Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Broadchurch - Season 3 (Weekly Reviews, Episodes 1-4)


Broadchurch became the name on everybody's lips in 2013 after the first season of ITV's crime drama, starring a terrific cast led by David Tennant and Olivia Colman, debuted to huge rating figures, critical acclaim and a burning passion from audiences, sustained throughout the series initial eight-episode limited run. A second series followed in 2015 but the road was a little more rocky - the numbers stayed high but the acclaim declined - leading some to believe the series should have remained an open-and-close eight episode story. I had a few qualms about the second season, but I'd go as far as to say I enjoyed it just as much, if not more, than the first - mainly because of the complex, excellently-executed Sandbrook trial that haunted season one and so marvellously paid-off in season two. A third season, subtitled 'The Final Chapter', is set to close the Chris Chibnall's trilogy, with many hoping the show returns to its former glory as one of, if not the, best crime drama on British television in years.

Every week, I'l be delivering a mini-review for each episode, complete with an grading, hopefully no more than a few of hours after broadcast. Bookmark this page because it will all be unfolding here - see you for the next eight weeks!



Episode 1 (27th Feb 2017)

There is something quite ethereal about Broadchurch: The Final Chapter's debut episode; whether it be the almost lucid way it is shot by director Paul Andrew Williams, the haunting and sensitive thematic material it deals with so expertly or the stunning locations that ensure this is an absolute marvel to look at, it is really rather graceful despite the grimness of the content. Season three begins on incredibly positive footing, acting as a springboard for a brand new case that never feels restrained by previous characters but wonderfully infuses them into the main body of the story. Whereas season two represented two distinct narrative strands only occasionally crossing, the first episode of season three demonstrates a more solid, consistent example of storytelling, intertwining characters old and new in inventive ways that feels like the right step forward. No distractions, no preferences, just class storytelling.

Season three's new case revolving the severe sexual assault of a woman named Trish, (played superbly by Julie Hesmondhalgh - one of many new additions to the cast) investigated by Hardy (Tennant) and Miller (Colman) that spikes concerns in being the first rape in the area by an apparently unknown assailant in Miller's lengthy career. It goes without saying that Tennant and Colman continue to portray the excellent dynamic of the once mis-matched pairing with absolute ease, striking a balance between between the dark, serious side of the story and the downright hilarious interludes of comedy sprinkled throughout; this masterful move, besides excellent casting, is down to showrunner Chris Chibnall's script - despite the promise of a plethora of new, unseen characters into the Broadchurch fold, Chibnall understands the importance and delicacy required of the first harrowing scenes that reveal the rape allegations and skilfully sets the tones for the episode and presumably the series, with the first half of the episode largely involving only Tennant, Colman and Hesmondhalgh. In fact, only a handful of new characters are introduced in its hour slot, usually is a shrouded mystery typical of the series. It is thorough writing and an outstanding demonstration of self-control, particularly compared to the first episode of season two which appeared to throw everything at audiences in the very first hour slot, crafting an intense atmosphere that so richly conveys the seriousness and darkness of the case at hand. It marks a completely different side to the Broadchurch saga than we have ever seen before-  but by god does it work, in its first outing at least.

A step in the right direction, Episode One delivers on the promise of a return to its roots after an admittedly complex second run of episodes (again, please remember that I really loved the second season, much more than many others), with the incredible elements - beautiful locations, superb acting performances and fantastic direction - slotting back into place. Despite a couple of concerns, largely whether an eight episode run can be sustained by this one story (then again, Broadchurch certainly nailed it with season one and we do not know what tricks they have up their sleeves) or whether it can continue to incorporate the prior season's characters without ever seeming forced, there is little here to suggest that season three will be anything less than an utter triumph. With the way things are going (and it is early days), our final return to Broadchurch could very well be the best.

A-




Episode 2 (6th March 2017)

The second episode of Broadchurch's third and final series undertakes a notable shift into the investigative proceedings at a surprisingly quicker pace than expected. Wasting no time in transitioning into the main investigation and introducing some of the shifty suspects at the centre of the sexual assault case, this second chapter reveals more than a handful of new information to the case that gives this second episode a snappy but occasionally jolty pacing and structure.

It's terrific work again from our leading detectives, with a hilariously deadpan Hardy and a snarky side to Miller unearthed after two seasons of being somewhat of a push-around; she really found her confidence after cracking the Sandbrook case and we have that to thank for her new found confidence-come-arrogance, displayed in the opening scene in which she squares off with Leo Humphries (Chris Mason, playing the new suspect). Despite the camaraderie nailed by the pair, this week's episode belongs to two other people - Julie Hesmondhalgh's Trish is unflinching and heartbreaking in the two most memorable scenes from the episode, including the moment she breaks the news to her daughter of her rape, profusely apologising to her, and her anxious disposition at her police interview, in which she is forced to relive the harrowing events of the attack. It's truly marvellous work, anchored by supporting work from Jodie Whittaker's Beth Latimer, who projects a continued vulnerability after her experiences over the previous two seasons. Another stand-out moment from the episode is her meeting with Andrew Buchan's Mark Latimer, in a devastating two-hander that portrays the trauma experienced by couples who lose a child; we are given so few details regarding the eventual break-down of their relationship, beyond the obvious, leaving audiences to fill in the gaps (for the time being, at least). Buchan is absolutely terrific and heart-wrenching in his scenes and I do hope he has even more opportunities to showcase this damaged side to Mark in future episodes. It's a fine example of subtle, touching writing, as is the explanation of where past characters are in their life...

Speaking of the writing on a more general scale though, the script occasionally felt a little heavy-handed this week, particularly following the meticulous and precise work of last week's script, in which the writers so expertly detailed the procedure of collecting evidence of sexual assaults and launching an investigation. It presents a few cliched terms that can be ignored for the time being but won't be as easy to forgive if they persist. And, as we bounce from suspect to suspect - we cover at least four in this episode alone - you do wish the episode strayed from the unfolding conventions a little. That said though, second episodes are always at a disadvantage: second episodes must complete a lot of the heavy-lifting, especially character-wise, as last week's terrific first half-hour was so deeply rooted in the victim and procedure that everything else took a step back, leaving episode two to juggle a lot more. It's a difficult balancing act but it gets away with it. As ever, and this feels like it should be put in a footnote from this episode onwards unless noted otherwise, the handsome locations and scenery are stunning on screen, with a beauty and awe still found eighteen hours into the series.

