Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Better Watch Out (2017) (Review)


Better watch out, better not cry, the festive films are coming to town! A Bad Moms Christmas and Daddy's Home 2 have the comedy side of the coin covered this year and while the festive horror sub-genre has dwindled in popularity over time, Better Watch Out is set to deck the halls with blood and fear this holiday season.

17 year-old Ashley (Olivia DeJonge) comes to babysit 12 year-old Luke Lerner (Levi Miller) while his parents attend a Christmas function, one last time before she leaves the area. After Luke tries to seduce her and begins acting erratically, Ashley becomes increasingly concerned with his odd behaviour - but her night only gets worse when armed, masked men enter the home and she must fight to keep both of them alive. Ed Oxenbould, Aleks Mikic and Dacre Montgomery co-star in Chris Peckover's first major feature-length which is adapted from Zack Kahn's story and co-written by the pair.

'Better Watch Out' borrows its title from the popular Christmas song 'Santa Claus is Coming To Town' but it inadvertently acts as a warning to consumers approaching the film's theatrical trailer: Better Watch Out (For That Spoiler-Packed Trailer) may have been a more appropriate title. Having avoided the marketing myself (beyond some striking posters), the film's major rug-from-under-feet moment landed with mighty force and jaw-dropping effect, but I would have been unimpressed having witnessed the trailer stuffing in every spoiler under the sun before seeing the feature-length itself. Better Watch Out may be the year's biggest culprit in spoiler-heavy marketing and I stress the importance of avoiding it. Even just generally though, this film is best enjoyed blind, so do proceed with caution.

With that polite notice out of the way, we can delve in to how giddy and enjoyable Peckover's Yuletide-themed horror is. It's an 89 minute blast of adrenaline and tension and excitement, beginning somewhat predictably before throwing twists and turns of all varieties at the audience. Peckover and Zahn's screenplay has no problem throwing red herrings into the mix that may appear frustrating in the moment, but clarity emerges upon reflection and the film's true meaning develops as we descend into chaos. Rather witty if slightly clumsy at times, the dialogue is solid but hardly the most important element here, signalling advancement in the plot but sometimes holding it back with heavy-handed explanations and jarring characterisation. Its exploration of thematic content is thankfully more secure, considering toxic masculinity, twisted youth and - in a way - media desensitisation effectively. It's certainly smarter than it may seem on the surface, packed with exciting flourishes and detail.

Peckover's direction has a sheen to it, with some pockets of genuinely fantastic film-making evident. He enhances the all-important tension terrifically, dialling it up notch by notch and crafting a delightfully-twisted atmosphere, heightened further by Brian Cachia's effective soundtrack. Alongside some effectively awkward comedy and some flat-out scary moments (although the jump scares get a little too regular in the first act), Better Watch Out is a potent blend of genres and tones, presented to us in a tight, sparkly package. The decorations are expertly emphasised by Carl Robertson's cinematography which creates a stark contrast when the blood splatters come thick and fast, truly soiling the meaning of Christmas.

Uniformly solid across the board, the performances are efficient and well-handled, notably stable as we travel through the varying tones and genres. Our leads shine especially bright, with both Olivia DeJonge and Levi Miller impressing as the babysitter and babysit-ee. DeJonge is poised and controlled as Ashley, but allows her fear to seep in as the threat looms larger. It's a well-calibrated performance - she's likeable but flawed - and you find yourself rooting for her throughout. Miller is tremendous (if let down slightly by lengthy, unneeded dialogue) providing a biting, disconcerting turn as the lovestruck Luke. He handles the character whiplash efficiently and looks set to go far as one of Hollywood's best breakout actors. Ed Oxenbould, Aleks Mikic and Dacre Montgomery are fine in a supporting capacity, bolstering an ensemble packed with career-boosting turns.

If you've managed to avoid the marketing for Better Watch Out, you have a real treat in store; while you might still have a good time having seen the spoiler-filled trailers, the frothy enjoyment will probably be diluted and the thrill of the chase less effective. Certainly one of the best festive-horrors and Christmas-themed films of the year, Better Watch Out will have you on the edge of your seat throughout the delirious twists and shocking turns. Complete with fantastic performances, strong direction and aesthetic, as well as a decent script and refreshing Christmas-angle, Better Watch Out is a terrific blood-covered, yuletide corker that will paint Home Alone in a whole new light.

✬☆
(7.5/10) 

Summary: Better Watch Out is a fantastic, blood-covered yuletide screamer that infuses various genres and tones terrifically into the sharp and witty screenplay. Olivia DeJonge and Levi Miller impress as leads and Chris Peckover's direction is solid - but be sure to avoid all trailers, or the delightfully-twisted surprise will be ruined.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Wonder (2017) (Review)


Wonder has no qualms about tugging forcefully on your heartstrings, aiming to melt your nervous system down into a puddle of emotion numerous times throughout its 113 minute runtime. An American drama adapted, co-written and directed by Stephen Chbosky, Wonder looks set to be the designated year-end weepie that warms your heart when the weather outside chills. Starring Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson and Jacob Tremblay, all of whom have experienced their fair share of cinematic whiffs in the last 18 months, is Wonder as remarkable as its title suggests?

Ostracised due to his physical appearance caused by a rare facial deformity, Auggie Pullman (Tremblay) conceals himself under an astronaut helmet and dreams of outer space. Protected by his family - Isabel (Roberts), Nate (Wilson) and Via (Izabela Vidovic) - he must learn to fend for himself   against bullies and embrace his difference when he finally starts school in the fifth-grade.

