often my biggest complaint when it comes to film, and Detroit is one of the biggest offenders in recent memory.

The problem announces itself early on. Just minutes in, it is clear that Detroit deals with such an expansive, wide-spreading and crucial event in history, incorporating stock footage into the first act to give us scope of the riots. It is effective to begin with, setting an uncomfortable tone from the beginning - but it flounders soon after, struggling to find anything - or anyone - to anchor itself to. It finds itself rambling and meandering its way around its opening thirty to forty-five minutes, largely devoid of guidance or development or progression or successful assertions. We know the city is rioting, we know it serious and we understand that race plays a huge part in the uneasiness - but it wastes an awful lot of time saying very little. It almost lost viewers, with a restless audience from an early start.

However, after an exhausting act (and not in a very positive sense), Detroit delivers one of the most sophisticated, blistering, brutal and all-round outstanding middle acts of the year. Focused on the evening of the motel raid, Detroit engineers a searing atmosphere, operating almost like a horror film in its tension, direction and caustic nature. Unrelenting and visceral, the entire middle stretch is an absolute masterclass in film-making, ringing out a blistering atmosphere that elicits a clear emotional response from its audience. I simply cannot stress how nerve-shredding and shattering this middle act is, leaving you breathless as the night in the Algiers unfolds in an increasingly bloody, intense and brutal fashion.

Act two prospers for a number of reasons; Bigelow's direction is confident and masterful, a continual demonstration of her talent and skill, as previously proclaimed in The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty; Mark Boal's script is agonising, crafted with a sophistication and know-how, a clear understanding on how to build tension to almost excruciating levels and deliver authentic dialogue to showcase the themes of power, control and fear. It explores these themes (and a myriad of others) with a deft intellect and resolution to present them in a raw and appropriate way, suitable to the situation and era. Of course, race is a huge element of the piece and it handles it smartly, showing both good and bad on each side.

Detroit has a handful of excellent performances in the mix too. John Boyega provides a nuanced and powerful performance as Melvin Dismukes, a private security guard working for the side that so openly victimises people like him; his character is a musing on acceptance versus tolerance and Boyega handles it superbly and with stead. Algee Smith, Anthony Mackie, Jason Mitchell and Jacob Latimore, in particular, are convincing and emotive as some of the police brutality victims, with Ben O'Toole and Jack Reynor towering as their abusers. However, Detroit's scene-stealer is Will Poulter; whether my perception of him has been tainted by his goofy, hammy performance in We're The Millers or not, that kid is a talent. Here, he plays a towering, brutal and villainous figure leading the systematic racism against the people of the motel with conviction and certitude. In an astounding turn that deserves a Best Supporting performance at the very least, this is bound to be a performance he is remembered for - and rightly so. He may just be the most loathsome villain of the year which boils down to the real-life figure he is based around and Poulter's astounding performance. 

After the masterclass that is act two, act three dips again in quality. It is by no means as rocky as the first act and features some superlative filmmaking (the court case is particularly interesting) but it again lacks a guidance and support to tether itself to. It ends up feeling perfunctory rather than earnest, although that could be fatigue from the heavy two-hours before this point, which really alters the pace and momentum of the piece. Deeply uneven, this final act scales back on the issues presented in the first act but is a substantial step back from the outstanding middle act.

Where does the blame lie for Detroit's inconsistencies then? In all honesty, I'd place a portion of the blame in the script. Boal is a terrific talent, as demonstrated with his sharp and impressive second, but for some reason otherwise struggles to anchor the film. It is unconfident in its first act and uncertain with where to place the emphasis in the final act, resulting in a script that needs further grounding and focus. It is also partly responsible for Detroit's biggest downfall: that blasted runtime. It's lack of self-control compounds pretty much every other issue, hampering the momentum, pace and very often the all-important tone. It is astounding just how Detroit could be improved with a major tightening.

Detroit's dramatisation of a tragic chapter in African-Americans story is a blistering and intense one, leading to an uncomfortable viewing experience that is still all-too familiar nowadays given the fraught political backdrop we are currently experiencing. It is gut-wrenching and nerve-shattering in its second act and glimpses of phenomenal film-making can be seen elsewhere - but it is so uneven and over-bloated in other instances that you cannot help but feel disappointed that a tighter, leaner picture couldn't be offered as the final product.


Summary: Detroit features one of the most nerve-shattering, gut-wrenching and blistering acts of the year, centred around an important, tragic chapter from US history - but with so much extra padding and a hesitancy in post-production, Detroit fails to become the superlative picture it so deserves to be.

