20 September 2017

Review: Kong: Skull Island

(Dir: Jordan Vogt-Roberts, 2017)

Everyone expects to see King Kong rampaging through New York City, climbing the Empire State Building, and just generally causing the destruction one would anticipate from a giant ape roaming free in a major metropolitan area. Kong: Skull Island doesn't care about that, which is absolutely to its credit. The film is instead focused on the discovery of Kong on the mythical Skull Island, and what goes down there when a team of investigators and military personnel find themselves trying to survive until the escape plan kicks in. Wait... that makes it all sound so serious when really it is just an excuse for giant monsters to eat people!

Said monsters are superbly realised. Kong himself is suitably imposing, and although he lacks some of the emotional weight that the apes of the recent Planet of the Apes films possess, there's just about enough for this story. The skullcrushers, which are the more pressing threat, are menacing, and everything else we see on screen inspires feelings of both awe and fear. These visuals are enhanced by the beautiful, tropical locale, which offers a fantastic background. It's more enjoyable seeing this character in a 'natural' setting rather than him being thrust into somewhere man-made. The seventies era is another win for the film, as the limited technology of the time makes it believable that the island went undiscovered for so long, and provides the soldiers with more limited firepower and communications options, ensuring there is a greater level of threat. And of course it allows for a satisfying soundtrack of seventies rock.

An impressively good cast have been assembled, with Tom Hiddlestone and Brie Larson proving most enjoyable, along with some of the more junior soldiers. And of course John C. Reilly playing a pilot lost to time, whose isolated zaniness is pitched just right. Arguably Samuel L. Jackson's lieutenant colonel, a man who only knows war and needs it to feel at home, is the weak link, becoming the defacto bad guy thanks to his somewhat clichéd myopia. The strong cast certainly help Kong: Skull Island, which is ultimately a fun watch, however it is lacking something - one of those slightly intangible, difficult to put your finger on things. Thus it never transcends being just a bit of visually impressive fun. But does it need to be more? Probably not as it is good at what it does. Do we want to see more of this? Yes please.

Review: IT

(Dir: Andy Muschietti, 2017)

It's been twenty seven years since the last filmed version of IT – a curious coincidence or something planned? Regardless, it is surprising that we haven't seen an adaptation in the years since the 1990 mini-series made famous by Tim Curry's iconic portrayal of Pennywise the Clown. That is hardly regarded as the unimpeachable, definitive visual representation of Stephen King's classic novel, so it's pleasing to see another take hit cinemas and transport us back to Derry.

Anyone who has read the novel will know that one of it's greatest strengths comes from the deep vein of characterisation that runs throughout, as we spend the summer with these boys and Beverley, seeing their bonds grow and strain, feeling their joy of a summer of freedom, and truly understanding their fears as they slowly manifest before their eyes. This allows for a sense of mounting terror to build from beneath, slowly gripping you in its icy cold claws, before scuttling away to lurk unseen, ever-waiting. Attempting to balance all of this in a two hour film is a difficult task, especially when the core cast consists of seven characters, so inevitably this is where this new version of IT stumbles.

The kids are all well cast and give good performances, having the right chemistry and a decent script that leads to genuine humour. Their distrust of adults effectively comes across, whilst the scenes where they're all together en masse and not in peril are far and away the best, but there's not enough of this meaning they all feel too thinly sketched out. Bill, Beverley and Ben (Jaeden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor) inevitably get the most development, but it still feels like we're barely scratching the surface. Finite screen-time aside, the key reason this is so is the film's insistence on pushing the horror right to the front and centre. Unfortunately the film takes the rarely successful modern horror approach of throwing as much as possible at you as frequently as it can. Thus it feels like we're quickly jumping from one supposedly scary scene to the next, with just a few moments of respite and regrouping in between. For this story to work we need to understand each of the character's fears, rather than having them quickly blurted out, so this overloaded approach means they mostly lack much power.