It's not as solid an hour as last week's determined opener but they admittedly have a lot to get through in this second chapter, mainly establishing suspects and building on the case, so I don't waver in my hope that this will be an equally strong Broadchurch season. I'm beginning to get an inclination as to where this season may wrap up (I don't want to spoil it here, so do contact me if you wish to discuss/predict!) but as long as the remaining six hours are as gorgeously-shot, sensitively told, generally well-written (let's just drop those cliches) and superbly acted as this first quarter, then we're in for some more fine work from Chris Chibnall and co.

B




Episode 3 (13th March)

"It's not narrowing down", Olivia Colman's Ellie Miller tells us mid-way through the third episode of Broadchurch's third season and if that doesn't sum up this chapter three of the eight-part series, I don't know what will. Broadchurch continues to be engaging and absorbing television but it seems to be ambling throughout the early part of the final series without a real clear direction, as if it is constantly on the edge of a huge revelation without ever playing its hands. We know something monumental is coming (and I've already got my theories) but nothing is really coming together this early on all that cohesively.

I cannot speak for everyone here, but my heart is still with the returning Broadchurchers, Julie Hesmondhalgh's Trish aside. This week afforded less screen time to her emotional play-out and more to the increasing number of suspects, building on the foundations of the case without giving us too much to gnaw on narrative-wise; that may work in the long-run, and you cannot complain that these characters aren't being fleshed out and developed, but they are simply not as compelling as those of the first two seasons, and so your heart remains with the Latimers and our two leads. Mark Latimer (Buchan) continues to be the series' greatest revelation; previously Beth Latimer has received the majority of the acclaim, thanks to Jodie Whittaker's tender and heartfelt performance and while she continues to amaze, Andrew Buchan has surprised this series, delivering a similar heartbreaking portrayal with a slight anguish, summarised terrifically during the scene in which he vows to continue fighting for his son and his memory. Aside from this scene, Trish and Beth's pier-side conversation is the stand-out of the episode, with the pair connecting over their misfortunes in a way that continues to reveal more about their characters and the inner strengths they channel in getting through each day - it's one of the most remarkable demonstrations of fragile, broken women discovering their strength even in the darkest of circumstances.

Focusing on the case, the suspect list has expanded as the detectives focus all their energy on documenting the men at the party; I can't help but think this sole focus on the X-chromosome will play some part in the future, but don't ask me how. The script builds on Sebastian Armesto's Clive Lucas particularly and his possible involvement, with a nice development towards the end of the episode with the rest of his family in the picture - but any headway this early on cannot help but feel like a red herring designed only to throw us off the scent. It's an uphill battle for this scriptwriters at this juncture, requiring both mystery and progression to keep us both intrigued and satisfied and while the character building is appreciated, the lack of direction seems to be the most glaring fault; how are you developing this season in its own right, away from the main Broadchurch cast from seasons one and two, while harking back to the likes of the Reverend and Dan the Barrister? It appears to disconnected. It seems that whenever the new case is lacking a little spark, we cut back to those returning to the fold, whose storylines occasionally struggles to connect (Tom Miller's porn addiction feels mishandled and oddly convenient and I'm not convinced Elle's father has much of a place here either). It will all eventually collide, no doubt, and come to a head in a way that like infuses both plot strands more efficiently, but the lead up to that moment so far seems a little messy and directionless.

If I appear to be overly harsh on Broadchurch, it is because I know the heights the series can hit when  everything is working smoothly; until then, I'll keep pushing the show to reach that level during its weaker moments. Despite my criticisms, we have some more beautiful shots (whenever we focus on the ocean, the beach or the cliffs, it never fails to make me gasp in amazement and awe) and David and Olivia - and her scotch egg and brilliantly sarcastic face - continue to impress both dramatically and comedically, powering the script past moments when it begins retread water and narrative ground. The writer's nail the character development and beats but struggle to find a satisfactory balance between these new and old characters, despite such positive signs in episode one. It needs a little more narrative-oomph too but surely that will come when we enter the main bulk of the show. Broadchurch still has time to find a clear direction and I am still enjoying series three, perpetually remaining one of the most compelling dramas on television - but the sooner the show plays its hand, the better.

B



Episode 4 (20th March)

The end of tonight's episode - the fourth of eight - marks the mid-way point of the final season of Broadchurch and it's a step in the right direction; an assured, focused hour of television that develops both narrative and character while actually playing some of its cards at a remarkably early stage. Some really exciting developments and revelations take place, convalescing into a solid episode that rivals some of the best of Broadchurch's first and second season.

Opening with a series of flashbacks to Cath's birthday party, we see Trish retrace her steps of the night with Hardy, Miller and Beth close-by, delivering one of the most gut-wrenching moments of the series, where she lies down on the ground in which she was raped, smells and senses reawakening both buried memories and the trauma of the event. The five-minute long opening excellently recaps what we know about the night in question while teasing new revelations, including the suspect venue-housekeeper and property on the edge of the waterfall-owner. This week's stand-out performance comes from Olivia Colman, with her face-curdling disgust at the sex offender who has moved into town, her elation at discovering Hardy's out-of-hours activities and her heartbreaking and emotion regarding Trish's recollection of 'wet leaves'; she's constantly brilliant but it may be some of her best, and most diverse, work in episode four. Katie Harford has developed more of a role this week and its great to see her talent given the ground to shine and Andrew Buchan is continuing to impress me.

We see a couple of beats that feel predictable here, with the uncovering of Joe Miller's address and Mark's refuelled lust for revenge clear from the very first episode, with the mysterious light described at the beginning of the episode appearing very obvious to me (although only time will tell with that one). That said, this is by far the most assured and promising episode since the premiere, and while we still have far too many characters ambling in the frame - and I've given up trying to remember their names - a more solid picture of the series as a whole is finally beginning to emerge. We get answers and more questions, the biggest progression we have felt in three weeks, with a number of new suspects emerging and once-suspects disappearing from our focus somewhat, a way for the screenwriters to keep us on our toes. We see some returning faces if only for a drop-in and it's nice to catch-up with them, despite the script still having no idea with what to do with Rory The Vicar (oops, wrong show). It's a stunning, stunning episode - possibly the prettiest of the season so far - with some wonderful sweeping shots and pops of colour, enhanced by terrific work from the director and cinematographer, although the score appears to have faded from significance slightly.

