Friday, 15 September 2017

mother! (2017) (Review)


Goodness knows where you begin dissecting mother!, the latest film from the dark mind of Darren Aronofsky. Renown for his twisted, never-shattering approach cinema, his latest - starring my darling, academy award-winning Jennifer Lawrence - has been dubbed as the most controversial film of the decade and spliced critics right down the middle, earning both enthusiastic cheers and seething boos at Venice Film Festival last month. Unleashed on global audiences today, the divisive furore shows no signs of subsiding - so on which side of the fence do I find myself on?

A young woman (Lawrence) and her older husband's (Javier Bardem) tranquil existence in the country is disrupted when a mysterious couple enter their home. Rebuilt from rubble by the unnamed woman in her husband's image, their relationship is challenged as more people beginning entering their life with unclear motives. Knowing as little as possible about this film is key to your 'enjoyment' in it and by allowing it to sweep you up in the 121 minutes of sheer lunacy and unparalleled insanity without prior insight, you are bound to form some intense opinions of your own about it.

We'll get it out of the way quickly: as of this writing, I absolutely adored mother!. It is admirable, undeniably bold and f*cking deranged film-making, with extraordinary imagery and biblical parallels  woven throughout its rich tapestry of physiological horror mastery. It will no doubt, and rather deservingly, go down as a cult favourite in the future.

Tomorrow though, I could very easily loathe it. It's so overwhelming, grotesque and numbing that you could very easily call it complete trash and I wouldn't care to argue. I don't think that will be the case for me but I certainly wouldn't attack anyone possessing that viewpoint or mindset.

mother! (yes, I will refuse to use a capital M and insist on using an exclamation mark every time, thank you very much) is a film you must let stew. It needs to be digested; reward it with your reflection. Its themes, incorporated into Aronofsky's script with twisted delight, are so mammoth and ambitious that it is simply impossible to immediately connect the dots and absorb it in one sitting.

Brimming with wider-references of epic, biblical proportions - Mother Earth's rage, anyone? - it has no qualms about introducing ideas without providing answers - because the sort of questions mother! considers are unanswerable, all down to interpretation and without definitive evidence. It's a film of immense subjectivity and the door is smashed open for debate, confirmed by the bewildered looks shared with fellow audience members as we shuffled out the cinema, in silence and in awe/disgust.

In my eyes, it is a perfect exploration of fandom and celebrity, heightened by the obvious links to Christianity that have already caused uproar from the Church. When Aronofsky promised controversy, he wasn't half-kidding. While cautious of spoilers (you will enjoy it more completely blind to foresight and knowledge), seeing really is believing - as is plastered over the mindful, limited marketing material - and the images inflicted on us by Aronofsky with the backing of a major Hollywood studio, is astounding for its grotesque and messianic approach.

His direction, mainly continual uses of extreme close-ups breathing down Miss Lawrence's squirming neck, is masterful: your anxiety is more suffocated by the minute as Aronofsky cranks up the intensity degree by degree, until excruciating heights are attained and maintained through the berserk final act. Matthew Libatique's cinematography infuses a shocking beauty and brutality into proceedings, a visual spectacle for the squeamish that uses metaphors and allegories like they are going out of fashion. From bleeding floorboards to butchered beings, mother! is a twisted assault on the visual sense (and pretty much every other sense), completely gorgeous and unnerving.

It is fair to say though that this would be nothing without a certified film star to anchor it all; in Jennifer Lawrence, they have found the perfect person. In a way very few actresses could, Lawrence commands your attention in the midst of such monstrous questions, brutal violence and gigantic assertions, with a magnetic performance oozing with strength, vulnerability, fear, shock and pain. Enhanced by the physically close proximity thanks to the impressive camerawork, you stand by her side through the expanding, all-consuming Hell than engulfs her. It's an astounding, confident and shattering performance - I'd argue a career-best - and the campaign for (at the very least) an Oscar nomination begins here, today, with me.

Our supporting players - Bardem, a game, award-worthy Michelle Pfeiffer and Ed Harris - are tremendous in Lawrence's shadow. Bardem, whose religious allegory comes more blatant as the film progresses, possess an intense quality initially distant from the more subdued Lawrence, making them a perfect balance of the two extremes. Their relationship and dynamic is completely intoxicating, fascinating to watch and all the more intriguing as the parallels and symbolism begin to transpire. Pfeiffer is on fire as a sneering and consuming uninvited guest, with a handful of moments that makes your jaw hit the floor with quite some force. While Harris is not provided quite as much material to contend with, it is mysterious turn that allows the cogs to begin turning, albeit slowly. As well as mind-blowing (quite literally) cameo from Kristen Wiig - another personal favourite - the entire cast is game and engaged and ready to make you squirm and fidget with blatant discomfort.

Particularly peculiar about mother! is the lack of soundtrack. While Johann Johannsson was drafted as the composer for the film, his soundtrack was later shelved after a mural agreement between him and Aronofsky; instead, he curates a soundscape that intensifies the slightest noise and movement to really cultivate the heart-pounding atmosphere the film relies on - and completely nails with flying colours. It's another brave example of the film's willingness to go bold or go home, with the off-setting silence contrasted perfectly with the power of each sudden creaking floorboard, creeping footstep or door bell to signal a new guest to infest the couple's paradise. Bound to win the team a nomination in the forthcoming award season, the soundscape is another masterful element mother! excels at.

At points controversial and at other points extremely controversial, mother! doesn't tread lightly with its violence. Up until the final twenty minutes, I sat questioning the film's 18-rating and wondered whether I had become too desensitised to violence on screen to noice. However, when act three kicks off in its indulgent gore and glory, it is clear to see boundaries are being pushed to their limits. One sequence, where the biblical references come most dramatically into effect, is completely horrifying, harrowing and almost nauseating, pushing even the term 'horror' to its limit. That Paramount, the distributor, has allowed this display of brutality on to screens is truly shocking - but all the more admirable for their bravery, and unwavering commitment, to Aronofsky's gritty artistry.

