20 October 2017

London Film Festival Review: You Were Never Really Here

(Dir: Lynne Ramsey, 2017)

On paper You Were Never Really Here has a hell of a lot of potential. Director Lynne Ramsey did fine work on revered previous film We Need to Talk About Kevin. The always intriguing Joaquin Phoenix plays lead character Joe. The story proffers an arthouse take on the kidnapped girl thriller, with plenty of brutal violence promised. Thus it's a shame that the reality is so unsatisfactory. This is a brutal film, but not from the violence which is mostly fleeting and shot in a suggestive manner (we see more of the after effects), rather it's a mixture of the overall tone and story. Any film about girls being kidnapped and the despicable reasons why is setting itself up to be a depressing and horrible story. So thankfully You Were Never Really Here's focus is actually Joe, but that turns out to be as much the problem.

The overall tone is a reflection of Joe's extremely damaged psyche. He's tortured by his past to the point where you wonder why he hasn't killed himself already. The film is at pains to show how fucked up he is, seemingly feeling that all he can do with his life is look after his mother and save those being made to suffer, destroying the perpetrators in the process. Even five minutes in his presence sucks all the joy of life from you, which might be testament to Phoenix's portrayal of a character seemingly so far beyond repair. A large portion of his dialogue is nearly indecipherable thanks to the way he mumbles – and since he's in almost every scene that adds to the frustration.

At this screening Ramsey briefly appeared to shyly "introduce" the film, and it was suggested there would be a Q&A afterwards. Unfortunately that didn't happen, which is a shame as it might've shed some light on why she bothered to make this film (it is an adaptation of a Jonathan Ames novel). If there is supposed to be a meaningful message it gets utterly lost in the exceptionally thick layers of darkness, depression and unclear dialogue. As a character study (which is what it essentially is) it fails by making the character so unlikable that you just wish he'd just get it over with and end it all for his own sake. The brief moments that are good are few and far between, whilst Johnny Greenwood's excellent score doesn't help lift the mood (but is objectively a great score). As everything about You Were Never Really Here is just so damn bleak and unenjoyable the point of it never emerges, making it hard to understand why it was made and why someone should put themselves through the soul-sucking journey of watching it.

14 October 2017

Review: Blade Runner 2049

(Dir: Denis Villeneuve, 2017)

Thirty five years. That's how long it's taken for a sequel to Blade Runner to arrive. A much revered sci-fi classic that's had a torrid time finding its definitive version (that would be The Final Cut released ten years ago), it was never a film that obviously demanded a sequel. Part of its appeal lies in the philosophical underpinnings and somewhat nebulous approach, not least in the mysterious way it concludes proceedings (depending on which iteration you watch). But these can equally be viewed as points of frustration for some, and finding the right story for this sequel has obviously been a vexing dilemma.

Blade Runner 2049 is certainly more than sympathetic to its past. The production design is excellent, building on the originals iconic work. Setting the film thirty years-on allows it to feel more futuristic by today's standards, allowing us to judge it in the same way that 1982's technological predictions likely seemed new and exciting at the time. The look and feel of this new version is less groundbreaking but arguably more stunning. Every shot feels perfectly crafted and beautifully lit and it's undoubtedly eye candy of the highest order. Similarly the score  builds on Vangelis' work from the original, adding more bombast and menace, which proves more enjoyable despite being less revelatory.

Overt sympathy to the original is also a crux that let's 2049 down, notably in story and pacing terms. The original is slow, but it at least clocks-in sub two hours. If your film reaches two hours forty minutes and is for the most part interminably slow, as is the case with 2049, there's clearly a hell of a lot that needs to be trimmed. The story and it's mystery are more concerned with finding out who rather than exploring why, and really drawing out that exploration, so it feels like an overly forced way to tie it all to the original. Ryan Gosling's K should make an interesting lead (he is good as usual), but his characterisation is mostly too heavy-handed. Revealing what K is within the first ten minutes ultimately does the film no favours  of course it's done for later plot reasons, but it instantly impacts one's feelings towards the character and lacks the lighter touch applied to Harrison Ford's Deckard in the original. It is good to see Deckard again, with Ford playing the gruff latter-aged character he now frequently inhabits, but even in the limited time he's on-screen he satisfyingly peels that back. The other notable cast member is Sylvia Hoek's Luv, the steely-eyed chief antagonist, driven to do her master's bidding with forthright determination, and convincingly so.