Broadchurch gets back on track with the fourth episode, with a marked confidence allowing the show to propel forward with a more confident, balanced hour that juggles both character and narrative, answers and questions really efficiently. As standard, the performances are excellent, the beauty of the piece excels and the script is mainly sharp, albeit floundering a little around a couple of characters, who presumably must have more of an impact further into the series. It sets up a plethora of interesting paths to follow, including Mark's determination to track down Joe Miller, a second victim coming forward and suggesting somewhat of a serial perpetrator, and a change in dynamic regarding Miller's possible opinions of Trish, after offering her unconditional support. Finally the series is juggling numerous elements really effectively and is beginning to feel like more like a sum of its parts.

A-

Episode 5 coming in a new post next week...

Thursday, 23 February 2017

Patriots Day (2017) (Review)


Patriots Day details the story of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the subsequent manhunt for the two perpetrators, directed by Peter Berg and starring Mark Wahlberg, reuniting after their work in Deepwater Horizon last year. The drama-thriller film, based on the book Boston Strong by Casey Sherman and David Wedge, with Berg, Matt Cook and Joshua Zatumer adapting the screenplay, is one of two films based on the terrorist event set to be released in the space of a year. Alongside Wahlberg, J.K. Simmons, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon and Michelle Monaghan star in the once Oscar hot-favourite.

Widespread panic is caused after two bombs are detonated during the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013. FBI Special Agent Richard DesLauriers (Bacon) is assigned to investigate the bombings and soon discovers its terrorist intentions and is required to work in collaboration with Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis (Goodman), Watertown Police Sergeant Jeffery Pugliese (J.K. Simmons) and Police Sergeant Tommy Saunders (Wahlberg). When the two suspects are identified as brothers Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff) and Tamerian Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze) and the threat of more bombings increases, the FBI and Boston Police Department must race to find the brothers before another national tragedy.

Adapting distressing events such as the one depicted in Patriots Day is a very difficult thing to handle; on one hand, the importance of honouring and paying respect to the friends and families of their loved ones injured or killed in the events should be paramount, as anything less than a dignified translation of events can be drawn up as a tasteless money-grab; on the other hand, people don't come to the movies to see a rehashing of real-life events, mainly wanting a slice of escapism, and Patriot's Day handles the two rather effectively. Despite the dark time illustrated, Patriots Day borrows from its titular noun and converts to the adjective, offering a patriotic musing on what it means to be America - unity, community and strength. Occasionally, it tips towards this uplifting ideal more so than it probably needs to, but I'd rather it do this than fall the other way and become something of a senseless and insensitive picture simply designed to earn money. Its structure successfully merges several narrative strands over the course of its 133 minute runtime, having characters meet at various times throughout and deftly delivering a seemingly scattershot narrative with a real sense of cohesion and intensity. Because of this and despite initial concerns, Patriots Day covers a lot of narrative ground and never overstays its welcome, effectively paced with a real momentum and drive. It's not a spoiler to discuss the explosion per se and although you know we could be seconds away from it at any given moment, it still manages to jolt, inflict a thunderbolt of dread and shock upon you, playing out with genuine verisimilitude.

We see a range of solid, if unspectacular, performances from a notably male cast. Wahlberg is committed, although not 'leading man' material in this role, with Goodman often overshadowing in a louder, brasher showcase. J.K. Simmons, appearing out of nowhere, is solid enough in his few minutes of screen time, while Kevin Bacon is equally as limited but decent enough. Wolff and Melkidze, playing the terrorist brothers, are a little one-note in the way they are sketched (and I'm not too sure how I feel about this) but deliver dedicated performances; these scenes are often the most compelling of the narrative, crafted with a real intensity and becoming the most insightful of the picturing, adding some depth otherwise missed or unknown at the time the events were unfolding. Their conversations and intentions are as harrowing as expected and its because of the delivery of the two actors that is becomes so efficient, although the film doesn't bother with anything too complex beyond the where and how when it comes to the pair. Director and co-writer Peter Berg utilises archive footage of the event productively and it is seamlessly incorporated into the action for the most part, offering a realistic and grounding portrayal of the minutes directly before and after the tragedy. After worrying the film's score from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (who also mastered one of my favourite of all-time, Gone Girl) was too overwhelming in the film's first twenty minutes, it generally settles down and does an honourable job of scoring the moments terrifically.

Patriots Day's script isn't the most well-realised and appears to be at a disadvantage with three people chipping in to write it: particularly during the second act, it has a habit of introducing apparently important characters only to drop them when it heads in a different direction, or losing its trail of thoughts. It is sometimes an ill-defined hybrid of conventions and genres that never understands where to sit, muddying the waters and lacking a sense of clarity - if only it was as focused tonally as it is thematically. In this middle stretch, it never really decides the story it wants to be telling and only manages to rectify this towards the end of the second act and admittedly does so effectively, finding its feet ready for the final act. All of the lines afforded to Mark Wahlberg's character seem to be ripped from any other film that features a disaster like this one, offering frantic cries of 'close the perimeter!', 'shut it down!', or 'we need that ambulance now'; these lines are the most 'Hollywood' the films becomes and this charade pretty much defines his stereotypical character's story and arc. Uncomfortable 'comedy' elements are presented too, upsetting the pace and tone of a scene for the sake of adding some light to the dark; its comedic side is incongruous, very rarely translating well and is the only time it comes close to being inconsiderate. Aside from this, my biggest issue with this film is that while I'm glad it is well-meaning and and told with feeling, it perhaps is a little too fresh in our memory to be as effective as it could have been, especially given how by-the-numbers it feels. Maybe that's just me, and with another similarly-related film coming soon it would suggest so, but an opportunity presented itself and I think the film-makers jumped in too soon in all honesty.