Although heavy on the religious references and parallels, it does not distract too much from your appreciation of the film. As a matter of fact, most of my interpretations have been cultured by further reading, where you truly begin to understand the thought that has been poured into this startling portrait of humanity. Aronofsky's script is riddled with so much sophistication and a surprising amount of elegance that it actually becomes a cathartic example of the film's possibility to present such large-scale abstractions to us and succeed, without feeling too forced. I genuinely want to read up on every interpretation, theory and opinion on mother! for the foreseeable future.

mother! is physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting, even before it reaches its insane crescendo, where everything and the bathroom sink is thrown at the wall. A cinematic experience of previously unmeasured proportions, mother! is a raw and visceral escapade, sadistic in the most artistically-rewarding sense - a complete assault on every major sense in your body.

A film about art and nature and creation; of destruction; a story about rage and wrath; one of love and loss and death and murder; of darkness - completely blackness. A film unlike any other, a truly visceral experience. mother! will claw at your furiously, through its slow start and balls-to-the-wall finale to its greater meaning and deeper reflections on life, on the world, on religion and on rebirth. mother! isn't for everyone but by god you should submit and find out.

I left mother! slightly shaking, struggling to breathe and completely enthralled and in awe. Isn't that what art is for?

(9.5/10)

Summary: From Jennifer Lawrence's faultless performance to Darren Aronofsky's pitch black mind, direction and script, mother! is like no film you have ever seen before and will leave you numb and gasping for air when the credits roll.

(I'll let this one simmer for a while, to see whether it is upgraded to full marks).

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

It (2017) (Review)


Have you heard of a little film called It? Based on what is arguably Stephen King's most famous novel which was previously adapted into a successful miniseries in 1990, a new film remake smashed pretty much every record going for it on its stateside debut last weekend, earning a pretty buck and a legion of fans to share the success with. Subtitled Chapter One as the first in a duology, It has scared up a perfect storm - but is this horror picture worth the hype? Will Pennywise help scare up one of the year's best pictures? Let's float around the idea...

Seven-year old Georgie's (Jackson Robert Scott) disappearance on a rainy day in October 1988 is one of many to strike Derry, Maine. His brother, Bill (Jaeden Lieberher), obviously devastated by the loss of his younger brother, is determined to find out more about his disappearance, banding together his group of 'Losers' to help him over the summer. Ben (Jeremy Ray Taylor), Beverly (Sophie Lillis), Richie (Finn Wolfhard), Stan (Wyatt Oleff),  Mike (Chosen Jacobs) and Eddie (Jack Dylan Grazer) face their fears and come face-to-face with It, Pennywise the Dancing Clown (Bill Skarsgard) in their mission to find out the truth about the disappearances in their hometown.

Marketed as a horror, it's a surprise that this most fundamental element is where the Andy Muschietti's film slips up. An unfortunate over-reliance on cheap, jump scares and poorly-executed special effects dilute the terror and the fear substantially, preventing it from actually leaving a lasting impression on you. You most certainly jump in the moment but more often than not you can see it coming, ruining the shock and surprise and thus weakening the overall effect. A disservice to what should have been an effective horror that feeds off our greatest fears, these tropes and this poor execution is It's downfall.

As a matter of fact, the greatest source of horror is not of the supernatural or the blood and gore, but the human actions and the devastating reactions in the land of the living. One sequence - of a group of bullies cutting and torturing an overweight kid -  makes you grimace more than any clown, or dubious bolt of terror, ever could, placing the real horror of this piece with the thugs and sociopaths and torment the Losers' club. The wide-reaching notion of fear controlling us is more of a human characteristic than an element crafted by the film, which is why it succeeds as it does. Why these more potent, sharper and effective set pieces are swapped out for regular, predictable jump scares I will never understand.

Because, other than the injustice It is paid through the lousy approach to horror, this really is a successful, genuinely well-made feature-length. While rarely scary, it is certainly intense, thanks to the masterful atmosphere created; the locations and setting are both quaint and claustrophobic, immediately creating an uncomfortable air that feels unescapable as the film progresses.

The location team did a tremendous job finding Bangor, Maine, which substitutes for Derry perfectly: the geography feels quintessentially American but something exists within the various locations that heralds back to your own country, city, town, street. It works in intensifying the fear that this place, with all its strange goings-on, is not too different from your own - once again presenting the human side of It as the scarier, not these uninspired, underwhelming jump tactics.

Maschiletti's direction is slick and sophisticated throughout, maintaining the dreaded atmosphere and balance of tones superbly and emphasised by Chung-hoon Chung's lush cinematography. Our infamous opening sequence, of a yellow raincoat running down the rain-drenched streets with his paper boat sailing by, is particularly impress: it is cinematic, absolutely gorgeous to spectate and carves out the intense atmosphere that helps distract from the lack of substantial horror.  Even in the smaller moments, Maschiletti is clean and efficient with his resources and despite clocking in at 135 minutes, rarely feels overstretched. It was a real shock to learn afterwards that the budget wound in at $35 million - you would have never have guessed it was on the lower side of $50 million (woeful special effects aside), personally believing it was much closer to 9-digits than it was.

Going hand-in-hand with Maschiletti's impressive direction is Benjamin Wallfisch's excellent score. Switching between the sinister jingles of classic nursery rhymes to louder, grander orchestral swells, the immense soundtrack enhances each and every scene marvellously. It so efficiently evokes a restless energy prone to change at any time that it helps installs an unpredictability otherwise absent because of the more typical horror traits present.