In theory, the presence of Denis Villeneuve as director should be a strong positive, after all he is responsible for the fantastic Arrival and the very good Sicario. But if anything Blade Runner 2049 mostly harkens back to his breakthrough film Prisoners, which bears the burden of overly languid pacing. The fatal flaw here is that at times the film borders on being boring, and stunning visuals only go so far when you need to sit and be engaged for 162 minutes. A shorter, much tighter edit would've resulted in a far better film – the story is in reality very straightforward, but gets submerged in layers and layers of slow moodiness that's overly reverential to the tone of the original. And there's such a potentially fascinating universe that could be further explored rather than waiting an age for the key asset to appear. This amounts to Blade Runner 2049 being less than the sum of its parts, which is all the more frustrating when the potential for it to actually be really good is not too far from its grasp.

London Film Festival Review: The Killing of a Sacred Deer

(Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017)

If you've seen The Lobster, director Yorgos Lanthimos' previous film, then you might have some idea of what to expect from The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Or rather, you should know that your only real expectation need be to expect the unexpected. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a little less out there conceptually, but it is a film filled with it's own strange little quirks. Colin Farrell plays cardiovascular surgeon Steven, a man with a seemingly perfect life – wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) who runs a clinic, two seemingly normal children (Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic), and a big house in the suburbs. But then there's his seemingly odd relationship with teenager Martin (Barry Keoghan), who slowly infiltrates their lives with increasingly worrying consequences.

The core of the story is a well-worn idea, providing something familiar to cling too. But when you get down to the specifics everything is slightly off in a cleverly unnerving way. There are some dark ideas here, but it all works so convincingly because of the characters and how they are acted. There's a cold detachment, almost an absence of emotion. Farrell's delivery borders on stilted – the way he looks with his stylish hair, big salt and pepper beard, and seeing that he's a successful surgeon, doesn't fit with how he sounds. The dialogue at times being randomly, but intentionally, comical. You never really know where you stand with him, but as you ease into the film it seems to make some sort of sense. Kidman feels sharper and more calculated by comparison, offering a fine balance even if they initially seem a strange pairing. Whilst Keoghan, with his overt politeness and habit of practically tripping over his own words, exudes a coldness born of a sheer lack of empathy. Or maybe it's just conviction. Cassidy also proves very good by not being the character one might expect. But that's the point – all the acting is excellent in a way that doesn't conform to the stereotypes of what these characters might usually be in more conventional hands.

The actors have a strong script to work from  it's dark, funny and frequently slightly absurdist. Visually the film is well shot, mostly clean and clinical, with the camera frequently making you feel like you're an awkward observer of something you shouldn't see. And the score wrenches every last ounce of drama from its portentous strings, at times seeming over-the-top but proving enjoyable in how it occasionally jars whilst enhancing what we see on screen. The Killing of a Sacred Deer revels in it's own slightly perverse reality  one that has no real regard for the standard conventions of a story of this nature, seemingly finding joy in keeping the viewer just slightly off-balance whilst ratcheting up the intensity. It is really rather good.

London Film Festival Review: The Shape of Water

(Dir: Guillermo del Toro, 2017)

You can usually rely on Guillermo del Toro. His latest foray into the fantastical, The Shape of Water, is the perfect example of what he does best. He is the master of melding the otherworldly into the environment we inhabit, suggesting there's something hiding beyond the veneer of the reality we know. And he creates richly enticing worlds with strong, interesting characters.

The Shape of Water is driven by Sally Hawkins' soulful performance as Eliza, a mute cleaner working in a government facility who finds herself drawn to a nameless creature shackled up for study. She is incredibly expressive, portraying so much through limited signing and a physicality that many actor's might struggle with. There's a love of grand old Hollywood song and dance, with something always playing in the background of her home life that seems to infuse further into her personality the happier she becomes.