Tuesday, 8 August 2017

Girls Trip (2017) (Review)

Comedy in 2017 has been completely dry; Baywatch was 'as funny as a beached whale' according to one critic, Snatched was entirely forgettable and The House crumbled down with disastrous reviews and a poor box office showing. Table 19 all but disappeared without a trace and Rough Night was delayed in the UK after its disappointing US reception. Other than The Big Sick (which is an all together different type of comedy in my eyes), we haven't had a breakout comedy smash since last year's Bad Moms.

And then, like a breath of fresh air in the cinematic landscape, Girls Trip rolled by.

The film follows the story of four lifelong friends rekindling their friendship with an overdue weekend getaway trip to New Orleans for the annual Essence Music Festival. Ryan (Regina Hall), Sasha (Queen Latifah), Lisa (Jada Pinkett Smith) and Dina (Tiffany Haddish) try to make the most of their rare trip and time together given their busy schedules - but when a picture sends one of their lives tumbling down, the role of sisterhood, friendship and unity has never been more important. As with most comedies, the premise acts only as a vehicle for a whole barrage of hilarity from our four leads and supporting cast - and they provide it in abundance.

Girls Trip has absolutely no right to be as flat-out hilarious as it is. It lacked originality, unfolding in the most predictable manner with little in the way of narrative surprise; it occasionally struggled with a tonal balance between the comedy and heavier, dramatic moments; and it was slightly on the bloated side. But when a film is this uproarious and riotous, executed with a determined focus on the laughs and providing its audience with the best time at the cinema, you can brush off those flaws and enjoy it for the wild ride it is.

Girls Trip is a laugh-a-minute and then some. You will be hard-pressed to find a period longer than that without, at the very least, registering a light chuckle - and most of the time it is full-on belly-laughs. Kenya Barris and Tracy Oliver's screenplay lays the foundations for the lead actresses to go to town with, providing them with a story of great scope and set pieces to work with. Be it a high-flying zip-wire, a motel room fresh out of CSI or that grapefruit moment, Girls Trip is unrelenting in its delight and amusement: even when derivative of other female-led comedies, it finds a way to keep you invested, engaged and crying with laughter.

Of course, this wouldn't be possible without its game cast, and all four members of the 'Flossy Posse' throw themselves into their roles without hesitation. It is ever-refreshing to see smart, complex black female characters in cinema (and particularly comedy, where they are often relegated to purely 'for the laughs' individuals), with Girls Trip giving us four of them in one package. Regina Hall's Ryan is a successful business-type woman, crafting her empire within an inch of its life. While probably the least flexible when it comes to the laughs, she is required to carry a substantial amount of the film's emotion and she handles it superbly - ending with a rousing speech on the importance of unity and friendship, she strikes the balance between the laughs and the drama, upholding the weigh of the film with ease, sophistication and grace.

Queen Latifah's Sasha is seen as a sell-out by the other girls, now using her journalism degree for petty celebrity gossip; the bitterness between Sasha and Ryan, in particular, provides the film's central conflict that threatens to reach a climax at varying points throughout the film. Similar to Hall, Latifah is required to deliver some of the heavier moment of the piece and complete succeeds in balancing the two tones, even when the general film splutters a little on this front. Jada Pinkett Smith proved to be quite the delight as Lisa, the highly-strung, sex-less single mother of two that every comedy has. Here though, thanks to Pinkett Smith, she is developed as a character and human rather than a plot device, joyously demonstrating her uptight characters' facade finally breaking away across her weekend with the girls. Eventually responsible for one of the most scandalous laughs, Pinkett Smith is less guarded than expected and confirms that she is quite the comedy star.

And then we have Tiffany Haddish. Doing for Haddish what Bridesmaids did for Melissa McCarthy, she is a certified scene-stealer and the next big comedy breakthrough, no questions asked. Dealing with arguably the thinnest writing and weakest characterisation of the four leads, her natural talent and comedic excellence allows her to sail through the film, stealing every scene along the way. Be it her hilarious high-wire tricks or grapefruit antics, she throws everything at the wall with the performance and is bound to see the roles roll in from it. She possesses no such thing as nuance but benefits from how outlandish and how far she is willing to push it.

The benefit of seeing a comedy in a packed, sold-out screening means you get a sense of which jokes hit and which jokes miss, outside the perimeters of your own interests and taste when it comes to the most divisive genre - and I can say, with complete confidence and conviction, that almost every joke obliterated the target, sending audiences into a comedic frenzy of excitement and joy. People were screaming, stamping and on their feet with the joy over this film, a crowd-pleasing experience unmatched in cinema this year. In fact, the last time a cinema screening was even half as enthusiastic as this was for Hidden Figures and Get Out. Take from that what you will. 