Most importantly though, It absolutely soars because of the truly exceptional ensemble cast. Every single member of the Losers club (as they become known) delivers a tremendous, incredibly skilled and stirring performance, bounded by a genuine chemistry and authentic friendship between each of them. Jaeden Lieberher, leader of the group and the one most profoundly invested in their horrific adventure, is a startling talent and bestows bundles of emotion as Billie, who is endlessly searching for his missing brother. His speech impediment is expertly incorporated into the performance in an entirely natural, moving way; he won't leave a dry eye in the room, from his rousing speeches to the sheer, clear devastation of his loss and toll it begins to have on him. His brother, Georgie, is performed with a lovable, infectious energy by Jackson Robert Scott and the relationship between the two is developed wonderfully in the short screen time they share.

Sophie Lillis places so much emotion in her eyes and body language as the damaged Bev, who is quickly recruited into the Losers club at the start of the film. Experiencing arguably the most crushing, horrendous crime, Bev's story is a heavy one but it is executed carefully thanks to Lillis' thoughtful performance. The rest of the gang - Jeremy Ray Taylor, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs and Jack Dylan Grazer - are similarly impressive; sharp in their delivery of the humour (Grazer and Wolfhard, in paticular, excel) and engaging in their fear and emotion (Taylor is unbelievably subtle but powerful with each kick Ben takes), the bunch are so well-developed and put together that you will easily recognise them as people you went to school with.

It helps that the characters are so likeable and charming. Coming down to the group dynamics, it seems like the young cast have known each other for years, as they sell the friendships with complete ease and commitment. You want to spend more time with the group to adventures as they grow and mature, with these insightful moments - rock fights, swimming and bike rides - heart-warming and affecting, increasing your bond to them as the film itself progresses. I was so impressed by each individual performance and will be keeping a close eye on each to see where their career takes them.

Never underestimate the importance of likeable characters though; the script department (Case Palmer, Cary Fukunaga and Gary Dauberman, working with King's source material) really spend time introducing us to these characters and their unique quirks, giving the actors room to add their own flourishes. The foundations for these characters are secure and the language, while rousing and sometimes poetic, feels totally appropriate to these group of friends. The writing have a strong insight into the individual relationships within the group and work the film excellently around that.

And, what they do most impressively, is master the varying genres. It was so much funnier than it had any right to people, a great amalgamation of a sharp, energetic bunch of actors and a writing team who understand the era, the humour and the characters well. It makes for a stunning, heart-felt coming-of-age story as boys become men and girls become women, digging into some beautiful theme work (of acceptance, belonging and team) effectively. And as a thriller, the atmosphere is well-tuned in the script process - even if the horror isn't as well-executed in the end product.

Pennywise The Dancing Clown is such a infamous villain that any actor approaching the role has big shoes to fill. Bill Skarsgard is absolutely terrific casting. Crafting a very, very fine balance between goofy and downright menacing, Skarsgard finds that grey zones and goes to town with it, delivering a towering, unshakeable performance worthy of acclaim. You buy into the kid's fear of It/Pennywise because Skarsgard is honesty intimidating in the role, more than filling Tim Curry's massive shoes. The make-up and costume department enhance this evil with some great designs and ideas too.

Other than the misplaced reliance on conventional horror tropes, It is a success; a genuinely well-made piece of film-making that masters its secondary genres (coming-of-age, drama, thriller and particularly comedy), writing and direction. Because of the ensemble cast - one of the most impressive this year - you buy into the characters, their dynamics, their fears and their drives with unmitigated understanding and success. The outstanding production values (costume, make-up, location, set design), the soundtrack and cinematography are helmed brilliantly by Muschietti's direction - it's just a shame It doesn't get under your skin more, rather than simply graze the top of it.

(7.5/10) 

Summary: A better comedy, coming-of-age story and thriller than it is a horror (mainly because of an over-reliance on cheap, disappointing jump scares and poor CGI), It lightly grazes your skin rather than claws under it. But, a fantastic ensemble (one of the year's best), solid direction and impressive production elements allow It to float to truly great heights.

Tuesday, 12 September 2017

Logan Lucky (2017) (Review)


After the disappointment that was The Hitman's Bodyguard, it was down to Logan Lucky to end the summer cinematic window with a bang, rather than a whimper. Logan Lucky sees director Steven Soderbergh return from his self-imposed exile to helm a clever crime-caper which has been making waves with critics and fans but otherwise struggled to find a following from general audiences. Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, Seth MacFarlane, Hilary Swank and Daniel Craig team up for the heist and largely succeed with the mission.

After being laid off from his job as a construction worker - dammit Jerry! - Jimmy Logan's (Tatum) day is worsened with the news that his former wife may be moving further away with their daughter, making it even more difficult for him to visit. In a rut, he proposes a robbery heist to his brother, Clyde (Driver), intending to steal money from an upcoming Speedway event. Assembling a team, including a convicted safecracker (Craig), the felon's dimwitted brothers and a romantic partner, the group must move smartly and quickly to pull off the heist on the venue's busiest day

Logan Lucky is stacks of fun, an irrefutably good time at the cinema and something wholly original. Despite clocking in at 119 minutes, the film flashes by like a speedway car in its final lap, hurling towards the checker flag in a whridlwide of energy and excitement. A potent blend of tones and genres across the feature length make it a refreshing watch, providing audiences with satisfying rest-bite from the tentpoles, sequels and remakes of late. It never outstays its welcome and understands how and when to balance the action and thrill of the heist with character-driven and emotional developments.

Writer Rebecca Blunt helps maintain that balance with ease. Supposedly making her screenplay debut - although many suspect Blunt may be a pseudonym for Soderbegh's wife, Jules Asner - any first-time nerves are non-existent in the final product and she experiences little difficulty in providing a confident, sharp script for Soderbergh, his cast and his crew to work with. Sophisticated and character-appropriate dialogue is woven throughout a story that rarely chooses conventions or cliches, instead electing a path that provides audiences with enough surprises, delights and shocks along the way. Whether Blunt/Asner is writing a complex set-piece or a straight-up, emotional character beat (Take Me Home, Country Roads is particularly lovely), she succeeds and helps excel the picture to great heights (or distances?).

