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Suspiria was a real head-scrambler at first. Walking out of the cinema I had so many mixed emotions and unanswered questions, I wasn't able to process whether I even liked it. However, having had time to reflect and piece together the subtext, I take my hat off to Luca Guadagnino.
The basic premise of the film is the same as the original; An illustrious all female dance school in Cold War Berlin acts as a front for a coven of witches plotting to bring about some cataclysmic event (no spoilers for what that is). A young aspiring dancer named Susie travels to the school from America, where she catches the attention of Madame Blanc, head choreographer and matron of the school, who senses something 'special' about the new arrival...
Suspiria is an uncompromisingly dark and powerful film, thematically and visually. It had a similar affect on me as Darren Aronofsky's nightmarish "Mother!", worming its way into my subconscious and disturbing my dreams with its lurid, haunting imagery. Using the parallel of a guilt-ridden post War Germany amidst rising political unrest, Guadagnino elevates this version from the cheap schlock horror of the original with a profound socio-political metaphor that, once fully understood, imbues the schemes of the coven and the grotesque, mesmerizing finale with a tragic significance.
The atmosphere is reflected through the limited, but nonetheless hypnotic soundtrack created by Thom Yorke. 'Volk', the piece that plays through some of most intense and macabre scenes, is an ominous 5/8 series of warped, gurgling synths that sounds like rifts tearing through space and time, while the dreamy piano waltz of 'Suspirium', which plays through the start and end credits weaves a melancholic mood that suggests the core emotion beneath this film is not fear, but sadness and regret.
The cinematography is gloomy-beautiful, with bold composition choices and a wonderful use of light and reflective surfaces, filling the academy's mirrored halls and shadowy corridors with a foreboding reminiscent of The Shining's Overlook Hotel. Fans of Argento's vibrantly coloured version criticized Guadagnino's choice to film mostly in muted secondary colours, however I feel this palette grounds the film with a gritty realism that matches the depressing time period. It also contrasts strongly with a key sequence where the screen is bathed in a furious blood red.
The performances are solid. Tilda Swinton in her main role as head witch, Madame Blanc, exudes a regal menace that gives way to a motherly affection for the newcomer, Susie, played with wistful intensity by Dakota Johnson. I was particularly drawn to Mia Goth's sympathetic portrayal of Sara, a friend to Susie who becomes suspicious after two girls at the dance school go missing. Her plucky determination to unlock the truth makes her a target -we are shown in an earlier scene the terrifying capabilities of the witches and how they punish dissent- so her character carries much of the film's emotional weight. The other coven members are played by a cast of European actresses with whom I am not familiar, but they are all excellent, showcasing distinct, eccentric personalities yet all bearing a sinister aloofness that makes them feel instantly dangerous.
Suspiria is not without its flaws. At 2 hours 40 mins, it feels overly long and some scenes do drag. The camera work is mostly exemplary, however there are a few weird jump cuts, angle shifts and frenetic, wobbly crash zooms that whilst sometimes done purposefully to unsteady the viewer, are other times an unwelcome, pointless distraction from what's actually happening on screen. There is also the character of Dr. Joseph Klemperer and the unusual decision to have him played by Tilda Swinton in layers of prosthesis. While Swinton undoubtedly gives a fantastic physical performance as the elderly psychiatrist investigating the weird goings on at the school, her voice is just not convincing and sounds comically high-pitched in parts, her diction muffled by dentures. The makeup, while good, is not quite good enough and when Klemperer is shot in full daylight closeup, it's quite obvious that his face is a mask. It makes it difficult to engage with his character fully.
At its worst Suspiria feels convoluted, sluggish and pretentious, at its best, such as during the Volk dance scene, it is a visual feast, a hellish ballet that commands the senses with majestic ferocity. The languid pace, subtitle heavy dialogue (much of the film is in German) and tangled subtext do not make for an easy watch. I can understand people hating it, particularly if they are expecting a straightforward horror narrative, but for those who can appreciate slow burn, atmospheric films with a unique vision, they will find greatness here.
Phantom Thread (2017)
Beautiful, but a tad over-dressed
Phantom Thread is essentially a study of a dysfunctional relationship: a man imprisoned by his own obtuse, fixated nature, and the attempts of one young, strong-willed woman to pull him out of it.
Reynolds Woodcock, a renowned dress-maker for elite ladies in 50s London, is as stiff as a hat stand, ritualistic and firmly set in his ways. He demands that those who take breakfast with him do so in stony silence, lest the sound of a knife scraping on toast should interrupt his precious thought train as he sketches his designs. In his lavish Georgian home, he is surrounded by women; his bourgeois clients, his seamstresses, his strangely cold, waspish sister, Cyril, and an unhappy, ignored woman occupying the position of 'wife'. We also learn that he is deeply attached to his late mother, who often visits him in his dreams. Based on the setup, I actually assumed that the plot might revolve around Reynolds being a closeted homosexual furnishing a fake marriage, but that's actually not where it goes at all.
Things change for Reynolds when he decides to acquire a new girl to fill the abdicated role of muse/model/partner and discovers Alma, a friendly, unpretentious German waitress, who strikes up an immediate attraction with him and agrees to live at his house in London, to wear his dresses and accompany him to expensive dinners, etc, without fully understanding the sterile, suffocating artifice this life will entail. As time goes on, she becomes increasingly frustrated by Reynolds' lack of affection for her and devises a plan to make him truly hers.
The performances are stellar. Daniel Day Lewis' silver-voiced portrayal of Reynolds is totally believable, everything from how he curls his spindly body in a chair to how he loses his temper backstage during a dress show conveys his internally enraged nature. It becomes amusing to watch him grimace at the crunch of toast or the loud pouring of tea and these inflections are where much of the film's humour lies. Vicky Krieps' sweet and natural performance as Alma is the perfect foil to the pretentiousness of the Woodcock household. A real delight is Lesley Manville as Cyril, whose regal poise and glacial stare give off the aura of a venomous snake about to strike at any moment. She gets the best lines.
The film is shot beautifully, with portrait lenses capturing the intimacy of each moment with a painterly composition and soft light, to which Johnny Greenwood's delicate piano score is the perfect accompaniment.