Her neighbour and friend Giles (Richard Jenkins) is a strong influence on her in this regard. His character is intriguing, seemingly a little left behind by time and nervous about how he can be himself in public. Jenkins is a character actor who pops up in a lot of supporting roles but this might be one of his best. As chief antagonist Strickland, Michael Shannon is well beyond the point of being typecast as the overtly intense bad guy he plays so well. He has enough quirks to avoid feeling too clichéd here, seeming to slip into this time period with a natural ease. And lest we forget the fine comic relief offered by Octavia Spencer as Eliza's colleague, who's always concerned about her but there to help.

The setting is key to the film and an important part of what makes it so effective. We're in mid-sixties America and presented with an almost idealised version of how it used to be  this is "the American dream" come to life, but with occasional cracks revealing the reality. The paranoia of the time seeps into overarching motivations, with the fear of Russia and the space race adding an intriguing angle. Recreating this era allows for some beautiful production design, from striking colour palettes to classic vehicles to the archaic technology. Thus the fascination with old school song and dance neatly fits, creating an enjoyable extra dimension.

Regular del Toro collaborator Doug Jones is back as the creature of Eliza's fascination. Through Jones' chameleon-like ability to become something hitherto unseen he adds a subtle personality to the creature, and as ever so much of the believability comes through the way he moves, stunning make-up and use of practical effects. This creature is not named beyond being called "the asset", with just a limited amount of information given on what it actually is – that's absolutely for the best, creating a necessary sense of mystery. The film is not about understanding it, it's about how it changes the life of Eliza as she connects with another lost soul. It's a love story in the way that one can imagine del Toro would make one, and it's really very effective.

The Shape of Water is del Toro back at his best. The focus is squarely on the characters which ensures this doesn't turn into a creature feature, and it's shot through with a gleeful joy that's nicely balanced by a subtle undercurrent of threat. So much rests on Hawkins' shoulders and she is excellent, proving again that when written well, characters who can't or won't speak can be some of the most powerful. This is cinema at its most enticing.

London Film Festival Review: The Endless

(Dir: Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead, 2017)

The Endless is the type of low-budget, indie sci-fi that comes from a place of passion. That much was self-evident with Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead's previous film, the very good Spring, which played with genre conventions, had it's own style and voice, but was most notably full of heart. The Endless certainly feels cut from the same cloth, even if the core idea is not quite as appealing (a subjective viewpoint) and it doesn't have the same heart. This is a curious exploration of family – where does one feel at home and most comfortable, even if that location is not perceived to be the most ideal, and how does one connect and communicate with their siblings, or rather how they don't.

The story is set in a cult that appears more mysterious than insidious, and seemingly lacking a strident personality pulling the strings adds to the curiosity of why they actually exist. Part of the fun is working out what is going on and it provides an interesting explanation for a frequently assumed cultist practice. Such comments are best kept oblique as there's no fun having the film spoilt. There are ideas here rather than repeating tiredly worn story conventions, and that really helps make a film of this nature alluring. 

Visually it's obvious that Benson & Moorhead are working to get everything out of their meagre budget, and they take on the lead roles themselves – neither are outstanding but both are fine as brothers returning to a place they can't let go of. Crafting films at this level is a labour of love and they are also responsible for writing, cinematography and general production. Their characters are not always the easiest to empathise with, thus it feels as if it lacks quite the same amount of heart that makes Spring so good. The Endless is an enjoyable little puzzle of a film that doesn't always hit, but has enough in the way of ambition and ideas to be worth your time.

6 October 2017

Review: Last Action Hero

(Dir: John McTiernan, 1993)

Hollywood loves a film that acts as a love letter to what it does, that exalts its power of creativity and imagination, romanticises the very act of creation, and just makes it feel good about itself. This is especially true when it harkens back to an era long past, or the so called golden age of cinema, where silent films and subsequently musicals were the endemic ways of telling stories in their time. Last Action Hero fits this mold, but it's subject of reverence is the not so humble action movie and their totemic heroes such as Arnold Schwarzenegger. Not a genre one would expect to inspire such a misty-eyed take on the power and magic of film.

Last Action Hero is essentially a mega-budget version of Woody Allen's great The Purple Rose of Cairo. The chief protagonists in both films use cinema as a means to escape the dissatisfactions of their daily lives, but ultimately with very different consequences. Austin O'Brien's Danny is searching for a father figure, which he thinks he's found the most idealised version of in the fictional Jack Slater (Schwarzenegger). And via a little bit of cinematic magic he is transported through the screen into the fantastical world of the latest Hollywood blockbuster, Jack Slater IV, where he works out what it actually means to have a real life, whilst having a hell of a lot of fun on the way.