Soderbergh is a big component of the film's success: his well-cheorgraphed and sleek movements emphasises the thrill of the chase, his tight frame-work accentuating the emotion perfectly, firmly establishing himself as a master in the sub-genre. Despite a couple of false-starts in the opening act, he streamlines the picture efficiently; it is tight, swift and slick, with some excellent set pieces placed at suitable intervals to keep us engaged and excited. Soderbergh is a confident and skilful director and Logan Lucky is an excellent showcase for that.

It is a very solid cast here too, with many playing characters anti-typical to their usual choices. Channing Tatum, usually the jock, plays an injured construction worker down on his luck, playing the damaged character with control and nuance. The developed relationship with his daughter is completely charming and loving, in part thanks to the impressive Farrah Mackenzie's performance; the father-daughter bond is true and authentic, heightening the emotion in later scenes.

Adam Driver arguably has less to work with in terms of raw material - but it is a solid performance and deviant to the his typical role, making it an interesting watch. He is reliably consistent and this is another feather in this cap. Most of the attention has been directed at Daniel Craig though - and he is a certified scene-stealer. Hilarious, witty and subversive, Craig relishes his time as Joe Bang and the same level of fun is had by the audience; fuelled by some great gags and a completely wacky personality, Bang is certainly a memorable character and one you want to be spend longer with. A spin-off, maybe? Hilary Swank's character was busy setting up the sequel and I'd certainly buckle up for one.

A country-infused soundtrack and score helps cultivate the environment and backdrop Logan Lucky is set against. The recession era has been explored before in Soderbergh's material and it once again demonstrates an authenticity in his work; yes, the set pieces and thrills may be magnified to rise the excitement, but the world it all exists in is very real and carefully represented.

Logan Lucky may be a little uneven, particularly during the slow start-up, and is arguably a little clunky in its patriotism and red-neck depictions - but it never takes away from how fun it all is. It's refreshing, original (even if it does borrow from the predictable on just a couple of occasions, it executes it in an exciting enough way to maintain your attention) and high-octane cinema, revving up the slow end-of-summer blockbuster window with an infectious, enjoyable energy. In that regard, it reminded me of Baby Driver, which can only be a good thing. Between Soderbergh, Blunt, Tatum and Craig, a smart, fire-cracking piece of cinema has been crafted and you will absolutely kick yourself for missing it.

(8/10) 

Summary: Logan Lucky is stacks of fun, top-gear entertainment and a whirlwind of energy and originality. Between director Soderbergh, writer Blunt and Channing Tatum, Daniel Craig and Adam Driver's talent, a cracking piece of cinema has been created and you'll kick yourself for missing out on the excitement.

Monday, 11 September 2017

2017 Summer Blockbuster Season: Theatrical Edition (collaboration with Quickfire Reviews)


Gather one and all for after last year's successful summer blockbuster season breakdown in collaboration with Quickfire Reviews (which you can see here), we have decided to reunite to cast our eyes over the latest flock of tentpoles and properties thrown to audiences over the past three months.

Using the same questions as last year, we have picked our favourites, least favourites and everything in between across a variety of categories. Be sure to join in on the fun - post your own in the comments below or join us on social media to debate our picks - we'd love to hear from you!

Quickfire: Last year’s blog post was my first collaboration, and it was an immensely enjoyable experience to discuss the highs and lows of summer at the movies. Henceforth, I was very eager to carry on this tradition, and see how this year’s crop of films compared to last!

1. Favourite film of the summer?

Nathan: Dunkirk is my pick for film of the summer and current sits at number two or three (depending on the day) on my list for the year so far. To no one's surprise, Christopher Nolan delivered yet another stellar addition to his impressive filmography to date (you can see mine, Quickfire and a bunch of our friend's thoughts on all of his films over here) - but this is most certainly my favourite of his yet. Incredible smart and sophisticated, merging three different timelines absolutely seamlessly across the course of the film, Dunkirk provides audiences with a gut punch of emotion that could not have felt more timely if it tried. The action is brittle and intense, the performances are very often outstanding and the cinematography is outstanding, topped off, of course, by Nolan's extraordinary direction. Almost impossible to fault, Dunkirk will go as far as making my favourite films of all time. In a close second place comes A Ghost Story, a beautiful, haunting and harrowing story wise beyond its time.

Quickfire: Wonder Woman is my favourite film of the summer and, at least so far, my favourite picture of the year. This far surpasses the rest of the DCEU, and is more than traditional superhero fare. Wonder Woman is refreshing. It uses its setting marvellously, is extremely dramatically effective, exciting and powerful, yet also riddled with moments of charisma and humour. From the cast led by the impeccable Gal Gadot to Patty Jenkin’s stunning directorial effort, Wonder Woman feels like the type of blockbuster that will be appreciated and remembered fondly in years to come, not just for having thrilling sequences but a thoroughly investing story, that I feel deserves icon status.

2. Least favourite film of the summer?

Nathan: The god-awful Diary of A Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul (which I reviewed over on Film Inquiry) is my least favourite film of the year, going so far as beating out the dreadful The Emoji Movie for the accolade. By quite a distant the poorest excuse for family entertainment witnessed, The Long Haul is an excruciating watch and makes 90 minutes feel like an absolute lifetime - I jest ye not, I actually ran out the theatre as soon as the credits began to roll, in an attempt to get myself as far away from the film as possible. Be it the horrific performances or the horrendous script, the embarrassing name-dropping or the inability to restrain itself from a new turd joke every 30 seconds, the latest Diary of A Wimpy Kid is not only a stain on the summer blockbuster season but on cinema itself.

Quickfire: My least favourite release brings us back to late March, where Ghost in the Shell hit theatres and I witnessed, a visually remarkable, but otherwise a dull, stale, uninteresting and thoroughly hollow action film. Thankfully, at least for me, 2017 has not provided that disaster of a film that 2016 supplied with Independence Day 2, but Ghost in the Shell comes close, with not even its glorious visuals being able to perk one up from a near snooze-fest.

