13 August 2017

Review: Personal Shopper

(Dir: Olivier Assayas, 2016)

Personal Shopper is a slight film. It's one that captures you through mood more than anything else. It's the kind of film that's bound to frustrate many viewers, but if it does capture you you're in for a treat. Kristen Stewart plays the type of character she's become rather adept at in the year's since moving on from that series. Her character Maureen is riven with sadness, frustration and an intriguing depth that also reveals a quiet hopefulness. The relative sparseness of her dialogue only serve to enhance the the character and the overall mood of the film, and she feels at home in the different worlds she inhabits, however reluctantly she's there.

How the story balances it's setting on the fringes of the Paris fashion world whilst essentially being a ghost story is one of the most enticing aspects of the film. This seeming incongruity allows for frequent stepping away from anything faintly phantasmagorical, creating a different sense of unease than being constantly immersed in an environment we should be scared of. After all, the films intention is not always to scare.

The life Maureen leads could hardly be construed as normal as her days spent as a personal shopper to a world famous model seem alien yet strangely fascinating. The story takes an initially frustrating turn about halfway through, which feels unnecessarily obvious until it slowly builds up the tension before heading somewhere unexpected. This sense of mystery is another of the films many charms, which satisfyingly extends right to the end as the film concludes on just the right note. Director Olivier Assayas does a great job making all this sit together satisfyingly. On the surface there doesn't seem to be too much to Personal Shopper, but let it quietly work on you and its moodiness and many subtleties may worm their way in leaving you surprisingly enraptured.

11 August 2017

Review: Dunkirk

(Dir: Christopher Nolan, 2017)

Christopher Nolan is one of the strongest proponents for shooting onto film rather than digitally, but also for shooting as much as he can using IMAX 65mm cameras. We've still yet to see an entire feature film shot this way as it's expensive and the equipment is cumbersome and noisy, but the footage you get looks just incredible with a more expansive framing and a stunning clarity. It should be noted that you need to see the film projected from IMAX 70mm reels to fully appreciate this. Unfortunately most modern IMAX's only project digitally onto screens that pale in comparison to the true, traditional behemoth's (the so-called Liemax's – ie where it looks like a regular cinema auditorium has been converted to put in a floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall screen, rather than building a new structure to house a screen that's at least three to four stories high!). Since The Dark Knight Nolan has been flirting with shooting select parts of his films in this format, and the vast majority of Dunkirk (over 70%, the most yet) is shot this way, so seeking out a true IMAX screen to see the film exactly as the director intended is absolutely worth it if you can  something not that easy in the UK with just three cinemas projecting it this way.

Dunkirk is relentless. It barely pauses for a breath over its 106 minute run-time, meting out an endless barrage of destruction that makes it the ideal film for the immersive and sometimes overwhelming IMAX experience. As a viewer you could do with a couple of quiet moments interspersed throughout just to catch your breathe, but this is about recreating what it was like for these men, so why should we the viewer be extended such courtesy? To that end there's an almost continual use of music and droning background noise, and the perpetual ticking that increases with the never-ending threat of attack. It's all highly effective in creating a sense of unease, amplifying the desperation of what these men were going through whilst we enjoy the comfort and warmth of our seats.

Splitting the narrative between three threads offers some variety and keeps things interesting, even when the jumping timeline jars and pulls you a little out of the story because it doesn't flow seamlessly. The journey of three men attempting to escape the beach of Dunkirk most effectively highlights the futility of war, as no matter what they do they seem doomed. The obstacles thrown in their way begins to feel like overkill, as a heavy-handed way to emphasise the difficulty of escape. The silent scenes between Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard are highly effective, which gets ruined somewhat by Harry Styles' mouthy character who feels like an unnecessary cliché. Most of the dialogue in the film comes on the boat that Mark Rylance's character captains. This is the primary emotional heart of the film. Regular citizens stepping up to make a difference, sometimes with deeper reasons for doing so, as nicely articulated by Tom Glynn-Carney late in the film. The thread of story with his friend Barry Keoghan and Cillian Murphy's character does come across as a superfluous distraction to the bigger picture though. And then there's the air, with Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden as the Spitfire pilots combating the threat from above in an always gripping manner.

