Sunday, 28 August 2016

Anthropoid (2016) (Review)


It's very typical for a film to build up from the get go, only to completely unfold in the final stretch; other films are relentlessly engaging which only serves to jeopardise the ending, removing the intensity from the climax and earnestly underwhelm; occasionally, a film comes a long and starts (a little painfully) slowly, only to end in a blaze of glory that takes your breath away; Sean Ellis' Anthropoid absolutely falls into the latter and what one may see as a weakness at the beginning actually encourages the film's biggest strength later on. A number of films this year have been emotionally affecting (Eye In The Sky, SpotlightMoney Monster and, of course, Room), but few consider themes and pushes them as Anthropoid does.

In December 1941, two government agents from Czechoslovak - Jozef Gabcik (Cillian Murphy) and Jan Kubis (Jamie Dornan) - are parachuted into their occupied homeland with a mission from Britain; assassinate Reinhard Heydrich, the main architect of Nazi Germany's Final Solution regime, also known as 'the Butcher of Prague', who is responsible for the death of thousands of civilians. Along with other parachutists, the pair must find refugee and blend in to the occupied Prague but paranoia, loss and disloyalty ensues. Based on the real 'Operation Anthropoid', Heydrich's attempted assassination, the true to form picture is a heart-wrenching historical drama-thriller that documents the risks the heroes take.

Cillian Murphy and Jamie Dornan play two agents attempting to save their homeland from the increasing Nazi presence, offering understated performances where some may be tempted to exaggerate and lionise. Enhanced by the cinematography and muted pallets, which gives the film a distinctive period style and the shaky filmmaking which gives it a real-to-life, documentary style quality, these performances feel deeply honest and raw, not hiding behind typical Hollywood 'hero saves the day' tropes and characterisation; we see Kubis genuinely shaken with a gun in his hands and the desperation faced by Gabcik in the film's final moments of the film is genuinely moving, offering raw, human representations of the soldiers. Often, with Hollywood's love for superheroes, soldiers are given their own 'superpowers', but in this instance, they are ordinary humans fighting for their country, waiting on a ticking bomb and approaching their impending doom with honour, dignity and courage. They are not invincible and Anthropoid embraces this, never making them such, highlighting the sacrifice they make by giving their lives to their countries safety. The film also features an assorted strong supporting cast that we manage to feel connected to, despite their minor roles.

After the initial intensity of the first sequence, Anthropoid is deliberately slow in pace, burning quietly for a while before the whole can of gas lights up the scattered action in the second act before reaching the climax in the third. A introduced romantic sub-plot, one that many may dismiss at first, admittedly interrupts the momentum of the first act, holding it back from ever moving at a consistent pace, but is incredibly important as we progress. At the time, it feels unnecessary and unneeded, doing more harm than good, but by the time the third act begins, it is evident the importance of those initial scenes, humanising the characters and increase the intensity every step of the way. This structure prevents it from feeling predictable or formulaic, utilising quick editing techniques and cuts to add a sense of unease that only seeks to heighten the anxiety experienced by the audience heading for the two 'big' sequences of the films. The prolonged climax never feels short of being taut, tense and heart-wrenching, caused mainly by the way our investment in the two leads has been crafted through the film's 120 minutes: one moment in particular, in which a sound echoes between the two locations, followed by a single tear drop, is astonishingly beautiful and soul-destroying, with this almost silent moment speaking the loudest of friendship, pain and loss- more so than any bomb, gunfire or screaming. It's an image that will stay with me.

Dramatising the events of Operation Anthropoid offers a rich and gripping story to explore and its a surprise it hasn't been looked at much before, save for a few smaller films focusing on different aspects of the mission. Whilst its evident from the style and genre choices that this is a film set in the past, with wartime and Nazi iconography immediately setting the tone, Ellis seeks to reflect themes that many will recognise in a society that occasionally feels too eerily similar to the events of the film, if not directly in westernised cities and countries, than in the media. Disloyalty, family, friends, loss, paranoia, strength, patriotism and truth are each explored in their own subtle way throughout the film, offering morally-complex thoughts and notions throughout the film. One scene, in which a young lad is tortured before being reminded of his mother is blood-curdling and absolutely shocking twist, is not beyond what you can comprehend after hearing horror stories from similar areas devastated by war and extremism today. In silence, the words at the end of the film are displayed and followed with audible gasps from the audience, and while this is dramatised from our past, the moment is stops deeply affecting us is the moment we have lost touch it, and stopped learning from mistakes as we strive for a better future.

I can sit here and nit-pick this film for a few minor flaws - the sound is, in places, weak, some minor characters aren't well-defined, their aims aren't always clear and are difficult to follow. We are with loose ends for some characters which is rather frustrating but even then, it is hard not to be affected by the tale told of Anthropoid. Shocking and sobering, it is a well acted period piece that will stay with you long after you leave the theatre, and deserves to be, for the tale it tells. It's a difficult watch but a necessary one, and while admittedly one not everyone could stomach, I would deeply encourage them to, for the tale it tells of the soldiers needs to be heard.