In the days after this was written I watched Death Note. More on the later...

3. Biggest disappointment of the summer?

Nathan: Baywatch takes the award for biggest disappointment of the summer this year, mainly because it is so damn lazy. A desperate cash grab trying to mimic the tone of the previous two Jump Street film but falling terribly short, Baywatch is forced to get by on the natural charm of its cast because the jokes and laughs leave them stranded out at sea, struggling against the tide of writers refusing to provide them with anything to work with. The makers picked the most predictable, laziest route to proceed dow: almost everything about this film screams conventional and cliched and idle and disappointing.

Quickfire: As much as it pains me to say, Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales/Salazar’sRevenge was a true let-down. The series has grown tired and the energy and bombastic nature I so loved seems to have wined down. As the original trilogy of films were and remain some for my all-time favourite films, it’s safe to say I thought this latest release ultimately failed at capturing the original’s energy and magic. As a fan, I would so appreciate the series go out with a bang, instead of dying a horrible death at our cinema screens. It’s not without its moments, but nothing comes close to the brilliance of Dead Man’s Chest.

4. Most overrated film of the summer?

Nathan: American Made (TBA), one of the last films released across the summer, is really, painfully average - but its 88% approval rating would tell you otherwise. It's 6.9/10 average rating tells the story a little more truthfully (and once again highlights the misconception with Rotten Tomatoes), but that's still on the very kind, over-rated side. In places dull, with only sparks of a decent film cropping up now and then, American Made is an overrated piece that demonstrates Tom Cruise's growing inability to star in good films.

Quickfire: This may be a controversial pick. I may be making a bold move, but hear me out. Dunkirk is a good movie. It may even be a very good movie. For me at least, it’s in no way fantastic or a masterpiece, and the term overrated seems justified in my mind. It’s plenty intense, unforgettably immersive and overall stellar craftmanship – it just lacked that core thread that compels me to deem it to be worthy of the praise it has enjoyed.


5. Most underrated film of the summer?

Nathan: Their Finest is a completely charming, authentic and bittersweet war-romance that did well for itself in the UK but struggled to find muscle elsewhere. Complete with fantastic performances from Gemma Arterton and Sam Claflin - two of Britain's most underrated performers - a wonderful story brimming with emotion and meaning, solid direction and impressive production design, Their Finest remains one of my favourite films of the year. Please see Their Finest - it will break your heart, make it sore, then make it soar. Miss Sloane is also deserving of a mention here and, after failing to win award season success, was relegated to an inconsequential May release date.

Quickfire: It may be hard to justify the $750million plus grosser and the 92% Fresh receiving Spider-Man:Homecoming as underrated, but I felt in online chatter and in terms of hype, Spidey was deemed a little less impressive than other MCU fare. What makes this Spidey outing enjoyable, far more so than this summer’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is how earnest, funny and downright fun it is. As great as it is to see comic-book films be ambitious and take chances, its wonderful for films like Homecoming to remind us of the kid inside, and let us enjoy two-hours of charismatic fun, that also manages to feel relatable and fun. Spidey fatigue may have set in with some audiences, but I assure you, this outing is a diverse, youthful ride, that easily eclipses, at the very least, Marc Webb’s series and Raimi’s franchise closer.

6. Standout performance of the summer?

Nathan: Andy Serkis' turn as Caesar (War For The Planet of the Apes)  leader of the apes, is not only an astounding showcase as to the powers and opportunities presented to us by motion capture technology but a masterful performance in emotion, nuanced and control too. I am firmly in the 'get Serkis an Oscar nomination' camp this year and his performance this summer, easily a standout, confirms that The Academy should overcome the bias that has prevented him from glory before to award him recognition for achieving the impossible in his performance as Caesar. 

Quickfire Ala Ghost in the Shell, I take you back to March for standout performance, and I can’t commend the decision to cast Emma Watson (Beauty & The Beast) as Belle enough, I feel Hugh Jackman deserves this, for seventeen years of phenomenal work. A true professional on and off-screen Jackman has cemented his performance as Wolverine iconic Hollywood, and in Logan he gives his darkest, tormented and most brutal performance yet in a haunting, gritty and ultimately touch swansong to the beloved mutant.

7. Biggest surprise of the summer?

Nathan: Wonder Woman would be my pick here, but for the sake of variety, I'll go for Girls Trip. Who really expected a comedy as flat-out hilarious as it was? With all due respect, the trailers looked poor, the poster were lazily thrown together and the prospects were not at all high for it - but no one need have underestimated, for Girls Trip may just be the most fun I've had at the cinema for ages. Audiences were running riot with laughter and it provided the diversity Hollywood has wholly lacked. It was an absolute treat, as was The Big Sick, a tremendous romantic comedy that surprised me with its poignancy earlier this summer after an Odeon Screen Unseen screening.

Quickfire: Of course, my pick for favourite film of the year surprised me; Wonder Woman was far better than I think most of us, myself included expected. But, the truly delightful surprise and one of my favourite theatre experiences of the summer comes in the shape of Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver. A two-hour infectious, up-beat and inventive piece of cinema, Baby Driver went from a film I was casually interested in seeing because of strong word-of-mouth to one of my favourites of the year thus-far, for its infectious and refreshing nature

8. Biggest franchise misfire of the summer?

Nathan: The Cars series spluttered out for good, despite delivering Cars 3, the better film in the sup-bar Disney Pixar series to date in my eyes (although that's not saying too much, as all three entires register at the bottom of my Pixar ranking). The animation giants returned with a sequel not many people actually asked for and the underwhelming box office receipts confirmed as much, forcing what really should be the final nail into the Cars' coffin.