Chbosky, responsible for one of my all-time favourites in Perks of Being Nath A Wallflower, follows-up that coming-of-age story with Wonder, a, erm, coming-of-age story. While his latest effort may not be as impressive as that 2012 release, Wonder is a well-intentioned, kind-natured slice of uplifting cinema the world really seems to need at the moment. Exploring kindness, friendship, understanding and how each of us are fighting our own worthy battles, integrity runs through the very veins of this film.

Co-written with Jack Thorne and Steve Conrad, based on the best-selling novel by R.J. Palacio, Wonder is no doubt manipulative in its emotion. Subtle doesn’t enter its vocabulary. There are scenes with the sole aim of making you shed several tears and it always strives to out-emotion itself, gently pulverising its audience until they are left an emotional, blubbering wreck by the time the credits rolled. Its constant determination and out-pouring of emotion is a little too much for me in all honesty, to the point where I felt the film struggled to breathe thematically, scuffling to really make the most out of its subject matter. I'm almost certainly in the minority with that mindset but it didn't quite fall into place for me.

Benefiting no-one is the clunky one-liners that the writers roll out every other scene or so. It's sentimental almost to a fault, laying on the sweetness thick through some forced, heavy-handed dialogue that held it - nay, me, rather - back. Everything's design to wring the most amount of emotional intensity out of it; you can almost see the checklist in hand, with the writers wading through the conventions and formulas needed to deliver the most poignant, unfortunately sanitised, occasionally one-note exploration of tweens and genes.

Furthermore, Wonder lands one character development (regression?) so misjudged and extreme that everything that follows regarding the character's arc irritated me deeply, despite a fine performance from the person in question. There's no coming back from a statement as severe as the one this character drops, but they are later forgiven; while characteristic of the film and one of its most important messages, I couldn't forgive so easily. It frustrated me to no end and could have easily been averted, with a number of options that would have been more suited to the actual character.

But.

While my issues with Wonder prevented it from becoming anything more than 'good', it is difficult to really take major offence with a film as warm, considerate and hopeful as it is. It continually strives to paint a hopeful, optimistic picture while reminding us that our flaws and personal battles are just as important. It has a number of fantastic performances; Tremblay (his best since his break-out in Room), Roberts and Wilson each provide one of their strongest turns in recent years and - along with the impressive, future star Vidovic - conjuring a believable family dynamic that helps sell the film and its poignant moments. You believe in this family unit and see glimpses of your own in them, from the inter-relationships and conversations between various members. A lot is demanded to convince you of the emotion so crucial to the story and the cast succeed in conveying it effectively.

Noah Jupe, following strong performances in Suburbicon and The Night Manager, is terrific once again here, illustrating his talent with a more subtle performance that many younger ones may struggle to balance. I cheered when Millie Davis, of Orphan Black fame, appeared and she's strong here, delivering a sparky performance as Summer. There's some forced, awkward performances elsewhere from the younger cast but nothing too difficult to endure. On the whole, the ensemble is solid and help alleviate some of the writing issues.

Wonder's structure infuses the film with some energy. Breaking it down into sections to explore each of the characters' story in more detail, it allows a change in perception that the film benefits from, unshackling itself from the otherwise formulaic approach. While this can be frustrating when some stories are left unanswered and narrative threads are left hanging, the adjustment in pace when the tone often remains static, is a welcome change and relief.

Chbosky's direction doesn't feature the cinematic sheen or timeless quality of Wallflower but does contain some lovely flourishes and great storytelling devices: it explores Auggie's fantasy world - one that has become a safe haven for him and his family - well, complete with space travel and Star Wars characters. Visually rosy, its bright and airy aesthetics are a perfect match for the tone and themes that pervade throughout Wonder. Marcelo Zarvos' soundtrack does help develop this emotion and lightness well too.

Critiquing a film like Wonder is difficult: it is so well-intentioned and there is a fair bit to like about it, lifted by some fantastic performances and a skilled director - but its flaws are glaring at times and the screenplay in all its floweriness is constructed solely to wring every tear out of its audience. Because I could sense how hard it was working to do that, the power and potency was somewhat  diluted for me, as it willingly ticked off conventions and coming-of-age tropes. Generally speaking though, Wonder is a gentle, spirited and kind film concerned with uplifting themes and messages. Make no mistake, it will certainly warm your heart this winter even when I found myself resisting.


(6/10) 

Summary: Wonder is flawed, twee and manipulative in its emotion; but it is undeniably kind-hearted and well-intentioned, making for a solid, uplifting piece of cinema designed to warm your heart and fill you with joy.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Battle of the Sexes (2017) (Review)

The 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs has gone down in history for a number of reasons: not only did it turn the tide for the role of women in sport (particularly tennis), it became the United States' most watched tennis match of all-time - a record it reportedly still holds today. Now, almost 45 years after King's lucrative, boundary-busting victory, Emma Stone and Steve Carell star in film adaptation of that record-breaking meeting between the women's number one and the self-appointed male chauvinist.

When a forthcoming tournament reveals the female winner takes just one-eighth of the men's prize despite equal ticket sales, Billie Jean King (Stone) leads a boycott and begins her own tennis tour with a group of talented female tennis players. Meanwhile, the ageing Bobby Riggs (Carell) taunts them by claiming their inferiority and challenges any woman who will take him on in a winner-takes-all match. When King finally accepts the offer, both her professional and personal life are at stake.

Battle of the Sexes is a crowd-pleasing, shamelessly 'Hollywood' adaptation of the 'Battle of the Sexes'; it's a fluffy piece of popcorn cinema that definitely has its merit, even though it struggles to live up to its potential. In a similar vein to the Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures - if not quite as satisfying or remarkable - it looks back on groundbreaking events of our past but extracts timely themes of inequality and injustice, unfortunately still relevant in society today.

