BLACK PANTHER

Long Live The King

Director
Ryan Coogler

Starring
Chadwick Boseman
Michael B Jordan
Lupita Nyong’o
Danai Gurira



My review for Avengers was an incredibly messy love-letter, praising everyone involved for creating something enjoyable and thrilling that I never thought possible (as a comic book fan). Prepare yourselves because this review is going to pretty much repeat that sentiment.

Set shortly after the events of Captain America: Civil War, King T’Challa returns to home, the secretive country of Wakanda – a technologically advanced thriving African nation, posing as a third world country – following the death of his father. As he takes his place as monarch, his responsibilities change from warrior to leader and when an old enemy appears in South Korea, his council present different advice for how best the king can lead his people.

To start with the most outwardly obvious factor, this is a spectacularly pretty film. The production design, costumes, sets, props, hair, make-up, they all live and breathe with an exquisite beauty unique to central African culture. And this is a feat repeated multiple times as each of the five tribes have their own look and its evident that so much thought and attention has gone into every facet of the visuals on display. Going beneath the spellbinding surface, Wakanda and the way it’s represented as a thriving (albeit secretive) nation is such a singular vision; an antithetical portrayal of how African people have been presented cinematically to date. More than merely role reversal, the film raises extremely interesting questions about isolation and national responsibilities. This isn’t some surface level fantasy, an idyllic dreamland paradise but a grounded aspirational community with its own realistic faults, flaws and contradictions. This is true world building, this is what high-fantasy writers try to create when picturing a complex society unlike anywhere on Earth but one that feels like it could be real; the great tragedy is that such a place could exist were the landscape of our shared history drastically different. Another way Wakanda and its citizens are impressively created is being called to question for their inaction. They are clearly a global geopolitical force with agents placed around the world but solely for the purpose of their own protection; when operating in South Korea, their goals are exclusive and they have little time or tolerance for the workings of other nations.

In the past I have chastised Marvel for their lack of themes and engaging musical scores. By and large they feel like safe renditions of other work, sterilised and distilled from temp tracks. Thankfully, this has been changing of late and we are starting to get a few standout pieces which come closer to matching the visual accomplishments. But Black Panther hit me in a few ways. The inclusion of so many big artists makes complete sense and sets this fantastical tale in our universe; this is an obvious move and nothing stood out in a negative way. The score itself, however, by Ludwig Göransson is blisteringly good; a memorable medley of African instruments and rhythms combined with futuristic swells and impacts that we have come to expect from big superhero/scifi blockbusters. On a more depressing note, as the drums beat away and the vocals slowly rose above them, I immediately thought “Huh, reminds me of The Lion King.” In of itself a harmless statement but the fact that I can’t think of a mainstream release of extreme notoriety with an African setting that doesn’t portray the people and setting in question as a desolate warzone was crushing. And that film is filled with cartoon fucking animals!

Much like the setting, it would have been so easy to create a cadre of idealised individuals, void of failings and ultimately personality. Instead, we have an array of fascinating characters with their own motivations and visions for how their nation should be presented to the world and at the centre of them all is T’Challa, trying to establish a harmonic equilibrium. On the one hand you have T’Challa’s teenage sister Shuri [Letitia Wright] who wants to bring Wakanda further into the future with her technological plans and advancements. Equally, Nakia [Nyong’o] feels Wakanda should advance by stepping into the light and helping the world as a course of national moralistic responsibility. On the other end of the spectrum we have W’Kabi [Daniel Kaluuya] the leader of the tribe who have protected the border and feel Wakanda’s place is at the top of the food chain, leading the world – by force if necessary. I would argue that Killmonger factors into that too but I’m going to talk about him in great detail later. The moderates of the cast are General Okoye [Gurira], leader of the fearsome Dora Milaje, loyal to the throne of Wakanda, only wanting the best for her people, M’Baku [Winston Duke] leader of the isolationist mountain tribe, the Jabari and the deliciously reprehensible Klaue [Andy Serkis], a South African arms dealer who is only interested in profit and exposing Wakanda for the lie they globally project. In truth, I could list every single character and tell you why I love them, nothing is too small from the secretive world of global espionage to the smart and powerful female roles, this is such a bold feature in terms of characterisation of black people. And at the centre of all that is Boseman, carrying the weight of this entire character and franchise on his shoulders (as all Marvel leads do). Interestingly though, Black Panther is not a superhero as such. Nor is he a space cowboy, deity or wizard surgeon. He is a warrior leader of his people, balancing when to act and when to negotiate. He is as much politician as he is fighter, as much statesman as spy and Boseman carries over this diverse magnanimity from Civil War with ease.

Let me put this as simply as I can: there is next to nothing to criticise in this film. I appreciate that may sound like a copout but it’s genuinely hard to fault. One could argue that you need to watch a backlog of Marvel films to appreciate the nuances of the story but in truth, you really don’t. One could say that the CGI is a little questionable in places but what major blockbuster doesn’t suffer a few ropey shots? You could also say that the editing in the fight scenes left a little to be desired, making the action a touch hard to follow but none of these things detracted from the overall for more than a couple of minutes. The greatest negative I walked away with was the sensation of feeling robbed. That because of how films and society have supressed cultural and creative decisions we could have had decades of films of this calibre.

In summary, Black Panther undeniably stands above other Marvel features and ascends its superhero trappings to tell a pertinent story about justice, history, heritage, race, politics, pride, power and unity. Frankly, it’s a triumph.


Release Date:
16th February 2018

The Scene To Look Out For:
Black Panther genuinely is a feast of standout scenes that musing on a particularly impressive moment starts a rabbit-hole spiralling of compounding scenes, evoking memories of childlike wonder with phrases like “and this happened, oh and obviously this bit.” One moment that stood out for me was Shuri and T’Challa discussing the new tech. We’re pretty used to seeing some wizened mentor like Q or Lucius Fox outfitting our hero with the latest tech but it’s rare that it actually reflects our reality by presenting an eager, talented and excitable young woman who is passionate about her advancements and in Shuri we get that by the bucket-load.

Notable Characters:
Michael B Jordan’s role as Erik “Killmonger” Stevens is quite easily Marvel’s greatest villain; complicated, deep and absolute in his belief that he is right. But more than that, the message he brings about Wakanda’s refusal to help over two billion fellow black people the world over is an incredibly powerful one. If this film were shown from a different perspective, it would be quite easy to portray Stevens as a hero. Jordan’s presence and physicality is amazing and the power and venom behind his words are brutal. Case in point, when we first see him in the role, he is observing African artefacts held in a British museum. When he challenges the curator as to the origin of a particular piece, he is met with hostility and an assumption of ignorance. A derision which is heightened when the museum official explains the items are not for sale, to which Stevens counters “How do you think your ancestors got these? They took them” A fantastic and poignant portrayal and a truly interesting, ruthless character.

Highlighted Quote:
“You’re a good man, with a good heart. And it’s hard for a good man to be king”

In A Few Words:
“I have seen the future and it is glorious”

Total Score:

5/5

I, TONYA

The Truth Is A Matter Of Perspective

Director
Craig Gillespie

Starring
Margot Robbie
Sebastian Stan
Allison Janney
Paul Walter Hauser



I, Tonya darts back and forth between candid retrospective interviews of the main characters and the events they are describing. Tonya Harding [Robbie] is introduced as a figure skating child prodigy, an extraordinarily talented individual pushed by her extraordinarily crass and hostile mother, LaVona [Janney]. As Tonya gets older, she meets Jeff Gillooly [Stan], along with his friend Shawn Eckhardt [Hauser], and starts a relationship with the rather simple Jeff. LaVona doesn’t approve of the match at all and scolds Tonya for dating an abusive individual. Blinded by love and positing that her mother hit her too, Tonya endures the relationship. Various skating tournaments come and go before Tonya is expected to perform her signature move (the triple axel – which no other American has attempted and completed in competition) at the Olympics. Technical issues lead to her coming fourth and the media pit her and fellow US skater Nancy Kerrigan against one another. Without unceremoniously unspooling the entire story (even if it is documented history and takes place in all of the trailers), events unfold and escalate until Kerrigan is assaulted and Harding’s involvement is called into question by the authorities.

For a figure skating biopic with comic undertones, I doubt many people would go into this release knowing how heavily it focuses on themes of abuse, domestic violence and class divide in America. While the Gillooly surrogate openly proclaims none of the violence actually happened, the narrative presented states it unequivocally did and through sound design, acting and make-up, the constant onslaught that Harding endures is hard to watch. Elements are played up for comedic effect but the overall presentation of the abuse and Harding’s logic that she deserves to be hit is brutal. Equally, the snobbery and exclusion she encounters because of her background and lack of funds is crushing. Every step of the way, the fact that she is one of the best in her field is overlooked because of presentation and factors about her upbringing that she has little to no control over. On multiple occasions the judges are confronted antagonistically but when Tonya quietly tries to learn why they refuse to mark her fairly, she is told “It was never entirely about the skating;” implying that her image and lifestyle have to be one that America can be proud of when sending someone to represent them on the international scene. Hurt, she responds that she doesn’t have what America wants, “Why can’t it just be about the skating?” Once you realise that this exceptionally talented individual is getting beaten up and home and shut out of the one thing she’s good at, it’s heart-breaking and all builds to present a truly sympathetic central character – despite the incident she is most famously associated with.