The main question however, is any of this entertaining? My initial reaction was mixed. Despite the film's obvious beauty and solid performances, I couldn't help but find it rather slow, tedious and dull at times. There are so many sequences of people trying on dresses, eating dinner or sipping tea, and even though there are lots of subtle emotional cues being inferred with the clink of a knife or the glance of a head, it can feel preposterously artificial at times. In many ways it seems to suffer from the same boring affectation as its protagonist, which may be deliberate, but doesn't make for an engaging watch. There are few dramatic payoffs for the palpable tension, which builds to a whistle, but never quite catches fire and that is a bit of a let down.
The relationship between Alma and Reynolds is also questionable given their age gap and the distinct lack of sexual chemistry between them. We see very little of anything in Reynolds for a young whimsical girl like Alma to actually love, though she does anyway. Even their first meeting in a cafe feels a bit contrived, it's not conceivable that she could fall for him so easily over a breakfast order, especially one that telegraphs his weird obsessiveness so early on. Even less conceivable - and without wanting to give too much away- is the bizarre turn their dysfunctional relationship takes towards the film's end.
An intelligently crafted film from all departments, but a little overdressed.
Entertaining, but a little forced in parts
Three Billboards sets up its protagonist's reputation as an unfearing ball-breaker right from the start; A hard-faced Frances McDormand swaggers into the office of an advertising agency, and with a wad of cash and a toilet-mouth, obtains three disused billboards with the plan to shame the police officers responsible for her daughter's murder case into action.
The film is fast paced, dynamically shot and well acted, with a twisty plot and a cast of flawed, but likable characters who shift and challenge expectations. I mostly enjoyed it, but I couldn't shake some niggling problems with the screenplay.
Much of the 'humour' relies on characters being needlessly acerbic to one another, flinging vulgar insults and random groin kicks around for a cheap laugh, which for the first 40 minutes of character set up, feels contrived, tedious and unrealistic. It doesn't take long to see a pattern emerge in these exchanges, which always show Mildred coming out on top, usually by just dropping an F-bomb and swaggering out of the room. You know, for example, as soon as the parish priest comes round for tea, that it won't be long before she makes some barb about buggering alter boys. The audience I watched it with laughed a lot at these moments, but I found myself barely making a smirk.
What also bothered me was the blatant leftist social justice propaganda behind a lot of this. It's like Mildred sometimes just becomes a meme-megaphone for 'sticking it to the man', in this case the useless white cops who are presented as a bunch of dumb, redneck racists "too busy torturing black people" to do what's right. The director may as well have dressed her in a Black Lives Matter T-shirt (I suppose it's no coincidence Mildred, always clad in overalls, bears a resemblance to the ubiquitous "We Can Do It" poster).
Those gripes aside, the second half of the film really opens up the character arcs with an unexpected turn that delivers more unexpected turns, higher stakes and the potential for redemption. Throughout the film, McDormand delivers a stellar performance that shows vulnerability beneath her hard exterior and the supporting actors do a terrific job. Recommended, but not a Best Picture winner for me.
Sweet, emotional and visually superb
'Coco' is not Pixar's best film in my opinion. It doesn't achieve the completeness of other monumental titles like 'The Incredibles' or 'Toy Story 3', nor does it match the inspired cleverness of 'Inside Out'. It is, however, an appealing, colourful and emotionally tender film with unique visuals, enjoyable musical numbers and splendid animation.
The respect for authenticity in the representation of Mexican tradition is to be applauded, with the designs of the dead ancestors all built around the graphic skulls that are used to celebrated Dios de los Muertos. Every shot is beautifully crafted, a profusion of glowing candles, marigolds and vibrant festival colour.
The film is ultimately about the importance of family, community and honouring your shared history. It's a celebration of culture. I found this was laid on a bit thick at times, with characters often explaining too much of what they do with regards to festival preparations etc, which kind of makes it feel like a lesson. I felt the expository stuff was aimed more toward younger children than a more knowing audience who didn't need to be spoon fed, but anyway it's a small criticism. The emotional moments are not as deftly handled as Carl and Ellie's heartbreaking love-story in Up, they felt a bit syrupy and hammed up in parts, but they still manage to pluck the heartstrings and the ending is well earned, a few plot contrivances aside.
Overall the story is well told, with loveable characters, in particular Dante, Miguel's brain-dead dog, who has some of the funniest animation I've seen in a long time, every scene he was in had me in stitches. I also loved the sequence with Frida Kahlo and her avant garde art installation. There's at least enough humour to keep adults entertained, even if most of the film feels aimed more at the under 10's.
Coco is good, wholesome fun!
The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017)
Cold, stilted and irritatingly obtuse
I went into "The Killing of a Sacred Deer" knowing that it was based on an ancient Greek tragedy which I had not read and that the trailer was ...pretty weird. So I was braced for something more auteur and symbolic that I would have to retrospectively interpret and extract meaning from, not something immediately tangible or obvious.
However, try as I might, there was not one meaningful thing I could extract from this ponderous, drawn out mess of a film. I am not familiar with Yorgos Lanthimos's previous work -I have not seen the Lobster- but I'm told TKOASD is very much in keeping with his stylistic quirks; Emotionally vacant, surrealist art installations masquerading as film.
A brief, spoiler-free summary of the plot: A heart surgeon, his wife and two children are befriended/stalked by a mysterious teenager who's strange mannerisms belie a dark, twisted plan and a destructive supernatural power. The plot and its fantastical leanings didn't bother me. What did bother me was the awkward execution.
The cast of one dimensional archetypes all ramble their lines in a robotic manner, their eyes fixed in a detached, glacial stare. It is impossible to connect with any of them on an emotional level, even when the stakes rise and certain characters are met with horrific choices, the focus seems to be less about conveying the emotional depth that a real person might plunge to in those circumstances, and more about favoring the artifice of the shot. Barry Keoghan's Martin -the malevolent teenager stalking the family- is perhaps the only character served well by this robotic approach. His monotone aloofness, combined with his shifty vacant eyes make him feel all the more disturbing and unpredictable.
Colin Farrell on the other hand, gives one of the most stultifying performances of his career. His character, Stephen, a heart surgeon and father of two, is so utterly devoid of pathos, employing his frowny face and flat middle-class Dublin cadence to every line, he fails to make Stephen believable or likable, even when he's blubbering snot all over himself in one incongruously candid scene, it feels artificial and contrived, as in the next scene he goes right back to being a cold, miserable android again.