(8/10)

Summary: Deeply affecting, powerful and sobering, Anthropoid is a difficult watch, but thanks to a strong direction, solid cast and recognisable themes, one that should be seen and understood to learn from.

Highlight: It's a tough watch, so 'highlight' isn't the best word, but the scenes singled out above, including the final act, will always stay with me.

Friday, 26 August 2016

Lauren Aquilina - Isn't It Strange? (2016)


Lauren Aquilina has slowly been making a name for herself since independently crafting and releasing her self-written EP trilogy, encompassing Fools, Sinners and Liars, shortly after which she was signed to Island Records to begin work on a debut album. Since the final trilogy instalment, Liars, in March of 2014, new music has slowly been drip fed, including the Ocean EP, teasing the upcoming album, and a prestigious slot advertising Downtown Abbey's final season advert with a stunning rendition of Time To Say Goodbye. The time now has finally arrived for Aquilina to release her debut collection, Isn't It Strange?.

Best described as indie pop, Aquilina's 'Isn't It Strange?' is pristine pop crafted to the highest degree, with heartbreakingly honest lyrics, rising and inspiring atmospheres and a beautiful voice that is never complicated by excessive production or effects. Despite the emotion behind the lyrics, each of the ten songs that comprise her first studio album feels unique and identifiable, standing out instead of merging into the next, whilst still managing to fit together in the cohesive collection. Below, I have ranked the tracks and written a little on each and encourage you to let me know your favourites too.

Way Too Good

Conjuring Aquilina's beautiful lyrics in a full pop bop, Way Too Good is one of the most relatable tracks I have ever heard and the way she captures such a recognisable emotion, yet have it sound so upbeat, is very special. Easily one of the best tracks of her career, this deserves to be heard live to experience the wonderful 'sing along' section at the end.

Midnight Mouths

Once again, another personal experience has been documented in a way that everybody can relate to, no matter their circumstances, whether it be toward someone they know or of oneself. It's brilliantly clever and produced in a way that combines a number of different sounds within one track, becoming one of the more 'producer' tracks while never losing its personality.

Kicks

Outside the Ocean EP, this was lifted as the first 'single' from the album and it feels as exciting and inspiring now as it did upon its first release earlier this year. You cannot help but sing this song with empowerment and strength to this song, with another uplifting track crafted that feels different to anything else we have heard.

How Would You Like It?

In an album that feels very emotive, How Would You Like It? feels more than that - its raw and natural and honest, so much so that you can hear it in Lauren's voice throughout, particularly towards the end. Once again, it feels relatable even if you haven't experience the exact situation that inspired the song.

Wicked Games

Featuring possibly one of my smartest lyrics I have ever heard, "he said he didn't do commitment/ with tattoos on his skin/ maybe i wasn't worth the pain", Wicked Games features one of the catchiest chorus on the album, standing out for all the correct reasons.

Hurt Any Less

I'm beginning to sound like a broken record throwing the words 'relatable' and 'personal' around, but they are absolutely right for this track too. With a rousing chorus and punchy atmosphere, it leans into the pop genre more than many other songs on the album and I love it all the more for that.

Suddenly Strangers

Despite sounding more experimental than the album's other tracks, Suddenly Strangers still feels quintessentially Aquilina with an uplifting atmosphere despite the emotional content of the track. "I used to say you were my home/ but now the house is empty" is a standout lyric.

Ocean

Ocean lands here only because it has been in our lives for a while now and I'm rushing to hear the new material. It was a brilliant taster for the album and still sounds fresh months after its release (it also is responsible for two of my favourite Aquilina tracks, Out of Our Depths and Low, both of which featured on the EP).

Talking About

It's a beautiful sign that I absolutely love this track, despite ranking so far down the ranking. It reminds of 'teenage love', feeling infatuated with someone to the point where you think of little else, despite your best efforts. Aquiline sounds lovely and its another special one, if not an instantly memorable one.

Fools (Live at RAK Studios)

A true throwback, Fools, the first song we ever heard from Aquilina, is given a stunning live reimagining and while I still absolutely adore this song for its smart lyrics and Lauren's stunning vocals on the track, it simply falls into this position for not being new, although the live touch still makes it an incredible (and emotional, having witnessed her growth) listen.


Isn't It Strange? may just be one of my favourite albums ever and certainly the year's best so far. It is beautifully written, stunningly performed and produced in a manner that puts Aquilina's talent front and centre. It holds a special place in my heart as, having been a fan of Aquilina's since her debut EP, it shows an incredible progression and I am unbelievably happy her talent is being more widely recognised and celebrated.