Most biopics tend to pull centre focus on their subject and one of the greatest criticisms of this is that the supporting roles get lost in the background. This is far from the case here as the peripheral characters are rather eccentric and ensure a more rounded experience. Starting with the most eccentric, Alison Janney steals every single scene she is in by being both maniacally fun but completely irredeemable. She reasons that her motivations are sound because her own mother was nice which didn’t get her anywhere in life, whereas LaVona’s cruel manner with Tonya ensures inspiration and a thirst for success. Much like JK Simmons’ character in Whiplash I wholeheartedly disagree with this but (again much like Simmons) the performance is so intense and so repulsive, for lack of a better word, that we can’t look away and relish every moment this larger than life pseudo-villain is on screen. Two of the other prominent performances come from Stan and Hauser as Jeff and Shawn respectively. These two are hilariously pathetic male characters and feel very evocative of the self-righteous trolls that populate and patrol the internet. Weak, small, overinflated sense of ego, warped view of their importance to the story and utterly responsible for Toyna’s downfall (according to this narrative at least). Yet despite being awful human beings, both are made surprisingly endearing and entertaining through the performances.

Up until recently I’ve never been particularly impressed by either Chris Gillespie’s work or that of composer, Peter Nashel. Thankfully both work exceptionally well here. Gillespie weaves between tension and levity with ease while Nashel channels the darker tones of Carter Burwell – most notable during the execution of the assault on Kerrigan. But for everything that Gillespie gets right there are a few creative decisions which I simply can’t agree with. The majority of the film is presented through flashback as detailed in interviews by older versions of the characters, reflecting on the events. In addition to this narrative structure, every now-and-then, the film opts to break the fourth wall and talk to the audience. It’s not a bad choice but it’s a seemingly neglected one which appears infrequently and feels a little jarring. Arguably one would assume the film should have gone full Wolf Of Wall Street/24 Hour Party People and do away with the interviews or just have the interviews – but the mix of both doesn’t always have the desired effect. Speaking of desired effect, the presentation of the skating routines is one which will age very badly. Admittedly, for a small independent release, the CGI masks over Robbie’s skate double are really good and the editing between each component is very impressive but when the CGI masks are obvious, they really draw you out of the impact of the moment and the achievement. There’s also the issue of plot threads that never really develop. Admittedly these are minor things but with all the jumping around, certain elements are lost in the edit. Case in point, we see a shotgun scene which we all assume will be explained but never is and Bobby Cannavale’s character is never really seen outside of the interviews so his connection to the story seems stale. And finally we have a matter of taste and opinion – the idea of horror played for laughs (much like Fargo). What happened to Kerrigan was condemnable and while this film chooses to focus on Harding’s involvement, or lack thereof, without really addressing Kerrigan as anything more than a catalytic plot point rather than a developed character. In truth, I can’t confidently say that she has any dialogue throughout the film. I, Tonya does its best to skew the roles of villain and victim but the film could have been a touch deeper if they had time to explore Nancy’s story a little more. Having said that, with a two hour run time, maybe that would push it over the edge into fully bloated territory. Who’s to say?

As with most January releases (in Britain, at least) this will be an acting award magnet and rightfully so. Unlike other biopics, it neatly avoids the traps and pitfalls of its genre and presents itself as a thoroughly engrossing and arguably well-balanced piece.


Release Date:
23rd February 2018

The Scene To Look Out For:
After a disappointing performance, LaVona scolds her daughter for being graceless and not caring. Feeling that all the hard work has been squandered, LaVona lashes out at the dinner table, chasing her daughter around, hurling objects at her. After one particular comment, LaVona casually picks up a knife and throws it at Tonya. Both women are startled at first before Tonya pulls the knife from her arm, slams it on the table and storms out, leaving LaVona in the only visible state of shock and regret expressed throughout the entire film; only to have the moment undercut by cutting to LaVona’s interview tape wherein she counters, “What family doesn’t argue?” It’s a nice slice of how the film takes something genuinely awful and lightens the mood with just a touch of dark levity. Whether you feel that creates awareness of abuse or cheapens it, is your call.

Notable Characters:
Like Channing Tatum in Foxcatcher or Miles Teller in Whiplash, a great deal of the praise will fall at the feet of the more outlandish performance, meaning Janney will get the lion’s share of the attention. Considering the performance she gives, I would say that is completely fair but not at the expense of Robbie. I’ve always appreciated Margot Robbie’s acting (cinematic at least) and her role as Tanya is one of extreme mental, physical and emotional dedication that it would be impossible not to acknowledge the craft on display.

Highlighted Quote:
“And all those people who said I couldn’t make it. Fuck you, I did”

In A Few Words:
“A tense, energetic and extremely well-performed piece with hearty doses of black comedy throughout”

Total Score:

4/5

PHANTOM THREAD

Beneath The Surface

Director
Paul Thomas Anderson

Starring
Daniel Day Lewis
Vicky Krieps
Lesley Manville



Reynolds Woodcock [Day Lewis] is a renowned fashion designer, tailoring dresses for the upper echelons of 1950’s London with the help of his sister, Cyril [Manville]. Following the debut of a dress commissioned for a countess, Woodcock heads to his country home. While there he meets a young quizzical waitress, Alma Elson [Krieps] and pursues her. Soon, Alma is plunged into Woodcock’s world and quickly learns of his more unpleasant side as the veneer of his charm thins.

When entering a Paul Thomas Anderson feature, I think it’s fair to say one should know what to expect – perhaps not in terms of story but of the tone, a potentially meandering flow and intensity of character. More often than not, I seek out Anderson’s films specifically for these things and relish in the curiosities on display. Subsequently, Phantom Thread was a very difficult film for me to process, largely because I can appreciate why it could be considered good but I feel it faltered in various places.

Addressing where the film succeeds, it’s evident that the characterisation is spectacular and fascinating. The central trinity of performances (Reynolds, Alma and Cyril) are powerfully intriguing and difficult to look away from. They are seemingly heightened yet grounded in reality and the tension between them is unbearable at times, despite the fact that very little danger ever feels present. With Reynolds we have a clearly talented but horrendously arrogant and insecure man. The difference between him and other iconic roles by Daniel Day Lewis is that I never felt the need to probe deeper into the psyche of this individual. He was merely an oddity and I didn’t overly care what happened to him. Neither wishing malice toward him nor wanting him to succeed I was left apathetic to his tale; which, for someone of such extreme personality, certainly shouldn’t be the case. Then we have Alma, our audience surrogate, who is whisked into this world of high-fashion and extreme devotion to an idea. Krieps performs wonderfully and holds her own with her co-stars masterfully but the deeper Alma settles into Reynolds’ life the less she functions as a surrogate and reveals herself equally as bizarre as her fellow characters. Finally, we have the curt and prim Cyril, who initially feels like a walked-over sibling but through a few subtle and simple gestures and lines, we learn that she has survived alongside her brother as both a master interpreter (for lack of a better word) and keenly intelligent superintendent.

Phantom Thread also functions as an exquisite example of technical function, combining absolutely stunning costume design with smoky, muted cinematography. Initially I wasn’t a fan of the score at all; it starts off somewhat out of place, like a late musical replacement forced onto an edit that doesn’t suit it. It’s only later that it seems to sit neater as we are exposed to Reynolds’ true manner. Which could be argued is a nice parallel of the film itself, showing us a picturesque 50s Britain that simply doesn’t exist anymore but is fondly remembered and this older romantic, enigmatic figure only for the film to unfurl and reveal this vicious environment centred by a disturbing individual, escalating something frankly slow and dull into something deeply difficult and painful to watch.

Unfortunately, for me at least, the film simply didn’t work. The first third is relatively tedious and only hints at something of greater interest through the mystery of the reflective book-end narrative – which has Alma describing Reynolds with an honest affection. The central section is uncomfortable and where the film arguably works best, showing Alma surrounded by cold, robotic individuals, void of expression in a manner we can relate to or interpret. Presenting Alma as a naïve, impressionable young woman we want her to escape the rude, abrasive, controlling nature of the House of Woodcock. And then there’s the third act which feels like it will illustrate the consequences of a woman scorned but twists to become a very unorthodox love story; which I both loved and hated.

Ultimately, cinema is about experiences, be they positive or otherwise and while I walked away from this film imbued with thoughts and emotions I wouldn’t say they were predominantly complimentary. Phantom Thread is undeniably a well-crafted feature but odd in its flow and not all together entertaining outside of the unusual fetishistic waltz between the central characters; leaving it one of Anderson’s weakest.


Release Date:
2nd February 2018

The Scene To Look Out For:
Shortly after Alma and Reynolds first meet, he invites her back to his country house and asks if he can make a dress for her. For Alma it is an extremely romantic encounter, this new liaison in extreme close proximity, exploring every detail of her body while partially clothed; the whole thing is played very sensual and flirtatious. Yet all of that changes so quickly with the addition of Cyril, whom Alma has not met. Suddenly this intimate moment is exposed as a very clinical examination with all of Alma’s intricacies laid bare and her left feeling rather foolish. It’s a wonderful little vignette and tells us so much about the manner in which these characters see the world, themselves and each other.