Nicole Kidman does a better job with her material as Stephen's wife, at least her delivery is the least morose of the lot, but her performance is still frustratingly restricted in places where it should be amplified, making her mostly unsympathetic.
Stephen's children, the innocent victims of Martin's vengeful plot, should surely have some element of likability if we are to feel any fear for their predicament, but alas they too are passive, unfeeling robots who fail to engage.
The film instead relies on gimmicky mechanics to convey tension and dread where the stolid acting falls short. There are dozens of shots where the camera slowly zooms down long corridors or empty rooms, accompanied by screechy, dissonant sound effects as if trying to convince you that the dreary banality of what's unfolding on screen is actually threatening and you should be very afraid.
The film is also full of pointlessly weird scenarios and obtuse dialogue that seem to be there solely for the purpose of making the viewer squirm uncomfortably. There are many bizarre references to menstruation and armpit hair, a pointless sex scene involving a nude Nicole Kidman pretending to be anesthetized so her pervert husband can get it up, and one particularly risible scene where Colin Farrell confesses to his young son that when he was a small boy, he happened upon his sleeping father and masturbated him until "The bed sheets were covered in sperm".
The nonsense continues at a creeping pace until the under-whelming, implausible climax, which feels a poor reward for enduring what was essentially a 30 minute short film stretched into two hours. I don't think any amount of retrospective research on "Iphigenia in Aulis" will change my rating. One of the worst films of 2017.
Call Me by Your Name (2017)
A sensual love story that inflames the heart.
"Call Me by Your Name" is an hypnotically beautiful coming of age drama that surpasses the cliché of the 'queer film' as overwrought naval-gazing depression fantasy full of sleazy sex, instead celebrating the intoxicating passion of youthful love with tender sensuality. Set in 1983, it details the sexual awakening of a precocious teenager named Elio, who is besotted with the arrival of a handsome older student, Oliver, who comes to stay at his family's pastoral Italian villa for the summer.
As they both lounge listlessly in the sun-drenched Lombardian countryside, swimming and cycling to coffee shops, the first half of the film dances an artful choreography of stolen glances, innuendo and mixed signals as the pair try to work out where the other's feelings lie. When the two finally realize their desire for one another and become lovers, it is with the bittersweet understanding that they must part ways at summer's end, when Oliver returns to America. This is the only real source of tension in the story. Despite Oliver and Elio's discretion in their affair, there is no obvious homophobic backdrop or bullying influence around them. Indeed Elio's cultured, cosmopolitan parents are both very thoughtful and accepting people, even hinting to Elio quite early on that he can speak to them about anything.
So how does a film with no major conflict keep us engaged and invested in the relationship? By making us fall in love with it. Luca Guadagnino's entrancing direction lowers the defenses with a languid pace and indulgent cinematography that soothes and seduces. The atmosphere is heady with the carefree exuberance of youth which we so long to experience again. This is the summer we wished we had. At times it seems almost absurdly idyllic; The cynic in me was ready to scoff at the hyper-sophistication of Elio's wealthy, scholarly, multi-lingual family who spend their time discussing politics, citing poetry and transcribing Bach. Elio's teenage friends seem to be comprised of a posse of French and Italian Lacoste models. You might think who could possibly relate to this? Nonetheless I was gradually swept away by the blissful escapism, almost feeling like I was there at times.
The cast are all superb. Armie Hammer, while looking a bit older than his character's 24 years, is such a commanding presence as Oliver, with his statuesque good looks and resonant voice. He gives him that strong, confident worldly charm that is so instantly beguiling to young Elio. Michael Stuhlberg and Amira Casar as Elio's parents are benevolent, nurturing forces. But the true standout here is Timothee Chalamet. With his big soulful eyes he navigates all of the complexity of Elio's emergent feelings, imbuing him with a feline sensuality one minute and naive emotional fragility the next.
The scenes of sex are not gratuitous, with the director choosing instead to focus on the erotic build up, the playful kissing and teasing, the tender touches. It all feels so honest and natural, two characters just completely being themselves and loving one another for it. I was completely enthralled by Oliver and Elio's relationship, and found myself sad to not have experienced one just like it. I also couldn't help but be sad as I contemplated the tender transience of youth, for which the peach is a symbol. By the time the heartbreaking final scene rolled out I was sobbing, full of nostalgia for my own teenage years, the time I wasted and chances not taken.
Go see this film and allow yourself to feel.
Murder on the Orient Express (2017)
A ham-fisted, pointless remake
I don't care enough about this silly remake to write a detailed review, so I'll just summarize what I hated about it into bullet points:
Hammy, pantomime acting from a cast of two-dimensional caricatures. Laughably poor dialogue. Meandering direction. Irrelevant inferences to race tensions. Bloated pacing. Tonal dissonance. Pointlessly flashy cinematography. Obvious CGI green screen sets. A criminally underused Judie Dench. The wink to the impending butchering of "Murder on The Nile" (and probably every Agatha Christie title ever, for the next 10 years).
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Bladerunner 2049 is a faithful successor to the original in that it doesn't try to appease the 'fidget spinner' generation who need fast cuts and yappy dialogue to sustain their limited attention spans.
Its languid, methodical pace allows the viewer to soak up every ounce of atmosphere in each gorgeously rendered frame, to feel totally immersed in the haunting bleakness of it all. As the camera rises through colossal cityscapes permeated with smog and glowing neon, as the synths ebb and surge like waves, there is a sense of desolation and ruin, a consumerist culture turned cancer that has driven humanity to a dark place figuratively and spiritually.
The plot unravels slowly, with no great urgency, but it is nonetheless intriguing, as Bladerunner K's world is shaken by the discovery of a replicant's 'miracle birth' and his road to finding the child leads him to experience the emotions and value decisions which ultimately make us human. These existential themes are what Bladerunner has always been about, rather than explosive, pounding action sequences -though there are sporadic moments of action, it's not the emphasis. So if you go to this film and encounter people yawning, chances are they had the wrong expectations.
Gosling and Ford are as watchable as always, but the female characters are particularly engaging. Robin Wright oozes authority as the tough as nails Lieutenant Joshi. Ana de Armas has a difficult task in trying to make her character, Joi (K's perfect hologram girlfriend) feel sympathetic, but the innocent exuberance she displays as she tries to navigate the boundaries of her own virtual existence in her relationship with K is affecting. The main antagonist, Luv, played with ice-cold menace by Sylvia Hoeks, is a real standout. Perhaps the first female villain I've watched who doesn't come off as titular, she is a very threatening presence throughout the film. The only strike for me was Jared Leto's performance as the evil Niander, who's lofty haiku dialogue and John Malkovich style cadence felt overplayed and camp.