The film within a film construct works superbly with this genre, giving it license to go ever more over-the-top – action scenes don't have to make logical sense or adhere to physics, heroes will always scrape by just fine, and guns never run out of ammo. We the audience are being presented with the most idealised version of a cinematic world and it's supposed to be ridiculous and fun. The fact this works so effectively is thanks to the fantastic script, co-written by Shane Black and David Arnott. It's full of humour whilst sending up plenty of cinematic tropes (everyone is beautiful, 555-area codes, Danny's realisation that he's the comedy sidekick) and occasionally getting meta on the audience (the police station, Stallone's "best role to date"). This is Easter-egg heaven for the movie fan and sees a plethora of great cameos.

The other highlight is Charles Dance as chief villain Benedict. The cliché of the archetypal British bad guy is superbly played on as he constantly corrects the poor use of English by his mobster boss (Anthony Quinn), and his quirk of having an interchangeable selection of glass eyes adds some personality. But where this character (literally) really comes to life is when he crosses the threshold into the "real" world, and suddenly works out that the rules have changed and they might actually benefit him for once. There's also a fantastic moment where he just briefly breaks the fourth wall to address the audience, suggesting it could be our screen he'll emerge through next.

As Danny and Jack come back to the real world it's enjoyable watching Jack struggle with the new rules and his actual identity, plus his sense of awe at experiencing things that exist outside of his scripted life. But as the climax builds it loses its way a touch. Pulling us out of a sun-bathed, idealised Los Angeles back into the grim and wet real life of New York is too jarring. Whilst the setting of the final showdown takes the meta thing a touch too far, losing some of its charm in the process. But that's a minor quibble because everything else is just so much damn fun.

The concept of Last Action Hero might not be anything new, but it's satisfyingly pitched with the perfect amount of fun and knowing humour that ensures it is thoroughly entertaining. Schwarzenegger does a great job sending-up both himself and the archetypal character he plays, whilst O'Brien's wide-eyed wonder and general enthusiasm helps carry us through. Maybe it's hazy memory but it feels like this was an underappreciated film at the time, perhaps because audiences just wanted the straight-up action film that Arnie was still churning out? Certainly with time (and this reviewers age) a lot of the jokes and references have become even more noticeable and appreciated. Twenty-four years down the line it's still worth watching.

3 October 2017

Review: Miss Sloane

(Dir: John Madden, 2016)

Miss Sloane effectively manages to do three things: i) further hammer home the ridiculousness of political systems where politicians only really care about keeping their small semblance of power, ii) remind us how America's fervent worship of guns seems so utterly insane to outsiders, iii) prove (yet again) just how damn good Jessica Chastain is. This film is really all about Chastain. Too frequently she is in a decent role that's not the primary focus of the film, but she always manages to stand out as a highlight. As the titular Elizabeth Sloane she is front and centre here, with the film completely hanging on her performance. She is driven to the point that nothing else matters in her life but winning. This makes her a character who is potentially difficult to engage or sympathise with, but Chastain ensures she's compelling to watch as we can't help but side with her, and slowly we scratch away at the surface of that icy cold exterior. Her ways may seem objectionable at times but really she just knows how to play the system better than most, and let's be honest, it's really the system that's screwed.

On the basis of the story having conflict, and thus painting one side as the enemy to be bested, its politics veer toward the argument for greater gun control. But that all feels rather secondary as the real driver of the story is the Miss Sloane character, meaning almost any politicised area would have sufficed as a sandbox for her insatiable need to win. The supporting cast do a fine job, notably Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mark Strong, with the former having an interesting character with a lot of depth to explore. However a lot of the story is actually pretty mundane, and it certainly goes on for too long, but the pay-off is superbly executed and very satisfying, if a little too delayed. 

As a political drama Miss Sloane is nothing special despite the positives of a film daring to touch the gun debate. Ultimately this is Chastain's film, providing a great role for her as she brings every scene she's in to life – making her the main reason to watch.