Notable Characters:
This is unquestionably Day Lewis’ film. The part is grandiose but only really because of the actor – on paper there isn’t a great deal to work with but the backstory, the unspoken quirks and elements of his personality are what make him towering. Reynolds is both overpowering yet frail, childish yet composed and talented yet unable to grow. Day Lewis’ concentration, devotion and obsession for the craft feel completely real and when Reynolds sets out to find Alma at the New Year’s party, it is evident his fixated obsession has shifted somewhat from clothes to her, through manipulation and design.

Highlighted Quote:
“That’s such a sweet sentiment.. at such a bad timeI think it’s the expectations and assumptions of others that cause heartache”

In A Few Words:
“Both provocative and hollow, Phantom Thread suffers from being a film at odds with itself, neither moving and memorable nor utterly lifeless”

Total Score:

3/5

COCO

The Celebration Of A Lifetime

Director
Lee Unkrich

Starring
Anthony Gonzalez
Gael García Bernal
Benjamin Bratt



Miguel [Gonzalez] is a young boy living in Mexico who stems from a long line of cobblers. Music is forbidden in his family after his great great grandfather ran off to be a musician, abandoning his family. But Miguel has the heart of an artist and is a skilled guitar player. On the Day Of The Dead – the one day of the year the ghosts of ancestors past visit the Earth – Miguel defies his family and steals the guitar of deceased legendary artist Ernesto de la Cruz [Bratt]. In doing so, Miguel is cursed for stealing from the dead and crosses over to the land of the dead. There he meets up with his relatives who agree to send him back providing he gives up on his dream to be a musician. Believing de la Cruz to be his grandfather, Miguel enlists the help of Hector [Bernal], a man who claims to know de la Cruz.

When Coco was first announced I had immediate concerns that it would be little more than a shallow hybrid of The Book Of Life and Corpse Bride, a Diseny-fied cash grab that could monopolise an entire cultural festival in a blatant example of appropriation. I blame this knee-jerk reaction on the flailing calibre of releases that Pixar have put out of late. Thankfully I was not only proved wrong but Coco is better than both films and a genuinely worthy addition to the finest elements of the Pixar catalogue. Other than the surface story, there are so many mature concepts of legacy, identity, raising questions of the importance of shared culture, the prominence of family, the unwavering nature of traditions and feuds and broaching how a child (or adults) can deal with life, happiness and death.

One of the most immediately obvious factors is the lengths the film goes to respect the Mexican culture and influences, it also doesn’t hold its punches or dumb down the content for those unfamiliar with festivals like Dia de los Muertos. In that way, I was extremely impressed by the confidence with which the bilingual dialogue slips effortlessly back-and-forth and that the entire principal cast is of Latino origin. To my mind I wouldn’t say there is a single character who feels poorly executed – but I will come back to that later. In fact, this is the first film with a nine figure budget to contain an all Latino cast; which, when I learned that, caused my heart to sink a little for much like Black Panther, these shouldn’t be milestones/firsts/achievements. How are we still at the stage where there is only one film with this kind of funding but at least change is happening – albeit slowly.

Going back to trailers for a minute, there’s something about the impact of a shot or reveal which is completely lost in a snapshot – hopefully I don’t need to explain or justify why – for animated films this also includes the quality of animation. Sure, we can get a feeling of what to expect but it’s only when you see the characters progressing through a narrative to the degree you forget it’s not real that we feel the impact of the quality of the work – not to the degree of ethnographic animation but you get the idea. In simpler terms, I didn’t appreciate from the promotional material how detailed the animation would be. From the character designs to the often photorealistic lighting, the uncanny valley is sidestepped. We are not trying to convince ourselves that these characters are the same as a photographed human but the meticulous detail lends an exceptional amount of weight to the deception that they are indeed real; for how can something that complex be fake? Mexico is decently represented in a semi-eraless fashion, allowing audiences to believe this could have taken place any time in the last fifty years (even though it’s quite clearly set in the present) and the vibrancy of the afterlife is as wondrous and enchanting as it is overwhelming.

**Spoilers throughout**
For all Coco’s positives, it’s not exactly perfect but the complaints that follow are so minor that they barely register – but being a review, it would be wrong not to at least highlight them. First off we have the nature of the pleasing but straightforward plot. For kids and those who don’t go to the cinema often, the twist about Miguel’s forebears will be mind-blowing but in truth, the clues are very plainly laid out. I’ll admit, once I pieced it together, I was quite fearful it wouldn’t be the case – after all, the fact de la Cruz is such a national icon, it would be incredibly unlikely that no one would remember he left a family behind. Either way, there is a sizeable amount of convenience at work here but no more than most family releases. Another thing that got to me a little was the particulars of how an individual extends their life in the land of the dead. The only reason Hector agrees to help Miguel is under the agreement that he will take a picture with him (no idea how he has that in the first place but whatever) and place it on an ofrenda. But then he later explains that the picture alone isn’t enough, you need someone who knew them when they were alive to prolong their existence – but if that were true what would be achieved by giving Miguel the picture? Although I also don’t understand how everyone is dressed as they were when they died except for Hector who is in ragged clothes. Granted, we could argue it’s a side-effect of being forgotten but then when his identity is restored and he visits the following year, he’s still dresses shabby. And my final gripe is largely due to the nature of immaturity and low-hanging fruit in “children’s films” with the handful of cringey sophomoric jokes and antics which feel cheap considering the depth of the overall content.

Bright, funny, beautiful and emotional, Coco is one of the strongest Pixar releases in years and feels like a real return to form after Disney animated features have pulled ahead. My only concern now is the sense of déjà vu I had when reviewing Inside Out and the upcoming release schedule which contains very little original content.


Release Date:
19th January 2018

The Scene To Look Out For:
While trying to contact de la Cruz at a rehearsal (which he is not attending), Miguel meets Frida Kahlo who explains how her pre-show opener is going to go. Even without understanding or knowing who Kahlo is, the sequence is indicative of creatives with an unlimited budget and is very amusingly presented.

Notable Characters:
One of Coco’s core strengths is its ability to feel relatable. One of the biggest obstacles films about non English speaking cultures face is that audiences won’t be able to keep up with the glossary of unfamiliar terms or they won’t be able to see themselves in any of the characters. But, much like The Godfather the elements of family and belonging transcend the exclusionary nature of specific heritage and become universal [I honestly can’t believe I’m typing this as, to me, this should be a standard of all storytelling but some people just can’t see past the status quo]. A lot of this comes down to the great performances and quirky characters present that can be found in most families worldwide. Having said that, one of the main developments between rivals (trying to avoid spoilers here), supernatural elements aside, plays out like a Mexican soap opera and that’s pretty marvellous.

Highlighted Quote:
“That’s such a sweet sentiment.. at such a bad time”

In A Few Words:
“A stellar, emotional, fantastic feature that outshines anything Pixar has released in the last three years”

Total Score:

5/5

THE SHAPE OF WATER

A Fairy Tale For Troubled Times

Director
Guillermo Del Toro

Starring
Sally Hawkins
Doug Jones
Michael Shannon
Richard Jenkins
Octavia Spencer
Michael Stuhlbarg



Set in the early 1960’s we are introduced to Elisa Esposito [Hawkins], a mute cleaner at a military facility, and her artist neighbour Giles [Jenkins], both of whom share a love for old movies and romantic musicals. Elisa’s main friend at work is the down-to-earth loquacious Zelda Fuller [Spencer]. Every night they work their way through the high-security facility, cleaning everything after the scientific and military minds have all but vacated the premises. One fateful day a specimen is brought to a containment room, along with the terrifying man who captured it, Colonel Richard Strickland [Shannon]. Neither Elisa nor Zelda care much for the brash, yet deceptively polite, Strickland but one evening, Elisa investigates what is being kept in the tank and comes face to face with an amphibious creature [Jones] who responds to music and her natural kindness. The two form a simple bond but pressures on the scientific team to learn more about the creature threaten their secret budding friendship.

I find it fascinating that the villains and monsters of cinema past are being repackaged as the heroes of this century. The same thing happened in Peter Jackson’s King Kong, where Kong was presented as less of a monstrous, horny beast and more a lonely soul. In terms of plot, Del Toro’s unofficial reworking of The Creature From The Black Lagoon actually has a closer link, in terms of story, to that of its dire sequel, Revenge of the Creature and salvaging anything from that mess is commendable in of itself. But more than the obvious route of simply wanting to see a horror character fall in love with a human, Del Toro’s fantastical plot allegorically applies to all the undesirables of our past; people dubbed by mainstream society as undeserving of happiness: homosexuals, minorities, the disabled, etc. While it’s not exactly subtle, it’s not trying to be. I could easily imagine this film being set in the present day but by showing us a less understanding and tolerant time, allows the film to draw a parallel between something a contemporary audience would find impossibly uncomfortable and something held to the same standards decades ago. Now, not for a minute am I comparing homosexual relationships, racial prejudices or abandonment of the disabled to falling in love with a fish man but the feelings of disdain projected by others is masterfully executed in a way that only cinema can and offers a crushing portrayal of intolerance and arrogance of established societal norms – which is ultimately fantasy/science fiction’s greatest tool.

While very distinctly a Guillermo Del Toro film, littered with beautiful shadow work, a rich colour palate, clockwork mechanics and things in jars everywhere, The Shape Of Water is visually and tonally reminiscent of La Cité Des Enfants Perdus. A feeling magnified by the deep period-appropriate score from Alexandre Desplat with its beautiful, soulful mix of strings the occasional accordion. On top of that, the direction is second to none, everything runs with precision, the tension builds delightfully and the camera movements are beautiful and clever. While I appreciate there is a fair amount of unseen subtle CGI at work, the production design – from the costumes to the sets, to the stunning amphibian man prosthetics – give the film an ageless quality and a grounding in reality that allows us deeper immersion into the more fanciful elements.

