Monday, 26 June 2017

Gifted (2017) (Review)


Predictable, formulaic and safe were all words flying around my head after a midday screening of Gifted, one sweltering afternoon last week. They seem to be among the most popular adjectives used to describe the new Marc Webb-directed comedy-drama, it would seem, and suggest you may have seen this whole film before, just in a slightly different package. They are words typically used to denigrate the value of the film in question, very often going hand-in-hand with 'lazy' and 'dull', frequently representing idle film-making at its most grating and frustrating. But, for some magical reason(s), that is not this case with Gifted. Instead, Gifted is a charming, delightful exercise in simplicity and restraint, towing the line between sincere and sanguine and never tying itself up to complicate its rather straightforward narrative. I admire Gifted for passing the basics with a sophistication and deftness, revelling in its ability to passing the  fundamentals with flying colours and rarely overworking itself. 

At the age of seven, Mary Adler (McKenna Grace) demonstrates remarkable mathematic abilities that supersedes the limitations of the public school curriculum; as such, on the first day of first grade, she is offered a full scholarship to study at a private school for gifted students. Her uncle and de facto guardian, Frank (Chris Evans), turns the opportunity down though, determined to prevent Mary meeting the same fate that befell her mother - a promising but damaged mathematician who took her own life. The film journeys with the pair navigating the challenges of a court case and an estranged grandmother, all while trying to understand what is best for Mary. Alongside Evans and Grace, Lindsay Duncan, Jenny Slate and Octavia Spencer star, rounding out an impressive cast brimming with talent. 

Gifted does not tell the most revolutionary or exciting story in the world but it executes a simple, touching one superbly. Tom Flynn delivers a smart and nuanced screenplay that places the central relationship between Frank and Mary at the forefront of the picture, while still finding time and balance to incorporate interesting secondary dynamics. This helps to render some of the themes more prominently and develops the supporting characters effectively, meaning we do care for the five main characters, no matter how much we may disagree with them. At 101 minutes, it never has time to overstay its welcome and hurries along at a brisk and efficient pace; though preference alone, there are elements - such as the transition to the final reveal - that I personally would tighten or adjust, but it is inoffensive and well-spirited and it is refreshing to encounter a film tht never tries to over complicate itself or compensate for a less than original narrative. I'm not ashamed to say that it really tugged on my heartstrings and left a tear in my eye.

Assembled is a rather talented cast who each impact the story being told, no matter how small or large there roles turns out to be. Chris Evans proves he is not just muscle, providing a caring and thoughtful performance of a man, somewhat blindly, leading a child through a world he is unfamiliar with himself. Striking an exceptional chemistry with young McKenna Grace, who is truly one to watch, the pair are believable and engaging as a father-daughter type with a twist. Grace is witty and more than ably keeps up with her more experienced co-stars, wonderfully lovable and captivating as a beyond-her-years girl. Jenny Slate steps out of her comfort zone and provides her best performance to date, playing the kind and caring 'girl next door' type that makes her instantly engaging. Lindsay Duncan tackles the 'uptight British mother' role with a grace and sophistication you should expect but never descends into melodrama or archetypes for the role, wistfully leading Mary down a path she wishes her daughter could have seen through. And then there's Octavia Spencer and I formally begin the petition to give her a role in every single film. Playing the bubbly and endearing neighbour, Spencer's natural charm seeps into the character and strengthens her supporting turn.

Webb is another valuable player in the film and manages to derive an absolute beauty within the constraints of a small budget. One scene mid-way through the film is so luscious - simply capturing Frank and Mary enjoying themselves against the falling, glowing sunset - but it is in Webb's bravery to keep the shot rolling, without any cuts, that allows for it to be quite as moving as it is. That one moment is unbelievably simple but executed terrifically, perfectly encapsulating my belief that Gifted excels most by doing the small things so efficiently, making the most out of the bare necessities and therefore not requiring any unneeded flourishes or add-ons to impress. Gifted rarely pushes boundaries or challenges conventions but it does not need to, shining with the basics that are so often overlooked in the chase for something supposedly more exciting, or thrilling, or new. I really admired Gifted for this.

Maybe a lack of challenge means Gifted cannot rise any higher than the below mark and maybe it means I'm not exactly rushing back to see it again - but that does not matter. Gifted impacted me emotionally, rendered its themes and characters as genuine and human and does everything it attempts with a noticeable effort and it almost always succeeds by doing so. When I thought of Gifted as safe or formulaic I wasn't thinking of it in a negative way, instead admiring its comfort in displaying a genuine human story without the thrills and spills that Hollywood so very often dictates and chases. Bravo, Gifted. 

(7.5/10)

Summary: Gifted basks in its own simplicity by completing the basics - very often overlooked in the chase for something more outlandish - with flying colours. A marvellous cast, solid direction and strong script work means Gifted is really quite the present and delight during the onslaught of sequels and special effects this summer.

Sunday, 25 June 2017

Orphan Black (S5E3) - Beneath Her Heart (Review)


The Few Who Dare was good, Clutch of Greed was great but Orphan Black's fifth and final season hasn't really hit its stride yet. Episode three, Beneath Her Heart, is the closest we have come to the insane heights of season four and skilfully balances character development (yes, even at this late stage in the game), plot advancements with a sense of humour and emotion. It is refreshing that the series, 43 episodes in, has decided to now take the time to step back and consider the profound impact the unique scenario has had on the sisterhood in a more personal manner - the Hendrixes are first up to bat.

Following a brief moment of reflection on the devastating events of last week, an Alison-centered episode is quickly ushered in and provides some very interesting and satisfying results. Considering her value as a clone, her relationship with her family, the looming impact of Aynsley's death at her hands and her pill-popping and booze-taking past, Beneath Her Heart provides kaleidoscopic insight into the dizzying heights of Alison's life and the character, series and stakes benefit from it moving forward.