'Solid' is the best way to describe Patriot's Day - that not an inspired description, but neither is the film particularly, delivering surface level information and only that a little deeper; peeling back the layers could have revealed more but maybe they're saving something for the upcoming 'Stronger', featuring Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany. Its performances are decent enough all-round; the script is a little weak but the execution makes up for that, streamlining different narrative strands into an often powerful, suspense drama-thriller that is never as exploitative as feared. Perhaps too recent in audience's memory to have the most profound impact (and probably a reason as to why it hasn't connected with audiences) Patriot's Day is skewed as a national validation rather than a tragedy and can be appreciated for this slant; it is consistently decent but rarely anything more.

(7/10)

Summary: An inspiring tale of community and unity, Patriot's Day is a generally solid true-life story that translates the Boston Bombings and its fallout with respect - but it is perhaps a little too fresh in audiences' minds to be as powerful as intended.

Highlight: The play-out of the explosion is really terrific - I wish the film could maintain this standard but it's not too far away.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

2017 Oscars: Best Picture Nominees - Ranked


Phew - my review for Moonlight marked the final Best Picture film I needed to watch before the 89th Academy Award ceremony on Sunday - blast UK release schedules! In case you didn't know, the nine nominees for the 2017 Best Picture are...


(Click the title to be taken to the full review)

Only one can be victorious and scoop up the gold on the night and while many see this as La La Land's to lose, the envelope (presumably) isn't sealed yet and the trophy not engraved, so it's still anyone's game. Below, as I did with last year's ceremony, I have ranked the nine contenders from best to 'worst', reflecting how my own ballot would be filled out. Check it out, and be sure to send me your own list!

Just a few pointers before we begin...

- Numbers 3, 4 and 5 could so very easily be switched around. I've seen 3 and 4 twice so 5 could rise above them/fall with further views, which I have planned for next week.

- 8 and 9 could be easily switched and they should have been swapped out for Jackie and Nocturnal Animals, which would make this the strongest Best Picture race in yeaaaaaaaaaars.

- Everything else (1, 2, 6 and 7) is set in stone and unlikely to change at any stage.

Here we go...




Hell or High Water is by no means a bad film but I'm still a little stumped as to how and why it has found itself wound up with a Best Picture nomination. Admittedly, the genre has never truly appealed to me and it is an entertaining piece of cinema that will find its audience in a post-theatrical run, already becoming something of a cult hit - but to me it feels like an aimless Western attempting to say something a little more important, and while it deals with some more advanced themes and textured character performances, it struggles to say anything new. With probably the slimmest of chances to actually take home the award on Sunday of all the nominees, it's surely an honour for this small-time film to enter a platform as prestigious as a Best Picture nod - good luck to it in the future but this one is not for me.

Summary: Despite a few strong elements in play here - solid direction and impressive performances - Hell or high Water is a character-driven western that never coalesces into a satisfying experience.

☆☆
(6/10)


8. Lion


Certainly in the minority, the emotional aspect of Lion was completely lost on me. Despite the powerful true life tale the film is based on, and its alignment as pure Oscar bait, the film never knows how to extract the emotion from the scenes effectively and therefore left me feeling somewhat confused regarding the critical acclaim that has been poured onto this rarely-more-than-average picture. Garth Davis does a decent enough job in his directorial efforts but it is evident he is not as experienced as some of his counterparts; that's okay - everyone needs to start somewhere - but it means the finally product isn't as tight. Sunny Pawar, Nicole Kidman and Dev Patel are all great and the film comes alive with flashes of inspiration and power every now and then, but it otherwise feels like a plodding Google Earth advert.

Summary: Lion's powerful true life story does not always translate into a profound and inspiring film, despite solid performances from the central cast (most specifically Sunny Pawar, Dev Patel and Nicole Kidman) and an engaging first half.

☆☆
(6/10)


7. Fences


August Wilson's Fences acts as a perfect showcase for the talents of its reunited, committed cast of actors, helmed by Denzel Washington as both lead and director. Although he personally didn't quite manage to completely sell it to me because of a performance that felt rehearsed and stagey and the direction that did little to wow me either, Viola Davis steals the entire film; delivering a career-defining performance, this role has almost certainly, deservingly secured her an Oscar trophy. Very little will come close to the power of her performance during the film's climatic moment and will send chills across your body with the power of her spoken words. I wish the film could shake off the feeling it is an adapted play but it is an otherwise entertaining, solid entry into the Best Picture race.

Summary: Fences is a stunningly acted and beautiful written (if perhaps unsuitably dense) telling of a rarely told but profoundly moving and human story. Its complex characters are tremendously brought to life by a committed cast, with Viola Davis shining the brightest in this career-defining performance.

(7.5/10)




Hidden Figures is the definition of a crowd pleaser and, along with a certain musical, has won audiences over with its undeniable charm and inspiring themes. Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae each deliver fantastic performances in this timely, uplifting true-life story that has become the highest-grossing nominee domestically, with its absolutely delightful story expressing many emotions over its runtime, as well as its bouncy, exuberant score lifting you higher and higher. Yes, its narrative can feel a little manipulating at times, with it's rather cookie-cutter regarding the racism narrative frustrating at times, as you urge the film to move away from conventions, just as the women at the heart of the tale did. However, Hidden Figures remains a biopic that everyone can find some joy and inspiration in, serving a very entertaining and positive viewing experience.

Summary: Hidden Figures is an immensely uplifting and inspirational crowd-pleaser that shines a light on the unknown efforts of three influential black women working for NASA in the 60s, who are stunningly brought to life by Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae's terrifically witty and committed performances.

(8/10)




It really heats up here - it's very likely that Moonlight may find itself higher on repeat viewings (everything above this has been awarded at least two cinema trips - again, damn UK release schedules!) but for the moment, this incredible film only finds itself at number five. Moonlight, a tender and heartfelt coming-of-age story is masterful in the presentation of its themes, stunning in the way it is shot and deft in the way it is all stirred together and united by its terrific score and soundtrack. It's performance - from lead and supporting, equally - are incredible, well-thoughtout, with Chiron, its textured lead, becoming the heart of the very film. It's pivotal beach scene is so atmospheric, poignant and heartbreaking, with Barry Jenkins finding such beauty in every frame. No matter your age, gender, race, background or sexuality, you will find something in Moonlight you can relate to. Class cinema.