In addition to beautiful visuals and an extremely powerful heart beating at its core, this release is rife with fascinating characters. Seemingly everyone has a story and a personality, all the way from the complex lead to a random man at a bus stop with several balloons and a cake missing a slice; there are potential stories everywhere. I would even go one step further and say there isn’t a single weak component on the acting front, merely a sliding scale in different forms of excellence. I’ll admit, that sounds like hyperbole but it’s genuinely difficult to think of any one performance that felt feeble or out of place. To say Doug Jones’ performance is a graceful exercise in bringing horrific beauty to life is a bit of a moot point, that’s a sentiment which could be said of any of his roles and we can all agree, the man possess a physicality which is frankly unworldly. Then we have Sally Hawkins who is so desperately human and utterly compelling; again, drawing that Jean Pierre Jeunet comparison, she feels very evocative of his quirky, esoterically charming leads. The supports around her are equally masterful from Shannon’s bizarre and intimidating Richard Strickland, Stuhlbarg’s caring but suspicious Dr Hoffstetler, Octavia Spencer’s loveable and affable Zelda Fuller and Richard Jenkins’ timid but honourable neighbour Giles; your heart goes out to all of them.. well, except the military men, obviously – their manner is initially presented as pleasant but they’re ultimately the real monsters.

The only downside I could find is that it didn’t exceed my expectations. This may sound like an odd observation and a purely personal one but if you have any familiarity with or understanding of the influences on Del Toro’s work, you’ll know exactly where and how the entire film is going to develop. As with his last two features (Pacific Rim and Crimson Peak), the pastiches and homage materials are clear and you can generally work out the plot as it’s unfolding. I appreciate that’s almost the point of the film, to emulate and replicate the best elements of what came before, while elevating it into something more but in doing so, you never escape the progressional trappings of the narrative. I would really like to mention something covered in the first few shots of the film but unfortunately I cannot without going into spoiler territory – suffice it to say, I could tell how the film would end based on this one thing.

I can’t imagine this film will be for everyone and the rather visceral, unflinching nature of the violence and sexual content may shock some but for the genuinely radiant love story at the centre, this film is a masterwork.


Release Date:
14th February 2018

The Scene To Look Out For:
**Spoilers**
In one of the film’s boldest choices (and there are plenty of bold choices made) Elisa is desperate to convey to the Amphibian Man the importance of his presence in her life. Frustrated and in a clear state of agony of the barrier between them, the lights fade and a spotlight appears on her. Softly, she mouths out sounds, reciting the words of ** from **. The faint singing builds before exploding into a black and white musical number with Elisa in a ballroom gown on an elaborate set, dancing with the Amphibian Man. What should be a completely laugh-out-loud moment is actually an extremely moving one.

Notable Characters:
While everyone shines in their own way, this film wouldn’t exist as it does without the phenomenal pairing of Doug Jones and Sally Hawkins. The pair deliver something challenging, both for themselves as actors and to audiences, foregoing one of an actor’s main tools of conveying feeling, thought, opinion, etc. They also overcome the absurdity factor effortlessly and at no point did I question the relationship between these two.

Highlighted Quote:
“The only thing I recognise when I look in the mirror are these eyes in this old man’s face”

In A Few Words:
“An undeniably beautiful, heartrending love story and one of Del Toro’s most mature releases to date”

Total Score:

5/5

DARKEST HOUR

It Takes The Power Of Leadership To Unite A Nation

Director
Joe Wright

Starring
Gary Oldman
Lily James
Kristin Scott Thomas
Stephen Dillane
Ben Mendelsohn
Ronald Pickup



Set during the early days of World War II, the British Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlin [Pickup] is being crucified in parliament for his seemingly weak challenging of the Nazi forces sweeping through Europe. Through a vote of no confidence, he is pressured to step down and while personal friend of the King, Lord Halifax [Dillane] seems the right choice, he refuses, leaving the only candidate that both major parties will deal with being Winston Churchill [Oldman]. Churchill is a gruff, rambling oddity with the enormous task of leading the country through an escalating and, from their perspective, failing conflict. With his appointment as Prime Minister confirmed, he sets out leading the country but his unorthodox methods and bullish manner rile his superiors, his colleagues and leaders of other foreign nations. Seemingly, the main question posed by this feature is, will he be able to lead Britain to victory?

I must confess, despite Gary Oldman being one of my all-time favourite actors, I had immediate concerns regarding this release. Owing to the political climate in Britain over the last decade or two (indeed much of the Western world) there has been a worrying rise in adoption and warping of figures and events to instil some nostalgia for a past that never was. And of all the figures of this island’s past, Winston Churchill is one of the trickier, more divisive ones. Up until World War II the man was not exceptionally liked and seen as something of an over-the-hill failure, it’s only because he saw Britain through one of its most desperate times that he is galvanised in the public eye and as such the British public have a split view on the man himself. Subsequently, any major biopic was in clear danger of being jingoistic, flag-waving, patriotic nonsense but to my surprise, much like Dunkirk, there is only a hint of these detrimental elements with a helpful doses of charm and sobering relatability.

As with all biopics, the central performance is paramount and while Oldman may seem like an unorthodox choice, he is absolutely amazing in the role, wonderfully humanising Churchill, elevating him from the caricatures, mythology and propaganda. Part of this complete immersion is achieved by the genuinely breath-taking make-up. All too often ageing prosthetics or altering an actor’s facial contours to mirror that of a historical figure get lost in an uncanny valley, which, while achieving the initial desired effect, takes you out of the story. Oldman’s performance is so blisteringly committed that you often forget about the acting – as it were – and see only the performance. The fact that these methods work equally from extreme distance and under extreme close-up is a genuine testament to the craft. But this is merely one half of the role and it would be all too easy to credit all positives to the external accoutrement. What Oldman brings to this character is far more important, from his diction, the cadence and delivery, his posture and the way he moves, everything is about creating something other than another side of Gary Oldman. The supporting characters largely get short thrift in terms of importance and prominence, settling on either side of a line between those who support or hinder the lead; but this is typical of these features, so there isn’t really much to comment on there. Stephen Dillane delivers with reserved sincerity, as does Ronald Pickup. The two relative standouts for me were Kristin Scott Thomas as Clementine Churchill, the ever constant support and compass and Ben Mendelsohn as King George VI, whose initial contempt for the Prime Minister is palpable but softens over time.

Another delightful surprise was the amount of creativity present. High-profile period pieces almost always excel when it comes to production design elements, such as costumes, locations, set, hair, make-up, etc but on top of that, the nuance of the composition, camera movement and direction was a welcome treat. At the same time, the sound design was all very pleasing, specifically the score, which has a buoyancy to it, despite the subject matter; keeping things relatively light.

This release, however, is not without its flaws and one of the biggest problems is the narrative flow itself. Much like The King’s Speech, Darkest Hour ends without seeing the story to fruition, we celebrate the rise of the man but not the full extent of trials and tribulations he encountered. One could argue that is the unfortunate and restricting nature of cinema (as opposed to serialised television) but while the film doesn’t feel like it drags or lingers on any one superfluous element, what is presented feels like it could be leaner or used the runtime to cover a wider period of time. Furthermore, the film itself never really says much of anything, robbing the film of any tension. It’s very unlikely audiences will side with a Nazi invasion and while Churchill’s foaming fury might come off as overzealous or war-hungry, we know through hindsight that he was right to fight the Nazis rather than appeal to them. But again, this is an unfortunate pitfall of these types of feature.

For someone who expected this to be a dire release, I was honestly shocked to learn that it is a capable, entertaining and extremely well-acted feature and one more than deserving of attention and praise.


Release Date:
12th January 2018

The Scene To Look Out For:
When trying to highlight a single scene which encapsulates the wealth of talent involved in making this feature, it’s very easy to point to the scene wherein Churchill is desperate and alone in a very small room, connected by telephone to the American President. His voice shakes, he creaks back and forth in a small wooden chair and all the while the voice on the other end of the crackly phone line regretfully explains he is not in a legal position to assist. The earnest despondency is rather cutting and extremely well shot, edited and scored.

Notable Characters:
One character I haven’t mentioned much at all is that of Churchill’s newly appointed secretary, Elizabeth Layton, played by Lily James. She is obviously the audience surrogate, in the same way that Traudl Junge was in Der Untergang. But unlike Traudl, Layton’s involvement and impact on the story is pretty weak and underdeveloped. Rather than chastise James directly, who performs admirably with what she’s given, the script simply doesn’t give her much in the way of personality or presence.