In what appears to be a stretch of episodes singularly focused on individual clones (Helena will probably be next, followed by Cosima, at a guess), Alison is first and it proves illuminating. Flashbacks and extended backstories help to power the episode and strike a faultless blend between the past and the present, doing enough to continue the story towards its conclusion but take a step back to contemplate one character and her personal struggles. Alison has continually been on the edge of clone club, with her suburban life often warranting a storyline of its own and mainly utilised to tackle the main, heavy plot with some much needed comic relief - but Beneath Her Heart reminds viewers that as well as the trouble faced by the sisterhood, she faces her own demons, low self-esteem and self-worth.

Early in the latest episode, Alison is reminds that, quite frankly, she offers very little in comparison to her sister, evoking a scene from season one that reveals she is needed almost wholly for her financial capability. She is starkly pushed to the bottom of the clone power play ranking, where she has remained for the whole series in all honesty - and it finally appears to be catching up with her; it kickstarts another downwards spirial of booze and pills, thrusting themes of worth and merit into the spotlight. Alison's problems may feel minor in comparison to life-and-death chase of Neolution vs Clones and all that that fuels Plot A - but Alison's individual struggle is just as important in understanding who she is as a character, and for Orphan Black to consider this so close to the end demonstrate just how important the characters are to everything they do.

These are themes and facets that the show has explored before - with the last stint seeing Alison wind up in rehab during season two - but it is appreciative that amongst the intensity and magnitude of the final season, we can focus on something inherently personal and intimate to one character. It operates as a reminder that the clones face their own personal nightmares and places Alison's relapse and subsequent recovery at the centre. It feels a wholesome area to explore and, aside from a slight revert into her murderous, sabotaging ways, it helps to humanise Alison further; more often than not, alongside the offish Donnie, she has been used as a comedic counterbalance to the series' grimness, but is now given a time to come into her own, with something far meatier to work with. It is startling that after all this time, Orphan Black can still provide insight into these characters and demonstrates their steadfast ability and focus on putting these women at the very forefront of the show.


As well as developing Alison, the show brings back characters of Orphan Black Past. Aynsley is a welcomed returnee and we finally get a glimpse into the friendship the pair held before the secrecy, conspiracy and suspicion crept in. Natalie Lisinska plays her brilliantly, with a nosiness but deep-rooted care and love for Alison shining through. One of this week's standout scenes is the sequence in which the two suburban mothers lie beneath the stars; it is beautifully shot, performed and written, exploring the meaning of life and existence in a heartfelt and intrinsically human way. It is a mighty and raw, intimate and more wider-reaching moment that is summed up perfectly in the glint in Maslany's eye. Beautiful, beautiful work all round.

Chad is an equally welcomed return and he shares a touching moment with Alison in which they assign blame for being a less than lovely friend/husband to Aynsley. Romane, one of my all time favourite Orphan Black recurring characters, make this annual pit-stop return and is a continued delight; if only Sarah Stubbs joined to complete the pack, we'd have the Bailey Downs team back together again. God, I miss Sarah Stubbs. I miss her a lot.

Alison is not the only clone in the frame this week though, and Beneath Her Heart deals with the heartbreaking aftermath from episode two's shocking ending. M.K's vigil was something truly stunning: a tender and sombre affair that felt appropriately intimate given the life Mika choose to lead. It is these careful, thoughtful details and flourishes that allows Orphan Black to excel as it does. Even during the devastating sequence, we discover how various characters - Sarah, Mrs S, Felix, Donnie and Alison - react to grief and suffering, something previous mastered in season four's The Antisocialism of Sex. Cosima is still stuck on Neolution Island and, disappointingly, not involved with the vigil - in fact, both Cosima and Helena are either missing entirely or relegated to flashbacks; a sacrifice the series makes to ensure progress towards the end goal continues at a healthy pace.

Finally, after five seasons of waiting, we get a Rachel vs. Alison scenes and we have a lot to unpack. Delivering a freshly severed head onto Rachel's desk, Alison goes toe-to-toe with the pro-clone and takes part in a good ol' power tussle. While the winner is not yet clear - Rachel orders The Neo Police to clear the garage and dispose of the bodies but afterwards shoots Alison a glance that suggests things are not quite over between them - the dynamic explored is an exciting one and I can only hope we have more scenes between the pair. It is another stand-out scene in an excellent episode filled to the brim with them.

Another one of the highlights of Beneath Her Heart is the impassioned speech from Alison on judgement and sisterhood, in front of all her snooty peers and doubters. It feels like a cathartic release after years of seeing poor Alison shunned after her rehab escapades and the writers excel in allowing her to pour out her thoughts and resentments. While I felt for Donnie, lying, probably unconscious while she spoke, the empowering scene made me love Alison even more and is high praise to Maslany and the writing team who let this bubbling and seething resentment directed at Alison by the Bailey Downs community finally come to a head. Oh, and can Donnie highland dance every week? His increasingly slurred movements and Felix's priceless "the weirdest people get one" reaction is testament to the comedic tone this show always incorporates and masters, even at the darkest times.

Beneath Her Heart beautifully and carefully dives into Alison's psyche to witness and consider how the events of the previous four seasons have impacted her on a personal, intimate level. It's a bold and brave move, especially so close to the end, that the show decides to place one individual so firmly in the spotlight - but it ends up delivering one of the best episodes of the series. Peeling the layers back on Alison Hendrix is a move that could have simply resulted in a filler-hour of television that interrupted the pace of the previous two episodes, as we propel towards our conclusion - but it instead becomes a masterful hour of television that blends the past and present, widens our understanding of Mrs Hendrix and excites us for further episodes; season five has finally got going and Mrs Hendrix has proved her worth.

Ain't No Mountain High Enough for Orphan Black, indeed. Long live Team Hendrix.


EPISODE GRADE: A


TTMMVPAAFAMRP (The Tatiana Maslany Most Valuable Player Acting Award for a Multi-Role Performance): Alison, obviously.