Lauren Aquilina's Isn't It Strange is out now, with physical copies available on her official store and HMV, on digital retailers such as iTunes, and various streaming services. Please take a moment to support the artist who truly deserves the success.

War Dogs (2016) (Review)


Minutes before the preview of War Dogs, director Todd Phillips' latest film, I read a review from a fellow film blogger who slated the film for all it was worth; as such, I nearly walked out the free screening and ran as far as I could. That, however, did remind me though of the significance of expectations (something that befell Suicide Squad, for me anyway) and how you should never judge a book by its cover, or let others impact your own judgment. That's not to say I loved War Dogs - not by any stretch of the imagination - but I'm very glad I can make my own judgment now and will always encourage others too.

War Dogs follows two arms dealers, Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill) and David Packouz (Miles Teller), who win a government contract to supply weapons for U.S. troops in Afghanistan, turning war into a financial machine to fuel their excessive lifestyles. Based on a true story, although heavily dramatised and fictionalised, their ultimate rise and fall is depicted in this crime-war comedy drama film, that can never quite decide what genre it falls into.

Surprisingly, the film handles its two central protagonists well. Mainly thanks to solid performances from Teller and Hill, the two antiheroes are never lionised or celebrated for their actions, unlike this year's Best Picture nominee The Big Short - a film I truly detested -  despite the over the top portrayal from Hill in particular, who occasionally feels like a pantomime villain. The two create a strong chemistry when they are on screen together and it is in these moments that the film is strongest. While these two central characters were performed well and with notable characterisation, I simply didn't care for them, something which prevented my investment in the film a little. The only character I cared for was Iz, Packouz's wife, played by the impressive Ana de Armas, who created a believable supporting performance in a film that often skirted such a notion, becoming more farcical and melodramatic as it went on - an obvious victim to over-dramatisation that it may not have needed it.

Thematically, the film never quite knows where it sits, reflected in its uneasy approach to deciding what genre it fits into. The first few minutes are promising in offering a genuinely satirical analysis of the actual cost of war and how people will exploit the misfortune, but it never quite lives up to that initial promise and falls short of satire on too many occasions to explore deeper themes and impacts. That rules the satire genre out. As a comedy, the film fails to evoke more than a handful of chuckles and even more than that. Comedy? Not really. And as a serious drama, it falls short of the mark. This is no Oscar material, despite Bradley Cooper's brief apperances. It settles for an unnatural and awkward hybrid and combination of a number of genres, which is perhaps also why the film runs on a good 15 to 20 minutes too long, losing pace in the second to third act. It is, however, structured in a way that helps keep it relatively snappy, moving from set piece and location to the next well, even with this extra runtime.

The mixed messages continue with the very basic outline of the plot: we are continually reminded of the notoriety of the operation, though these are uneasily paralleled with shots of money, drugs and guns, attempting to remind us how 'cool' these guys are. If this is an attempt at being ironic, it didn't quite work, as being 'on the nose' sometimes alienates the actual message. It's sort of entertaining, but could be so much more than that, hindered by its predictability; there are a few surprising twists but a story as remarkable as this one should not have viewers knowing exactly what is about to happen.

I don't have much more to say about War Dogs other than it is a very average film - watchable, but not rewatchable. Nothing is terrible, nothing is that good. What worked against War Dogs for me was the echoes back to The Big Short and whilst this is a vast improvement on that absurdity, the similarities remain and it didn't shake them off. I am still a little flummoxed as to what the film is/was trying to say, even upon reflection but perhaps thats just my understanding of it. It's a film that will work for some more than others but when you have free tickets, you wouldn't turn it down.

(4/10)

Summary: War Dogs certainly isn't terrible, but it's not good either, mainly because it lacks its own identity and becomes increasingly confused on what it is, what it is trying to say, and what it is trying to do.

Highlight: Johan Hill's laugh. Or maybe that's the worst part. I just don't know with this film.




Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Suicide Squad (2016) (Review)


Suicide Squad is the film on everybody's lips, it would seem, and arguably the most anticipated film of the summer blockbuster season. It's both on the front-foot and the back-foot in terms of what it means to the wide DC Extended Universe: it seems the marketing campaign has done wonders for the film's financial success and word of mouth has been at fever pitch all season long, while on the other hand, the film is acting as a follow-up to the critically-panned Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice (which in itself was born from the ill-received Man of Steel). Is Suicide Squad the film that will finally put them on the right track?

Suicide Squad was the name on everybody's lips heading into the summer blockbuster season this year. After an underwhelming slate, many assumed, hoped and anticipated that Suicide Squad would inject the life into the season that it so desperately needed. It also had the weight of the DCEU on its shoulders, with the critically-panned Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice, itself borne from the ill-received Man of Steel, deeply underwhelming. However, it seemed that Suicide Squad would break the DC curse, with a killer ensemble cast, exciting characters, insanely good marketing and chart-topping soundtrack. Then the reviews rolled in. I never let impact my own personal judgment of a film but they were pretty catastrophic - somehow even worse than Dawn of Justice. Still, I go in with an open-mind.