Highlighted Quote:
“The public need to be led, not misled, not to figure it out for themselves”

In A Few Words:
“A well-handled biopic which largely succeeds because of the components that bring it to life and the cordoned-off section of the subject’s life that is explored”

Total Score:

4/5

ALL THE MONEY IN THE WORLD

J Paul Getty Had A Fortune, Everyone Else Paid The Price

Director
Ridley Scott

Starring
Michelle Williams
Mark Wahlberg
Christopher Plummer
Charlie Plummer
Romain Duris



The story opens in 1973 with the kidnapping of sixteen year old JP “Paul” Getty III played by Charlie Plummer. This news is received in contrasting ways by the boy’s mother and grandfather respectively. His mother, Gail Getty [Williams], initially dismisses the phone call as a flippant joke before the severity of the matter hits home and she pleads that there she cannot pay the $17 million ransom. The boy’s grandfather, JP Getty, the oil tycoon branded as the richest man to ever live (portrayed by Christopher Plummer) on the other hand, dismisses the notification, fixated on the opening market rates. Through flashbacks we learn of the relationship between Paul and his grandfather and the rift that formed between them all in the subsequent years. Ignoring Gail’s calls, Getty appears on national television and explains that he will not pay a penny for his grandson’s return, explaining that if he were to pay up, his other fourteen grandchildren would be targeted. Behind the scenes, Getty hires ex CIA operative Fletcher Chace and tasks him to get his grandson back while keeping Gail occupied and away from him.

This type of release is exactly what one would expect of someone of Scott’s achievements and years. A release firing on all cylinders both in front of and behind the screen. From the opening scenes it is apparent how rich and beautiful this entire film will be thanks to Dariusz Wolski exquisite, lavish, dark cinematography; evocative of films of the period but also reflecting the mood and tonality of the characters occupying the shots. The production design is just as wonderful with a great sense of period from the costumes, to the sets, the hair and make-up, etc. On top of that, the pacing, editing and direction all come together masterfully to create scenes of marvellous tension and unease. In truth, everything Scott should be producing at this stage in his career should have a starting point of at least the technical quality of this release.

Loosely based on real events, All The Money In The World boils down to a very straight forward narrative, almost a taught, tense family drama masquerading as a thriller. This is in no way a slight against the film as what we end up is a pleasing and captivating tale but I think audiences come into this kind of release expecting a series of elaborate twists and turns but often the most engrossing thing can be interesting characters driving a simple plot thread. In that regard, it’s no surprise that the central draw for this film are the performances. Charlie Plummer performs decently as Paul expressing fear and frailty but also a surprising amount of resilience and ingenuity which keeps his character from being a whiney spoilt rich kid that we can neither relate to nor root for. Equally, Romain Duris as Cinquanta, the criminal go-between, gives a great performance feeling indicative of a young Vincent Cassel. But the film is ultimately led by three powerful performances. Michelle Williams plays Gail in a refreshing manner, while she is suffering and displays a drained fragility, the true core of her character is one of strength, intelligence and steadfast determination. There’s also the classic issue of the two Wahlbergs; specifically which one will turn up, the soft-voiced, bemused-looking, underwhelming Wahlberg or the transformative, commanding, outstanding Wahlberg. Thankfully Chace is the latter, a nice pairing for Williams’ role, with equal determination and strength of commitment. It’s all too easy to write a former intelligence agency character as an unstoppable, infallible being but when one is presented with a believable individual who acts with an air of experience and a genuine moral centre, you generate a truly compelling individual. Again, thankfully, Wahlberg was able to channel this with maturity and brings to this life calm, steady individual.

As far as a character study goes, JP Getty is a fascinating individual; a man of money, success and a sociopathic darkness. At times he shows genuine affection for his own flesh and blood and it is evident that he would do anything for their shared happiness and success. Other times he is the most unscrupulously pragmatic individual, always looking for the bottom end, the best deal and the most beneficial move for him and him alone. It takes a very capable actor to channel that complexity and Christopher Plummer is more than a perfect choice for the role. Both stern and warm, calculating and reactionary, in command yet helpless. It is, however, quite impossible to talk about this film without addressing what could have been. I will admit that unless you are specifically looking for the differences between the original shots and the reshoots, you would be hard-pressed to identify the seams but the fact remains that a key role in this film was shot with a completely different individual in place. The only thing I’ll say about Kevin Spacey is that based on the handful of shots from the pulled trailer, under all those questionable prosthetics, they should have cast Plummer from the get go and I can’t imagine any way in which another actor pretending to be a man of his years would be able to improve upon what made it into the final cut.

While it doesn’t break new ground in terms of how this kind of story is told, what is offered up is extremely pleasing, housing some very interesting characterisation and portrayals.


Release Date:
5th January 2018

The Scene To Look Out For:
**spoilers**
After Paul is sold to a different organisation, one clearly more experienced, financed and intent on getting their money, he uses an impressive amount of ingenuity to escape his captors. Weak and desperate, he runs along the roadside before being picked up by the police. Feeling the ordeal is finally over, he asks to use a telephone. At this point, the audience will be divided in two, those who know what’s coming and those who don’t; either way, the execution is crushing enough that one is not robbed of satisfaction. Getting through to his mother, Paul asks where he is but before he can relay any useful information, his captors appear and hang the phone up, as it is immediately evident that the police are being paid off by the mafia.

Notable Characters:
As much as this film gets right there are a few glaring issues which bring it down from a five out of five – from the occasional convenient development to the lack of originality, rarely stepping outside of the genre trappings. One of the biggest points of neglect is the role of Paul’s father, John Paul Getty Jr. I’ll admit there isn’t much space in the runtime to really analyse who this man is and what happened to him but his inclusion ranges from unimportant to pivotal, to the point that, while he’s admittedly a pawn, his presence is unusual and feels underutilised.

Highlighted Quote:
“There’s a purity in things that I have never found in people”

In A Few Words:
“A very capable and pleasing classic thriller with standout central performances, muddied only by minor infractions and developments behind the scenes”

Total Score:

4/5

JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE

The Game Has Evolved

Director
Jake Kasdan

Starring
Dwayne Johnson
Kevin Hart
Jack Black
Karen Gillan
Bobby Cannavale
Nick Jonas



Set 22 years after the events in Jumanji (that’s right, it’s a direct sequel), we are introduced to four high school students: nerdy Spencer, football jock Fridge, brash brain Martha and it-girl Bethany. For different reasons they all find themselves in detention, forced to clean out a dank storeroom so it can be turned into a new computer room. Within the storeroom, they find a dated looking video game console and take a break to load it up. Having selected their respective characters they are sucked into the game itself. Within the game, Spencer is no longer a weedy nerd but buff, brave explorer Dr Bravestone [Johnson], Fridge is zoologist Mouse Finbar [Hart], Martha is femme fatale Ruby Roundhouse [Gillan] and Bethany has found herself in the body of portly cartographer Sheldon Oberon [Black]. They quickly learn that in order to escape the perils of the game they must complete certain objectives before they are caught by crazed rival explorer Van Pelt [Cannavale] and their lives run out.

As a starting point, the logic that the board game is a somewhat sentient malevolent entity that can alter itself to take on forms that reflect the times – i.e. video games – is rather brilliant. There’s also room for it to be doubly amusing as electronic games date so quickly and board games have had a massive resurgence but that unsurprisingly wasn’t addressed. But I maintain the initial premise is a very logical reworking. The key difference, however, is not that the game is now digital but the complete shift in tone. One of the reasons I enjoyed the original Jumanji was its darkness, that it was a gruelling experience which threw a lot of heavy responsibility at children. In a way, it felt like a parallel to teenagers signing up to serve in World War I thinking it would be both an adventure and great fun, only discover it was a living nightmare. Much like Alien and Aliens, this sequel is given an immense genre shift from mild fantasy horror to light action comedy. For some, this will be a welcome change and the jovial nature will feel fresh and entertaining, for others it will feel like a sterilised pandering affair that robs the feature of any potential for genuine threat. With this genre shift there has naturally also been an alteration in aesthetic. While we never saw the setting of the world of Jumanji in the original, the Victorian, colonial, Heart Of Darkness feel has been traded in for a Far Cry ambience – which, I will acknowledge, feels completely in line with the video game mindset but loses a bit of the charm along the way… and some of the animals apparently. Seriously, there is a distinct lack of animal attacks in a game that’s set in a jungle where everything it trying to kill you. Half way through the film it occurred to me that we had only seen two hippos and one snake; the main threat was Van Pelt’s gang of Mad Max-looking goons. But considering how ropey the CGI looked, it’s both a pro and a con. With the new main villains, lighter tone and bright, bubbly performances, Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle is akin to the Ghostbusters remake. While it’s not a bad release it doesn’t hold enough weight to feel necessary because it completely alters the mood, heavily leaning toward the comedic. And that’s not to say that the film as a concept couldn’t work, I just think getting a comedy heavy director whose best release is Walk Hard might have been a mistake.

Aside from the mediocre predicaments and uninspired use of wildlife, the majority of this movie rides on the central performances. We have both the real life characters, who are essentially archetype bookends that far from define the characters themselves, and the in-game avatars, the recognisable actors we arguably came to see. I’m extremely torn with each and every one of them. I can admit that there are moments of extremely funny dynamism and genuinely likeable engaging acting but there is also wall-to-wall laziness perpetrated by each character. At the forefront we have the tried and tested double-act of Johnson and Hart. There’s absolutely nothing new here, all the jokes are the default ones that come with pairing these two but I’ve gotta confess, it works. It’s still adequate and they are still adequately playing these parts. Next we have Karen Gillan as Ruby Roundhouse. This is a bit of a tricky one. We’ve got an opinionated intellectual in the body of your standard video game woman: “Why am I wearing this outfit in a jungle? Tiny little shorts and a leather halter top? What is this!?”. This is often the cause for a lot of self-aware commentary that calls out video game character design, objectification and female empowerment. It doesn’t exactly always hit the mark but the message is a reasonable one (if a little generic) – you had the power to be a badass all along, inner beauty and strength are as powerful as outward beauty, etc. The only problem is that a lot of contemporary mainstream releases feel they have permission to proceed in a stereotypical manner as long as they say “it’s ok, we know this is inappropriate.” Then we have Jack Black. It’s not that Jack Black does a bad job, it’s that his character is flatly drawn and the vapid delivery feels genuinely fake coming from him. From the very get go, Black whining about his/her phone being missing is painful but as the film progresses, it becomes less painful. Not good, just less painful. And as I’m typing this I’ve just remembered there’s a whole pissing scene where Bethany, in the body of a man, has to deal with urinating via a penis. It’s a weird scene but in a body-swap feature that’s to be sort of expected. Littering your feature with frequent cock-callbacks, on the other hand, is pretty ridiculous.