Reviews coming weekly...

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Orphan Black (S5E2) - Clutch of Greed (Review)


Orphan Black came roaring back last week with 'The Few Who Dare', season five's premiere episode that felt like a shuffle of the cards before the winning hand was played. It largely focused on aligning characters and streamlining various plot strands, generally laying the foundations for The Final Trip. Clutch of Greed is far more satisfying; on reflection, and after two further watches of last week's episode, it became frustrating that first hour felt more connected to season four, rather than representing a new leaf for season five to turn over and run with - as such, I downgraded last week's A- grade to a B+. Season five firmly asserts its journey again with this second episode.

With Sarah imprisoned at DYAD under the control of Neolution, Rachel offers Sarah an ultimatum: continue as our prisoner with your family in danger or give us access to Kira, in order to research her physiology and continue their plan for the restart of human cloning. With the rest of her family convinced, under duress, that surrendering Kira's biology to Rachel and Neolution is the only way forward, Sarah remains skeptical. Will she allow her daughter's biology to be used by the faction? Meanwhile, a recognisable face resurfaces and the fate of Helena's unborn twins lies in the balance.

Orphan Black starts with a suitably uneasy atmosphere looming, suggesting an intense and unrelenting episode is underway. After livestreams with Alison and Cosima, each as nervous and flinching as the other, it is evident that the sisters are clearly under the thumb of Neolution (and particularly Rachel), one step behind them even after the progress they have made. What excels in this episode is the idea of a power struggle coming into full effect; each of the clones - in particular, Rachel and Sarah at the centre - are mercurial, with this idea of opposing sides manifesting itself throughout the episode. Even after attempting a ceasefire, with rather passionate and convincing speech from Rachel who is desperate to handle Kira's biology in a non-invasive way, the land lies even more uncertain.

The focus of Clutch of Greed lies firmly with Sarah, Rachel and Kira, the power struggle they undergo, with Helena and (a returning) M.K. in a supporting capacity. It is only now, reflecting on the episode, that you remember quite how much ground the 42 minute episode has covered. With Kira inspiring a question mark of her own, that harks back to the early days of season one, it looks increasingly likely that the season will continue down this path and answer the looming questions, with Clutch of Greed introducing some intriguing dynamics to consider for the season ahead.

Sarah and Rachel are the inherent heart and by clashing, with their opposing aims and duelling viewpoints, they are placed as the absolute focus this series. That mirage they try to install earlier in the episode is now looking like an impossible challenge, after Sarah makes a decision that launches a wonderful and unwitting clone swap that illuminates the subtleties and nuance of Maslany's performance once again. All of this is evident in that final, chilling glance Rachel gives to Sarah, suggesting the damage is very much already done...

Helena and Donnie continue to infuse the lighter element into the plot, with their sharp comedic timing a wonderful thing to behold - but this week, they are also handed something a little meatier in the form of advanced thematic theme work. Miracles and paranoia help fuel their subplot, offering some promising hints at future storylines and continue to help humanise Helena after her knife-wielding past. Alison appears to be sidelined again this week, given just one brief scene as she struggles to cope with her missing husband and sister; it has been joyous to see the relationship between Alison and Helena grow and evolve over the course of the series and I hope we have some more moments between them.

 Cosima gets to meet P.T. Westmoreland and life at Revival seems slightly clearer: it is, essentially, one big 'healthy eating' camp. In all seriousness, while I'm not quite enjoying the thought of Cosima being detached from her sisters all season long, her role on the island is filling me with excitement the further we get into her time there. Cynthia Galant, playing Charlotte, is a terrific little actress and her performance her is really strong, coming across as natural and caring. The young actors and actresses on this show are really well cast, and it looks like - matched with Skyler Wexler's outburst as Kira - they'll be having something to sink their teeth in over the season.

And then there's is M.K. The lost soul's illness is worsening and her symptom are increasing in frequency but will now do anything to help the sisters put an end to this. In one of the episode's strongest moments, an almost unparalleled technical accomplishment, one long-take sees Sarah and Mika mill around each other, before Mika is embraced by Sarah and they undertake one of my favourite clones of the series. It cannot help but fill you with so much hope and strength, particularly after seeing the Helsinki-survivor heartbreaking journey since we met her at the start of season four.

Tonight penultimate twist (there are two, but the first is clearly the most weighty) may feel heavily foreshadowed but it does not detract from the devastation and shockwave the moment sends rippling through the sisterhood. While not quite as palpable as hoped, the emotion comes in abundance changes a number of the season's dynamics moving forward. The second twist is nowhere near as strong and stirring as the first but the long-game it induced makes things rather intriguing moving forward. I'll admit, I though Paul would be on the other side of the door, miraculously resurrected from season three's explosion...

The tension in the episode is at fever-pitch throughout. It's really well-played and demonstrates the pressure-cooker environment season five will no doubt continue with. As well as because of Maslany's multi-faceted performances, the writers do an excellent job of keeping the episode evolving and exciting; despite my issue with Alison being sidelined somewhat, it is a shock we manage to drop in with her at all when you consider the ground covered by these episodes in general.

5x2's production designers continue to enthralling with their attention to detail and subtle messages; the white, cleansed setting of Rachel's office suggests a distant and coldness, an idea director John Fawcett accentuates. P.T. Westmoreland's home feels skilfully thought out, with hints no doubt lying beneath surface details and we see a fraction more of Revival - a place we will no doubt discover more of. My favourite shot of the entire episode though is the reflection of Sarah in her cell, expertly teasing the central premise of the show - OH MY GOD, THERE IS TWO OF HER - in a wonderful, wonderful way.

Clutch of Greed is the premiere episode we needed last week. It's strong, satisfying, moving and thrilling. While The Few Who Dare was terrific in its own right, it very much felt like a continuation of season four, while this felt like a brand new start for the show, so close to the end of the journey. The cards are clearer and being played now with full effective, with Clutch of Greed springing a devastating blow, a hopeful advancement and new dynamic and legions for the rest of the season to run with. I remain very much hooked.