Malcom D. Lee understands that less is more and allows the cast to do the heavy-lifting. There are no special technical flourishes or directing trickery to distract from the fun the ladies are having, which makes it easier to appreciate the sheer glee of friends having together. He could have done with trimming a little from the second/third act to tighten it up, but pushing it over two hours does not hamper the film too much. I also really missed a gag reel at the end - you can see how much fun the cast are having and it would have been a treat to see one play over the credits. As you can tell though, these are very minor issues and it does not detract from the brilliant time you have from Girls Trip's first frame until its last.

Along with The Big Sick, Girls Trip puts an end to the awful comedy drought we have experienced lately. What it lacks in originality and surprise it makes up for by its fast-rate laughs and the generally wild time it offers cinemagoers. It puts the likes of Baywatch, Snatched and The House to shame, eagerly demonstrating just how a comedy should operate, while at the same time making some sharp comments on the importance of (black, in particular) womanhood, friendship and independence, all wrapped up in a cinematic experience as wild and exciting as Dina's demonstrations.


Summary: Girls Trip is downright hilarious and very probably the best surprise of the summer; while it is most certainly a laugh-a-minute and then some, it finds time to tell a surprisingly moving story about friendship and sisterhood, helmed by four of the most talented comedians in the industry today. An absolute comedic triumph.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Orphan Black (S5E9) - One Fettered Slave (Review)

It is darkest before dawn and following the death of Mrs S - one of Clone Club's most valued members - Hour 49 is a sombre one. We have arrived at Orphan Black's penultimate hour of television and, with the end well and truly in sight and so much ground left to cover, narrative progression is key. Neolution are in the process of being exposed and/or wiped out completely, while the seestras are reeling over their loss - and discover that Helena is missing, days from giving birth. It is a race against time now, to save their sister and avoid more blood being spilt.

In the footsteps of Alison's Beneath Her Heart, Cosima's Ease For Idle Millionaires and Rachel's Gag or Throttle, Helena is very much in One Fettered Slave's foresight. Arguably, Helena experienced the most different childhood to her seestras, Rachel aside: unlike them, she was aware of her uniqueness from a young age - as we learned in season one, she was raised in convents and by religious cults with the understanding she was the original, the light as it is put, installing her with a self-righteousness that initially made her such an enemy for the seestras. While I'd argue this Helena-centric hour isn't as satisfying as Alison, Cosima or Rachel's, it insightfully delivers some additional context for us to consider.

One Fettered Slave shines a spotlight on that mindset, providing audiences with an insight into her difficult childhood - including beatings from the convent's nuns and bleaching torture, leading to her blonde locks. It's been a question I'd simply put down to the nature versus nurture argument, but to see a young Helena put through so much distress makes her current journey all the more aching. Just give her a happy ending, Orphan Black, please! It further demonstrates Orphan Black's strength to, even at this late stage of the game in the final season, fill the gaps, strengthens and develops these characters; it is inspiring and a testament to their writing, characters and performances.

When we are not witnessing her childhood through flashbacks and her manipulation at the hands of the Proletheans, she is being held by Neolution days before the birth of her twins in the present. While a kidnapped Helena is nothing new, we are in dire straits at this point - so close to the end but so far from safety, meaning her biology (and life) is truly under the wire. Orphan Black has always struggled knowing what to do with Helena, often sending her off for lengthy periods and pushing her back in the fold when she is needed; thankfully, we get these last two episodes seemingly revolving around her, Sarah and the miracle bond they share.

 Sarah and the gang bundle together and use all their resources to plan a rescue mission for Helena - a definitive development since season one, when they were both trying to kill each other. Sarah, Felix and Kira, particularly, are still struggling to come to terms with the loss of Mrs S, with the episode opening at her funeral-come-wake; there is a sense of exhaustion hanging over this episode and works in reminding you just how much the clones have experienced in just a handful of months. You can tell the end is nearing at this stage - let's just hope the clones have more energy to take it on kicking and screaming.

Cosima (Delphine has wandered off, again) and Alison are very much on the outskirts of the episode. Not allowed to attend Mrs S' sendoff, they watch from the outside, sympathising for poor Sarah who seems to be having the toughest time of the bunch lately. Alison's remark of "she always has to be strong, it's not right" truly emphasises just the journey she has undertaken as a character, taking on the weight of the conspiracies and the brunt of the danger. "We'll pick her back up again", Cosima promises - we'll have to see whether they get the chance when the series wraps up next week.