I think fans of the original Bladerunner will enjoy this sequel and even if you are not that engaged with the minutia of the story, there is much to enjoy on a scene by scene basis. For me I was totally lost in the mood and even at 160 minutes, it didn't feel wasted. Of course there are those who will dismiss it as too slow and boring; With the way movies are edited today, it's not surprising, but it is a shame. Bladerunner 2049 is art.
A metaphorical gut punch
Based on Darren Aronofsky's previous work, I was already anticipating that Mother! would take some hair-pin bends around my suspension of disbelief, but I wasn't expecting it to leave the road entirely, flip 30 times into a ravine and explode. This is a roller-coaster track through a director's ideological stream of consciousness and you're either in for the ride, or out.
Jennifer Lawrence (unnamed, as are all the characters in the film) plays a dreamy, docile housewife to an acclaimed poetic genius, Javier Bardem, suffering from writer's block. The two inhabit a palatial southern Gothic home in the middle of nowhere, half under re-construction after a previously mentioned fire destroyed it. Interrupting their placid existence arrive two strangers, a man and woman who, despite protestations from the suspicious wife, are invited to stay by the friendly host, who hopes their conversations might inspire him to write. Later, the two stranger's squabbling sons show up and violence ensues. This first act is a microcosm for what happens later on, as more devoted fans intrude on the house to profess their 'faith' for their beloved poet, all the while ignoring the beleaguered wife's protests and gradually tearing her 'paradise' apart.
Mother! is a pessimistic commentary on mankind's propensity for destruction and depending on your political leanings, there are many ways the events that transpire can be interpreted. There's no coherent narrative. This is a mayhem of religious, environmental and socio-political metaphors, an irreverent mardis gras parade through history from man's first transgression in the Garden of Eden to the Hiroshima bomb. The house stands in for mother earth, slave to the whims of a rapacious, capitalistic greed. And most of this happens in the last 30 minutes, where the grotesque violence increases to an over-whelming intensity and the claustrophobic camera work, shot mostly from Lawrence's point of view, makes for a dizzying and disturbing experience. There's no uplifting message to be taken, no silver- lining, just unapologetic nihilism and wanton imagery that punches you in the gut and grins sadistically.
I left the cinema feeling quite shaken, my brain contorted trying to figure out what all the metaphors meant. I felt as though I had been given access to someone else's nightmare. Others were laughing derisively and complaining that it didn't make any sense, failing to grasp the subtext that was so obviously bashing them over the head.
As another reviewer pointed out, it's hard to rate something like this honestly. There are many reasons to dislike it on a content level, but certainly bad film making isn't one of them. This is a tour de force of camera work and cinematography and the acting is top notch. I wouldn't be surprised if Jennifer Lawrence had a mental breakdown after filming this, with all the closeups of her gasping tortured face.
Mother! is kind of like heroin. It left an impression on me that's for sure. But I'm not recommending it.
The Beguiled (2017)
Beguilded, bothered and bewildered....
The trailer for "The Beguiled" tickled my interest, with its dark, menacing atmosphere and sumptuous colonial backdrop. It looked as though the premise of a wounded Yankee soldier being nursed back to health by some charitable Christian belles and their strict headmistress would undoubtedly lead to a snarled web of lust, deceit and paranoid female jealousy, with possible murderous consequences.
To a degree, that is what happens, but without giving too much away, the film was a lot less menacing and tense than the trailer lead me to believe. This was ultimately the fault of Sofia Coppolla's meandering and pointless direction, which left the film feeling mostly flat, with few dramatic spikes.
Another huge problem were some stultifying performances, most notably from Colin Farrell.
In order for the central premise to work we are supposed to believe that the sudden appearance of Corporal MacBurney is so 'beguiling' to these lonely, scared women deprived of male company at a time of great threat and social upheaval, that he ignites a trail of envy and suspicion among the women vying for his attention. However, there is nothing really beguiling about Farrell's performance. He has no roguish charm or studly presence, not even when he's supposed to be seducing a blank-faced Kirsten Dunst with trite platitudes about her beauty...it all feels very shallow and unconvincing, devoid of chemistry and with dialogue so cliché I almost wasn't sure if he was joking. Even more annoying to me, as an Irish person, was that he delivers his lines in a contemporary, middle-class Dublin accent, which sounds both wrong for the time period and wrong for the social class of Irishman who would have taken up a mercenary position in the Civil War.
Elle Fanning, who plays the sociopathic honey trap, Alicia, emotes like the villain in a high school play. She does nothing but roll her eyes and sashay listlessly about, which the Corporal seems to find irresistibly sexy for some reason.
Kirsten Dunst is so reserved in her role as the plain, boring Edwina, that there are times when nothing happens behind her eyes. Indeed her character is meant to be unhappy and yearnful, thus easy to exploit, however this does not make for a compelling performance. There's nothing here for an actress of her caliber to really put her weight behind and she is largely forgettable.
Nicole Kidman does better as the forthright Miss Martha. Her stoicism and acerbity hide a conflicted emotional state; her desire to keep the girls safe and be a patriotic Christian Vs her desire to sleep with the Corporal. There is something evidently off kilter about her, as if she could do something crazy at any moment, which makes her interesting.
There are other, more bothersome moments of incredulity in the film. Characters behave in strange, irrational ways that often feel out of sync with preceding scenes, leading me to suspect that a lot of threads were lost in the editing process. Other scenes are so hammily acted they end up being unintentionally comical, like the scene where the women all sit around the dinner table giggling and swooning like simpletons to the bemusement of the Corporal. Or when a pet tortoise named Henry is thrown across the room in a furious rage (a few people laughed out loud at that bit).
Perhaps the only beguiling thing about the film is the gorgeous cinematography, full of languid, dream-like shots of hazy sun sets, cascading willow trees and candle-lit dining rooms which are perhaps intended to lull the viewer into a false sense of security. What a shame that the performances and the dramatic heights could not match the level of the visuals. A better director would have made this work. Ultimately the film and its incongruous ending left me feeling cold, bored and bewildered.