EPISODE GRADE: A-


TTMMVPAAFAMRP (The Tatiana Maslany Most Valuable Player Acting Award for a Multi-Role Performance): M.K. An angel.

Reviews coming weekly...

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

The Mummy (2017) (Review)


It is on rocky ground that Universal Picture's Dark Universe launches, with The Mummy - the first in the cinematic film series hoping to follow in the successful footsteps of the MCU and DCEU, most notably - earning scathing reviews and an uninspiring box office footprint at this early juncture. Tom Cruise takes the lead and bears the weight of the franchise in this first outing, with Annabelle Wallis, Sofia Boutella, Jake Johnson and Russell Crowe joining him in trying to get the Dark Universe off the ground running. The general consensus is that it is a resounding failure but is it too early to be calling time of death on the entire Universe?

During the New Kingdom era, Princess Ahmanet (Boutella) is stripped of her position as next in line to the throne after her father and his second wife give birth to a son; determined to claim the throne for herself, Ahmanet sells her soul to an Egyptian god who delivers her a dagger to transfer his spirit and murder her entire family. Before she can complete the ritual, she is captured, mummified, buried alive for eternity, surrounded by mercury so she cannot escape. In the present day, Nick Morton (Cruise) stumbles upon her tomb and accidentally unleash her wrath and revenge upon the entire world. Kickstarting a new world of Gods and monsters, The Mummy lays the foundations for the Universe to be built from, very much operating as an origin story for a wider-ranging story.

Is The Mummy a complete failure? No. There are moments here that are enjoyable and it exists in that 'it's fine, I guess' territory that more and more summer blockbusters are seemingly content in residing in. At worst, it feels like a missed opportunity that really derails in the third act, as the script becomes increasing incoherent and set pieces feel stitched together from various drafts with the thinnest, flimsiest of threads. Act one operates on a surprisingly sturdy basis; it sets the wacky, nonsensical tone early on, asserting a uniqueness with its awkward but endearing blend of horror, action and comedy. It really is all over the place, an error which haunts the entire film, but it can be forgiven in the first hour for moving at a relatively sharp pace and continually engaging with decent set pieces and interesting direction from Alex Kurtzman. As a point of comparison, The Mummy is a combination of Inferno and Power Rangers, two less-than-well received pictures from the past twelve months that, while riddled with flaws of their own, each had their strengths by outright owning their zaniness. At least The Mummy fully accepts and embraces its quirkiness.

Cruise and Wallis both deliver solid performances but the chemistry between them is never as palpable as you hope and they struggle to convey the idea that they are both performing at peak potential. Boutella camps it up to full effect, creating a genuinely intimidating monster that deserves its place as the first horror to launch the Dark Universe with. Other than those saving graces, The Mummy is a complete mess. As mentioned, the biggest, most irredeemable flaw is the lame script that struggles to get its own ideas off the ground and eventually resorts to simply stitching together scenes and set pieces to half-heartedly resemble a story, with little in the way of cohesion or tight plotting. It is during the second act and the transition into the third act that the cracks really begin to show, with a distinctively troubling and glaring effort to kick things off with the big finale completely crumbling; everything is drowned out by overwhelming, only passable usage CGI and special effects, with predictable play-out acting as the final nail in the coffin.

Admittedly, a number of the set pieces are quite thrilling, with the Iraq-set heist-like sequence at the beginning of the film exciting and luring you into a false sense of security, the exposition-fuelled flashback wonderfully and engagingly shot and presented, followed by a London-takeover sequence with flying glass and thrilling frenzy in the middle of the film. It is after this point though that everything collapses. Kurtzman does a decent job at trying to retain some of the wacky, messy but unique tone established early on but the complete chaos of the third act destroys his attempt, with the big finale dragging on for far too long, particularly when compared to the surprisingly spritely first and second act.

Also, can we please ban Hollywood films from creating a 'BBC News' mock-up because, in the midst of the often poor CGI and laughable moments, their attempt at our beloved news channel was the scariest of them all.

The Mummy is fine as a trashy piece of summer popcorn cinema but succeeds in doing very little else. While I am not yet ready to call time of death on the cinematic universe - after all, the DCEU have only just delivered a good film, four films into their Universe, in the form of Wonder Woman - this does make the future path a little more murky and uncertain. More so than anything else, The Mummy is completely forgettable and messy, rather than outwardly bad or offensive, with a little in the way of inspiration or cohesion. It has its moments and the first two acts are sturdy enough to extract some enjoyment from - but the third act is pretty close to an unmitigated disaster and deserves to be buried alive like our titular monster.

Summary: The Mummy is a passable, wacky, somewhat enjoyable example of trashy popcorn cinema for its first two-thirds but then descends into complete chaos for its big finale, causing a complete collapse. I'm not calling time of death on the Dark Universe yet, but this is hardly the most secure footing to launch a franchise from.

(4.5/10)

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Orphan Black (S5E1) - The Few Who Dare (Review)


Orphan Black. The Final Trip. After months of waiting - it's here. My favourite television show begins the countdown until the bitter end, with ten episodes ahead of us bound to be overspilling with conspiracy, tension and Alison and Donnie-related hilarity. The Final Trip is underway and in this one, Rachel expects the clones to come to heal as a new day breaks with the future of the clones at its most vulnerable and desperate.

The Few Who Dares picks up just moments from From Dancing Mice to Psychopaths, the fourth season finale, which left each clone at their most vulnerable; Cosima was on the edge of death having just been reunited with long-lost Delphine. She was calculated a cure and looks to Delphine to help finish it; Sarah, bloodied and stabbed, discovers that Rachel is the 'Big Bad' kidnapping Kira and Mrs S, running alone and scared to find Cosima and an escape; Alison and Helena, along with oafish Donnie, are living life off the grid in order to keep them safe, all while Rachel yields the power and colludes with P.T. Westmorland, the decades-old founder of Neolution - a group whose self-directed evolution is responsible for the history of the clones and those all important next steps into the belly of the final season.