Following the 'death' of Superman at the end of Dawn of Justice, government official Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) assembles Task Force X, a group of imprisioned and deadly supervillains who will execute dangerous black ops missions and save the world from powerful threats, in exchange for leaner sentences. Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), Deadshot (Will Smith), El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) and Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) are led by Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), who is personally motivated to save his girlfriend June Moone (Cara Delevigne) from the evil supernatural entity that has taken over here, Enchantress to undertake these missions. Oh, and the Joker (Jared Leto) is around too.

The ensemble cast is pretty game here, but three people steal the spotlight; Davis plays the ambitious and devious Waller with confidence, realising that what she is doing is immoral and as such, works on a number of ways to protect herself from the backlash. Like most, she is underused but promising; Will Smith's Deadshot is more conflicted in his criminality and gets some of the more touching moments of the piece, which he mostly sells, despite how predictable it all is; the film's true saviour, of course, is Margot Robbie's Harley Quinn; dysfunctional, flawed but scarily endearing (or manipulating, whichever way you spin it), Robbie brings her to life with a fire-cracking and rip-roaring performance, offering humour by the bucket load with a touch of tenderness as we see her spiralling addiction to the Joker. It's not explored nearly enough and she is certainly underused and underserved, but she makes the best of the material she has and will likely be one of the sole reasons I return for a sequel. Of the Joker, once again, Leto's performance seems nothing short of intriguing, but the jury is still out on this one, as he feels either shoehorned in for the sake of 'added value' or given poor material to work with. It's disconcerting that arguably the most infamous villain in comic book history is so underwhelming in his first re-invention since Heath Ledger's acclaimed performance in Nolan's trilogy.

Other than the aforementioned Quinn (and, to an extent, Deadshot, but that's simply down to Smith performance), I couldn't care less about these characters - the biggest cause for Suicide Squad's failure. The filmmakers fail to take the time to craft these characters, aside from a few perfunctory flashbacks that, in a nutshell, explain that these supervillains aren't all bad, ironically denying the audience the fun of the 'all-bad' squad. When it is turn for them to demonstrate their bad sides though, they never truly are, and leaves the audience pondering on how you should feel towards them. It's uncomfortable balancing act spectacularly fails and results in the audiences simply not understanding the purpose of this film (well, outside the financial purpose, of course). Further collapse is down to glaring structure issues, with the film managing to feel both over-bloated and unfinished, and I imagine (as Leto confirmed) a lot was left on the cutting room floor. With all the editing and post-production additions, it leaves the film very unbalanced and the editing is all over the place, leaving it very flawed - technically and tonally. Those reshoots, requested in the shadow of Dawn Of Justice's complaints, seem to have done more damage than good.

In all the thrills of Suicide Squad, it's unfortunate that the fun is lost in the process. Margot/Harley aside, everything else is damningly flat, and the film takes itself way too seriously. The majority of the one-liners and humour are stale by the time they come around and a little too forced or unnecessary, the obvious victim of Dawn of Justice's backlash and subsequent costly reshoots. The guns and the explosions and the special effects are all well and good (they have a lot to be desired, especially those surrounding Delevingne's character in the final act, but they are assable), but become nothing when you can't invest in anyone or anything involved. Bizarrely, its the quieter moments where the film comes to life, including the flashbacks between the Joker and Quinn (revealing the toxicity of their relationship), the bar scene that bookends two of the more dramatic scenes, and my favourite, in which Quinn sits on top of a car, heartbroken and shattered, only to leap up when attention comes her way. It's this subdued side of the story where the biggest character building and characterisation comes into play and really helps develop these characters beyond the two dimensional 'bad guy' image they all parade around.

Suicide Squad is the best DC of the year, but that says more about its stablemate than the film itself. In the same breath, its the worst film of the summer since the other film. Perhaps Suicide Squad is even more of a disappointment because of the wonders worked by the marketing team, crafting an incredible campaign that duped audiences into thinking DC had pulled it out of the bag with this one. That is a testament to them I suppose and they do deserve all the profits from this one for doing so but the saying goes that even a broken clock is right twice a day. Too many cooks (elements) spoil the broth (film) and I truly kick myself for believing they could win audiences around with this one. Still, even by the smallest sentiment, Suicide Squad is somewhat of a progression, so at least they're moving upwards...

(4.5/10)

Summary: Suicide Squad is the summer's biggest disappointment and isn't the win for DC that many hoped for, even though Margot Robbie is a delight and tries so desperately to save the day as Harley Quinn.