Simon Beaufoy's screenplay may make broad artistic strokes and re-adjust King's journey for maximum emotion, but he develops the themes carefully and considerately, sensitively exploring King's sexuality but never making it the sole focus of the film. He makes the 1973 exhibition the film's joyous culmination, documenting both Riggs and King's journey in the lead up to the event -  but it only really steps into gear during the film's second half, lacking much of a spark outside the central performances in that first stretch.

And those two performance are truly wonderful, with Emma Stone the film's absolute calling card. Channeling King's no-nonesense attitude fabulously, complete with her sharp wit and dry sense of humour, Stone is the film's crowning achievement and elevates an almost middle-of-the-road biopic to great heights. Both fierce and subtle, her turn may not take her all the way this Oscar season like her performance in La La Land did, but her name certainly deserves to be milling around until the very end of that race.

Steve Carell is fantastic as Mr. Bobby Riggs: he plays the self-proclaimed male chauvinist pig with glee, obnoxiously taunting with cries of superiority without becoming wholly detestable. Like it or not, his character works the room well and Carrell is the perfect fit for the role. Of the supporting cast, a game Sarah Silverman impresses and constantly threatens to steal the film as the founder of World Tennis; and Bill Pullman is appropriately infuriating as Jack Kramer, reminiscent of his role in Torchwood: Miracle Day, wilfully making you squirm with each foul comment. It's packed with a number of fine performances (including Elisabeth Shue, Andrea Riseborough and Alan Cumming) but outside Stone and Carell, Silverman and Pullman are the real standouts.

Dual directors Johnathan Dayton and Valerie Faris do a solid job dramatising the true-life event, with the titular match particularly impressive in scope and energy. While there's a slight disconnect between the two halves - as if the film was literally cut down the middle and each director assembled their own movie - it's generally well-held together with a strong visual and a number of gorgeous shots running through it. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren works wonders in conveying the era: you really do feel transported back to the 70s and living through the build-up to the match, rather than simply watching a movie made to look like the early 70s. It's well-costumed and decorated with strong set pieces, capturing the spirit and weight of the situation and atmosphere fantastically.

Battle of the Sexes is well-scored by Nicholas Britell, who enhances the emotion superbly; it excels in the tender moments between King and Marilyn Barnett, conveying their love in a sensual, touching way. Lavender Oil and First Kiss are the score's particularly strong moments, emphasising the genuine emotion and their connection and chemistry well. Furthermore, Britell's soundtrack elevates the match sequences terrifically, sprinkling an intensity, energy and excitement throughout these final scenes, making the culmination of the Battle of the Sexes all the more satisfying.

Battle of the Sexes isn't quite the total victory I hoped for - like Bille Jean King herself in the concluding match, it struggles to get going to begin with and, while impressive, can't quite muster the brilliance many hoped. But as it heads into the second half, it find the energy and excitement to elevate it to crowd-pleasing, fist-pumping heights. Emma Stone and Steve Carell are sensational in the leading roles and explore the screenplay's set of timely themes effectively, helmed by two confident directors who manage to overcome the occasionally lacklustre pacing that holds the first half back somewhat. An impressive, crowd-pleasing biopic that, while not quite as show-stopping as hoped, is nonetheless inspiring and potent relief in these dark and challenging times.

★☆
(7/10) 

Summary: Battle of the Sexes is by no means a grand slam but it's timely, gorgeous, emotionally engaging and well-acted, with a fantastic double serving of Emma Stone and Steve Carell in career-high performances.

Wednesday, 29 November 2017

Suburbicon (2017) (Review)


Within George Clooney's Suburbicon, two solid, rather promising films exist: the problem is, like blood on white linen, those two elements don't work together, and the overall picture is hindered considerably by having them play out in the shadows of the other.

In white-picket-fence America in the late 1950s, the arrival of an African-American family in the all-white neighbourhood of Suburbicon fuels major racial harassment from the locals. In the same neighbourhood, Gardner Lodge's house is broken into by robbers and his wife killed. Her twin sister, Margaret, moves into the house to take care of Nicky, the child of the family, and slowly begins to transform into her late sister. While Suburbicon's tagline reads 'where your problems disappear', the film's issues are actually amplified by the conflicting storylines that lie within.

When you consider that this film is from the same studio that brought us Darren Aronofsky and Jennifer Lawrence's enigmatic mother! (a piece enshrouded in so much the secrecy that very few plot details were ever released) Suburbicon was awfully generous with its plot secrets throughout its marketing, making no attempt to conceal some of the surprises. While I won't go as far as to say the trailers ruin the picture, they do it absolutely no favours, divulging major plot twists that would have considerably elevated the film had they have been surprisingly revealed. Should restraint have been exercised throughout the admittedly difficult-to-nail promotion process, a far more subversive, exciting end product would have no doubt been created. Alas.

The cracks in Suburbicon's structure are most evident and wholly damaging through its mis-handling of racism. What could have been a potent and timely examination of intolerance and racialism in the crooks of America is simply relegated to a side-note, the sort of plot flourish film-makers use to pad out their feature-length. When the theme is introduced and the bitter resentment rises, it sets up a fine exploration of the horrendous attitudes we still see today - but in this effectively exaggerated, unnerving manner that highlights the concern fantastically. But rather than embrace it from this point out, the film saunters past the details in such an uncompromising manner, as if exploring this segment of the story is a drain on its resources and time.