**Plot point spoilers within**
One of the more pleasing aspects of this film is that they managed to hide a main character from the trailers. The film opens with a teenager discovering the original board game on a beach before it shifts into a game cartridge. This is actually a potential plothole as the kid seemed to playing on a PlayStation and a cartridge wouldn’t work on that and even if he had something that it would work on, when the kids discover it at school, the console is some unknown custom thing so the cartridge must have shifted again? Regardless of that, we eventually learn that the kid who played that game, Alex played surprisingly well by Nick Jonas has been trapped in Jumanji much like Alan Parrish was in the first film. As great as this plot point is, it creates so many problems. Other than the cartridge nonsense I’ve already mentioned, there’s a bit of a time issue here. When the group first meet up with Alex he explains he’s been stuck in the game for months but they explain he’s been missing for 20 years. That’s fine but it pisses on its own rules twice over when the kids get out of Jumanji. First up, the main group wind up back in the new computer room in their high school with seemingly no time having passed but by the film’s established logic it should be 121 days later. Then you have Alex, who returns to his own time period and the events of the film carry on. Which is a paradox. At least the original had the courtesy to wipe history to the point where the game began because the consequences and continuity fallout would have been huge. But obviously the film wanted to go for an upbeat “these kids have learned something” close and you can’t have that if all memory of said lessons are erased upon their return.

As stated, one of the reasons I loved the original was that it was dark and didn’t talk down to kids, playing on the fact that adults don’t believe or listen to children and introduced children to the concept of PTSD while simultaneously entertaining them with a silly dangerous adventure with cutting edge visual effects (of the time, they look awful now). What a lot of people forget is, this isn’t the first remake/sequel, in the late 90s a fairly decent animated series was produced which was also pretty impressive. This feature certainly has its own merits and in no way fails to entertain its target demographic but with its modernisation, it has lost a lot of what made the original interesting and that’s a shame.


Release Date:
22nd December 2017

The Scene To Look Out For:
Of all the things to highlight, this may feel a bizarre one but … Jumanji is a Christmas movie. It’s very odd, downplayed and you only notice when you see how the school office and a few houses are decorated but this film takes place at Christmas and that is such a weird move. I have absolutely no idea why, other than the fact it will have been first released around Christmas? It was genuinely confusing and distracting for me.

Notable Characters:
Casting Bobby Cannavale was a decent call but the idea of what his character is felt a touch unusual. Taking a bit of a Tomb Raider inspiration, the character is no longer just a crazed hunter (and clever, if obvious, extension of blatant father issues) but a driven foil with supernatural enhancement. Again, I understand the reasoning for this shift but the execution is a weird one and much like Jack Black’s performance, Cannavale does a reasonable job, it’s just very blandly written.

Highlighted Quote:
“Cake makes me explode”

In A Few Words:
“A fairly rational/mundane addition to the Jumanji lore that leans heavily on comedic elements which acts as both help and hindrance”

Total Score:

3/5

STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII – THE LAST JEDI

A Long Time Ago, In A Galaxy Far Far Away

Director
Rian Johnson

Starring
Daisy Ridley
Adam Driver
Mark Hamill
John Boyega
Kelly Marie Tran
Oscar Isaac
Carrie Fisher
Laura Dern



Set almost straight after the events in The Force Awakens, the story is immediately split into three segments. The first story is Rey [Ridley] seeking tutelage from Jedi Master Luke Skywalker [Hamill]. Living in self-imposed exile Luke is reluctant to train Rey after what he believes is his failure: training Kylo Ren [Driver]. Meanwhile the rebel forces are trying to evacuate their base when the First Order fleet arrives and attempts to wipe the resistance out once and for all. General Leia [Fisher] and her forces perform a desperate attack headed by ace pilot Poe Dameron [Isaac]. Finally getting away, our heroes learn that the First Order have a method of tracking a ship in hyperspace, meaning there is nowhere to hide and fuel is running out. Waking from his coma, Finn’s [Boyega] only priority is finding Rey so tries to separate himself from the battle. Caught in the act by low-ranking maintenance personality Rose [Tran], a plan is devised to break aboard the enemy ship and disable the tracker but in order to do this, they will need a master codebreaker. Subsequently, Rose and Finn sneak away from the battle and seek help to turn the tide of the battle.

First, a disclaimer. While it is more than possible to write a spoiler free review, to get to the crux of why this film is both brilliant and godawful, we need to discuss everything at great length. Subsequently, this review will both defend The Last Jedi and talk down those who think it’s the second coming. If you’re desperate for a spoiler free summation, carefully skip ahead to the final short paragraph.

From the very get go The Last Jedi maintains the Force Awakens’ original trilogy parallels; being one of the biggest complaints (that it was a literal re-run of the original Star Wars) I’m genuinely surprised by this. We open on a Rebel/Resistance evacuation from an alien world while Imperial/First Order forces arrive and decimate a sizeable chunk of the fleet before being pursued. Admittedly, there are a few obvious differences, such as the comedy-heavy leanings and the planet isn’t new therefore doesn’t need establishing but the bulk of the premise remains and expands to encompass the entire film. To anyone wanting to challenge this, I’d say that despite what people may or may not remember, The Empire Strikes Back isn’t fun, it’s a long, hard watch with an ongoing chase and a spiritual training montage; in many ways – structurally, specifically – this is pretty much the same yet I feel fans will not be able to immediately draw that comparison for one reason and one reason only: nostalgia.

The key thing to take away from this release is highlighting the differences between the directors helming each instalment. On several occasions, JJ Abrams has discussed the concept of the mystery box, the idea that if you place something in a film and withhold information about it from the audience, it piques their interest, tantalises them, drives them insane. For The Force Awakens, this was evident by the amount of questions that were raised, the new characters, the enigmas and clues. Fan speculation runs amok and deep discussions as to identities, origins and destinies are brought up. The unfortunate nature of the mystery box is that the potential outweighs the delivery and no reveal will be a) impossible to decipher or b) satisfying to all. So with all these setups and threads, Johnson was given the task of providing enough of a satisfying conclusion to sate audiences. Interestingly, Johnson is a very different type of director and does what I believe to be the right thing and not only refuses to answer the questions but outright rejects the nature of the question. As such, a simple question like “Who are Rey’s parents?” is replaced with a “What does it matter” self-analysis. This kind of overt referencing is very strongly present in Johnson’s previous features. In Brick he sets a typical film noir in a high school and has the characters openly call out the traits of noir without actually acknowledging that noir is a thing that exists. The Brothers Bloom turns all the standard tropes of heist dramas and con features on their head, while Looper distorts all the rules of what we think of as time travel narratives. In other words, giving a man like Rian Johnson a giant space opera, you’re going to get less focus on the spectacle of spaceships and laser sword fights and more a dissection of the nature of space operas and the reality of living in a universe that has been at war for generations with little end in sight, while a space religion exists that is both revered and mystical yet, curiously, kinda useless. On top of that, Johnson’s focus steps away from what fans may visually expect of a Star Wars sequel (not dissimilar to the tonal shift of The Empire Strikes Back), still delivering eye-watering scale but loading it with subtle nuance, betraying his independent roots. In a way, this is no different to George Lucas homaging both serials like Flash Gordon and aping Akira Kurosawa’s characters and editorial style. Case in point, the introduction to the casino feels like a beautiful send up of the bar shot in Wings. For those unfamiliar, Wings was the first film to win the Best Picture Oscar and contains a revolutionary shot which pushes through a busy bar, setting up little mini-vignettes before finishing on our lead character. Similarly, we get a feel for the casino as the camera pushes through, introducing us to all manner of aliens and the games they are betting on, before finally arriving on a close-up of Finn soaking in this luxurious strange world. In truth, it’s also a recreation of the cantina scene from Star Wars and, to my mind, works better than Abram’s effort with Maz’s bar in The Force Awakens. More than that, the main threat of the plotline is effectively a slow chase through space. While most fans feel that Star Wars should resemble a World War II aerial dogfight, I’ve always favoured Star Trek’s naval approach and The Last Jedi finally adopts this with a film that could quite easily be adapted as a story of a seventeenth century privateer/pirate ship evading the British navy. The diversions, firing over the bow, using the environment and lesser ships as distractions because our wily heroes know more about the territory than the arrogant belligerent force – it’s like Hornblower in space. But, once again, that’s not how fans think of Star Wars.