Highlight: Robbie's Quinn. The scene in which she springs to life after being so heartbroken is some truly incredible stuff, as is her "normal is just a button on the dryer, sweetie" and her tender 'desire' granted by Enchantress.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

The Shallows (2016) (Review)


As with the recently reviewed (and absolutely brilliant) Nerve, The Shallows is a rarity this summer, in that it is a wholly original film in a landscape of remakes, reboots, sequels and superheroes. Emerging in UK cinemas after its June domestic release, it seems that The Shallows is the little thriller that could, already trumping its production budget more than four times over (with many more countries to explore) and winning the critics over too. Dubbed Blake Lively vs. Shark, how does The Shallows stand up against the bigger, badder and louder films of the summer season?

After being dropped by a friend, Nancy (Lively) travels to a secluded beach in Mexico to surf, where she begins to question her future as a medical student so shortly after her own mother's death. At first sight, the beauty of the paradise islands seem inviting, but when she becomes stranded with a killer shark on the prowl, Nancy must overcome the creature and fight for her own survival. Cut off and abandoned out at sea, she must do everything to escape death.

More than any other single factor, the success of The Shallows lies with its star, Blake Lively, who puts in a dedicated and powerful performance as a character fighting against all odds. Whilst more recognisable as a horror-thriller on the surface, beneath it, what lies at the heart of the film is a deeply affecting character drama, performed tremendously by Lively. As with her husband's (Ryan Reynolds) own minimalist film, Buried, that too puts only one main character as the focus, drives a hugely rewarding and fascinating performance, building a character you cannot help but root for. It could so easily crumble in the wrong hands, but instead, Lively absolutely succeeds in giving an engrossing and absorbing turn as a character, physically and metaphorically, out of her depth.

Another win for the film is the way the intensity is built throughout; whether through director Jaume Collet-Serra's snappy and disconcerting direction and editing, underwater point-of-view shots or the pulsating music that scores each scene. Knowing the premise and general outline of the film means adrenaline is pumping moments after they arrive at the beach and rarely relents from that point onwards. In act one, the way the music instantly cuts or changes pace sets a very uneasy tone that puts you on the edge of the seat for the film's lean 86 minute runtime, which prevents the film from ever feeling over bloated or uncomfortably long. One-man (or one-woman) films possess the danger of diluting your attention but Lively's captivating performance, matched with these other factors, avoid this feeling from coming into fruition.

Of the visuals that are real, the film is most certainly a masterpiece - the luscious beach and ocean are really something special and looking stunning on screen, but the CGI lets it down; the shark never looks as real as it should be, or could be, which occasionally breaks the magic and intensity of the film a little. It's never woefully bad but neither is it entirely convincing, settling for an uneasy middle ground that makes it passable if not credible. The final moments of Lively vs Shark pushes the believability a little too far, in my opinion, although I cannot grumble too much at it for at least trying to come up with something a little different.

The Shallows, on the whole, is quite the success and can be celebrated for its originality in a summer season that has otherwise lacked it. It is definitely inspired by other shark-starring films (Jaws, of course, springs to mind) but avoids too many of the cliches and tropes. While contested by a certain feathered friend, Lively puts in a brilliantly powerful performance which is all strengthened by a solid direction and post-production efforts. Yes, I complained about the actual shark, but The Shallows is the type of small-budgeted, star and character driven box office affair that is slowly starting to disappear from cinemas, and this $17 million production is becoming more and more of a rarity and risk for studios who are now continually chasing franchises and tentpoles, meaning I can forgive the fact that not every crease is ironed out. It is a shame that these type of films are becoming less common in the cinema schedule because, as with the aforementioned Nerve, The Shallows is a wonderful summer popcorn flick.

(7/10)

Summary: The Shallows is thrilling, taut and tense summer popcorn flick with a powerful performance from Blake Lively at the very front and centre

Highlight: Blake Lively. And Steven.

Friday, 12 August 2016

Nerve (2016) (Review)


Nerve is a techno, virtual-reality thriller from Lionsgate, a studio now attempting to craft a post-Hunger Games (and Divergent...) future, with this relatively low-budgetted summer offering directed by Ariel Schulman and Henry Joost. Emma Roberts and Dave Franco star as 'Players' of 'Nerve', a truth or dare style game where 'Watchers' live-stream their favourite participants in a number of hand-selected dares, with the rewards increasing in parallel with the risk the 'game' poses, all through the comfort of their smartphones. It's quite the definition of a B-movie, seemingly targeted at an underserved teenage demographic on a small budget and restricted marketing costs focusing almost entirely on social media; it really was quite a surprise then when I realise Nerve would probably wind up as one of my favourite films of the summer.

Vee Delmonico (Roberts) is a reserved and unadventurous high-schooler and when encouraged by her friend, and reeling after an embarrassing rejection, Vee signs up for Nerve as a Player. Quickly, Watchers pair her up with Ian (Franco) to complete a number of dares, increasing in risk and danger as the prize fund raises. As they are both dragged further into the game, relationships fray and the competition intensifies, the two are left with no option but to keep playing until the very end.