The key asset of IT is Pennywise the Clown. The book and 1990 mini-series certainly did for coulrophobia what Jaws did for galeophobia, but this iteration of the character, portrayed by Bill Skarsgård, lacks the requisite impact and is in fact very rarely actually scary. His face is just a little too benign and he struggles to imbue his voice with enough suggestive layers of menace, but the biggest issue is that he's on-screen just too damn much. This is clearly the "the audience wants a killer clown so let's give them a killer clown!" approach. The opening scene is, on the whole, really well done, but it's fatal flaw is giving us the clown in all his glory almost immediately. Imagine instead if we the audience saw nothing more than malevolent eyes burning in the darkness, and glinting teeth revealed by a cruel purse of the lips. Then imagine for the next hour we get just slivers of him insidiously lurking, seemingly ready to pounce, alongside shards of acerbic dialogue, all allowing the fear to slowly build. That would have surely led to something far more impactful than continually throwing a smorgasbord of bland, CGI-heavy, horrific imagery at the audience with diminishing returns.

This new version of IT feels difficult to reconcile. In every aspect other than the horror side it is very good and extremely well put together, with excellent production design and cinematography, casting and acting. But the continual barrage of supposedly scary scenes quickly numb you so the few that are effective, such as the projector scene, have far less impact. Whilst Pennywise and how he's thrust in your face is the other critical weakness. As a coming-of-age film in the vein of King's own Stand By Me it works. As a horror film it finds itself rather lacking and thus disappointing. Like the criticisms recently laid at The Dark Tower, to make the best of the lengthy source material any adaptation really needs time to breathe, meaning the film route was probably not the answer. Imagine IT as a ten episode series, taking the time to envelop you, develop all of the character's properly and allow the tension to slowly percolate by not being constantly bombarding you. Or, like so many films before, perhaps it just works best if you've not read the book?

2 September 2017

Review: Under the Shadow

(Dir: Babak Anvari, 2016)

Effectively a haunted house film, Under the Shadow draws strength from its setting and the tension, almost entirely off-camera, that surrounds it. Set in Tehran in the eighties amidst the turmoil of the Iran-Iraq conflict, it's a fractious time to be an inhabitant of the city. Missiles are being targeted at it. Frequent air sirens blare, forcing residents into the protective cover of shuddering basements that resonate with the boom of destruction somewhere above. As the film progresses the palpable fear of inescapable war builds as we the viewer begin to feel trapped in this apartment block too. That this is so effectively implied through excellent sound design and rarely actually seen is testament to the quality of the craft on display.

Layer onto this a sense of unknown malevolence  something lurking in the shadows that might just be your imagination, but could conceivably be terrifyingly real. Lead actor Narges Rashidi convincingly sells her frustration and scepticism, but as she is slowly abandoned by those fearful of the threat from the skies, she's left with just her daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi) whose deteriorating mental state begins to wear her down. The thrills and scares that inevitably come are mostly effective thanks to the slow build, and are never over-played. This is the right approach for a film of this nature – trying to throw everything at the audience all the time rarely leads to a satisfying experience. And we continue to feel the impact of the sound design, as mixed in with the noise of war are distant calls for prayer which take on an eerie note, alongside assorted weirdness and droning. This all adds up to making Under the Shadow a very good horror film, despite the story being conventional as hell. It's a great example of using your setting wisely, how brevity keeps the viewer engaged and the power of slowly, creatively building up tension.

Review: A Ghost Story

(Dir: David Lowery, 2017)

An anecdote to start with. Upon sitting down in the cinema it was noted there were two early teen boys sitting further down the row. That seemed a little surprising at first. Did they know what they were getting themselves in for? Perhaps they were young cineastes? Or did they see the excellent poster and the 12A certificate and think, "Yes! We can spend Tuesday evening watching a horror film!"? Within all of five minutes they were restless and distracted by their phones anad each other, suggesting the latter option must've been so. Surprisingly they lasted nearly an hour before leaving. All this is to say that A Ghost Story is resolutely not a horror film, at least not in the traditional sense, and it's willful abandoning of the basics of conventional storytelling will be trying for some.

In the most literal sense this is a ghost story, as we follow C (Casey Affleck) who has returned home after his death, invisible to all and underneath a white sheet containing only deep black eyeholes. This still figure exudes a subtle creepiness, always lurking in the background watching and waiting, seemingly devoid of humanity. But the real horror is existential, as the fragility of life is felt alongside the fear of how and whether we are remembered by those who love us/we love. It's an inexorably sad film as the grief in the first half is presented as plainly as it's felt, enhancing the rawness and making it easier to transplant it to your own life. Rooney Mara is very good as C's wife M, seemingly a little adrift with life before becoming grief-stricken by the loss of C. At moments this can feel over-played thanks to the unconventional approach – your ability to handle a five minute scene of M doing nothing but eating a pie in anguish will be a gauge of how much you might appreciate the film.