Baby Driver (2017)
A film so in love with itself, it needs its own cinema seat
SPOILER: "Baby Driver" is showy, cliché-ridden and irritatingly self-aware. It's like that yappy drama society kid at college who is so consciously trying to act cool by breaking into song, dancing around chairs, drumming on desks and spitting jokey one-liners with a hand pistol flourish....the kind of person a cynical SOB like me just wants to punch in the throat.
The central premise is about a young, good-at-heart kid forced into a life of crime in order to pay off a debt. The annoyingly slick, Abercrombie-faced "Baby" is not only the fastest getaway driver in Atlanta, we later find out he's also a self-taught music producer, dancer and talented free-runner...are you rolling your eyes yet?
The main mechanic, so lauded by critics, is that everything in the film revolves around music, from the editing to the dialogue. Since Baby is constantly plugged into his i-pod (so, we are told, to drown out tinnitus from a car accident which killed his parents), the film essentially plays like one giant music video, with nearly every gunshot, tire screech and sassy put down edited meticulously with the beats or riffs of whatever track is playing during the sequence.
Unfortunately for me, the songs didn't make what was happening on screen that much more interesting. While there are some splendid car chase sequences (too few in my book), one must endure cringey moments of Baby miming and dancing to James Brown, dull characters waxing poetic about song lyrics and saying cliché bull$hit like "Sometimes all I want to do is head west on the 20 in a car I can't afford with a plan I don't have". Everyone in the film is pretty, none of the gangsters really look like gangsters, least of all the Latina 'Darling', who can't even hold a gun convincingly and is just there to show cleavage and lick her lips at camera.
Imagine the most indulgent ideas from Guy Ritchie and Tarantino's trash bin channeled through a Justin Bieber video. Less style and even less substance.
There are no doubt people who will love it for being a showy piece of nonsense, and there is some entertaining, high impact action, but it's far from the genius some critics are praising it as. I saw it with a group of youngish people who all agreed it wasn't as good as they'd hoped and that some bits were just plain daft.
Leave your brain at home and perhaps you'll be rewarded...
Ma vie de Courgette (2016)
A tender, affecting little film
"My Life as a Courgette" is such a simple story and simplicity really is the film's greatest strength. There is no flamboyant animation, no huge narrative arc, no gargantuan obstacles to somersault over, no chaotic chase sequences, no loud, yappy dialogue...basically nothing like what you might expect if this same story was told by an American studio.
At 66 mins, it's short and to the point, quiet, contemplative and starkly sad, yet filled with uplifting moments of hope and tenderness, which it conveys without ever feeling contrived or overly- sentimental.
The young French voice cast are terrific (I do hope anyone reading this review watches the French version and not the American dub). They do well to convey the vulnerability behind the broken characters. That, and I think some of the lines just sound so much better in French - the way the brattish Simon spits out the word "potet" was particularly amusing to me.
The animation is rather basic and the character's faces are not hugely expressive, but enough emotion is conveyed through body posing, vocal performance and composition that you would need a heart of stone not to feel for the young gang of misfits.
By the time the bitter-sweet end credits song kicked in, I was noticing a little moisture in the corner of my eye. Not sure the kids in the audience enjoyed it as much as I did though....which is an important point really. This film is NOT intended for young children. It deals with adult themes like death, neglect and abuse, in a very delicate way mind, but still, it's not something that's going to entertain the 'fidget spinner' generation.
La La Land (2016)
An alright film, but not a great musical
I enjoyed "La La Land" as a piece of innocuous, colourful escapism. The two leads are endearing and funny, the cinematography is dynamic, the sentimentality plucks rather than gurns and overall I found the dramatic conclusion to the two young dreamer's relationship emotionally fulfilling.
However, the 'musical' element of the film was lacking. It's obvious that the spectacle of the old Hollywood sing along exists in La La Land to counter the real downturns and compromises that Mia and Sebastien are forced to make in their own relationship to achieve the success they crave. Real life isn't like the movies, basically.
The problem is that the songs themselves are rather dull and uninspiring, notably the recurring 'music box-esque' piano theme which, while tender and sweet in the right moments, is very simplistic and even childish in structure, sounding curiously unlike anything Sebastien, a jazz pianist, would ever really play.
The large ensemble dance numbers are only at the start of the film. Again, none of these are particularly special, though the weaving camera work in the opening traffic jam number was impressive, the songs didn't stay in my memory for very long and Mandy Moore's choreography is more of a set dressing than a feature to be wowed by. The sporadic duets between Mia and Sebastien are also weak. Their voices are thin, lacking substance and their dancing is at best high school play material, filler for the transitions. These peter out by the film's last third to the point where I wondered why they even bothered making it a musical at all. I would not be running to see this on stage in the West End.
That said, as a movie experience I enjoyed La La Land. It made me smile, even giggle quite a few times, but I do feel the whimsy and nostalgia for old Hollywood is clouding people's judgment of this as a deserving Oscar winner (even though, in the end, it wasn't one).
"The Artist" this ain't.
Kubo and the Two Strings (2016)
Well crafted visuals, paper thin story.
I expected big things from Kubo. Those expectations were met on a purely superficial level. The film looks beautiful and the meticulousness of the stop motion craft is clear for all to see, but the story had major problems.
After the striking opening of mother and son caught in a tumultuous storm that dashes them against rocks and washes both ashore, we have a watchable, if slightly dull 20 minutes of exposition and establishing character goals before it quickly devolves into a predictable rehash of the 3 act hero structure. The young, one-eyed, but infinitely resourceful Kubo sets off on a quest to find 3 fabled pieces of armour so he can do battle with his evil grandfather up in the heavens, who just can't stand humans and their silly "feels" (but you know of course that 'feels' are exactly what will triumph in the end (cue eye-roll)).
The ease in which Kubo finds these items in such quick succession doesn't really feel suitably epic and there's no real sense of how far he actually has to travel, he just always conveniently ends up right where he needs to be. There's no real sense of danger either, despite the odious threat of his sinister aunts coming to steal his good eye so they might blind him to humanity, you never once feel like this might actually happen.
Overall, it felt to me like the writers thought up a bunch of cool set pieces they could throw at the viewer, and then tried to weave a script around those. The 'banter' between Kubo's companions Monkey and Beatle, serves as empty filler between action sequences; Their constant squabbling is over-played and annoying. It also bugged me that despite the lovingly realized visual depiction of ancient Japan, the characters acted and sounded so American.