As Orphan Black have seemingly mastered, The Few Who Dares affords a good chunk of the hour to each clone, all folding a different element into the mainframe, thus making it a season premiere packed to the rafters of mystery and intrigue, emotion and feeling, power moves and hierarchies and genuine intensity. It's good to have you back Orphan Black - but perhaps not for my nerves.

Unpacking a season premiere - particularly the final season premiere - is a difficult feat. It's a daunting thing to approach (both for the showrunners and writers, and the audience) because it needs to do and represent so much: we need to see something that will sustain the following nine episodes while beginning to demonstrate evidence of the end point coming into fruition. Season 5's launch does it rather well, aligning the pieces for the rest of the season. Rachel is given some of the episode's greatest moments, excellently asserting her villainy and turpitude, with her lengthy speeches inspiring a sense of dread, each as well-crafted and sensationally delivered as the previous. "We here shall drink from the fountain first", she vows towards the close of the premiere, poetically promising a reward - both for the corporation she partially controls and the audience who have witnessed the journey to date.

The Few Who Dares is a lot of that actually: promises. It is not a particularly revolutionary episode and does not always feel like the start of a new season, considering how much it bleeds from season four's finale and that should be respected. At this point, it is a titration; our whole solution is being changed only by small additions at this stage - including the incorporation of 'Revival' into the plot and the Neolution infrastructure - suggesting a solid foundation for the season to operate on going forward. It's a relief to see some restraint into the additions to this season, as the process of wrapping-up fourty-hours worth of content was daunting enough already without an abundance of additions.

The Few Who Dare is a dark episode, really. There's little in the way of lightness (although the fire-cracking combination of Alison, Donnie and Helena injects some of the fun at irregular intervals), with the episode gleefully sinking its teeth into the harder-hitting, grittier questions and concerns. Admittedly, it needs something to alleviate it a little, with these peppered moments failing to come regularly enough to counter-act the heavy narrative and structure; even season four's The Antisocialism of Sex infused lighter notes into an otherwise crippling episode that considered the suicide of two of our clones. While positive that we will reach a more balanced footing as the season progresses and we are afforded a little more time to breathe, the season premiere appears to forgo that in the name of advancing the grittiness of the themes, character dilemmas and wider narrative.

Another slight misfire here was the use of Kevin Hanchard's Art Bell, with his storyline - beyond the need to pressurise Mrs. Hendrix - a little redundant. I do hope they find something more awarding for Art as Hanchard is a terrific actor that deserves the substance. One final issue was the decision to have Donnie sneak away as Alison was in a troubling situation; it didn't feel natural and I fear it may undo the incredible relationship Orphan Black have sculpted for the pair.

We cannot go the whole review without checking in on Tatiana Maslany's performance and, as is to now be expected from the Emmy-award winning actress, she hits it out of the park; to see Sarah, once the strongest, in such a weak and fragile position mentally and physically, is enlightening and presented to us with Sarah's British determination wonderfully. Cosima's puzzlement, alongside our own, features the adorable quirks Maslany brings to the character, making her probably the most relatable - and human - of the entire bunch. This week's newly-created 'The Tatiana Maslany Most Valuable Player Acting Award for a Multi-Role Performance' (or TTMMVPAAFAMRP, henceforth) goes to Rachel and her incredible speeches. Not only does Maslany deliver each and every one with the precision and seething nature atypical of Miss Duncan so effective but props must be awarded to the writer's who make each so chilling and incredible.

John Fawcett, co-runner along Graeme Manson, takes the directorial reigns in this outing and does a strong job of introducing us to the world of Revival and further exploring the Island. We see a number of set pieces on the Island and each are bursting with new details to be taken into account; however, he still manages to make it feel like we are only scratching the surface of the Island, which makes for a very exciting prospect moving forward. The use of lighting this time round is also a point to praise, with some really efficient flourishes contained within the episode; as Orphan Black has evolved, the production design team has really upped its game as a whole and my appreciation goes out to team for managing to keep up with the expansive universe.

In the final moments of The Few Who Dare, Rachel Duncan promises "it's a new day', one where we've stopped chasing our ambitious tail and can finally look ahead at the end-point that has so often shifted alongside the show's general growth in scope and popularity. We're so close to the end of our times with these clones and The Few Who Dare launches it on a confident footing that I hope will only grow more stable as we approach the end of the lines of Sarah, Cosima, Alison, Helena and Rachel.

EPISODE GRADE: B+

Reviews coming weekly!

Friday, 9 June 2017

Katy Perry - Witness (2017) (Album Review)


Teenage Dream is probably my favourite ever album; Prism is a solid top 5 entry; One of The Boys is still one of the best debut albums of all time, cracking my top ten. In other words, I often worship the ground Katy Perry and her music walks on. I am one who will furiously maintain that she has not made a bad song (except, maybe, Dressing' Up but no one remembers that anyway and I'll let you try and suggest Spiritual). However, I absolutely can, and certainly will, let you know when she released a bad album. There is no need to do so with Witness though, her fourth studio album, which features more sophistication and maturity than you may have come to expect from the lady who once wore Hershey kisses as a bra and an affinity for whipped cream and gummy bears.

Before going into my thoughts on the album as a body of work, first check my 'few hours in' reaction to each track - all with a rating out of five - and then a 'as it stands' ranking of the tracks, knowing it is subject to a whole lot of change in the coming days/months/years.

Witness is finally here. Let's go...


1. Witness - 5/5

Opening with the collection's best, Witness has the potential to be a super-sized hit on the scale of Firework and Dark Horse. Lyrically and sonically enchanting, it has the makings of a future anthem and feels all-encompassing of the profound, mature and more sophisticated album Perry has given us.