Being shot in 1:33:1 format gives A Ghost Story an almost home movie quality, creating an intimacy with the characters and a strange sense that we're looking through a window at something that actually happened. There are moments in the second half that don't suit this style, but by this point it has transcended into a meditation on love in unexpected and obtuse ways. Not being conventional or doing what you expect are part of the film's charm. Director David Lowery clearly never intended for this to be a straight forward watch, hence the direction the story takes, the sparing use of dialogue and long takes of seemingly inconsequential moments that build the mood of the film. It's occasionally frustrating, and no doubt more so if you're not expecting it. What makes it work is how effectively it sets the tone of sadness in the first half before diving deep into a fascinating rabbit hole, all the while traversing a subtle line of creepiness. It's a love it / hate it type of film just don't go into it expecting the same thing those teenage boys were.

1 September 2017

Review: Atomic Blonde

(Dir: David Leitch, 2017)

Try to imagine Atomic Blonde with an actress other than Charlize Theron in the lead role (presuming of course that you've seen the film). Sure, they would likely do a very fine job, but Theron thoroughly owns the character of Lorraine Broughton. Every fine detail of the film feels shaped around her, as opposed to it being an 'insert actress here' scenario. How closely this fits with the original character of the graphic novel doesn't really matter as most of us will be completely unfamiliar with it (the importance or not of fealty to source material is a separate conversation). So much of what makes Theron so good here is down to physicality. Her statuesque figure ensures she's imposing when she needs to be, a fearsome fighter who convincingly kicks ass in some brutal fight scenes that are shot with a bone-crunching intimacy. All the while she is stylish as hell, pulling off a near monochromatic wardrobe that aids her seductiveness, with the smoky eyes and smouldering English accent pushing us over the edge. Taking a step back you could say this is a character pushed a little too far into idealised territory, but she perfectly fits the tone of the film and feels ripped straight from the pages of a graphic novel.

The film is satisfyingly stylised, lifting it above the drab setting of Berlin circa November 1989. All too many European-set spy/espionage films feel content to live in murk and darkened alleys, but there's a greater sense of vibrancy here, as the action dances around the excitement and turmoil of impending social change. Music plays a huge part in this with an excellent selection of eighties classics setting the tone, never shying away from being in your face and always seeming to fit just right. Director David Leitch does a great job at balancing all this with the political intrigue and the violence, ensuring it stays thrilling, up until the final quarter at least.

As too frequently happens, Atomic Blonde loses energy as it approaches the end and sets about explaining it's tangled web. Nothing here is too shocking, but a key revelation would've been better served by a little less explanation and a little more mystery, providing something curious for any potential sequel to explore (if we're lucky enough to get one). But that doesn't ruin the fun had throughout the rest of the film, which the rest of the cast add too. James McAvoy's deeply embedded agent is more enjoyable / less annoying than he usually is, Eddie Marsan and Toby Jones do what you can always trust them to do, whilst Sofia Boutella's mysterious character adds more intrigue despite taking certain moments too close to (unnecessary) male fantasy. 

Atomic Blonde is a thoroughly enjoyable film, benefiting greatly from how it's stylised and sounds, plus the era and location in which it's set. But mostly this is down to Theron – she owns the film and crafts a character who is both thrilling and mesmerising to watch. Another chapter in her story certainly wouldn't go amiss.

31 August 2017

Review: xXx

(Dir: Rob Cohen, 2002)

The one where they tried to make a Bond film for the X Games generation... This isn't a comparison, but let's quickly look at how xXx is intrinsically linked to The Fast and the Furious, which essentially laid the groundwork. xXx appeared in cinemas a year after said film as Vin Diesel was riding high off it, thus seeing him reunited with director Rob Cohen seemed a no-brainer. Xander Cage is essentially Dom Torreto, if you swap the obsession with family for daredevil grandstanding. And here we are fifteen years later where The Fast and the Furious franchise has delivered its eighth(!) film whilst remaining hugely popular, and somehow a third xXx film appeared, resurrecting this dormant franchise by bringing Diesel back to the fold after he handed the reigns of the first sequel to Ice Cube back in 2005. Knowing all this it's interesting to revisit xXx having not seen it or even really thought about it since the cinema all those years ago.