The menacing twin aunts (voiced by Rooney Mara) and the fantastic origami action were high points and very entertaining. However, mostly I was bored and consciously predicting lazy story arcs. It just wasn't a satisfying experience and it's a shame for Laika to spend so much time and effort crafting animation for a contrived, generic story which failed to deliver any emotional weight.
Kaguyahime no monogatari (2013)
Like watching ink dry.
This film takes its time. It's slow paced to a fault and at over 2 hours, well out stays its welcome.
The story is meandering, convoluted and doesn't make efficient use of the visual medium to deliver information, rather it feels more like listening to a slowly narrated audio book whilst flicking through some nice illustrations. I was intensely bored by most of it, despite the undeniable charm of some of the animation, I felt there wasn't any effort to engage the viewer on a deeper level with more dynamic film language or snappier, cleverer story telling.
You can say that Japanese story structure is fundamentally different from Western methods, often employing a 'watch the grass grow' approach that celebrates silence, ritual and mood over Pixar's noisy barrage of constant challenges. I have found that difference to be quite refreshing in other films like "Spirited Away" and "Princess Mononoke" but "Kaguya", in comparison really lacked engaging characters and virtually any moments of dynamic tension.
The art style in my opinion isn't terribly good compensation for this. While there are moments of exquisite gestural animation - the sequence where the princess rushes through the woods leaving a trail of fluttering garments in her wake, is gorgeous- overall the character designs are rather crude, pale and ugly, looking more like rough pencil sketches than the refined, noble and highly graphic woodblock prints they appear to emulate.
It's a shame, I really wanted to love "Kaguya", but I don't think I could sit through it again.
X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
The franchise is dying with every release
Either the X-Men films are getting worse, or I'm just too old and too cynical to invest in the farce anymore.
I still maintain that "X2" is the best film in the series. It had a dynamism and a smartness of pace that has been severely lacking in the latest installments to date. I had hoped Singer's return would bring back those punchy, high octane, humorous elements which I enjoyed.
"Days of Future Past" almost managed it, with some terrific action sequences, and a real sense or threat, but the time travel story was messy and only created confusion. Its saving grace was Hugh Jackman's performance as Wolverine, which has certainly carried the series a good deal of the way so far. This latest installment unfortunately suffers from his absence.
Overall I found "X-Men: Apocalypse" to be dull, predictable, devoid of humour, cliché-ridden and embarrassingly hammy in parts. The dialogue is often childish and silly, Professor Xavier's sophomoric slobbering over Moira MacTaggart is one cringey example of a 'dumbing down'.
Oscar Isaac's performance as the titular villain is believably threatening, but he is betrayed by a ridiculous costume and makeup that gives him the appearance of an 80's glam rock diva. His 4 horsemen are also woefully unimpressive, and I couldn't help but chuckle at the many shots of them posturing around together in what was supposed to be an imposing death brigade, but looks more like a bunch of awkward misfits at a rainbow party.
Sophie Turner does not convince as Jean Grey. Perhaps it's the throaty, whiny tone to her voice that means I just can't see her as anything but Sansa Stark doing a generic American accent. She certainly doesn't look like she could grow up to be Famke Janssen, who played the older Jean, and that bothered me too.
The movie clearly wants us to be wowed by the effects. The action is more bombastic and world-ending than ever, yet manages to feel stilted. Landmarks explode and spiral in a whirl of cluttered CGI, yet none of these sequences have any real impact, or sense of danger, since no actual people are visibly caught up in the destruction. There's just no reason to care.
We also have a bullet-time montage literally copy and pasted from the last film where Quicksilver zips effortlessly through a building to save the inhabitants from a creeping explosion, all set to "Sweet Dreams" by Eurythmics. It feels so out of place tonally, and ultimately lazy and arrogant for expecting people to laugh at the same goofy gag all over again.
Throughout the whole film I just couldn't shake this seen-it-all- before feeling. A mixture of bemusement and boredom. I fear it can only get worse from here.
Ex Machina (2014)
Intriguing, unpredictable and tense
"Ex Machina" deals with a familiar theme in a very unique way. It doesn't bombard you with effects or superficial action (although the robot effects are exceptional). Rather, its focus and beauty lie in the subtle and nuanced performances of its tiny cast as the film explores what it means to be human.
Quiet dialogue scenes between two characters are filmed in such an impactful, making them feel hauntingly austere, sweet and innocent, or terrible and frightening, through meticulous use of composition, light and sound. The film really does run the gamut of emotions, surprisingly funny one minute and gut-wrenchingly tense and weird the next, while the script twists and turns, constantly unsettling your assumptions about what will happen.
The performances are excellent, most notably Alicia Vikander as the beguiling Ava, who absolutely passes for being 'almost human'. Her precise movements -walking, standing or stooping to pull on a pair of stockings- have just that slight tinge of the uncanny about them to suggest a mechanical skeleton, yet she is undeniably seductive. You can really understand Caleb's mental plight as she begins to show signs of a sexual interest in him!
Domhnall Gleeson also delivers a quiet and focused performance as Caleb, which reflects much of the film's over all style. Like Ava, he is relatable, yet has this slight autistic aloofness about him, in complete contrast to the boorish, reckless Nathan (Oscar Isaac).
The dialogue feels real and non-cliché. The pacing for the most part is measured, although one or two scenes might move a little slower than they need to.
The ending probably will not satisfy everyone, and admittedly left me a feeling a bit cold, but it certainly didn't follow the route I was expecting. Overall I found it to be enthralling and disturbing stuff.
American Hustle (2013)
Never before has a cinema visit made me want to physically hurt myself.
For two and a half bum-numbing hours I sat, jaw clenched, temples twitching as this loud, obnoxious farce of a film clattered along, all the while thinking 'how the hell did THIS get nominated for several Oscars?'.
The entire running time of "American Hustle" can pretty much be summarized as a collection of vignettes in which you have spoiled, nasty, unlikable characters shouting and bickering at each other hysterically over absolutely nothing. It is the epitome of a current trend in American films to fill time with yappy, antagonistic improv in a shallow attempt to create tension and humour without actually furthering the plot or the characters.
Some of the dramatic mood shifts feel so forced and poorly developed, for example, the bitchy bathroom exchange between Jennifer Lawrence and Amy Adams that ends in a totally contrived and bizarre lesbian kiss, clearly put in for shock value.