Racism is such an important topic and totally appropriate for the era in question, but there's no thought or care placed into developing it beyond briefly skimming past some white thugs jumping on black folks' cars and setting their property on fire. When a Confederate flag is strewn across their window, it deserves to be a sickening moment (because it is) - yet the film handles it so breezily, barely sticking around for more than a few seconds to really convey the situation and the (obvious) severity of it. It underplays it in such a disappointing, almost offensive way that it works to the film's detriment.

To no surprise I learned afterward that Suburbicon is quite literally two films jammed together: the Coen Brothers first wrote the script in 1986, where it consisted only of the Matt Damon-Julianne Moore plot, was infused with Clooney's 'white picket fence racism' storyline when the film entered pre-production. The laboured effort to interweave the two is so haphazard and unbalanced that each story is prevented from reaching the heights it so could attain if the two ideas were kept separate - or, potentially, given more justified, equal footing. Instead, the far less-weighted (but arguably more entertaining story) is given the limelight over the politically-charged (more interesting and relevant tale), creating an uneasy combination that is tonally misjudged.

Yet, despite its mis-handling of such an important theme, the hinderance of the two stories upon each other and the poor, spoiler-filled marketing, Suburbicon features a lot of promise. You can see what the film is aiming for and what it is trying to say: it is well-intentioned despite misguided execution. The set pieces are pulpy and the direction is solid, with some striking visuals and terrific costumes; the pristine aesthetic makes the bloodied, dirtied characters and their situation all the more bolder, and the more vivid, creating a visually striking experience.

Alexandre Desplat's fantastic soundtrack is packed with personality and energy, a sonically-confident and varied experience that truly enhances this barmy little picture.  Characteristically quirky and playing homage to the period-era, it is bursting with television-like jingles and merges the various tones and genres far more effectively than the actual film manages. It provides Suburbicon with menace, humour, intensity and discomfort in different breaths, curating a sharp and exciting score that deserves recognition come award season.

Suburbicon thankfully excels further through its solid performance. Matt Damon balances the fool with the mastermind terrifically, providing a sharp and satirical turn as Mr Lodge. As the plot untangles around him, Damon does a fine job at keeping his storyline on track, developing the appropriate emotion effectively. Juilanne Moore is clearly having a blast, in a twisted performance as camp as it is threatening. You get the sense that she is the mastermind behind it all, cocking the gun and aiming it in position without actually pulling the trigger: as she did in Kingsman: The Golden Circle, it makes for an intriguing, enigmatic character who uses her forced facade like a new outfit.

 Similarly, Oscar Issac hams it up phenomenally, in a supporting role I would argue is the film's MVP; it's frothy and witty and sharp and gleeful. While somewhat underutilises, he is a joy to have around when he does crop up. Noah Jupe is fantastic too as the Lodge's only child, meeting the requirements of a demanding role confidently and with skill beyond his years. He's definitely one to watch in the future.

With such a fine line-up of talent, the end product cannot help but feel like a slight disappointment. While well-meaning and good-intentioned, Suburbicon cannot decide upon the film it wants to be: it tries to be a social satire, a mystery drama-horror and film about America's race problems (both of the past and of the present) but it is so discordantly pieced together, with an unflattering emphasis on the former rather than the latter, that the flaws are almost unforgivable.

You find yourself questioning how it becomes so messy and problematic: who let a story about appalling racial harassment - one so timely - become an unspectacular, distracting side-show to a martial-drama spotlight-hogger. In its failure to find an equilibrium and attempt to be so much more than its resources allow, Suburbicon's two separate plot strands fail to coalesce into a film more than a sum of its parts - in fact, the two impede each other and Suburbicon's picture-perfect setting hides from dirty flaws.


(6/10) 

Summary: Two decent films are outlined in Suburbicon, but they don't belong together: when you sideline timely themes of racism for somewhat-slapstick poisoning escapades and diluted social satire, you know you have a tonally misguided film that fails to live up to its potential on your hands.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Ingrid Goes West (2017) (Review)


Ingrid Goes West may not be classified as a horror film but it's pretty damn scary nonetheless. Delving into the digital age and Generation Millennials' usage of social media, Ingrid Goes West is a biting rumination and social commentary on the dangers of losing yourself and creating someone new in your online space. Marking Matt Spicer's feature-length directorial debut, Ingrid Goes West is impressive piece and the start of what should be a healthy career for Spicer.

Ingrid Thorburn's (Aubrey Plaza) mental instability, the death of her mother and her social media obsession lead her to attack a woman at her wedding and she winds up on a psychiatric ward. Taking her inheritance money, she moves to Los Angeles and begins to stalk a social media influence, Taylor Sloane (Elizabeth Olsen). Blindsided by Taylor's glamorous life, Ingrid goes to extreme lengths to befriend her, developing a following of her own so she can live the life she's already dreamt of - but, as with every representation on social media, not everything is as it seems...

While Black Mirror has the small screen covered, Ingrid Goes West is one of the smartest explorations of technology and social media the big screen has seen in quite some time. It considers the potential danger of an over-reliance on social media, and how it can sometime substitute for real, human interaction, without ever turning it into 'the big bad'. It never blames the Internet for the situation our characters find themselves in, but the culture it breeds - one of self-image, self-perfection and toxicity, thoughtfully and considerately presenting these characters (particularly Ingrid) as a victim to this larger phenomenon.

Ingrid commits some dreadful acts over the course of the film; her actions filled with hate and rage and jealousy - but you always feel for her, perhaps even relate to her. She's desperate to be liked (figuratively and literally) and so frames herself in the prettiest light to the world, presenting herself so the world can be her friend. We've all been there too; we've exaggerated something on Twitter to make our lives seem better; we've deliberately plotted to post something on Instagram at the busiest time of the day, opening yourself to more people; we've all posted something on Snapchat for the attention of just one person. And the script understands and acknowledges that, capturing that very notion in a scathing but emphatic way. David Branson Smith and Spicer's screenplay find flawed characters and turn them into something very human and recognisable.