Emma Roberts and Dave Franco are absolutely charming as the leading protagonists and players, who become more and more out of their depth as the film progresses. Roberts' Vee is the affable underdog you cannot help but champion and her level-headed nature and naivety makes her a compelling character that many will be able to identify with. Franco's Ian is far more mysterious, with a potential hidden agenda, but is equally likeable with an infectious performance delivered. The two are very well-matched as the leads with an endearing chemistry that makes them easy to cheer on, even if their characters are occasionally built on clich├ęs and stereotypes a little too willingly. It's worth noting that the rest of the cast are solid as their teenage peers, even if Roberts and Franco can't help but steal every scene they are in. Visually, the film is also delightful; tinged with neon glows, fairy lights and bright colours, each scene manages to feel youthful, zesty and vibrant as we navigate throughout the dares and missions set for the two protagonists, set in the cityscape.

For a low-key thriller, Nerve has a lot to say about its subject matter - teenagers, technology zeitgeist, internet culture and fame - putting it front and centre while still managing to move at a blistering pace that feels natural and exciting. Its final climax may be a little on the nose and bold, but it is refreshing to see a thriller, particularly targeted at teenagers, making such a daring statement regarding the glamour and pitfalls of technology, as well as crowd psychology and anonymity that often allows such negativity on social media to manifest. Its direction and editing is constantly intriguing, flicking from segment to segment that acts as a reminder of the idea of phases and trends beginning as quickly as they have ended; at a time where Pokemon Go is gripping the world, Nerve feels perfectly timed to add to its mediation. Even with a lot on its mind, Nerve never forgets to be entertaining, feeling sharp enough and pretty enough to be throughly enjoyed - oh, and the soundtrack is pretty neat too.

As I could with Disney Pixar's Finding Dory earlier this summer, I could sit here and nit-pick away at its minor flaws but Nerve still remains a pleasantly refreshing and original thriller that pushes some new areas into the spotlight. The final act feels a little bit rushed and some character cliches are pushed a little too much into effect but never enough to total distract from Nerve's intentions and aims. And while the structure may begin to feel repetitive (dare, complete, dare, complete), it's snappy editing, brilliant leads, colour palettes and speed does more than enough to compensate and differentiate each dare.

With social media at the very heart of the world we live in, the film takes these elements to demonstrate the wide-spreading nature of this technology, as well as the hidden danger through its incredibly intriguing premise. Captivating and brilliantly performed by Roberts and Franco, Nerve exceeded my expectations to become one of the most tense, adrenaline-packed films of the summer. In a blockbuster season that lacked originality, Nerve brought it in abundance, dressing it up in a visually-spectacular package that is well acted, well directed, well edited, thought-provoking and intriguing. With Lionsgate wrapping up their insanely successful Hunger Games franchise with Mockingjay (Part Two) last year and stepping on egg shells with the Divergent series, this is exactly the sort of film that they should pursue as they attempt to craft their new wave of cinema.

(8.5/10)

Summary: Nerve takes an intriguing premise and selection of themes, two charming leads, solid direction and beautiful visuals to deliver an adrenaline-packed, original film, that may just be one of the strongest of the summer. I dare you to watch.

Highlight: The film stands out for being original - something lacking drastically from this year's blockbuster season. Roberts and Franco's chemistry is pretty damn impressive too.

Thursday, 4 August 2016

2016: The Year the Superheroes Fell?


Superhero films have typically been box office gold; Marvel have completely monopolised the blockbuster state in recent years, with the Avengers series (Assemble and Age of Ultron sitting in the top ten films of all time, alongside Iron Man 3) dominating, as well as Fox's X-Men series and DC's Dark Knight trilogy, which have both also had their fair share of the riches. It seemed unstoppable. Until 2016? To say the road has been rocky in an understatement, and while they are still insanely profitable ventures, it seems the superhero game is not bringing the riches it once did. Take a look over this year's box office slate and see how one could come to this conclusion...

It all started very well in February; Deadpool (or the Merc With The Mouth) broke a multitude of records in its opening weekend and won critics over with the off-beat and unconventional superhero choice. Loosely connected to the X-Men series and slapped with an unusual R-rating, the team over at Fox won audiences with their unorthodox marketing, making it the highest-grossing X-Men instalment ($782.6 million) to date, despite the smaller budget ($58 million) and audience restrictions. Whilst I struggled to love the film personally, one has to applaud Fox's creative decisions and success they wholly deserve with a film that should have had everything stacked against it. So far, so good for 2016s superheroes (and Fox)....