Summary: Moonlight is an impeccable film that masters almost every single element; its performances, direction, visuals and score are mesmerising. It may be a little too indie for its own good in spots but basking in 'Moonlight' is a debt you owe yourself - who knows what you'll shine a light on.

(9/10)



A beautiful, heartbreaking symphony of grief and trauma, Manchester By The Sea isn't the easiest watch but it is a certainly worth of your time and attention. Casey Affleck delivers the best performance of his career to date, a perfectly nuanced turn as a damage man haunted by the ghosts of his past, with sensational turns from Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges, earning them both supporting nominations for their troubles. It's original screenplay is skilful and textured, crafting genuine, human characters that we truly ache for, experiencing their pains every step of the way. It deals with themes of death and damage so effectively and features two of the most harrowing scenes of the year. Manchester By The Sea is as heartbreaking as it is life-affirming.

Summary: Manchester By The Sea is a subtle and devastating tale of loss, regret and humanity that tells its simple story in a truly beautiful and powerful way. A wonderful cast of actors (Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges) and writer-director Kenneth Lonergan ensures Manchester is eyeing up award success.

(9/10)




Hacksaw Ridge, the story of Desmond Doss, a conscientious objector, is a disturbing and emotionally-charged picture that never skirts around the full horror of war and the importance of faith to a person, coalescing into an inspiring yet distressing watch. Andrew Garfield, after a wonderful turn in Silence, delivers one of the most powerful performance of the year - and one of the best of his career - portraying the selflessness and determination of the solider who ran into the war without a single weapon, with a solid supporting cast of actors joining him. Thematically, its adapted screenplay may occasionally become a little heavy-handed but it terrifically, and faithfully, brings the story to the forefront, helmed with a brutal direction from Mel Gibson, whose handling of war grants him a Best Director nomination in the meantime. Featuring some of the most affecting scenes of the year - from Doss "just one more" to its humbling end-credit scene - Hacksaw Ridge is a powerful watch.

Summary: Hacksaw Ridge is a powerful, emotionally-charged and inspiring picture that examines the full horror of war on both an intimate and wider scale - all topped off with a mesmerising performance from Andrew Garfield.

★☆
(9/10)




Arrival, without an Oscar-prime release slot, resonated so well with audiences on an emotional level that it hung about and nabbed itself the joint second highest number of nominations. Four months out from its release and the film hasn't left me either; it is so, so heartbreaking, life-affirming, devastating and inspiring and more than deserves its haul of nominations. Amy Adams, shockingly snubbed of a Best Actress nomination, gives a superlative performance as a linguist expert, conveying so much emotion in a simple gesture or single frame, with Jeremy Renner solid as a supporting mathematician. It's powerful message of communication and humanity could not have come at a more opportune time, with a timely message that feels just as important four months later, showing how timeless this film will truly be. Denis Villeneuve's incredible direction - so beautiful, from the reveal of the alien spaceships and wide shots of the base - matched with gorgeous cinematographer ensure this is striking on a visual level too, as well as Johann Johannsson soft yet sudden score. Arrival is stunning in every single sense of the word and an absolute favourite of mine.

Summary: Arrival is the sci-fi film of a generation, with deeply affecting and philosophical themes shining in a script written with care and understanding, sensational performances that refuse to overpower and a tight direction that puts the film's most powerful theme at the forefront - humanity. 

(10/10)


That's right, taking the top position is...



Award season juggernaut La La Land greatly concerned me before my first watch. Neither a huge musical fan, and certainly no romance genre fan, the hype was sky-high and had already earned itself hundreds of nominations, converting a majority into wins and becoming one of the most acclaimed film in recent memory, I worried. Could a film like this come remotely close to the insurmountable expectations and hype surround it?

No. 

It exceeded them.

Dazzling and transcendental, La La Land is a rollercoaster of emotion, and despite how cliched that very statement is, the film itself is nothing of the sort. From the spectacularly bright and bouncy ensemble numbers like 'Another Day of Sun' and 'Someone in the Crowd' to the heart-fulfilling 'City of Stars' and 'A Lovely Night' duets -  and not forgetting the heart-wrenching 'Audition (The Fools Who Dream)' - La La Land so very rarely puts a foot wrong and I would go as far as to say that the first hour is unequivocally, without question or comprise, flawless film-making. The performance are an absolute delight, with Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling's joyful chemistry sparkling brightly every single minute they are on stage. Its mesmerising direction, masterful from Damien Chazelle, is a colourful whirlwind, no more so illustrated than in the film's bittersweet epilogue sequence, so beautifully combining the film's fantastic cinematography, enchanting score and general flourishes.

La La Land is not only my favourite film this award season but one of my favourite of all-time. Truly, truly exceptional.

Summary: La La Land is an absolutely transcendent, extraordinary, mesmerising watch and - although tinged with a little sadness - lifts you higher and higher with a euphoric non-stop singing, dancing and acting masterclass led by the phenomenal pairing of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling and Damien Chazelle's sensational direction.


(10/10)

Tuesday, 21 February 2017

Mini Reviews - Award Edition: Hell Or High Water (2016), 20th Century Women (2017), The Lobster (2015)

Days from the 2017 Oscars, it's time to look back on some of the contenders that I didn't manage to catch during their theatrical release and have since caught on DVD or Netflix - or, in the case of 20th Century Women, simply didn't have enough to say to fill out a full review. Let me know what you think of the three films and how highly you rank them!


Hell Or High Water (2016)


NOMINATED FOR: Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor, Original Screenplay and Film Editing

Hell or High Water snuck into cinemas in the late summer of 2016, and while it didn't bring in the highest box office receipts, it displays signs of becoming something of a cult favourite, with the Western crime thriller finding itself in many year-end lists. Starring Chris Pine, Ben Foster and Jeff Bridges, Hell or High Water centres around two brothers who carry out a series of bank robberies to save their family ranch. It's a solid 102 minute film that you will easily find entertainment in - and maybe a little more regarding its thematic content - but I cannot say I'm sold on how it has wound up in the Oscar conversation.