Furthermore, they balance the film's swirling tones incredibly well. Ingrid Goes West is a very dark film, with a tragic core that is all-too-relatable and a foreboding ending that implies the cycle will never be broken. But beyond the scorching satire is a frothiness and a lightness, created by how very, very funny the film is. In a similar (if not as polished) way to Get Out earlier this year, Ingrid Goes West balances its conflicting tones and genres with immense satisfaction and skill, delivering a potent and timely feature-length that leaves its mark through its eclectic combination of mood and tone. Smith and Spicer prevent the characters from becoming too caricature, offering at least some restraint as the absurdity of the narrative escalates.

And to sell the comedy aspect, the film has roped in one of the most under-rated comedians of her generation. Aubrey Plaza is tailor-made for the role of Ingrid, with her deadpan humour, almost awkward disposition, striking  intensity and vulnerability making her an excellent choice to portray the unstable soul. She bears the emotional and comedic weight of the film excellently and in a surprisingly nuanced manner, with a performance that deserves to be recognised in forthcoming award season: I'll start the campaign for a Golden Globe now. Similarly impressive is Elizabeth Olsen, who indulges in the role of Taylor Sloane gleefully; she is another stellar casting decision, with her glowing, picture-perfect looks and radiating pretence more than suited to the role of the social influencer. The supporting cast are largely solid, but Olsen and especially Plaza dominate the film with two fantastic performances.

Spicer's work, for a first time direction, is mightily impressive, enhanced by Bryce Fortner's exquisite cinematography. Everything is drenched in the colourful visuals that are perfectly suited to the Venice Beach setting. Like something lifted straight from Instagram, beautiful filters in tact, the film is not only a very polished piece, but an effectively streamlined one too: clocking in at only 97 minutes, it never overstays its welcome and is focused on the task at hand. A clunky, rather needless romance B-plot aside, the film develops the relationship between Ingrid and Taylor in a witty, increasingly uneasy way that is reminiscent of Single White Female. The tension Spicer builds between them is feverous and explores their toxic, favour of the month identities in a solid manner. It's very skilled direction and Spicer looks set to have a solid career ahead of them if the competency found within Ingrid Goes West is anything to go by.

Jonathan Sadoff and Nick Thorburn's score is very effective in bringing the digital world: ringtones and phone beeps are interlaced throughout the score, alongside a tropical, spritely atmosphere that enlivens the California setting and keeps you on the edge of your seat. The soundtrack released alongside has some fine additions too, including a plot-pivotal All My Life by K-Ci & Jo Jo.

Ingrid Goes West is dark and self-aware exploration of social media, striking the perfect tonal balance in thanks to its satirical screenplay and marvellous lead performances. The visuals are lovely, the direction rather tight and the humour continually funny and topical, presenting audiences with a polished, timely and vividly-realised package all the better for its relevancy and accuracy.

I do hope you see Ingrid Goes West. 🙏🏻 #love #IAmIngrid

★★☆☆
(8/10) 

Summary: Ingrid Goes West is a scorching, shockingly-relevant rumination on the digital age and our toxic need for the self-perfected social media persona, with Aubrey Plaza and Elizabeth Olsen shining as unaware victims of a toxic, dark but sadly recognisable culture.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Justice League (2017) (Review)


Justice League represented a shot at redemption for the troubled DC Extended Universe: after an incredibly rocky start with a financially-underwhelming Man of Steel and the critically-thrashed (and rightly so) Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad, their fourth instalment, Wonder Woman, was a complete success in almost every sense of the word. It was the first time both audiences and critics raved about the DCEU and it provided hope and optimism as they approached their most ambitious project yet, the all-star Justice League. Was Wonder Woman's course correction a sign of brighter times ahead; or was it simply a blip that only delayed the inevitable downfall of Warner Bros' superhero universe?

With the world mourning the death of Superman (Henry Cavill), the Mother Boxes reactivate and Steppenwolf, along his army of Parademons, hellbent on conquering and remaking Earth, return to finish the job they had previously failed. Deciding that the world needs further protection, Batman (Ben Affleck) and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) decide to assemble a team. Barry Allen, Flash (Ezra Miller); Arthur Curry, Aquaman (Jason Momoa); and Victor Stone, Cyborg (Ray Fisher) make up the Justice League, a new age of heroes fighting for the world.

I do wish I could stand here and say/type that Justice League is a good film. Wonder Woman really impressed me and showed startling signs of a reformed DCEU. What's more, the superhero genre has experienced a truly excellent year, with every release - from Logan to Thor: Ragnarok - a new and fresh rejuvenation for a genre I consigned as doomed last year. But it's not. It's messy, jumbled and ultimately disappointing, hindering the momentum for the Universe heading forth and stranding it, once again, on rocky ground.

Justice League's own production history has been strained, with director and DC spearhead, Zak Synder, exiting the project due to family tragedy. Joss Whedon, of Marvel's Avengers fame, replaced Synder in the post-production process to polish it off, subsequently reshooting a number of scenes and set-pieces in an attempt to deliver a more coherent final product. Except, the film is so haphazardly assembled, like two separate films have been unflatteringly and unwillingly spliced together to represent a more unified whole; unfortunately, said merger has resulted in a poorly-edited and poorly-paced film with no clear vision. It falls apart at the seams and you can pick out the reshoots from the base scenes with ease, and the two competing directorial styles clash terribly rather than compliment and slot together nicely.