Quickfire: I was never a Despicable Me obsessive, though admittedly I was entertained by the first and especially loved the second. Minions completely left adult audiences in the dark, bar a few crude jokes, and now Despicable Me 3 appears as a franchise mis-step not having (again like Pirates) that magic, that brings in older viewers, as Toy Story has always done. If Universal wanted hey could have created a series that is a solid as said Disney series, but in a world of spin-offs and prequels, Despicable Me 3 suggests an animated series that can bring home box-office dollars, but may not remain a critical darlin for much longer.


9. Winning genre of the summer?

Nathan: After last year's dreadful crop of superhero recruits inspired me to write the article '2016: the year the superheroes fell?', 2017 has facilitated a massive change, providing four enjoyable pictures to date - Logan, Guardians 2, Wonder Woman and Spiderman: Homecoming are all sitting comfortably in my top thirty (out of ninety films seen) to date. Each of the four cultivated a tone unique to them, inspiring audiences with its variety through a slight deviation on genre and infusion of sub-genres into the main body, rewarding audiences - after last year's almost embarrassing crop - with quality film-making to be enjoyed by a wide audience. While I remain skeptical about Justice League and Thor: Ragnorok, this could be the best year for comic book films in quite some time.

Quickfire: Unlike the bitter disappointment of last year, comic-book movies are this year’s winning genre. Despite being thoroughly underwhelmed by Guardians, Spidey’s latest outing was a vibrant spectacle and Wonder Woman along with Logan come the closest to being on par with The Dark Knight. If film-making and story-telling as seen in Wonder Woman and Logan can be found in future comic-book adaptations, it seems like the genre is in no way slowing down, at least critically. If they make them this good, bring on the rest!

10: Film that deserves multiple viewings?

Nathan: Spider-Man: Homecoming nabs this one for me. After the first watch, I found myself largely underwhelmed, unable to come to terms with the lower, unsubstantial stakes which, matched with the lacklustre 3D conversion, left me feeling somewhat empty - an unnecessary reboot that amounted to little. On second and third watch though, you come to appreciate the diversion in tone and pace it brings to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, accepting the slightly-off centre Marvel world it exists within. I ended up enjoying the film (hence a further two watches!) and Tom Holland proved himself to be a truly excellent choice as the web-slinger - even if my heart is still with Andrew Garfield. War For The Planet of the Apes and Atomic Blonde are both worthy of mentions here too and my opinions improved on both with multiple viewings. 

Quickfire: I attempted to not gush about it too much in this post, but I can’t help it. Wonder Woman has all the makings of a blockbuster classic. Both traditional and progressive, its comparisons to the original Christopher Reeve Superman is not unwarranted. In an age of downloading and Netflix, Wonder Woman seems like the type of film that people will want to purchase and watch for years to come for all the charm it has to offer.

11. Best franchise next step?

Nathan: Wonder Woman has single-handedly saved the DCEU; we are not completely out of the woods just yet (and with Justice League around the corner, I do still worry) but she ran with the series in the right direction and installed it with the energy it needed to continue. It felt refreshing, invigorating and thrilling, with the Patty Jenkins comic book adaptation firmly putting us on the right path after three mediocre to downright dreadful attempts before. When we look at where we were last year, the DCEU is a million miles away and like Diana, I feel hope moving forward. Don't let us down JL...

Quickfire: Spidey’s big-screen come back, a collaboration between Marvel and Sony, is the best franchise next step of the summer in my eyes. For the first time in a decade it didn’t feel like a product of studio manipulation nor did it feel overstuffed. Homecoming brought Spider-Man into the MCU with an innocent dose of colourful fun and wit for a new generation of kids and beyond.

12. Biggest game-changer of the summer?

Nathan: Okja stoked the Netflix vs. Theatres debate well and truly when the well-received social-change picture landed on the streaming service. Known more for its television original series, a successful mega-budget feature-length appearing on Netflix changed the game for individuals looking to fund their ideas on a wide scale. With splashy production designs, a A-list cast including Tilda Swinton and Jake Gyllenhaal and a thought-provoking set of themes and premise, Okja changed the game this summer - and it will be interesting to see how it changes Hollywood's infrastructure next summer!

Quickfire: The biggest game changer of the summer is between two films – and interestingly both for the same reasons. Ghost in the Shell and Netflix’s Death Note were two adaptations that failed to work, in the eyes of long-time fans of the original animes and for viewers like me who weren’t familiar with the original property and witnessed – in both cases- two hours of dry, lifeless characters in a story with little to no interest. Audiences have spoken through reviews, blog posts and box office numbers. These adaptations aren’t working, these adaptions seeming to signify that. It’ll be interesting to see if Hollywood continues with this trend in the coming years.

13. 'Against all odds' success of the summer?

Nathan: Baby Driver, one of the summer's only original numbers, thrived in a critical and commercial sense, demonstrating the need for fresh ideas within cinemas - and how audiences will lap it up if you deliver the goods. Edgar Wright's action-thriller come musical-romance was an exciting blend of genres that provided something for everyone to appreciate and has earned $200+ million so far for its troubles. In an era where everything seems to live and die quickly, Baby Driver stuck around, won audiences over and came out with acclaim and profit to boot. It will hopefully inspire more original, refreshing projects in the future too, succeeding against the odds of tentpoles, sequels and remakes galore.

Quickfire: Against all odds, The Circle from director James Pondsolt who helmed the exceptional Spectacular Now, didn’t reach the standards most would have assumed financially and critically. Who would have thought that a film based f an acclaimed book and starring Hermione, Woody and Finn would end up being a box office underperformer earn a minute 15% on Rotten Tomatoes and be dropped straight to Netflix in the UK and Ireland. As surprising as it is, The Circle just didn’t attract audiences, making film fans question if star-power exists in 21st century cinema.