2. Hey Hey Hey - 4/5

Lives in the shadow of Witness a little but Hey Hey Hey has the potential to be a smash. A crowd-pleasing anthem with the typical Katy charm attached, Hey Hey Hey will be something special in a live environment.

3. Roulette - 4/5

Verse number one prevented me from loving it straight away, but as soon as the chorus hits you are swept up with it. There is a lot of love for this one out there so I wouldn't be at all surprised if it was made single number three; I wouldn't complain too much but they're far stronger songs in contention.

4. Swish Swish (featuring Nicki Minaj) - 3.5/5

After loving it on the first few rounds just a few weeks ago, Swish Swish falls a little flat. The lyrics are great, the pairing of Perry and Minaj is incredible and it is enjoyable, but it cannot help but feel somewhat forgettable and lacks the natural charm of either artist.

5. Deja Vu - 4/5

Chained To The Rhythm's disco-infused sister, Deja Vu is really funky. Features a really strong beat and smart, thoughtful lyrics, linking in with the album's themes really effectively. It is likely to grow on me further too.

6. Power - 4.5/5

As empowering as you expect from the title alone, the lyrics are the crowning achievement of this immense song. Deserved to be (and should have already been) a single. Very likely to be a stand-out for many and I can already see the 'I'm a goddess and you know it' tattoos.

7. Mind Maze - 3/5

Vocals and lyrics are decent but Mind Maze feels over-produced and doesn't come together as it should, lacking a cohesion. Album's weakest and while still more than listenable, it is the closest we come to a filler track.

8. Miss You More - 4.5/5

Proving that Katy excels at the ballads, she harnesses the emotion to provide an overwhelming and touching electro-tinged piece. Bound to hold so much meaning for many and features one of my favourite lyrics of the collection; "I miss you more than I loved you".

9. Chained To The Rhythm (featuring Skip Marley) - 4.5/5

Still as fresh as the day it was released, Chained To The Rhythm is smarter than its glossy, pop surface would have you believe. Its subliminal political messages marries in to the luscious visuals in a way only Katy Perry knows how, providing one of the album's (and year's) pop highlights.

10. Tsunami - 4/5

Lyrically and sonically masterful, Tsunami remains continually chilled; you are on edge, expecting a beat change or drop that never arrives and the song benefits from that, forging against your expectations. Will be a favourite for many and will make your yearn for the beach. Could be a summer smash.

11. Bon Appetit (featuring Migos) - 4/5

First of all, you should check out the solo version. Seriously. Does not feel quite at home on the album but still a fun bop that betters with age. Consuming alongside the music video is recommended to engender a greater appreciation for it.

12. Bigger Than Me - 3.5/5

Would probably benefit from a more stripped back production or an acoustic version to showcase the lyrics. Almost as if they have thrown a lot at the track but it doesn't all merge together and work all of the time. Again though, the lyrics are magnificent and could easily grow on me.

13. Save As Draft - 5/5

Powerful and emotionally-charged, Save As Draft is an album highlight; 'I write it, erase it, repeat it, but what good will it do?/To reopen the wound', she asks and everyone's heart breaks. Could be the sequel to the Thinking Of You/The One That Got Away/Unconditionally trio. Stunning.

14. Pendulum - 4/5

Tinged with elements of Roar and possibly the closest to the more mainstream pop KP2 and KP3, Pendulum sweeps you up quickly and doesn't let you go. Bound to be terrific in a live setting and the inclusion of the choir is a fantastic move to heighten the excitement.

15. Into Me You See - 4.5/5

A stunning note to end on and allows the album to beautifully come full circle. Into Me You See carries so much emotion - in a similar vein to Prism's By The Grace of God - and is, lyrically and vocally, a soaring success.

Average score: 4.13/5

Witness > Save As Draft > Chained To The Rhythm > Miss You More > Into Me You See > Power > Tsunami > Bon Appetit > Pendulum > Deja Vu > Hey Hey Hey > Roulette > Bigger Than Me > Swish Swish > Mind Maze

To be updated with deluxe edition tracks

Witness has more of a cohesion sonically than expected; while Teenage Dream, One of the Boys and to an extent, Prism did, Witness does not conjure a world as much as it conjures a feeling and an outlook. Growth and development define the album and it presented Katy Perry at her most mature and sophisticated, thematically, sonically and vocally, while remembering to have fun - which is where the inclusion of Hey Hey Hey, Bon Appetit and Tsunami come into play. The ballads - most notably, Save As Draft, Into Me You See and Miss You More - are standouts and infuse an emotion into the main frame that Katy excels at. Chained To The Rhythm was an excellent lead single to go with and still sounds as fresh in the mix now, months later.

Witness is more than impressive. It's mature and sophisticated but still ultimately fun and fresh, providing us with another showcase of Katy Perry's versatility and strength in the industry. It doesn't have the instant charm of Teenage Dream but features its own strengths that will ensure it is an enduring album in her illuminating folder. Well done Miss Perry; roll on Witness The Tour!



Friday, 2 June 2017

Wonder Woman (2017) (Review)


Wonder Woman has the weight of the (DC) universe on its shoulders. After three misfires, each to varying disastrous degrees, their Cinematic Universe has one last chance to carve out a success and win audiences over in time for Justice League, the upcoming team-up film arriving this November. Man of Steel, Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice and Suicide Squad look to Wonder Woman for salvation and, for the first time in the DCEU's history, has received overwhelming positive reviews from both audiences and critics. Is this a case of too little, too late or can Gal Gadot and Patty Jenkin's film, which is the first ever female-led and female-directed superhero film ever, save the day?