Rachel continues her journey of enlightenment with one incredible moment standing out: "her name is Helena" she declares, as she attempts to wring out Helena's location. She has the largest target on her back now and she needs the help of Clone Club as much as they need her. It's sobering to think that both Helena and Rachel have previously been out to harm the seestras but their commonalities have ultimately thrown them together as part of the collective. 

You're more than welcome to skip this paragraph because you have heard it all before: Tatiana Maslany continues to do some of her strongest work on the show in this final season. Watching as Helena's eyes fill with tears, which in turn pushes her to perform a ghastly action, is nothing short of devastating and every ounce of emotion is captured in Maslany's nuanced turn. While she eventually lives to fight another day (or does she?), this truly feels like a cathartic release after years of torment and her troubled past, with Maslany infusing so much of the emotion and fragility into these moments. Of course, she's on hand as Alison to provide some lighter notes, including an instant classic - "bible-thumping little traitor" is a line I'll use every day from this one forth.

In all honest, One Fettered Slave is a little messier than one would hope the penultimate episode of any show would be. The scale of the intertwining conspiracies are finally untangling and the daunting task of wrapping it up, as well as delivering Helena her dues, result in a top-heavy episode, ready to topple at any given moment. As an avid Orphan Black supporter, I can let that slide - I understand that's not going to be the case for others and those not quite as invested as someone reviewing it week-in, week-out. The overwhelming ground left to cover means this one is all over the pace, trying to put audiences in a stronger position for the final part of the finale. 

One Fettered Slave's main death is a really heartbreaking one, but it is brushed off and moved on from so quickly we barely have time to mourn the loss. Likewise, while the loss looms large, the time-jump from S' death to her funeral feels rather jarring and is a determent to the season's pace and momentum. What happened in those (four) days between? Why do you think it's acceptable to cut out such a substantial amount of time at such a critical juncture? It really is a disservice to the tension cultivated over the previous few episodes by taking these unnecessary liberties that come off as somewhat lazy.

We do have some tenderly-directed scenes in the episode though; in the moment, the aforementioned death feels so personal and intimate, similar to Sarah's journey around Siobhan's house, a delicate and raw moment to distill from the otherwise drama-heavy narrative. It is clear the episode is directed by David Frazee, who brought us Gag or Throttle, due to a number of revived techniques present in both; the importance of lighting and the sharp zoom on Helena to inspire memories provide us with some terrific parallels, once again demonstrating the journey from enemy to friend to sister both undertook across the series.

Hour 49's writing is cluttered and stuffy but understandably so. I keep emphasising the sheer ground still left to cover, but tying these narrative strands up is like a fine juggling act - this episode stumbles on multiple occasions but feels like a sacrifice for the closing hour; getting this out the way now will hopefully result in a more satisfying series closer next week.

I wish we were heading into the final ever episode of Orphan Black on more aplomb footing; One Fettered Slave, as enlightening as it is with Helena at the forefront, is a little cluttered and partly interrupts the momentum following a bizarre time jump. We aren't given too long to mourn and some decisions are frustrating (Delphine's disappearing act after such a major blow for the family, mainly) - but it works in moving the pieces into position, ready for what promises to be a mind-blowing finale. Everything has fallen into place to deliver a thrillingly conclusion to the show. The final hour approaches...

Episode Grade: B

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

Friday, 4 August 2017

Valerian & The City of a Thousand Planets (2017) (Review)

Valerian & The City of a Thousand Planets has already been labelled the 'best film of the summer' and the 'worst film of the year', with general reviews coalescing somewhat in the middle of the two extremes. Few films have earned that dual distinction and it makes the life of a film blogger a very exciting one, unaware which side of the fences you will ultimately find yourself on. With the 'legendary' director Luc Besson at the helm and the likes of Dane Dehaan and Cara Delevigne leading the way, is this a sci-fi piece to rival the very best, or more of a disaster?

Agents Valerian and Laureline are part of the human police force, protecting the solar system through various missions and tasks. After Valerian's 'dream' of the debris of a crashing spaceship destroying a luscious tropical island and their humanoid race turns out to be a reality, he begins to question why it was sent to him. A mission to protect the commander of Alpha, a space station containing millions of alien species, turns into a rescue and uncover mission when he is abducted by the same humanoids supposedly destroyed on the beach. Can Valerian and Laureline save Alpha from an impending disaster that would leave the millions that populate the intergalactic civilisation dead and extinct?