Things get a little more difficult in March. DC attempt to launch their Extended Universe with Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Acting as a follow up to the middling Man of Steel three years earlier and performing as the pilot launch for the Justice League, a lot rested on its shoulders; and unfortunately, it collapsed. Despite the critical panning, it launched with a record-breaking weekend, only to bomb from that point on, earning over half of its domestic receipts in its first three days, showing terrible holding power and legs, and falling to play much beyond the target audience. Yes, we are still talking about a $872.7 million total gross, which most films could only dream about, but it is somewhat underwhelming, considering the factors involved (a MASSIVE $250 million production budget and huge marketing costs, two of the biggest superheroes of all time in an intriguing 'showdown' premise and a popular super villain). To put things into perspective, BvS had almost five times Deadpool's budget and far more in marketing piggy bank, as well as brand, franchise and star power, and an audience-friendly PG-13 rating, yet it couldn't even manage to scrape an extra $100 million in receipts. With what should be their victory lap, eyes are on Suicide Squad in August not to continue the success of the DCEU's launch, but to save face and restore faith in the venture.

April rolled around and brought in Captain America: Civil War, which quickly became the highest-grossing film of the year worldwide (a title it still holds), as well as the twelfth highest-grossing film of all time, as well as Marvel's fourth highest, with over $1.152 billion to date and still a little left in the tank. Not only was it a commercial success but critics and, more importantly, fans loved it. Unlike the DCEU, MCU had nothing to prove and this was viewed simply a victory lap for the Captain America franchise, yet it still succeeded in setting up the next Avengers film (without jeopardising the current offering - something Dawn of Justice failed to balance) and witnessed substantial growth from The Winter's Soldier. One could argue that it should have earned closer to Age of Ultron than Iron Man 3, but these are small grumblings and I'm pretty sure Marvel aren't crying too much over it. Another easy success in the bank for Marvel.

Falling into their typical weekend, May saw X-Men: Apocalypse launch into the world with more of a whimper than a bang. Following the critical and commercial success of Days of Future Past in 2014, many thought Apocalypse would improve on the numbers and demonstrate significant growth in the franchise, particularly following heightened interest of the series through the box office win with Deadpool just months earlier. Instead, it opened with largely negative reviews and failed to outgross even the very first X-Men film in America - despite 16 years of inflation and the 3D bump. Overseas 'saved' the film somewhat, earning $534 million worldwide, but we are still talking about a $200 million+ comedown which puts the entire franchise in a very precarious position indeed. Its smaller production budget helps soften the blow a little bit and while it will still turn a profit at the end of the day, another drop like this with the next instalment won't. It's quite the conundrum for the mutant series and straddles the middle ground between success and failure.

At the turn of August, Suicide Squad dropped in. Many - myself included - expected this entry to give the DCEU the shot in the arm it so desperately needed, but critics were even less kind, with the anti-hero film registering an even smaller Rotten Tomatoes acclaim score than BvS, shocking pretty much everyone after a pretty faultless marketing campaign. Critics aren't the be-all-and-end-all of box office success though and it did register a record-breaking weekend upon release. General audiences took it to their heart more so Dawn of Justice, earning $744 million despite no release in China, but this is a film that could very easily could have reached higher, if a more satisfying end product was delivered. It did not instil hope in the DCEU for critics and general audiences and continues to put the franchise in a very precarious position - just how long can they keep delievering mediocre-to-poor superhero films before audiences give up and they stop becoming profitable?  Warner Brothers now have an uphill battle to convince audiences otherwise, with the weigh of the whole franchise resting on Wonder Woman next year.

Rounding out the genre conveyer-belt in October-November was Marvel's Doctor Strange, the smaller release of their two offerings and a stab at another origin story, setting up another Avenger to take the mantle after Infinity War. While it was never destined to reach the opening numbers of the more established superheroes, it would still hope to perform well in the slot given previously to Ant-Man one year prior. Opening with around $85 million with good, if not spectacular reviews (it registers a 90% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes but with a more lukewarm 7.3/10 average rating) it is already a hit and continues Marvel (and Disney's) solid run, even if the similar complaints were still around - poor villain, lack of narrative originality and formulas - and begging for an injection of uniqueness. It will look at finishing with around $650-$750 million at the end of its run on a worldwide scale, with around $225-$250 of that coming from domestic receipts alone. It's a film that does its job - keeps momentum running for the studio in the short-term while moulding a new Avenger recruits in the long-run - if little more, judging by audience word-of-mouth and more general reception. More updates for this section will come as the film plays out over the world, so do keep an eye out.

I'm going to throw another name into the ring too; June's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of The Shadows features similar tonal and narrative beats to the genre, despite not being a typical superhero film. It too saw a massive downturn in both overseas and domestic receipts and looks unlike to turn a profit when all is said and done.

As you can see, the genre has been a little bit of a storm in a tea-cup this year; superhero films are not the box office guarantee one may perceive them to be, while all somehow avoiding a complete disaster. The majority of these releases are still more than likely to make the year-end top ten grosses and earn a fair bit of money, but the entire superhero genre has taken a little bit of a beating this year. They have fallen from the box office pinnacle (arguably passing the title to animations which have had a glorious year with Zootopia, The Secret Life of Pets, Finding Dory etc.) and whilst they may pull it back next year with a plethora of new releases (new Spiderman, Wonder Woman, Guardians 2), is this the beginning of the end for the superheroes?