Whether or not the weak storytelling is an unfortunate consequence of a frenzied assembly line, or whether it was simply poor to begin with, it disappoints in almost every way. While Justice League's writers would have certainly benefitted from more time to introduce our heroes and develop the lacklustre villain, I don't know whether I could have sat through more, quite frankly. It begins surprisingly strong, establishing an atmosphere of societal unease that is all too familiar, scored fantastically by Sigrid's Everybody Knows - but it drops like a rock for this point on.

 Chris Terri and Joss Whendon's screenplay fails to convey any sense of enthusiasm or energy, with poor-plotting and execution of its brash set pieces, which appear more like an awkward obligation than a source of genuine excitement or an indication of growing threat. There's no narrative progression or escalation and little structure, all merging into one indistinguishable mess, contributing to the oddly flat atmosphere that pervades throughout. As is now common, the villain is pitiful and weakened further by poor CGI and his background is an empty canvas I actually don't care to fill in or explore. The stakes are staggeringly low at such an important point in the superheroes' arc, with no emotional consequence or weight in sight.

Superman's return deserved to be rip-roaring triumphant, no matter how much we expected it - but its pedestrian and unsubstantiated execution elicit an 'oh' rather than a 'woah', resigning the Last Son of Krypton to yet another underwhelming, blasé appearance. There's no care in anything the film tries to do, as if they are despondent in trying to craft characters we genuinely care about, simply delivering another exercise in getting from A to B. Justice League should have felt like an event, a towering achievement and lap of victory as we head for the next phase; instead it feels like a complete slog, an obligation for both the film-makers and the audience, because we need to know what Wonder Woman's doing when we turn up for the sequel in 2019.

As inferred, the direction is flimsy at best with some glaring continuity errors and severely lacklustre visuals. Failing to learn from the franchise's previous mistakes, the finale descends into a climax suffocated by woeful CGI - but rather than drowning in drab and gloomy scenes like Dawn of Justice did, Justice League confronts you with garish and clashing colour palettes. It's all well and good injecting some colour and excitement into your aesthetic but it feels forced and needless; for unknown reasons, act three is drenched in red hues and smog, with the cinematography lacking the grand scale of the admittedly bold superhero showdown last year. Aside from some fine visuals in the opening of act one and some visual flair during scenes between Kent and Lane, everything else is shoddily constructed and composed.

Maybe the most damning thing about Justice League though is how tiresome it is. I was so hoping the film would supply the franchise with enthusiasm and vigour - particular towards Batman and Superman - or be, at the very least, fun. But only very briefly does it manage to become something you can actually enjoy and elsewhere it's an utter slog. It's astounding that a $300 million picture can be as tedious as Justice League is for a good portion of its runtime - notably, the third act. It is dull beyond belief when the team aren't together and it fails in keeping the audience engaged throughout, surely the very basics in blockbuster film-making.

Through the sheer will and commitment of the cast, the film does spark some enjoyable moments - mainly contained within the group's glowing dynamic. Gal Gadot once again steals the show here, with a loveable performance that allows Wonder Woman to shine again, even if she feels more restricted by the team dynamic than you would like. At this stage, she's the only one I can honestly say I care about. The ever-talented Ezra Miller is often a joy as Barry/Flash, despite contending with some clunky dialogue and the script's strained attempt at humour. Ben Affleck is fine but hardly commands while Henry Cavill's Superman continues to be a disappointment.

On their own Jason Momoa and Ray Fisher's heroes aren't quite enough but within the group they balance the team and pad it out effectively. Whether I'd be interested in a solo outing is another question but they are hardly a drain on the resources and could become something worthy of your time with a better creative team behind them. Poor Amy Adams is held hostage here again and while she is given a few nice moments, she is completely under-utilised and I can't wait for the day she frees herself of the poorly-characterised, flat and weak Lois Lane.

Danny Elfman's score is serviceable but rarely memorable, lacking the weight that would elevate the bigger, supposedly grander moments to more impressive heights. Highlights includes brief glimpses at the far superior Wonder Woman score and the trailer-friendly Come Together which instals the film with at least some excitement. Everybody Knows is a fantastic choice to help open the film and establish the tone earlier on.

By default, Justice League is the DCEU's second or third best, but that says more about what came before it than the quality of this all-star attempt. Oddly flat and lacking conviction or emotion, it is hindered by poor storytelling, editing and pacing. Justice League sees two different films ungraciously fighting for the spotlight but neither of them win - it's simply a distracting jumble that's poor without being downright awful.

The cast are great individually and even better together, with some flippant humour and lightness present, displaying at least some sign of the franchise evolving, gravitating away from the doom and gloom of Dawn of Justice; at the moment though, it is still lacking in its execution and balance. Despite my love for Wonder Woman, I have been burnt one too many times by the DCEU to care at this stage. Is this the final straw? It'll take a lot (or the Wonder Woman sequel) to convince me otherwise.

"You can't save the world alone", the Justice League marketing affirms - yet, Wonder Woman single-handedly saved the DCEU earlier this year and in one fail swoop, Justice League has sent it crashing down again without completely putting it out of its (and your) misery.


(4/10) 

Summary: Justice League is a messy, tiresome and slap-dash attempt at an all-star superhero film, lacking the conviction, emotion or unified vision to become anything more than a missed opportunity and colossal disappointment. I give up. 

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Only The Brave (2017) (Review)


Only The Brave documents an elite crew of firefighters, the Granite Mountain Hotshots, who worked to contain wildfires spreading across Arizona and its surrounding areas. Based on the true story leading up to the Yarnell Hill Fire of June 2013, the feature-length - directed by Joseph Kosinski - considers the men who risked their lives to save thousands of people and their affected friends and families. Starring the likes of Josh Brolin, Miles Teller, Jeff Bridges and Jennifer Connelly, the biographical action-drama has garnered positive reviews from critics and general audiences over its release, despite a muted and disappointing commercial reception.