Which brings us to the statement that saves this film; for all its flaws and failings, I believe this particular statement elevates and almost compensates for any faults. In an era of safe franchise films this feature is bold. Not every idea comes to fruition and its reach exceeds its grasp but at least it’s trying something new. Subsequently, the complaints that The Force Awakens was derivative and predictable are countered by this film’s impossibly unforeseeable, almost quixotically whimsical, narrative. True, many of Abrams’ setups have been written out leaving certain characters feeling moot and hollow but what we are left with feels fresh. To say this is the middle of a trilogy feels almost like a disservice. If anything, it feels more like the start of a trilogy, a new beginning with brave new prospects and an unknowable future, wiping the validity and arguing points of those aforementioned conversations and forums, leaving The Force Awakens as more of a bridge than a launch-pad. I mentioned that this film will suffer because of how it utilises nostalgia (notably nostalgia for things that aren’t Star Wars) but I genuinely believe this is a good thing. While The Force Awakens served to remind audiences that a Star Wars could be great cinema, The Last Jedi leaves you with questions, confusion and hope for the future. More accurately, it leaves you adrift, feeling that the universe you thought you knew inside out has changed. For many change will scare them and they will pine for features like Rogue One and for those people there will no doubt be plenty of anthology stories retreading the same ground over-and-over. But like a child leaving their parent’s home for the first time, that difference, that change is both exciting and terrifying. Last year I commented that Rogue One went one step too far in terms of homage and while it was heralded by many at the time as a warm experience, with others proclaiming it their favourite, it is easily the most flawed of the new wave releases because of its lack of vision and standalone unique originality. In truth, both Rogue One and The Force Awakens gave fans the familiarity they wanted whereas The Last Jedi gives them the unorthodox subversion and future direction they and the series need to survive – and for that, many will reject it. But the truth of whether this experiment works or not will only be revealed in Episode IX.

Stepping away from themes and undercurrents for a second, let’s talk characters. Porgs are amazing. A construct of unabashed marketing and manipulation that holds its hands aloft and decries blame. Scary movies manipulate you into being scared, comedies manipulate you to laugh, Porgs manipulate you to go “Aww.” And they’re fucking great. Now that’s out of the way, on to the cast. Again, subverting the expected, the central trinity here is Rey, Kylo and Luke, all of whom seem dead-set on taking everything that came before and abandoning or dismantling it – to the degree that Kylo even says, “Let the past die.” But I’ll save my comments on Rey and Kylo for later, suffice it to say they are very divisive characters that fans will either love or loathe. But let’s talk about Luke Skywalker for a minute, the man who was the subject of much discussion in The Force Awakens, only to appear for a handful of mystifying seconds. This release spends a great deal of time replicating Empire’s Dagobah setting with Luke living the simple life of a hermit, much like Obi Wan and Yoda.. but with more alien milking. But once the training finally begins, Skywalker becomes a fascinating character, transitioning from impetuous child to wizened sceptical old man. His disenfranchisement with the idea of the Jedi is wonderful; a sobering look at the peoples he trained to emulate whose legacy he planned on furthering and in some way, a fair and damning look at the absurdity of the canon and most specifically the mythology of the prequels. Calling them out for the Jedi order’s bloated uselessness at the height of their power, allowing a Jedi master to train his father, the man who would become the face of the most ruthless tyrannical ruling of their galaxy, is an exceptionally bold move because if there’s any unspoken rule in each previous Star Wars instalment, it’s that the lore is sacrosanct. Having that logically challenged is absolutely what’s needed. The story then takes that to the next level with the presence of Yoda reminding us that for all Luke’s confidence and supposed wisdom, he’s still the same foolish child. As I said earlier, Johnson likes defying expectation while simultaneously outright telling audiences what to expect. In an interview before the film came out, the mystery of who the eponymous last Jedi could be was unceremoniously dismissed with a simple “it’s Luke.” Equally, in the narrative, Luke himself challenges Rey’s (and the audience’s/fan’s) presumptions stating that this won’t go the way she thinks and does she expect the great Luke Skywalker to simply “show up with his laser sword and take down the whole First Order” and the answer is obviously yes, that’s exactly what people want – but then the film both does and doesn’t deliver just that which is frankly masterful. I’ll expand on that more at the end of my review. Dealing with the last of the old-guard trinity, we need to talk about Leia. While it’s quite evident that this new trilogy was supposed to have each instalment focus on Han, then Luke, then Leia, this has been quite clearly scuppered by the untimely death of Carrie Fisher and the decision to (potentially) not include her in Episode IX. Having said that, there are a handful of elements that set up the transition of her departure and after all the criticisms Fisher received in her last appearance, I would say this performance is a distinct improvement. Things like the subtle reactions to the cost of victory over the dreadnaught and her brazen attitude toward those who follow her is very pleasing. I.. er.. still don’t think I liked her CGI space-wizard flyby but the less said about that the better.

Moving on to the next generation of characters, I love the fact that the fleet is comprised of a generous portion of women and minorities. This representation is something that has been missing from contemporary cinema in general and dates older releases with every passing feature. At the head of that fleet is ace pilot Poe Dameron and The Last Jedi wastes no time reminding us exactly how and why Poe is the best pilot in the galaxy. But bringing the character forward, Poe’s rash and impulsive actions, while securing temporary victory over a single battle, do not show the wisdom and big-picture-thinking that a general would need to display. As the film progresses, Poe continues his flyboy attitude but through sacrifice and a touch of humility, he heads closer to being more than just a cocky glory-hunting hero, with Leia going so far as to say “Why are you looking at me? Follow him.” Having said that, I would say that may be a little undeserved. As great as Poe is, the introduction of Resistance Vice Admiral Holdo [Dern] is great, she has little time or tolerance for some jumped-up little pilot who feels his skills merit him having a seat at the table for every strategic conversation. Regrettably, while creating this strong leader and, let’s be honest, a wonderful Leia successor, they remove her in a sacrificial act. One I’ll come back to later. The other main plot thread, aside from the chase and the Jedi revelations is the one that will possibly receive the most flak for being largely filler. Finn awakes from his coma and continues his roguish, charming exploits, growing more honourable as we go. Along for the ride this time is impressionable engineer, Rose, who is still grieving the sister she lost in the film’s opening battle. While these two and their mission initially feels like a bit of an unnecessary diversion to spice up the visuals, add some variety and just give a prominent character something to do, it serves to raise some genuinely interesting talking points about war, duty and loyalty. From the outset we are shown that Rose’s sister is a hero, without her, Poe’s plan would have been for nought and the dreadnaught will still be active. By the end of the film, that heroic gesture is turned on its head; while Rose’s sister’s sacrifice still secured a powerful blow against the First Order, Rose’s actions feel discordant, erratic and ultimately unhelpful. She doesn’t secure the codebreaker, her actions lead to the fleet’s plan being exposed and she stops Finn from performing an action which would take out the First Order’s main gun. So why does she work? Why do I like her? To put it simply, because she’s right. Rose nearly kills herself stopping Finn and it seems reckless and stupid until she explains why: that in order to win this war, it has to be saving the people you love, otherwise what’s the point? Furthermore, the final shots of the film with that beautifully subtle force-nod shows a child inspired to look up from his downtrodden setting thanks to his brief encounter with the woman who showed him the universe can be a better place. If that isn’t the most mature and aware Star Wars character (and not in that “I can see you future” bullshit way), I don’t know who is.

But for all my defence of this feature and heralding as this deep and profound feature, it has moments of remarkable stupidity. Snoke finally looks pretty good but holy crap he’s a wasted character, same with Phasma. I get the logic of dismissing all these setups but without any form of closure, we are just left with a conveyor belt of disposable faces who failed on the promise of satisfying intrigue and reveal. But to be fair, did we really need more to cover? Cramming so much into this film leaves, among other things, crazy pacing issues. While the editing, score work and directing should be praised for making this mammoth undertaking palatable, it’s frankly too much Star Wars and it is both overwhelming and stifling. This lack of methodical allowance for processing also means that things like trying to blur the lines of good and evil with mention of devil’s advocate weapons dealers is lost when the film speeds toward its conclusion with the standard good/evil split; albeit by another name according to Kylo Ren. Speaking of good and bad, I was filled with such confusion when Holdo sacrifices herself by jumping to light-speed through the pursuing First Order fleet. On the one hand, that shot and the sound design of its impact may possibly be the most beautiful shot of any Star Wars film. Having said that, for all its breath-taking spectacle, it raises a lot of questions, specifically, knowing going to hyperspace could have saved everyone weakens Holdo’s sacrifice because surely she could have done it sooner – or are we to believe this is the first instance of this happening? Who knows? It’s not addressed. Then there’s the bloody force ghosts and their force powers. I hate the force ghosts. HATE THEM! From a practical filmmaking level, an actor being an unaging spectre causing no end of difficulty and the fact that entities exist that can offer indispensable omnipotent advice from the other side yet do next to nothing is absolutely infuriating. So obviously Yoda turning up saying prophetic brilliance like “The greatest teacher failure is” will delight fans but pisses me off no end. Finally, one of the biggest negatives of all these Disney Star Wars films is they don’t say or do much, they build on what has come before but don’t stand above them which means they will always have a shadow cast over them.