Monday, 1 August 2016

Finding Dory (3D) (2016) (Review)


On the search for Nemo back in 2003, one loveable, amnesiac yet unforgettable sidekick captured audience's hearts. 13 years later, she managed to find herself in a sequel, Finding Dory, this time taking the starring role. Of course, the picture is the seventeenth in Disney Pixar's filmography (a studio renown for its quality - check out my ranking of every Pixar film here), and everyone's hopes were incredibly high for the sequel as Nemo remains one of the highest-grossing films in the studio's history, along with it being the highest selling DVD, ever, worldwide. Pixar have experienced both ends of the 'sequel success' rating, but is Finding Dory closer in quality to Toy Story 2 or Cars 2?

Amnesiac fish Dory (Ellen DeGeneres) begins to remember elements of her childhood, including her parents, whom she was separated from when she was young. Determined to find them, she begins her adventure across the ocean but gets separated from Marlin (Albert Brooks) and Nemo (the newly-cast Hayden Rolence). Now wanting to reunite with both families, she meets a whole host of new friends at the Marine Life Institute to help her along the way, including Hank the Octopus (Ed O'Neill), Destiny the near-sighted whale shark (Kaitlin Olson) and Bailey the beluga whale (Ty Burrell). With a rousing tale that teaches of friends, family, overcoming adversary and love, this is quintessentially Pixar and another jewel in their crown.

As with Finding Nemo, Finding Dory is swimming in heart and charm, capturing the same level of depth as its predecessor with lovely ingenuity and a multitude of touching moments, without ever feeling like a retread. Manoeuvring between beautiful set pieces and locations, the film is continually moving and evolving towards the resolution, while being completely engaging from beginning to end: even when we follow the two different stories, they cross beautifully and you are invested in each equally. While it may not feel as fresh as Finding Nemo did (which, in many ways, pushed animation to places it had never been before, following in the footsteps of Toy Story), Dory definitely wins on the humour side, proving to be relentlessly amusing, from Dory's forgetfulness to the new character's individual quirks that ensure they are as memorable as those from the first film; in fact, that's another area the film excels in - the voice cast are magnificent, bringing to life the characters and ensuring they suit their traits. DeGeneres is, of course, an absolute joy as the titular character and whilst I doubted whether the character could truly be the 'star', she proved me wrong, by making Dory as endearing as she was the first time. The charm certainly hasn't worn off. Baby Dory (Sloane Murray) is also incredibly adorable and makes you fall in love with Dory in a new way completely.

On a technical note, Dory also soars; the colour palettes used throughout are gorgeous and, despite being set in the water for the vast majority of the time, each scene has its own slight deviation in the blue-green colour scheme that ensures it does not morph into one, keeping it exciting and innovative. The attention to detail is thorough and carefully crafted, from the precise movement of Hank to the individual crafted bubbles - the screen is full to the brim of absolute wonders to be amazed at and behold, making this arguably one of Pixar's most stunning films to date. The way in which the ethereal haze defines the past from the present is dazzling, as well as the transformation between these two times, managing to connect the two events coherently.

When you really have to think of elements to improve, it suggests that you have something special on your hands. While some scenes strongly echo the original more than they probably should, it feels lively enough and radically different to the original in many others areas, despite an abundance of factors remaining the same (characters, cast, general template of the story). It sometimes makes some pretty big leaps in the story to get the characters where they need them to be but that can be forgiven considering the otherwise brisk movement of the plot. It also doesn't feel quite as inventive as the original did, but animation has evolved so drastically because of Pixar that they have already done enough with their earlier offerings.

Whilst the gorgeous animation, impressive voice cast and technical skill are all incredibly important and central to the film's overall success, it is the subtlety in its inspiring themes that make Finding Dory work so profoundly. The plethora of messages - home, identity, love, family - gives something for all the family to appreciate, and learn from, without ever feeling heavy-handed or out of place. Finding Dory is evidence that it takes multiple elements to make a film successful and Pixar pass each of them with flying colours. I can nit-pick and go searching for flaws but at the end of it, Dory's own determination reflects that of Pixar's to craft another incredible tale and, like the theme song suggests, it really is unforgettable.

(9/10)

Summary: Finding Dory is swimming in heart, warmth and charm, with stunning animation, incredible technical skill, a solid vocal cast and a touching story, offering yet another superbly crafted film and a new jewel to wear proudly in their crown.

Highlight: The inspiring themes, the beautiful tale and the gorgeous animation/technical skill are all up there... I think I need to watch it again to decide...

3D: The 3D goes along way in enhancing the beautiful landscapes and animation and whilst it probably works just as well without, this is one worth the extra money.