David Mackenzie directs the four-times nominated picture, finding some real beauty in the Western setting and letting the characters shine on screen; Pine, Foster and the Oscar-nominated Bridges deliver terrific performances of the well-realised and fleshed-out characters, bringing an emotional resonance very rarely at home in the genre. Hell or High Water further exceeds through its potent mix of genres, and while the underserved Western is the clearest example of this, drama, thriller and crime elements are incorporated for a textured play-out that elevates it above its often stale, outdated stablemates. Its script is admittedly sharp regarding its multi-layered characters, utilising their stories effectively to deliver its multitude of themes, including institutions preying on the weakest in society, familial love and failure.

However, and probably more my own fault than anything the film does wrong per se, the Western genre does so little for me; The Magnificent Seven and The Hateful Eight, both well-regarded westerns from the past year or so, failed to win me over. It tenders to find itself wandering a little, spending too long having conversations that fail to interest for long and, emotional aspect aside, struggles to say anything we haven't already seen before. Despite the strong elements in play here, it never coalesces into a satisfying experience.

Summary: Despite the strong elements in play here - solid direction and impressive performances - Hell or High Water is a character-driven western that never coalesces into a satisfying experience.

☆☆
(6/10)


20th Century Women (2017)


NOMINATED FOR: Best Original Screenplay

Once an Oscar front-runner, writer and director Mike Mills only managed a Best Original Screenplay  nod for his 1970s Southern California-based drama-comedy. Dorothea (Annette Benning) seeks the help of Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and Julie (Elle Fanning) to raise her son, Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) in the 70s. It takes inspiration from Mills' childhood, as well as important events from the era, intent on displaying the influence of women and raising a child to the best of their ability.

We have a number of decent performances here; once a hot-favourite for an Oscar nomination, Annette Benning plays a free-spirited mother of the era, determined to raise her son in the right manner, inquisitively engaging herself in youth-culture to do so, like a fish out of water. Gerwig and Fanning are both solid here, although stronger in Jackie and The Neon Demon, respectively. However, the film belongs to Lucas Jade Zumann, providing a thoughtful performance and often musing on the journey of self-discovery. It must be difficult to embody a character growing up in an era never experience first-hand but Zumann makes fine work of it. Cinematographer Sean Porter discovers a subtle colour palette that enlivens the film effectively, with Mills finding some lovely shots and epilogue too.

However, beyond that, the film falls flat. It's ironic that a film about women essentially places them on the peripheral the entire time and centres, thankfully, on the young boy - the most interesting element of the film. It's characters are not one we care greatly for, despite the best intentions from the talented cast, mainly due to the writing, meaning its Original Screenplay nomination is lost on me. It's narrative appears aimless, stumbling to discover anything enlightening to say about the era and although it tries to flesh the 20th century as a character in its own right, it simply serves as a novelty plot point to bounce around and without, would be a completely lifeless, identity-less drama.

Summary: 20th Century Women finds itself wandering, aimlessly looking for something interesting to say and, despite solid performances and intentions all-round, it is ultimately an underwhelming character drama that falls flat.

☆☆
(5/10)


The Lobster (2015)


NOMINATED FOR: Best Original Screenplay

A million miles away from the underwhelming screenplay of 20th Century Women, The Lobster is imaginative, eccentric and wickedly-dark black comedy set in an absurdist dystopia. It stars Colin Farrell as a newly-single man trying to find a romantic partner so he can remain human, or face being turned into an animal of his choosing. Peculiar and certainly unique, The Lobster is as wild as it sounds on paper, co-written by Yorgos Lanthimos (who also directs and co-produces) and Efthimis Fillppou.

Colin Farrell and Rachel Weisz star as two individuals in this dystopia searching for love to follow a strict set of societal rules. Awkward and maladroit, Farrell delivers a startling performance that demonstrates his talent - this really cannot be an easy performance to master but Farrell is more than up for the challenge. Weisz, one of Hollywood's most underserved actresses, acts as the narrator for a large part of the film, with her brash and almost robotic speech searingly memorable and unsettling. Olivia Colman is also sensational in a supporting role, wonderfully delivering a truly hilarious performance with a comedic timing nailed down to perfection. Abrupt and meticulous, The Lobster's script remains compelling and absorbing, often enchanting as we sink further into this dystopia that is so expertly presented on screen. It's certainly an acquired taste and not everyone will understand its charm, yet you won't be able to deny the sheer ambition and detail found within it.

The Lobster is occasionally overlong and its finale is probably its weakest act but its thematic content, incredible world-building, genuinely thought-provoking concept and terrific performances are all astounding, proving that unique ideas are still present in cinemas if you go looking for them. It's available on Netflix UK right now and although it won't be to everyone's taste, you will not be able to deny the power and eccentricities of this absurdist dystopia. It's one of the quirkiest, most surreal films you will watch in a good while and succeeds so tremendously because of its idiosyncrasies. 

Summary: Its idiosyncrasies encourage The Lobster to shine, a surreal, original film that succeeds on its deft and considered world-building, thematic exploration and terrific performances, particularly from Farrell, Weisz and Colman.

(8.5/10)

Monday, 20 February 2017

Moonlight (2017) (Review)


A24's Moonlight may appear tailor-designed to combat last year's OscarSoWhite criticism on the surface, but it really is so much more than that: nuanced and controlled, it is a startling and tender character study on a too-rarely depicted demographic, more than deserving of its critical acclaim and countless accolades. Based on the autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell Alvin McCarney that serves the foundation for Barry Jenkins' screenplay, Moonlight is considered one of the front-runners in the Oscar race (arguably neck-and-neck with Hollywood love-letter La La Land), scooping up eight nominations at the forthcoming Academy Awards, with nods for Director and Adapted Screenplay for Jenkin and Supporting Actor for Mahershala Ali. How brightly does moonlight shine, or does it simply get lost in the shadows?

Moonlight concerns and chronicles the life of Chiron, a black boy becoming a man living in an impoverished Miami neighbourhood, struggling with acceptance, his sexuality, his emotionally-abusive mother and bullies. The film follows three distinct, important stages in his life, usually covering just a few days at each time; we begin with him as a vulnerable, withdrawn child nicknamed "Little" (Alex Hibbert); as an introverted teenager simply called "Chiron" (Ashton Sanders); and as an adult trying to find his place in the world, going by the name "Black" (Trevante Rhodes). It's a very structured three-act narrative concerning a journey of self-discovery and self-protection, only loosely-connected by Chiron at the very heart of it all; characters die in-between acts, new people come into his life and the audience are almost left to piece together the unseen years, making for an effective and astute cinematic experience. Its budget may be small but what it lacks in the financial department it makes up in ample measures in its ability to craft atmosphere, develop and detail its lead and supporting characters and deliver relevant, relatable themes and content.