As stated at the very start of this review, I will happily defend this film for the forward-looking, bold filmmaking that it is but I can’t escape the fact that it commits stupid sins the likes of which are rife throughout the prequels. But I would maintain all this is a positive because the conversation it generates is more interesting. Suddenly the playing field is even and the coming films are truly unknown. Of course, this puts a lot of pressure on what’s to come to meet these newly established possibilities but for the time being, I would posit this is a good film – if only for the very fact that a good film should challenge you and create within you a sense of marvel, a sense of questioning ones’ own existence, a sense of familiarity and a sense of ..conflict.


Release Date:
15th December 2017

The Scene To Look Out For:
The return of Luke Skywalker was more than worth the wait. Mark Hamill returns to the franchise grown as an actor, offering a range in his performance as yet unseen in the character. Nowhere is that more present than his final showdown. Admittedly, I muttered an observation to my wife which ruined the reveal but it’s still a really nice development. As described earlier in the film, “the great Luke Skywalker” miraculously appears at the rebel’s worst hour and impossibly stands down an entire army. Later it is revealed that this is merely an astral projection, a distraction allowing the rebels to escape. But the clues are beautiful, to the degree that you would wonder how you never saw them beforehand, from his younger appearance, surviving the First Order’s barrage, possessing the lightsaber which we saw explode not a few scenes before and finally the footprints in the salt desert. Great filmmaking and a truly great send off.. where it not for those fucking force ghosts!!

Notable Characters:
Kylo and Rey are fantastic characters, deep and complex, new and exciting, yet somehow archetypal in their execution. Many fans will hate them for multiple reasons – most of which boil down to “they’re not what I already know” – but seeing them executing the decisions they make, debating the choices before them and suffering the consequences of their actions is fantastic. They are very much the same split soul, trying to find their place in the universe while being pulled back and forth by individuals pushing their own agendas. The linked conversations, being manipulated by their masters, coming together to fight against those who would choose to control them, only to fall apart again at the last minute. The potential is agonising and the pay-off can only end in heartbreak.

Highlighted Quote:
“I wish I could put my fist through this whole lousy beautiful town”

In A Few Words:
“Arguably one of the most divisive Star Wars features which will pit fans against critics, purists against progressives and what is against what could be”

Total Score:

4/5

THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI

Some People Just Can’t Read The Signs

Director
Martin McDonagh

Starring
Frances McDormand
Sam Rockwell
Woody Harrelson
Caleb Landry Jones



In the small town of Ebbing, Missouri, Mildred Hayes [McDormand] has suffered the loss of her young daughter who was raped, murdered and burnt. Months have passed with no luck from the local law enforcement, so she decides to take matters into her own hands and pays to have posters erected on three neglected billboards on a largely unused road. The posters are very simplistic in their message and call out the Chief of Police Bill Willoughby [Harrelson] for his lack of progress. This stubborn refusal to let the matter go and continually shame the police department continues and escalates while the town is swayed back and forth between with whom to side.

As a huge fan of McDonagh’s work (both brothers for that matter) I was bitterly disappointed by Martin McDonagh’s previous release, Seven Psychopaths. It was far from poorly crafted, it merely suffered from a chaotic, meandering plot and lack of clear vision; like the jumbled drunken nightmares of a pensive writer. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri not only rectifies that, it improves on the extremely enjoyable theatrical-feeling In Bruges and is quite easily Martin McDonagh’s most narratively focused cinematic work. It wastes no time getting the story going and characters established then unfolds and escalates magnificently while maintaining its gripping pacing. In truth, the whole thing is very reminiscent of a very sweary Coen brothers feature. A fact enhanced by the mournful score that hangs tensely, reminding me of Carter Burwell’s work. Only for me to discover, as the credits rolled, that it was Burwell who scored the film.

Staying with the Coen comparison for a second, a key element to this film’s success is an incredibly strong script being brought to life by absolutely spectacular central performances. Since the mid-90s it’s been apparent that Frances McDormand is an exceptional talent, able to switch between comedic and dramatic tones with grace and ease, without betraying the character. Her role as Mildred Hayes is a great example of this, vengeful, driven, committed, uncompromising and resolute but also completely fragile and tender at times. What’s more, she’s not a caricature; she is more complex than a ranting unstoppable monster. This is best reflected by the fact that her fiery rage is halted in its tracks when she confronts people at their weakest. From her ex-husband, to the rash Dixon, to the Chief and his wife – when she realises that someone is hurting to the degree that it doesn’t bring her closer to identifying her daughter’s killer, compassion kicks in and she deals with the individual at hand humanely. It’s this relatability that reminds us that this woman is in immense pain and trying to resolve the problem, which is why the film’s closing line of dialogue is absolutely perfect – but obviously I can’t discuss that at length yet.

In addition to McDormand’s powerful lead performance, the supporting cast are wonderful. The film clearly addresses a lot of contemporary social concerns from lack of faith in policing, the generational evolution of the Southern States, the way investigations are treated when they are in the public eye, public opinion/bias fuelled by the media and victim blaming. But it’s much more complex than a town of simple backward individuals against a saintly figure, Mildred is flawed but the townsfolk are equally multiform in their capacity for good and bad. The focus of Mildred’s fury is the Chief of police, Bill Willoughby and initially he comes off as a well-meaning family man but Mildred makes valid points that more could be done if the proper motivation as applied. Willoughby complicates matters for the audience as he is dealing with his own plights, so we shift the villainous role to the impetuous Officer Jason Dixon who is rude, lazy, violent and racist. But as the film progresses, we start to understand why Dixon is the way he is and he then becomes a sympathetic character. This rolling search for a true villain is very much the embodiment of Mildred’s quest. We, the audience, are rooting for Mildred so are desperately seeking an opposing antagonistic force but as we learn that the characters presented are merely average people, we lash out to the next obvious target. Finally this absence hits its peak when we realise that we too are looking for closure, that we want Mildred or the police or someone to find the man responsible for all this grief, pain and madness and to bring him to justice – arguably by any means – but this may be an absolute impossibility. And the key take away from this whole observation is that without a clear villain the absurdity of revenge is revealed, that no present action can change the past but for more on that thread, see my highlighted scene below.

**this paragraph is one big spoiler from start to finish**
Earlier I mentioned the ability for Mildred to ease off when people are at their weakest and that the characters introduced are more layered than simply good and bad. This rotational alignment is summed up rather neatly by a visiting priest who says “The town were behind you when Angela died, they’re not behind you on this.” It’s also very interestingly addressed with the man Dixon fingers for Angela’s murder. For those who have seen the film, Dixon is fired from his job by his new commanding officer and suffers humiliation and defeat as well as physical harm. He regains the audience’s respect by overhearing an individual in a bar boasting about committing a crime that matches the details of Angela’s death. In his own way, he gets into a fight and collects a DNA sample from the individual to be cross-referenced against the DNA found on Angela’s corpse. From a point of narrative closure, we feel like justice is ready to be delivered and the story can be neatly wrapped up. Especially as the man responsible also intimidated Mildred earlier in the film. Yet, with complete frankness, the new Chief explains that the man has a perfect alibi. The characters reject it, the audience reject it and we’re back to square one. What initially feels convenient but necessary to serve a redemptive arc is suddenly taken from us but sets up the absolute perfect crushing finale. Dixon relays to Mildred that the man he found wasn’t responsible but he’s responsible for something and they can both take out their frustrations on him, safe in the knowledge that “he had it coming.” Thus they pack up their car and head to his home address. Before the film closes, both characters express that they aren’t sure about killing the man but they’ll make their mind up on the way. This is the most fitting ending one could expect. Any climactic showdown would bring us no satisfaction and serve only to drag the story to a middling conclusion. The added complication of the fact this man is in the army adds another layer of possible complication; maybe he’s guilty, maybe he isn’t, maybe he’s just boasting, maybe he acts out as PTSD from military service. We can’t know for certain therefore the characters can’t know for certain. As a moral conundrum it’s wonderful and in typical McDonagh fashion the story doesn’t end, we just collectively stop paying attention.

The thing that pleases me the most about these releases are the strong morally complex characters, absence of simple conclusions and hilarious predicaments with an incredibly moving undertone. And with every passing feature McDonagh gets better and better, from the direction, the writing, editing and even down to the people he chooses to work with again and again. As such, I eagerly look forward to his next release, as should we all.


Release Date:
12th January 2018

The Scene To Look Out For:
I mentioned the absurdity of revenge and how little it resolves, the turning point for Mildred, when she starts to get an inkling that there’s a possibility that all of this is in vain, is in the form of a flashback. Her son, furious with her, reveals that he wasn’t aware of the full details of his sister’s death, that he couldn’t bring himself to read the police report but Mildred’s posters lay it out in a twenty foot font. Mildred then sits in her late daughter’s room and we see a very amusing and honest family scene where mother and daughter fight over a simple triviality like borrowing a car. This leads to a tense exchange resulting in Angela screaming, “I will walk and you know what, I hope I get raped on the way home!” to which Mildred furiously barks back, “I hope you get raped too!” We then cut to the cold empty room and the excruciating regret that hangs over the audience could not be any more real or palpable.

Notable Characters:
Just for his arc alone, I love Sam Rockwell’s character. It takes an actor of extreme ability to drive you to hate someone, then elevate that to slight sympathy before eventually arriving at genuine support.

Highlighted Quote:
“If you get rid of all the cops with vaguely racist leanings you’ll have.. three cops left. Who’ll hate all the fags. So what are you gonna do?”

In A Few Words:
“Another masterful release from McDonagh rife with his trademark wit, humour and emotional poignance”

Total Score:

5/5