14. Dead-on-arrival film of the summer?

Nathan: Valerian, I'm sorry, but you never really stood a chance. Wacky sci-fi never really sticks anymore (outside your George Lucas-helmed franchises) and this, the biggest French-production of all time, looked set to continue that trend from the minute promotion started. It lacked any big names, was an unknown property where it mattered and didn't win reviewers over to support it - even the promise of visual grandeur on IMAX screens was a wash-out with Dunkirk's prolonged success. Little was going to convince audiences to see a film that had little going for it in the first place; it seemed like a perfect storm of mediocrity and it crippled Valerian early on.

Quickfire: Finally, the dead-on-arrival film of summer 2017 is Valerian. As visually gorgeous as it is, the story was far too incohesive. Yet, reviews aside, most everyone saw its dreadful financial prospects a mile away. A film based on a relatively unknown property in the states (still the biggest movie going business in the world) starring the wooden Dane DeHaan wasn’t exactly the makings of a hit. Factor in its whopping 200million plus budget and it seems the most optimistic of cinema fans could have seen this flop looming for weeks in advance.



Nathan: mother!, The Snowman, Kingsman: The Golden Circle and Stronger are my most anticipated films to come from the rest of 2017 and, like many, I'm very excited to settle my eyes over the genre fare that will slowly start to unfurl over the coming months.  In terms of next summer, I am keen to indulge in Avengers: Infinity War, Ocean's Eight, Purge: The Island and Mamma Mia: Here We Go Again (please don't judge me).

QuickfireThere’s plenty to look forward to for the rest of 2017 such as mother!, Murder on the Orient Express, Thor: Ragnorok, Justice League, Star Wars: The Last Jedi & The Greatest ShowmanLooking ahead to next summer New Mutants, Avengers: Infinity War, The Incredibles 2 (!) & Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom have me most excited for those nights at that cinema. 

Nathan: Well, that's that - thanks for reading! Thank you to Quickfire for joining me on this chat and be sure to keep your eyes peeled for more collaborations - one may be coming sooner than you think...

Quickfire: Thank you as always to Nathan for allowing me to collaborate in sharing my thoughts on summer 2017, a superior summer than last in my opinion.

-

You can check out Quickfire's channel here and find links to full reviews by clicking on the title of the film you're interested in! Again,  be sure to send us your picks - we would love to hear them!

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

The Hitman's Bodyguard (2017) (Review)


If any genre is in Hollywood's bad books at the moment, it's comedy. A genre that should inspire fits and giggles now evokes moans and groans, becoming the birthing ground for some of 2017s worst films; The House, Baywatch, Snatched, Table 19, Rough Night and the abomination that was Diary of A Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul have all been slaughtered by critics, which has in turn inflicted damage upon those much-needed box office receipts. I would go as far as to argue that Girls Trip is the only straight-up comedy success story (unless you think The Big Sick falls into the genre) and the genre is losing momentum horrendously. 

Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L Jackson's double hander, The Hitman's Bodyguard, hopes to buck the downward trend and put comedy of its misery by balancing the ratio of dreadful comedies-to-half decent comedies. The Patrick Hughes-directed picture follows Michael Bryce's (Reynolds) climb back up to the top after he failed to prevent the death of a major figure two years previous. An ex-collegue come lover turns to Bryce to deliver Darius Kincaide (Jackson), a notorious hitman witness to a Russian dictator's crimes against humanity, to The Hague to provide evidence against the merciless Russian. It leads to a whole myriad of disaster and pain along the way, most of which is absorbed by the audience.

First and foremost, The Hitman Bodyguard is downright lazy. Depressingly lazy, in fact. Not all films have to try and reinvent the wheel but The Hitman's Bodyguard does not even strain to make a slight adjustments to the general template, copy and pasting bits from better, far superior comedies - but never skilfully handling the translation or execution well enough. It meanders around - for far too long, I may add - ticking every cliche on the list off with little care for innovation or originality. Again, you do not always need to reinvent the wheel but you need to at least provide audiences with something to make the time and money they have spent on or with your end product worthwhile. This film does not.

While the laughs are not completely devoid here, they are certainly not the responsibility of the script. Tom O'Connor's screenplay leaves an awful lot to be desired, formulaic and strained and in no hurry to provide anything substantial - or even remotely humorous. Most of the set pieces feel worn and threadbare and those with even a dash of creativity can be seen in the film's promotional material; you literally don't even have to pay a penny to be witness to the laughs from this one - just watch the trailer instead. O'Connor inexperience is apparent and while he provides a rough outline for the actors to ricochet between, it is never close to enough.

Ryan Reynolds' delivers a very subtle new shade of Deadpool while Samuel L Jackson plays Samuel L Jackson in the way only Samuel L Jackson knows how to, reaffirming that very notion we have seen all of this before. Admittedly, they make a cracking team and the chemistry and dynamic is very clear to see and is, at times, enjoyable. All laughs are down to the rapport they craft, even though they only seem to play heightened versions of themselves, or popular characters from their past. Samuel L Jackson saying the word 'mothefu*ker' and other foul-mouthed expletives? Revolutionary. Ryan Reynolds with high-octane energy levels? Astounding. Both have been talented and versatile in the past (Reynolds is phenomenal in Buried and impressive in Woman in Gold) and they do not need to fall into these stereotypical, type-cast roles. But heck, at least they seemed to be having more fun than me.

Patrick Hughes' direction operates on the simplest, most fundamental level only. Peppered throughout are some fine, rather sharp visual gags but nothing else is worth noting, manoeuvring between the set pieces with little cause for excitement or celebration. Amsterdam is explored in an a half-interesting way but that mainly boils down to the fact Amsterdam is rarely visited by major Hollywood films, so thrill of seeing a new city on the screen is a moment to revel in; Coventry, less so, but I never thought I'd see a shootout on the streets of the city so it has that going for it, I guess.