Hibbert, Sanders and Rhodes all portray Chiron terrifically, often with a great deal of subtlety and softness, embodying his struggle and understanding the difficulty in finding his place in the world; Hibbert's Chiron is probably the most confused, growing up in a society that has seemingly rejected the idea of anything less than macho brutality in a boy, very often at a toxic level that alienates Chiron from the start. It's a startling performance from such a young actor and his understanding of the character - from his silent observation of his neighbourhood to the very slight smile across his face during close contact with another boy - exceeds what is usually expected of a child actor. Moonlight's second act featuring a teenage Chiron is arguably the strongest, demonstrating the stage in his life in which he understands his sexuality but struggles to accept it, deftly delivered through an understated and formidable performance from Sanders. That moment on the beach with Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) is stunningly heartfelt, tender and atmospheric, delivering the film's defining moment - it will be a scene remembered for years to come. Finally, Rhodes' enlivened Chiron still struggles with his desire and fantasies but has crafted a confident exterior, only damaged slightly after receiving a phone call from Kevin (Holland), now a father. Playing out as a two-hander in this final stretch, Andre Holland and Chiron find the perfect dynamic - awkward yet amatory - with the slight vagueness surrounding Kevin's sexuality continually engaging the audience in questions of could-haves and might-haves, if they simply inhabited a more comfortable, accepting society - it instead causes loneliness and isolation, a preference for these characters over being true and wholly comfortable in themselves. Three stellar performances are all well and good on their own, but Moonlight offers a plethora of supporting characters that are equally as well-realised, developed and substantiated; Naomie Harris and Janelle Monae are note-perfect as Chiron's two maternal figures for completely opposing reasons - Paula (Harris), his biological mother, is emotionally-manipulating but their final scene is no emotions-barred, while Teresa (Monae, as excellent here as she was in Hidden Figures) is far more warming and motherly, acting as a safety blanket of acceptance for Chiron. Monae co-stars both here and in Figures, this time as husband and wife, with Supporting Actor front-runner Mahershala Ali, whose role as the imposing yet accepting Juan, a drug-dealer who becomes a mentor to Chiron, teaches him both practical and emotional skills, development and control. His role is all too brief but he ensures his presence is felt throughout the film's concise 111 minute runtime.

What is so great about Ali's character - and indeed many of the elements that make Moonlight so spectacular - is its consideration and work inside and outside of binaries; in an industry that so regularly relies on stereotypes and cliches to build their characters (supporting, in particular) into something remotely believable, Moonlight renders everything with a little more complexity, obliterating preconceptions; Juan may be a drug-dealer on the dangerous streets of Miami, but he is also a deeply-concerned and caring mentor to Chiron, becoming the father figure he otherwise lacked;  that final sequence of the first act, in which Chiron asks him what a 'fag' is and whether he is one, followed by questioning his drug-dealing ways is note-perfect, the pinnacle moment of that first act. The fight sequence between Chiron and Kevin is both infuriating and heart-wrenching, like a fine balancing act experienced by the audience so profoundly and with a great intensity that you are overwrought with emotions to feel and experience; and one of the very final moments of Moonlight is like a poetic tug of war between acceptance and rejection, with the outcome somewhat hazy and ill-defined - brilliantly so. It is all expertly handled by Barry Jenkins, whose script and direction result in a beautiful orchestra of tightly-woven visuals, symbols and sounds producing a bittersweet symphony rarely heard, or seen, before in cinema or film. Jenkins' use of close-up allows the faintest of expressions to speak a hundred words each and every time, with the beach scene once again emphasising everything brilliant about this film in terms of its tenderness and heart. Jenkins awards each chapter its own directorial flourishes, from the haziness of the first act with Chiron as a child to the more technical, robotic movements at the beginning of the third, referencing Chiron's newly-found confident that slowly shatters as the act continues, up until the very final moments and its use of hand-held cameras, showing Black's continued discomfort with his sexuality and something he never truly finds solace with. That said, Jenkins leaves everything open to interpretation, a masterful stroke enabling audiences to make their own readings and understanding. Cinematographer James Laxton enhances every frames with striking colour saturations and neon glows, with the pink and blue at the forefront of select scene excellently reflecting the thematic balance of masculinity and the assertion of femininity that his peers taunts him with. Symbolically too, the presence of water in each of the three acts (particularly during pivotal scenes) ties the fragmented picture together, opening and closing the piece with the sound of crashing waves; Nicholas Britell's stunning soundtrack encourages this cohesion too - as effectively as Mica Levi's did for Jackie. It's the attention to detail that makes Moonlight such a startlingly raw, compelling and heartbreaking cinematic experience.

Admittedly though, Moonlight didn't compel me as immediately as expected. Entering the film, my expectations and excitement were sky-high, so the fact I couldn't quite connect to it for the first ten minutes began to greatly concern me; what if, I thought, this picture is too focused for its own good, preventing the story from opening up and capturing hearts. Thankfully, this element actually became something to champion as the film progressed, with the intimacy and humanity of the picture searing and the emotions deeply felt, no matter you gender, age, sexuality, background or nationality. A coming-of-age story that feels like an intensely lived-in character study, the film's vision and universal scope is impressive and my initial distance towards the first ten minute must be instantly rectified - I cannot wait to see this film again. Yes, we have a couple of instances where scenes feel unshakeably planted entirely for artistic experimentation and reason, interrupting the general flow and progression of the narrative and it does feel a little bit indie for its own good, but these are minor gripe in an otherwise brilliant film.

Moonlight rounds out the Oscar season rather perfectly. It is both beautiful and ugly, heartbreaking and life-affirming, a visual treat that never forgets the importance of story and character. Its sensitive tale of self-discovery is made with heart and humanity, powerfully forging a raw portrayal of sexuality, gender and race; Hollywood's barrel-scrapings of characters of colour and LGBT characters are united in our lead here and it never feels like a novelty when the film begins rolling and themes are explored with great resonance and intricacy. Barry Jenkins crafts a staggering, harrowing and elegant story of visual splendour and narrative relevance that feels as personal and intimate as it does universal. It's a mesmerising achievement that you need to experience.