In my eyes, Only The Brave seems very muddled in its intentions. It's determined to do justice by the group of brave men at the film's core and in many ways, it does, presenting their battles with both sensitivity but brutality. But with only infrequent moments of promise and exhilaration, the picture ultimately cannot decide what it wants to be. Fleeting, undeveloped glimpses of multiple genre can be identified, from the superhero genre to the buddy-comedy, the survival-drama and a deeper, more intimate character study - but there is very little to streamline or unite them into a satisfying piece of potent entertainment. Despite moments of promise, it is all over the place, emphasised by the sprawling timeline that covers many months in a scattershot, almost unfinished manner.

In its attempt to be and do so much at once, Only The Brave's run-time balloons into a plodding 133 minutes. While we get a relatively solid first act and terrific, genuinely powerful finale, the middle third contains so much unnecessary padding that it threatens to go up in flames itself - and threatens to derail the picture entirely. Kosinski fails to tighten the picture adequately and it struggles to create and maintain a momentum when the structure is so stop-and-start and diverging. The jump between timeframes is disorientating at the best of times, feeling disconnected as the film meanders around considering various tones and genres aimlessly.

Infusing multiple genres and tonal elements together is very often a recipe for success, but it feels misguided and rudimentary in Only The Brave's screenplay. Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer's script operates well in parts, portraying the group dynamics and sense of unity effectively. It contains some fine dialogue and sturdy set piece but the pair appear overwhelmed with the tonal ground the film chooses to cover; it results in a confused screenplay that loses its way, almost irreparably, in the middle section. While it does claw its way to solid ground for the final twenty minutes or so, it doesn't fully earn the emotion it delves so deep for, and the poignant response is a reaction to the real-life events, rather than the film's own execution of these moments.

Joseph Kosinski's direction is promising and he does a stellar job in making the rumoured $38 million production budget seem more extensive than it actually is. From the sweeping shots of the New Mexico setting - enhanced by Claudio Miranda's impressive cinematography - to the intensity of the finale, Kosinski's understanding of scale and stakes help magnify the ending tremendously but he cannot quite implement it well enough elsewhere, ending on a powerful note that is soured by the rocky road before it.

His cast all do a fine job and they are a well-assembled ensemble, but no one really stands out as being particularly noteworthy due to the sheer number of characters in the mix. Miles Teller is still someone I cannot warm to but he's decent enough here as the arguable lead, with Josh Brolin standing as a solid paternal figure for him. Jeff Bridges and Jennifer Connelly are (understandably but still frustratingly) under-utilised and, even with the extensive runtime, denied much characterisation and development in their own right beyond the basics.

It would be unfair to dismiss Only The Brave entirely: I had a tear in my eye during the film's final moments and evidence of a strong picture and competent direction can be recognised. The final act is well-realised and executed, containing a great deal of emotion and potency, which the cast sell effectively. The tonal clutter, misguided screenplay and damning run-time are certainly damaging, with the pace-hindering middle slog particularly flawed - but if you can get past it, the high-powered ending and closing credits make it almost worthwhile.

✬☆
(5.5/10) 

Summary: Only The Brave is tonally cluttered with a bloated run-time that hindered the momentum and weights it down considerably - but beyond the very obvious flaws and sluggish middle act is a powerful finale that makes it (almost) worthwhile.

Sunday, 19 November 2017

Paddington 2 (2017) (Review)


2017 has been a particularly torrid year. We've experienced the fall-out of the ghastly Brexit; the 'so horrendous it makes me cry on a daily basis' Trump presidency; numerous, devastating natural disasters; terrifying atrocities committed by human beings upon other human beings; and Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul (to say nothing of Geostorm and The Emoji Movie). Bad news lurked on every screen and we found ourselves wishing the year away. And then along came a bear, going by the name of Paddington. We've seen the charmer, created by Michael Bond before, in the 'it had no right to be this good' film adaptation in 2014 and lately, the new M&S Christmas advert. Our marmalade-loving furry friend has arrived with us again to convince us that, for one brief shining moment, all can be well in the world if we search for the good in each other. Paddington 2 is an utter joy we don't really deserve.

Having settled with the Brown family in Windsor Gardens, Paddington has become a reliable friend to so many, offering emotional support to anyone in the community who requires it. Wanting to purchase a unique pop-up book of London for Aunt Lucy's 100th birthday, Paddington raises just enough money (through various odd jobs) to purchase the gift - but when it is stolen from the antique shop, Paddington is sent down for the crime and sentenced to ten years. Convinced he is being framed, the Brown family work tirelessly to free Paddington - but will their efforts be for nothing, with someone attempting to derail their plan?

Paddington 2 is as pure, sincere and wholesome as cinema comes. Kind-natured and well-spirited, the Paddington sequel oozes optimism and warmth, seemingly incapable of putting a foot - or paw - wrong. Without a bad bone in its body, it is perfect cinematic escapism for the whole family to enjoy and appreciate, and while the central character is technically an animal, humanity seeps through the film's beautiful canvas exceptionally well. Truly glorious and undeniably touching, it truly is an artistic, cinematic triumph that will fill your heart.