Equally shallow is the film's treatment of it's female characters, Adams in particular. Her every turn to camera is frozen in a glacial-eyed expression as though she's being photographed for the cover of Vogue. The camera zooms in and out of her gaping cleavage like a horny fly. In one scene, Bradley Cooper forces her into a toilet cubicle and gropes her ass, while she stands pert like a porn star, the camera leering up her skirt. It's cringe-worthy.
Hardest to bare was Bradley Cooper, easily the loudest and most manic of the lot. Every scene with him just made me want to wring his neck. Perhaps the only saving grace is Jennifer Lawrence, mainly there for comedic value, she goes full pelt and is fun to watch, but I wasn't convinced by her relationship with Bale's character or her vulnerability.
There is so little emotional weight to this film. No matter how hard the characters screamed, grimaced and cried, I didn't believe or care about any of it. I was emotionally numb. It felt like watching a bunch of teenagers playing dress up and pretending to be edgy and adult. Flashy costumes and atrocious wigs, hiding nothing of substance.
Easily one of the most over-rated Oscar nominated films since "Crash".
Awful, predictable rubbish
Without being facetious at all, the only worth while moment in this film was Brad Pitt taking his shirt off and revealing that yes, at 51, he's still got it.
The rest of the film was an endurance test through some of the worst 'frat boy' dialogue I've ever heard. If you took the words "pv$$y, "motherfv*ker" and "Nazi scum" out of the script, you'd pretty much be left with some bible quotes and a few lines of Brad Pitt speaking atrocious German.
Characters shout, cuss and antagonize each other to an aggravating degree. The story arc is so predictable you will have figured out who's going to die in the end after the first 15 minutes. The pacing is arduously bloated in parts, most notably during a sequence involving the film's only two female characters. It drags out for what seems like 20 minutes during which very little is said, but has plenty of pointlessly awkward tension that amounts to nothing.
I was at least expecting to be entertained by some explosive action, but the battle sequences were disappointingly dull, repetitive and messily edited. Also some of the post-production effects were rather cheap; the bullet rounds looked like laser fire from the Starship Enterprise.
Worst of all for me was the director's failure in his obvious attempt to impart emotional weight to all the flagrant violence. We see glimpses of the crew's frailty beneath the veneer of bravado, but it all feels so forced. Shia LaBeouf spends the majority of his screen time with a puffy frog-eyed expression as if he's constantly on the verge of tears. Bible verses are recited, violins surge, people are blown apart like shredded pork, yet I never felt impassioned by any of it, and kept thinking how Spielberg did it so much better in 'Saving Private Ryan'.
Performance wise, Logan Lerman's character is the only one who generates any sympathy. Brad Pitt talks in that same fake-sounding 'Muurican' accent he adopted for "Inglorious Basterds". It sounds strained, like a teenager trying to seem gruffer than he is. The other two mutts are clearly meant to be annoying and antagonistic, but their 'redemption' doesn't come early enough, and I was honestly willing them to die sooner rather than later.
All in all, I cannot understand how "Fury" garnered such positive reviews. It's undeniable that compared to the many great war movies from which it borrows, it is definitely on the lower tier.
Entertaining nonsense, but no masterpiece
"Interstellar" pretends to be more intelligent than Alfonso Cuarón's audio-visual roller coaster, "Gravity", but ironically its best moments are those which, like Gravity, rely purely on thrill and spectacle.
For the rest of the film we are crammed into a tiny shuttle with McConaughey and his crew, or back on earth with the desperate remnants of human civilization as they attempt to solve the problem of starvation. Most of the dialogue consists of reams and reams of contrived quantum-physics babble, which, if you're like me, will whoosh straight over your head like those exposition sequences in CSI, with brief moments of levity provided by the two -weirdly cubic looking- robots TARS and CASE.
Their journey to find another habitable planet is marred by a sequence of seemingly insurmountable problems that become progressively so ludicrous, it ends up impossible to take them seriously, albeit exciting to watch.
We already have to stretch our disbelief past the opening premise that the world is dying because of crop blight, yet they've managed to build robots that have human intelligence and can adapt a variety of shapes to achieve a wide range of tasks. One wonders why humans at this level of technological advancement couldn't have found a solution to curbing this unexplained blight other than blasting off into a foreign galaxy to try and populate a mysterious planet neighboring a black hole.
Glaring plot issues aside (and there are many), the film is at its best when in full space simulator mode and the audience is being catapulted into the roaring white light of a black hole, accompanied by Hans Zimmer's electrifying score (props to Zimmer for once NOT composing something that sounded exactly like Pirates of The Caribbean), making full use of the IMAX experience.
Performances are fairly solid, in particular Jessica Chastain as the grown up Murph, and there is enough raw emotion on show to push some of the more logically questionable moments past your cynic meter and give a sense of weight and importance to what is happening, even if you can't quite understand it.
Definitely worth watching on the big screen, but would I give it a 9/10? No way. This is a film that you will enjoy on face value, but once you leave the cinema you will start picking it to shreds. There are just too many inconsistencies, contrivances and blatant stupidity in the plot to call this a masterpiece, but I'd give it a solid 7 for blockbuster entertainment value.
Sometimes we're too quick to see men as monsters
This film comes right after the hysteria generated by the Jimmy Saville abuse scandals and the revelations about pedophilia within the Catholic Church.
Suffice to say it is refreshing and pertinent to see a story about the damage that can be caused to an innocent man, by a false report. We live in a society that is increasingly insecure and paranoid about pedophilia, rape and abuse. Virgin Airlines won't allow a man to sit next to a child who is traveling alone. Men are given funny looks in playgrounds. Mothers are reported to social workers when they give their screaming kids a slap in public.
This film demonstrates the danger that comes from that hysteria and reminds us all that children, for whatever reason, do not always tell the truth. The consequences are brutal and made all the more realistic by a stellar cast of actors. I give props to the young actress playing Klara, the girl who makes the false accusation, she was fantastic.
Distressing, highly emotional, but unlike an American movie, never over-bearing in its sentimentality, minus one or two slightly cliché metaphors in the dialogue. It makes you empathize with all the characters, not just the protagonist and really makes you think about what you would do if you found yourself, or someone you loved, in that situation.
Not as good as the first game, but far better than the second.