Diana (Gadot), a princess of the Amazons, is trained from a young age to be a unconquerable warrior against a threat they hope they'll never see. Raised in a sheltered paradise that protect the women that reside there from the wrath of Ares, the fallout from a World War I battle finds its way into their haven and introduces them to the conflicts of the outside world. Diana, after saving American pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), leaves the safety of her own home in an attempt to stop the threat and fight alongside man in the devastating war. It is here that Diana begins to learn of her full powers and her true destiny as Wonder Woman. Thankfully, Wonder Woman is largely unconnected from the three previous films in the DCEU, crafting an origin story mainly unshackled from conventions - ultimately (and by default) producing the greatest film of the DC Extended Universe to date.

Despite my initial concern, fuelled by how underwhelming her appearance in Dawn of Justice ultimately was, Gal Gadot is Wonder Woman, winning you over from the very start and superbly embodying everything Wonder Woman is and represents. She is compelling and powerful in the title role, grasping the physical action scenes and comedic moments perfectly; she may not be as strong with the emotive moments but she is effective enough in carrying them through, highlighting a genuine naivety in her understanding of humanity and her natural disposition. My interest in Justice League now rests solely in Wonder Woman's involvement - and that predominantly simmers down to Gadot's star turn here and that is quite compliment to pay. While Diana is firmly the lead, the rest of the cast is packed out with satisfying supporting players; Chris Pine is rather terrific as Steve Trevor, playing a charming and endearing spy who rarely feels intimidated by the strength of Diana - a joy to see; Etta Candy, played by the hilarious Lucy Davis, nails the comedic timing and the petition for her spin-off begins with me. Robin Wright and Connie Nielsen, Amazon princesses, both help demonstrate a strength and resilience that wonderfully assert the tone in the film's earlier sequences - I hope to see more of them soon.

Patty Jenkins, shockingly the first female director for a superhero tentpole picture, confidently takes the reigns of the first live-action Wonder Woman film with impressive results. Incredibly versatile, Jenkins has a knack for highlighting the beauty where needed (with some deliciously vibrant shots on the Island in act one) and the brutality when required (bringing to life one of the most satisfying moments, with Diana climbing defiantly on to the battlefield and unleashing her might). Visually, this is the most pleasing DC film to date and Jenkins proclaims her talent through chameleon-like attention to detail and ability to adapt to the various set pieces the film presents us with. Allan Heinberg's screenplay, based on the comic from William Moulton Marston, is well-written and resonant, even with a cluttered final act that does not iron out everything as clearly as hoped, with some slightly uneven pacing issues. It mainly excels because of the smart inclusion of its profound set of themes; feminism is understandably front and centre but it never overwhelms, incorporating it in a smart and thoughtful way that allows the film to standout for all the right reasons, rising above the competition in more ways than one. Smart and sharp, the themes vary in subtlety but they are greatly appreciated, stimulating and well-executed, meaning there is something in this for everyone to admire.

Wonder Woman's production oozes a sophistication and fun, balancing both rather expertly. The costumes are meticulous and glorious, establishing the era and allowing Diane to shine without ever feeling gratuitous in nature; her main combat outfit is genuinely stunning in design and unlike anything seen before. Even when the CGI lets it down (more on that later...), the fight scenes are well-executed and nicely choreographed, avoiding ever feeling clunky or overwhelming, with a slickness with each. Even the chaotic battlefield moment is never overstuffed, placing an intelligible focus on Diana. Whoever scouted the location, amplified by Matthew Jensen's cinematography needs to book my next holiday and in Jenkins' hands looks like a picture-perfect paradise - I just wish we got to explore more of it! Rupert Gregson-Williams composes a terrific score, capturing the appropriate tone for each moment and excellently building up the excitement and intensity when required; the Wonder Woman's Wrath moment, in particular, is instantly iconic and memorable.

While Wonder Woman succeeds on so many levels, it is certainly not withouts its flaws. As with most superhero pictures, a weak villain threatens to undo the hard work placed in the rest of the writing, seemingly appearing from nowhere to accelerate the film to its grand finale. Although played effectively by [redacted], he/she is underwhelming and underdeveloped, ultimately throwing the villain on the stockpile of 'poor superhero characters' made up almost entirely by the baddies. Disappointing further is the poorly rendered CGI, for which there is no excuse. It falls into the Dawn of Justice trap on occasions, generating a whirlwind of CGI that almost engenders a tonal shutdown, particularly in the effect-driven finale saved only by a powerful monologue from WW herself. Act three, in general, needs tightening and trimming down a little. Even the acrobatic movements of the Amazon princesses in act one leaves a lot to be desired and is continually the most glaring flaw. Some may appreciate it but the romance sub-plot felt slightly shoehorned in and more formulaic at times than I would like. That said, Gadot and Pine are as terrific together on screen as they are separate, conjuring a wonderful chemistry that, while disappointing to begin with, coalesce into something far more powerful eventually.

In comparison to Dawn of Justice in particular, Wonder Woman is an absolute masterpiece. In its own right, it is pretty damn good too. It's not perfect by any means but represents a step in the right direction from the DCEU; it is throughly entertaining, empowering and profound, well-acted by Pine and (especially) Gadot, bolstered by skilful direction from Ms Jenkins. While some plot strands are not tied up as definitively as one would have liked, with some genuinely woeful CGI at times, Wonder Woman is one of the strongest blockbusters of the year so far, reminiscent of one of the MCU's best (The First Avenger, of which WW lovingly borrows a few shades). It lodges itself as the DC's best film since The Dark Knight and continue 2017's rather sturdy, abundant year for superheroes - particularly after 2016's terrible crop. Wonder Woman alone has caused a pique in my interest for Justice League and places the franchise on the right track by giving Gal Gadot an origin story away from the dark shadows of what proceeded it. It gives us some of the most inspiring and thrilling superhero scenes of the year - both Diana's monologue at the end of the finale and when she climbs, defiantly, on to the battlefield - cementing itself as a worthy blockbuster this summer season for you to seek out. Beautiful then brutal, smart and sharp and featuring some of the most beautiful production design (and posters!) of the year; Wonder Woman - I salute you.