Embracing a timely set of powerful themes (including inclusivity and acceptance), Paddington 2 is packed with positive messages to teach younger ones and gentle reminders for the more cynical out there, encouraging us to look for the good in the world at a time where it is increasingly difficult to notice it. While it tackles the likes of Brexit and immigration head on, it does so in a smart and sophisticated manner, largely thanks to the tightly-constructed and well-considered screenplay from Paul King and Simon Farnaby; the pair manage a strongly-paced, well-structured story and prevent it from becoming a total rehash of the first by infusing inventive set pieces and creative dialogue into the mix. It is sprightly, energetic and streamlined, clocking in at a solid 103 minutes, with every minute a complete treat.

On top of the strong foundations provided by the fantastic writing team, the cast are on-hand to infuse further magic and warmth into the wondrous affair. Ben Whishaw once again impresses as the eponymous bear, with his instantly soothing and cuddly tone bringing our furry friend to life expertly: his vocal performance captures every lovely thing about Paddington, to the point where it is difficult to imagine anyone else in the role - like the previously cast Colin Firth. It may sound an obvious and clunky thing to say, but Whisaw is Paddington and Paddington would not be half the success it is without Whishaw's magnificent embodiment of Paddington. Returning cast members such as Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins and Julie Walters provide reliably solid turns, as does Peter Capaldi as the walking-talking-bumbling amalgamation of every Brexit voter on the planet. It's very well played.

Hugh Grant is wonderfully committed and suitably wacky as Phoenix Buchanan, the film's pantomime-eseque villain. Frequently hilarious and flexing his comedic chops excellently, he has such fun as the narcissistic actor and ensures the audience have someone to root against. He is sharp but self-aware, preventing Buchanan from feeling like a total joke: he genuinely does feel threatening at times, too. Nicole Kidman left some large shoes but Grant does a terrific job at filling them. Brendan Gleeson is the perfect choice as the threatening-but-softening Knuckles and his interactions with Paddington are such breezy fun. The diverse cast, in general, do a tremendous job at installing Paddington 2 with excitement, energy and emotion.

The film's increased budget is put to terrific use, responsible for some beautiful set pieces and designs for our appreciation. There's a touch of Wes Anderson about it, particularly reminiscent of The Grand Budapest Hotel, with popping colours and bold, almost cartoonish stylistic decision making it a stunning visual experience. From the funfair recreated from your childhood memories to the vivid London streets and iconography, the film zips and zaps between these sturdy set pieces effectively. Directed with aplomb by a returning Paul King, who ensures the project is continual family-fun, he delivers the slapstick with the heart string-tugging with an abundance of material to explore along the way. It is a precisely measured masterclass that never feels forced, thanks to fantastic storytelling and confidence behind the camera (as well as in front of it).

What's more, the infusion of animation into the live-action is seamless, even smoother than it was in the already-impressive original. It is a technical feat of tremendous proportions - in fact, you may find yourself disappointed sometime after the credits roll when you remember that Paddington does not actually exist and isn't skipping around London somewhere with his marmalade sandwiches. King breathes life into this quintessentially British family adventure, balancing the various tone swirling around the film with real poise and sophistication. All enhanced by a rich colour palette and Erik Wilson's ravish cinematography, Paddington 2 is as much as feast for the eyes as it is for your emotions.

Dario Marianelli's soundtrack really enhances the film's plethora of emotion. It is a well-orchestrated and varied selection of tracks, capturing a number of the film's tones: touching and soaring when it comes to the tender moments, quirky and exciting in the comedic sequences, it really helps elevate the film, and control the weight of the assorted emotions.

It has been so difficult to narrow down the highlights because the film is simply bursting with them. From a wonderful Marmalade-making time lapse to an ingenues prison escape sequence, a community standing for unity and kindness to the animation pop-up book, there are so many individual magical moments to love about Paddington 2, enhancing the entire film generously. Emotional and uplifting, the film's final scene especially is one of tremendous power, and the film restricts what could have been a mawkish moment into a tear-inducing one, and one of the finest moments of 2017 cinema. You leave the theatre with a renewed outlook and determination to be a better human, installing a profound effect on those of us who may have been desensitised by a pretty depressive year.

To find fault in Paddington 2, you must really scrutinise it  - and that goes against everything the titular bear has taught us. It does, however, clumsily drop a few slightly too-obvious narrative signposts early on into the exposition-filled, 'up to speed' introductions. 'That'll be used later on', you think to yourself - and lo and behold it is. It is a very minor thing to pick up on in an otherwise delightful film, but it was noticeable nonetheless. In the moment, you want Paddington 2 to take a couple more chances, but upon reflection you realise that attempting any narrative boldness and cunningness would risk destroying the entire fabric of the film - one that feels like a warming, generous and authentic hug from a loved one.

As anti-Brexit as I am, Paddington 2 is an utter delight. Perfect fun for the whole family, it has obviously been made with a great deal of love and understanding, profound in its message and heartfelt in its story-telling. Somehow, given how much of a pleasant surprise the 2014 film was, the sequel is an improvement in almost every sense of the word - bright, funny, warm and sincere. Difficult to fault and so very easy to love, everyone working on the film has so much to offer, all responsible for an exquisite, pretty faultless and charming slice of cinema - from the cast, director, writer and producer. Paddington 2 really is as sweet as marmalade.

(9/10) 

Summary: Lovingly-made and packed with so much heart and soul, Paddington 2 is one of the year's very best. Our world does not deserve a film as warm, optimistic and utterly lovely as Paddington 2 but it definitely needs one - it will make you laugh, cry and strive to be a better human.

Friday, 10 November 2017

Murder On The Orient Express (2017) (Review)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

✬☆
(6.5/10) 

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

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(9/10) 

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

Saturday, 4 November 2017

A Bad Moms Christmas (2017) (Review)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

☆☆☆
(6/10) 

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