Two things quickly become clear we know Diesel has always been an engaging screen presence, but the youthful exuberance he exudes here now feels a distant memory, as with age he more frequently embodies a reluctant world-weariness. That energy and not-give-a-fuck attitude carries us through this story. Secondly, production company Revolution certainly threw some money at the film, with a plethora of overblown action sequences and stunts that aim to impress and which mostly deliver. Now let's be honest, those are (mostly) the reason people showed up for this film, but it's still a shame the story is a let down. It starts with a lot of promise, setting Cage up to join the NSA and testing his abilities. But as soon as he arrives in Prague for his mission the story immediately turns Bond-lite in a generically bland way. Martin Csokas' Yorgi is all nonsensical anarchistic rhetoric, whilst Asia Argento's Yelena is seemingly just there to tease/reward Cage​ as she tries to play the character with a depth that maybe existed on page but never made it to the screen. On top of this the story is full of the sexist tropes aimed to get teenage boys excited but which make everyone else feel uncomfortable.

One month after the release of xXx the Bond film Die Another Day was released, representing the low nadir of that series. One of it's biggest issues was how far it pushed it's credibility Bond's stunts usually (just about) stay on the right side of being too ridiculous, but surfing an Arctic tidal wave or driving an invisible car across ice were too much. Such acts feel more suited to a Xander Cage type character and though xXx offers up much that is similar snowboarding, parachuting, etc – it lacks the chops to be a convincing Bond clone. This really highlights the squandered potential of the start of the film where it could've taken things in a different, better direction. Sure it's fun, but it's that hollow, forgettable type of fun that only just survives because of Diesel's presence.

26 August 2017

Review: A History of Violence

(Dir: David Cronenberg, 2005)

*Warning - herein lie spoilers. If you've not seen the film then stop reading now as it will reduce enjoyment!*

On the surface, A History of Violence appears to be the turning point in David Cronenberg's career where he stepped away from the all out weirdness that pervades almost every film he'd made to that point. It's an almost benign seeming story, a fact the small-town Americana setting amplifies, but is the shock of violence that invades the lives of the Stall family (Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello and Ashton Holmes) as simple as it seems? Despite being renowned as the king of body horror, Cronenberg has always been highly invested in the psychological aspect of his stories. You come for the freakishly weird visuals, but his films work away at burrowing under the skin because they have depth, revealing multiple layers through which to abhor the viewer.

A History of Violence's dicephalous approach is as simple as split personality. For the first half of the film this plays out as a mystery. Are we sure that Tom Stall really is this idealised small-town family man – practically the personification of the American dream – or does he have an insidious past as a savage killer for the mob? The guessing is fun, but this being a Cronenberg film you just know there's more to this than the mistaken identity that he pleads. When Joey is unleashed we see the disturbing effects of violence. His idyll is disturbed and he inevitably wants revenge, so we happily go along for the ride. But how do his family reconcile the knowledge that this side of him exists, even if it's for them that he's trying to put it to bed once and for all. It's not as simple as just forgetting his past, what if something else triggers Joey's emergence somewhere down the line? From what they've experienced of him they have every right to be fearful. None of this is overplayed in the film, thanks to some pretty taut direction and Mortensen's understated performance. He blends in as an everyman, and even when Joey is front and centre it's not so easy to separate out the two, which adds to the sense of unease. Ed Harris' heavily scarred Carl Fogarty enhances this feeling, as his myopic certainty forces you to question what you think you know and whether you want it to be so or not.

By focusing on the brain and pushing away from the expected horrors of body dysmorphia that pervades much of Cronenberg's work, leaves a story that cares more about the connections and the impact people can and do have on each other. The setting acts as a contrast to the sudden bursts of violence which the camera happily lingers over. This is a more understated film than what he has delivered before, but the darkness and weirdness are there, you just have to dig deeper, and it's where he really started to shift focus to the brain. It's just another example of why David Cronenberg is such a revered director.