Trying to streamline that synopsis was a difficult task and immediately highlights the main problem with Valerian & The City of a Thousand Planets (one reflected in the title too); there is simply far too much going on to satisfy. Considering the premise itself is thin and sketchy to say the least, it complicates itself with needless plot strands that deflates what is an otherwise stunning spectacle. Quite frankly, it is all over the place and struggles to decide the story it wants to tell. It is as if Valerian tries to cram in the origin story and the sequel into one bloated, sluggish product - considering the lacklustre box office performance and future projections, alongside the small fortune it cost to make (it is, by far, the largest ever French production), it is clear Valerian gets far too ahead of itself to care about crafting a solid, sturdy foundation. To simply throw everything at the wall in one go is Valerian's biggest downfall and misstep.

Luc Besson's screenplay is the biggest mistake of the bunch. Not only are the endless B-plots suffocating, pushing the runtime to an almost unfathomable 137 minutes that feels closer to three hours than two, but the characters are as one-dimensional as they come; Valerian is the 'arrogant jerk', while Laureline is the 'kick-ass female' and they don't develop beyond that really. Now, character work is probably not the reason most come to a sci-fi fantasy film, particularly one on this scale, but there is no (human) character to root your care and interest in, which causes the stakes to never raise above 'mildly concerned'.

Because it is such a muddle, a lot of Valerian's momentum is ruined. While act one provides a light, fluffiness that gets the ball rolling effectively, it becomes bogged down in the mission as we progress through act two and into act three, which ends the piece on a rather bitter note. Every so often, we get glimpses of a truly inventive piece of cinema - but it is never sustained due to the bloated pace and sheer volume of plot strands and scope it considers. For an over/under $200 million-picture, visuals aside, Valerian struggles through unexpectedly dull periods of time.

Besson is far more successful as a director though and brings his typically barmy design and marvel to proceedings. Inventive and fresh, the alien deigns are a continual source of amazement and provide the picture with an innovation that deserves to be recognised and heralded. Colours splash and splatter across the scene in delicious, delirious fashion, mimicking the effects of the world's biggest sugar rush in a truly spectacular fashion. Every single set pieces seems crammed with visual treats to appreciate - be it the luscious clouds and tropical islands to the frantic beauty of Alpha and fantastic spaceships - and, for its aesthetics alone, deserves to be seen on the biggest screen in your area. Besson builds a feel for this spiralling, magnetic world with far more successful than he does with any of his characters.

Considering Besson's script is so weak, it's a wonder Dane Dehaan and, particularly, Cara Delevigne escape as unscathed as they do. While both lack the power of more established leading men and women in their conviction, they work well enough with what they are given and are able to infuse some of their natural charisma into their characters, otherwise completely blank slates. Cara Delevigne, who had my backing as the lone supporter of Paper Towns, is delightful and confident enough as Laureline and shows signs of being a genuine leading lady, after the misfire that was Suicide Squad. Dane Dehaan is undeniably talented but cannot help but appear as miscast here, ever so slightly uncomfortable and distant playing the jerk - I guess that's a testament to Dehann himself? He just about manages to play the arrogant lead but it is so clear that it doesn't come naturally to him.

Perhaps surprisingly, they both fare better in their individual moments - rather repetitively, they both undertake a prolonged rescue mission to save the other - than when they are together. This simmers down to a slightly stilted chemistry, borne from mis-match of their characters to begin with, meaning I'll place the blame with the source material, rather than either talent. Discussions of marriage are wholly irrelevant and do little to develop the narrative in anyway, instead adding another cook to spoil the broth.

Valerian's score and soundtrack is as attention-grabbing as the visuals, imbedding the piece with a suitably quirky identity. Alexandre Desplat's collection matches the excitement of the intergalactic battles and chases, instilling the film with an excitement during the first act in particular and emphasises the more emotional elements. It does a far more successful job in championing the eclectic set of tones than its script could even imagine, providing the award-winning composer with another soundtrack to place in his impressive discography.

Valerian was sold as a balls-to-the-wall, unrelenting, fire-cracking space opera and, by comparison, it cannot help but underwhelm. On balance, the positives slightly outweigh the negatives; but those negatives, predominantly the messy and over bloated runtime that feeds into a major disruption in pace and structure, cripple it completely. There's an admirable depth and innovation to the world building, vision and scope of Valerian; there is absolutely none to the character and the script, impairing the entire picture and bogging it down completely.


Summary: Valerian's visual spectacle, astonishment and mind-boggling design can only paper over the cracks of a weak, messy script, and poor writing so much, ultimately leaving audiences with an over-bloated, almost exhausting end product that feels like a disappointing misfire.