(9/10)

Summary: Moonlight is an impeccable film that masters almost every single element; its performances, direction, visuals and score are mesmerising. It may be a little too indie for its own good in spots but basking in 'Moonlight' is a debt you owe yourself - who knows what you'll shine a light on.

Highlight: The beach scene is almost indescribable, perfectly crafted with such a tenderness and heart that you will not be able to shake it off.

Saturday, 18 February 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017) (Review)


John Wick: Chapter 2 offers more of the same but ups the scale, the budget, the number of kills and blood on display. The first Wick pic became a modest success, earning over $80 million on a $20 million budget but inspired a legion of support, so much so that the second instalment reversed the curse of the 'sequel downfall' and improved on its debut efforts. With a third chapter all but confirmed, this seems like simply the next step in the tale of 'The Bogeyman', so has Chapter 2 inspired continued consumption of this action thriller franchise?

After finally retrieving his stolen car and putting to rest the idea of his assassin-ways, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is approached by Italian crime lord Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) who wants to cash-in a blood-oath owed to him by Wick after helping him with the "impossible task" of leaving the assassins secret society behind him. After his initial refusal, he quickly realises that he must accept but after seeing it through, he discovers a price on his head and must evade capture by the other assassins. Essentially, it is a two-narrative story merged into one and appeared very promising on the surface.

Stylish and flashy, Chapter 2's action scenes are easily the strongest element of the film; they are well-choreographed, untamed and unapologetically brutal. A number of critics have commented on how it resembles somewhat of a ballet and their claims are justified - everything about the combat scenes feel both precise and frantic, bloody and elegant, very often in the same, tight camera frame. It carries an artfulness, an aesthetically-striking air of grace, totally ironic as headshots splatter blood over white walls and the camera screen. But it's all the more refreshing because it refuses to water down the action in the name of commerciality *cough Taken franchise cough*, unapologetic in its blood-shed and gore. While a little ludicrous, the 'hall of mirror' sequences is beautifully shot, genuinely intense and a joy to watch, as the corridors are smashed and the lights intensify, delivering an often breath-taking set piece that isn't alone in the film regarding its impressiveness (see also, the loud and brash opening scene). Editing is really slick, camera movement is focused and shots are purposeful, making for a generally well- rounded and solidly crafted picture; it is a well-made action film delivered by director Chad Stahelski whose background is in stunts and body doubles means he really knows how to capture a fight sequence with effect and impact.

Keanu Reeves returns as the titular character with a committed performance that encourages audiences to warm further to his anti-hero figure; his background is fleshed out a little further, the mythology of the series developed slightly and it's great that we live head-first into the criminal underworld - it makes the prospect of future instalments promising, especially given the open-ended nature of the finale. Chapter 2 never quite conveys the emotion of the original Wick's first act but does manage some genuinely touching moment in the second's first ten minute stretch, with Reeves delivering some anguished emotion that sets the tone for all that follows but at least it's admirable that the film doesn't feels like a rehash. Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard compose a solid score that elevates the film's intensity on occasions, with pulsating beats and piercing sounds wonderfully matched with the film's razor-sharp, truly terrific cinematography reminiscent of The Neon Demon. One grand scene (which kicks off the film's second story) is stunningly poetic and somewhat disconcerting amongst the frenzy of the piece; however, as with the rest of the piece, it eventually rears its head to the idea of 'beauty drenched in blood', and it is exactly this moment that demonstrates how boundary-pushing this film can be, willingly dipping its toes in the neo-noir genre and extracting its beauty and poise to demonstrate why the John Wick series has worked up until this point - its willingness to push conventions and challenge expectations. Sprinklings of humour and comedy add to this, usually dealt in a typical (but not always quite as subtly) dead-pan way, which helps replace some of the charm lacking in this second go-round. It's a nice balance that hits more than it misses, but that's not always the case with Wick 2...

Despite the blood and gore left, right and centre, sparks of inspiration and terrifically-tailored action sequences, what use is it when the film inflicts us with drought of boredom? Honestly, on occasions, it was not only testing but really quite dull: that should never, even be the case, particularly in the action genre and I didn't expect it of John Wick 2, considering the rave reviews from critics and general audiences. Rarely above average and only surpassing when it is filling in gaps and the admittedly solid minor details found in first act, the script frequently becomes monotonous and even fails to afford one character the art of conversation, attempting to be smart and quirky when it instead appears as nothing short of a cop-out, as if the writer's were giving up at times - as I came very close to. This, even with a fantastically promising core concept - Wick has money on his head and all the assassins in the area after him - deserves a more sturdy script to execute it. As mentioned, it not only lacks the emotional tug of the first film but also the notion of consequences, never delivering the stakes you so want it to and by the time the film wraps up with a nod to John Wick 3, it all appears as a courtesy. Chapter 2 is just not as compelling as the first, unfortunately a victim of its own success and struggling to even pass the bar. Sorry to be the kill-joy, I just don't think the Wick was burning as brightly this time out.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is not without its merit; it certainly is one of the most creatively-shot and striking action sequels in memory, with a genuine brutality that compares boldly with its less-able stablemates. 'Style over substance' is a phrase banded around by film critics like a dirty word but it absolutely applies here and the narrative, while promising from the outside, seems only designed to serve the most stylish action pictures you've seen, rather than for any other reason, like, y'know, ensuring the audience are engaged at all times and not just every now and then, as we jump from set piece to set piece sometimes aimlessly. There's a real beauty found amongst the headshots and blood splattering but John Wick: Chapter 2 is an otherwise empty spectacle of a franchise that deserved to be much, much more. If this is a particularly harsh review, do know that you can absolutely find enjoyment in this film, but considering the first made my top ten of 2015, I expected more than this the second time around...

(6/10)

Summary: John Wick: Chapter 2 is an insanely slick and stylish action sequel that gives you all the blood and gore you could want, but it struggles in the execution of its main mission - to deliver a compelling story.

Highlight: The terrifically choreographed and captured action.