After the embarrassingly awful "Sons Of Liberty", I was greatly welcoming the chance to play a prequel. !Snake Eater" is set in the 60's, decades before the events of Shadow Moses Island in the first "Metal Gear Solid", and the subsequent madness of the second game.
We play as Naked Snake, the biological 'father' of Solid Snake, before he earns the respected moniker of Big Boss. Since we know Solid Snake is actually a clone, Naked is essentially the same character as him, at least he appears that way to the player, in looks and voice. In this game we learn much about The Patriots, the elite secret powers that conspire the proxy battles which will inevitably threaten in the future.
Compared to the inane lunacy of "Sons Of Liberty", the plot of Snake Eater is much more of a straight James Bond style espionage yarn in the jungle, with surprisingly deep philosophical questions being posed about loyalty and the painful choices Snake must make between his comrades and his country. Snake's old mentor, The Boss, plays at the heart of this dynamic, who it must be said, is one of the most epic and inspiring characters in video game history, and you'll have to play to see why.
The mechanics are familiar in some areas, but dramatically different in others. Some things work, but a lot of things really don't, namely the whole "jungle survival schtick" which at first seems like a fun novelty, but soon becomes tired and annoying. Snake must hunt for food to replenish himself, perform DIY medical care on his wounds and change his camouflage to adapt to his environment. Whilst hunting for food can sometimes be an enjoyable distraction -a bit like capturing a pokémon- it feels clunky and implausible selecting a different camouflage outfit every time you want to blend into something, as does pausing mid-battle to bandage a cut or splint up a broken arm.
The other huge issue is the camera, which still looks down on Snake from above. Due to the wide open spaces and lack of radar, it is much easier for enemies to spot you, but because of the camera, a lot harder for you to see them. You have to hit triangle for 1st person view and you cannot move around while doing so, which is incredibly frustrating and led to me being seen a lot. Fortunately there is another version of this game that includes a fully controllable camera view, but I have yet to play it.
The other thing that annoyed were the bosses. Kojima can't help but indulge those sillier ideas of his, who else could think to design a guy who summons a nest of hornets to attack you, or a double jointed cross-bow wielder with a reptilian tongue? While the gameplay is a mixed bag, the main story is captivating. Visually it's the best looking game on the PS2 and it has one of the most memorable and emotional final boss fights ever. So, all in all, a definite recommend.
A baffling low point in an otherwise great series
"Sons of Liberty" opens in grand style, with its fantastically atmospheric tanker mission, but things go rapidly down hill from the moment we find ourselves playing, not as Snake, but as the inexplicably effeminate looking Raiden. Technically he isn't much different to Snake in terms of his abilities, albeit being more athletic, but his personality and story seem contrived and largely uninteresting and I found the waves of back and forth between himself and his girlfriend Rose, agonizing to listen to. Having such a lack of sympathy for the lead character is definitely not a good thing.
The main story is also hugely disappointing, riddled with crazy characters (a fat bomber on roller blades and a flamenco dancing vampire, to name a few), silly attempts at comedy and ludicrous plot twists which get increasingly more stupid as the game goes on. I found it quite impossible to take any of it seriously. There are moments of cinematic greatness, of course, but I wasn't emotionally invested in any of the characters. Even in a scene where the intent to evoke sadness is obvious, like the death of a crucial character, it just comes across as corny.
Gameplay wise it's fairly solid and the stealth action is as entertaining as ever, with a wide array of additional actions to make things more diverse and exciting. Visually however its quite dull, with flat repetitive textures and questionable character models (Fortune attains the moniker for being one of the ugliest female characters in gaming history).
In summary the whole thing is like a crazy acid dream that comes quite close to making a joke out of the entire series. I wanted to fly to Japan and slap Kojima across the face after playing it. Thankfully, some of the more ridiculous moments are given a decent explanation in the fantastic finale "Guns Of The Patriots", where Raiden does more than redeem himself, but I'd still rather pretend that "Sons Of Liberty" never really happened.
The Muppets (2011)
The Muppets aren't so magical here
I love the Muppets, but this film was a major disappointment, I'm actually shocked how they could get it so spectacularly messed up. I mean they have iconic characters that people love, with a tried and tested formula that always guarantees hysterical laughter, yet it seems they've totally abandoned it this time. This didn't feel anything like the Muppets I remember.
The knowing wit has been replaced by dumb Hannah Montannah slapstick, the voice delivery of many of the characters lacks comic timing and the right tone to give the gags impact. Miss Piggy, for example, sounds like a bad impersonation of herself.
The human characters all act with the sycophantic over-expressiveness of those horribly gleeful children from "Barney The Purple Dinosaur".
Worst of all is the script, co-written by goofball Jason Segal, it's no wonder really. The first hour is just a mish-mash of poorly thought out "Boink-boink" gags, montages, horribly irrelevant song and dance numbers which, in my opinion, totally neglect the intelligence of anyone beyond the age of 5. Chris Cooper's cringe-inducing rap segment...Amy Adams' utterly pointless "Me Party" number...Whoopie Goldberg and Selena Gomez sleep-walking through their tacked on cameos...it really is face-palm worthy.
The last 20 minutes or so is where it starts to pick up. Once the Muppets begin their telethon show, things veer into more familiar territory and the gags -including a barber shop quartet to the strains of "Smells Like Teen Spirit"- start to hit the clever absurdist tones we pay to see. But they all come too little too late.
I think I would rather remember The Muppets as they were and pretend like this awful venture never happened. A wasted opportunity.
The Woman in Black (2012)
Like a ghost train, but with better effects
This was one of the most generic and amusingly ridiculous haunted house films I've ever seen, but the scares do give you bang for your buck. I suppose it's kind of like "The Grudge" in that regard. Personally I was expecting more cerebral atmospheric horror than the choreographed staccato JUMP tactics, but it was very much the latter and they were relentless.
It just felt more like I was watching one of the those attractions at Disney Land, than an actual movie; 70% of the running time is comprised of Radcliff walking from one ridiculously cobwebbed, creepy doll-littered room to the next while the viewer waits nervously for a piercing violin chord and a scary face to jolt them out of their seats.
Radcliff is actually pretty decent for all that he had to do (basically stay wide eyed and tense). Ciarán Hinds was underused and the rest of the cast were just bleh... Not sure I can compliment the actress who played the ghost, but her makeup team did an exceptional job.
Entertaining distraction, but don't expect to even remember the character's names once the credits start rolling.