Summary: Wonder Woman is an entertaining, profound, beautiful and largely successful superhero picture that alleviates the growing concerns that the DCEU is beyond saving. Strength and power define the picture and Gal Gadot gives a terrific performance in the titular role, directed tremendously by Patty Jenkins. Wonder Woman, I salute you.

(7.5/10)

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Baywatch (2017) (Review)


Baywatch was either going to be balls-to-the-wall fun, similar to the rebooted Jump Street film franchise with Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill, or an absolute disaster. Critics (and most audiences, believe it or not Mr Johnson) called time of death pretty early on, with the action-comedy emerging with savage reviews, ripping the film apart and likely contributing to its lacklustre opening weekend. What could have represented a bright spot in the summer blockbuster window became overcast fairy quickly, with the sequel explicitly referenced at the end of this film placed in severe jeopardy. I'll throw my hands up and admit I know absolutely nothing about 80s television series - aside from the heavily referenced red swimsuits and well known slow-mo - it is based on, so I'm going in with a fresh pair of eyes. Baywatch or don't watch? Find out below...

In Baywatch, the umpteenth film about family this year alone, we meet Lieutenant Mitch Buchannon (Dwayne Johnson) and his team of lifeguards keeping the Emerald Bay, Florida safe. Alongside second-in-command Stephanie Holden (Iifenesh Hadera) and C.J. Parker (Kelly Rohrbach), the elite division require new recruits to help protect the beloved community. Joining the Baywatch unit is Matt Brody (Zac Efron), a disgraced former Olympian, Summer Quinn (Alexandra Daddario) and Ronnie (Jon Bass); they must all learn how to work as a team, protecting the beach and helping to uncover a lethal drug smuggling ring, led by the new owner of the Huntley Club, Victoria Leeds (Priyanka Chopra), who may be to blame for the bodies washing up on the shore. Firmly positioning Johnson and Efron as the leads but placing enough eye candy for everyone to appreciate, is Baywatch anything more than flesh and cleavage?

The makers of this Baywatch have picked the most predictable, laziest route to proceed down; almost everything about this film screams conventional and cliched and idle and disappointing. The plot is ripped straight from the first (and second) Jump Street, unashamedly launching the planned franchise in the most formulaic fashion imaginable. It is utterly cheesy (in a rather splendid, self-parody sort of way) but negligent with its comedy, with the jokes veering between the male anatomy and which celebrity in the public eye Zac Efron looks most like at any given moment; it is hardly enthralling, inventive stuff. It provides a couple of chuckles and a few smiles but the comedy is ultimately forgettable and leaves a lot to be desired. I'd argue that Baywatch is a more entertaining than funny film and your enjoyment in it will largely depend on your expectations and what you are looking for in a Baywatch film.

A good handful of the flaws come down to the underwhelming screenplay. Damian Shannon and Mark Swift throw a lot at the script but struggle to make any of it stick, concocting a combination of genres - but none of them are memorable, solid or fleshed out enough; as mentioned, the comedy is underwhelming; the action scenes are completely forgettable and it is a struggle to recall any standout moment or sequence; the drama and emotion is never executed well enough, mainly because the end point and formula is so strictly adhered to that nothing comes off as a pleasant surprise. It's disappointing that the enjoyable moments that crop up every now and then are so forgettable, with so little able to be recalled even just a few hours after exiting the cinema. You do not come to a film like Baywatch for the characters but even they feel completely one-dimension and empty by the low, rock bottom standard set before by similar releases; it is like Shannon and Swift picked three adjectives for each team member and then relegate them completely, failing to do anything more with them. In fact, I had to google the characters' names afterwards: that is never a good sign. It is also crippled by its 116 minute runtime - although removing even half of the slow motion would probably decrease that by a solid 20. Even still, it's 30 minutes too long on top of that. You could muster a pretty spritely picture in 90 minutes but that extra runtime, and the struggle between act two and act three, only emphasises how stale this picture is.

One of Baywatch's saving graces is that is nails the tone. It never takes itself too serious and everything is rendered with a tongue-in-cheek, self-referential wink that you can appreciate. It is peppered with enough amusing set pieces - nothing hilarious, mind you - to provide and prolong an entertaining wave that you can ride if you let it sweep you up. The winning combination of Johnson and Efron who, even in the face of a poor script, allow their natural charism to shine and frequently save the day. We get glimpses of decency from the supporting players (Priyanka Chopra could be really great and you can see Bass genuinely trying, even when it falls flat) - but the script, again, affords them little to actually get their teeth into and truly impress us with. Seth Gordon is rather capable in the directing chair, highlighting the beauty of the setting and presenting a proficient piece in spite of the flaws.

I had really hoped Baywatch would be something akin to the wacky and eccentric picture the two Jump Street films surprisingly turned out to be. Instead, we are left with a lazy and desperate cash grab that is forced to get by on the natural charm of its cast, in spite of, rather than because of, the material they are given. It can be enjoyable and is better than the 20% Rotten Tomatoes approval rating, if your expectations are adjusted suitably. Happily ridiculous but ultimately lazy, Baywatch tussles with a poor script to make it to shore but it just about makes it - it won't inspire any excitement for that implied sequel or the need for a rewatch. Like a rainy day at the beach, you can still have fun but it's all a bit of a washout and will remind you of the better time you can have elsewhere.

Summary: Baywatch is a lazy, occasionally enjoyable summer popcorn flick that just about stays afloat because of the chemistry and charisma of Johnson and Efron, even when the script threatens to strand them out at sea.

✬☆
(4.5/10)

Monday, 29 May 2017

Alien: Covenant (2017) (Review)


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

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

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

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

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

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

(5/10)

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

Friday, 26 May 2017

Snatched (2017) (Review)


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

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

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

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

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

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

(5/10)

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

Monday, 22 May 2017

Miss Sloane (2017) (Review)


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

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

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

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

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

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

(8/10)

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