Atli Orvarsson's score is decent, helping to enhance the intensity where the script lets it down. It's nothing overly special but suitable and one of the stronger elements of this disappointing action-comedy. Still on the music front, the incorporation of popular songs - I Want To Know What Love Is and Dancing In The Moonlight - are so on the nose it borders on offensive. It is an inauthentic, garish use of music so poorly executed: after letting out a little chuckle as the Foreigner hit swelled, I immediately hated myself afterwards for indulging in such a cheap laugh but I was so desperate for a joke I would have laughed at a dick joke - sure enough, there was a couple (one of which can be seen in the poster above). How predictable. It again indicates the film's sheer joy in kicking in the cliches and plumping for the most predictable route on every occasions.

The Hitman's Bodyguard's laziness is its Achilles' heel. Most problems stem from the lacklustre, cliched script and narrative, with the majority of laughs coming from the natural camaraderie of the two leads and some visual gags and minor flourishes along the beaten way. Even with the two leads becoming the stand-out element though, it cannot help but feel they are regurgitating characters they have previously played, again striking you as a uninspired, almost pointless film altogether.  It has been a rocky few months for comedy and unfortunately The Hitman's Bodyguard is not the picture to buck the frustrating downward trend - although it doesn't really worsen it either.

☆☆
(5/10) 

Summary: The Hitman's Bodyguard leaves a lot to be desired, with a dry script deserting its two leads with only their natural charm - which can only get them so far - in a film so formulaic and cliched in nature that it feels copied and pasted from much more successful, actually funny comedies.

Monday, 4 September 2017

Wind River (2017) (Review)


Wind River is a crime-thriller playing out against a chilly backdrop. An amalgamation of Nocturnal Animals, Prisoners and The Grey tonally, tinged with A Lonely Place To Die for good measure, the Taylor Sheridan written and directed piece has been making waves this summer. After premiering at Sundance, Wind River has received the privilege of being the one-and-only in the Hollywood landscape and, with a plethora of positive reviews and reception following its stateside debut, will arrive on UK soil next Friday.

On the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, Fish and Wildlife Service agent Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) discovers the frozen-solid body of Natalie Hanson, an 18-year old resident of the reservation. Rookie FBI special agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is assigned to the case and determines that a murder has transpired and must be investigated. In a particularly harsh environment, with even harsher circumstances, Lambert is taken on by Banner to help investigate the murder and catch the killer before he or she strikes again, throwing the entire community into turmoil as each and every one is scrutinised regarding their involvement.

On the back of his award season success with Hell or High Water (it earned an impressive four nominations, including a Best Picture nod) and the acclaim of 2015's Sicario, Sheridan returns to write and direct his latest project, a character-driven murder mystery with a bitter chill. Wyoming provides the setting for Wind River, a brutal and unforgiving picture that rings out a lot of intensity across its 111 minute runtime. The way Sheridan explores the location is paramount to its success and emphasises the themes of isolation and harshness perfectly.

Sheridan's script is deeply-rooted in its characters, as well as the (obviously) important, central crime: at the same time as giving our lead investigation agents backstories and depth, the story's victim and her family are developed with great insight into their pain and suffering. It examines a broken family unit and where they go next, evoked further through thoughtful theme work; race and heritage is considered without ever feeling exploitative, offering a refreshing representation of Native American people rarely seen in cinema - or on screens in general. You genuinely care for these characters because time has been invested in their story and it pays off wonderfully; for example, when we see the harrowing trauma the victim experiences, you don't know whether to cry or scream - I did both - and that is a testament to Sheridan's writing, characters and the performances.

Jeremy Renner and Elizabeth Olsen re-assemble following their multiple Avengers appearances in this gritty crime-drama, both delivering an unconventional but strong performance in their respective roles. Renner carries a confidence perfectly suited to Olsen's naivety in her new-ish job, crafting a wonderful dynamic that the film and actors are willing to explore. There is a clear attraction between the two but the script prevents placing too much of an emphasis on the will they/won't they back and forth, presenting it subtly enough to simply texture each character, rather than wholly define them. Olsen and Renner are two very often overlooked actors in Hollywood - but here they prove their talent with two of the more memorable characters of their filmographies.

Violence is a key to Wind River, conjuring a brutal and unforgiving tone that may be too much for some people. Sheridan does not hold back with harsh depictions and headshots, with the red blood striking a powerful contrast against the white, snowy backdrop, making it a visually sharp piece. It is demonstrated with some restriction though which allows it to remain chilling and powerful still, as only very rarely does the film cross into unnecessarily violent territory. This, again, comes down to Sheridan's confidence and skill as a director and his decision to ensure every image has an emotional power and meaning behind it.

All of this is capped off by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis' raw and hypnotic soundtrack. It succeeds tremendously well in enhancing the atmosphere that looms so heavy over the piece, effectively drawing out and evoking the bitter air Wind River masters. It's a diverse selection of tracks excellently scoring pivotal and more personal moments alike.

Wind River doesn't flow as seamlessly as hoped though. It's rather uneven in places, shuffling tones a little sloppily and interrupting the intensity on a handful of occasions. It doesn't hinder the pace all too much but it is clear that a tightening in places could have provided a cleaner, more solid film. My qualms with Wind River aren't massive and the film recovers from them rather easily, mainly due to Sheridan's confident directorial style and writing, alongside the performances and score but they do let it down slightly.

Wind River is powerful, chilling film-making with a message. Its diverse representations and consideration of heavy themes deliver audiences a bite that you may not expect from a film released outside your usual award season friendly window. It is brutal and unforgiving film-making but somehow still eloquent and sophisticated, proving once again that Taylor Sheridan is one of Hollywood's most consistent talents. Alongside the impressive performances and musicians, Sheridan makes an original, masterful piece of mystery crime-drama that, even with minor flaws, comes highly recommended.

(8/10) 

Summary: Wind River is a brutal, unforgiving and impressive thriller with fantastic performances, a confident writer-director and gripping story at the centre. In equal parts shocking and soulful, it sinks its claws in early on with an atmospheric, intelligent piece of film-making.