Despite the decent acting throughout, the characters feel of secondary importance as Dunkirk comes across more as a technical tour de force. This is Nolan filming stunning aerial combat sequences over the sea, sinking a plethora of ships and corralling a cast of thousands. The instinct of the film is survival, the act of saving and how that all came to pass. It's an effective recreation of the hell and desperation that is war (without most of us ever having to know for sure) and the impact that has on a person. Nolan has stated that his desire was to create a film that takes the dynamics of a dramatic third act and sustains it for the entire duration of the picture, and it mostly works in the context of this story/subject, but it also means something is sacrificed in the cohesiveness of the storytelling and how it wears the viewer down. Thus it lacks that special something that comes across in most of his other films, but lest we forget he has previously set the bar very high. Nonetheless Dunkirk is a fascinating experiment and a superbly crafted film. If you can't see it projected via IMAX 70mm then see it on the biggest screen you can find.

5 August 2017

Review: Moonlight

(Dir: Barry Jenkins, 2016)

Sometimes you're left trying to understand why praise is being lavished on a film. Usually the film in question is decent, but for whatever reason you are left ambivalent to its charms, or at least don't subscribe to the view that it is doing something so seemingly special. That here is the case with Moonlight. It's been the buzz film since the festival's of Autumn 2016, culminating in the infamy of this year's Oscar's. A sensible viewer would try not to put too much stock in any of that because raising expectations too high frequently proves to be a fools errand, yet sometimes that's easier said than done.

By splitting the story into three parts that each focus on a different stage of Chiron's youth/life, it allows three different actors to shine – Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes. Each put in very good performances and we start to get just a little more from the character as he grows, learns more about himself and as the dialogue he utters/mutters increases ever so incrementally. Likewise, how his life intersects with a small pool of people across each stage anchors the story together, with more fine performances from the rest of the cast.

There's something to be said for subtlety and nuances of emotion in a story, but in Moonlight it's simultaneously too slight and too heavy-handed. For most of the film we continuously see why Chiron's life is so shit his terrible mother, the bullying, the loneliness it's all layered on so thickly. So the unsurprising act that ends stage two and the quietly affecting realisation and revelation that ends the film, all seem like too little for what's come before, lacking the full emotional payoff you expect / need. In some regard that's fitting for a character who struggles to grasp who he is, thus making small realisations about himself, or any type of change, a big deal, but you're still left wanting more because of what's had to be endured. It doesn't help that Chiron's life position in the final third feels like cliché. There is a logic as to why that's so, but the first two parts leave you expecting more from the character, making it harder to empathise with him at this point.

Those niggles aside, Moonlight is a good film, thanks very much to the acting and especially the direction. The way the camera moves and focuses creates an almost dreamlike quality at times, whilst feeling intimate throughout. This gives it it's own personality, which is important. Yet it never seems like the great revelation that the buzz and awards suggest, as you can't help but think you've seen this done many times before, frequently better. But lest we forget, films of this nature reach and affect everyone in different ways, so check your expectations at the door and find out for yourself.

30 July 2017

Review: Charlie's Angels / Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle

(Dir: McG, 2000 / 2003)

Everything about this pair of films is ridiculous. Let's make that clear from the outset. But that's an intended part of their charm – if indeed you believe they possess any charm. Although in reality it's hard to argue with the charm that Drew Barrymore's Dylan, Lucy Liu's Alex and Cameron Diaz's Natalie offer, as the titular angels. They are almost the sole reasons these are fun films to watch, as their effervescent energy makes us laugh and makes us believe they can do anything. There's no reason to think they couldn't stop any criminal with their impressive skillset and seemingly endless bag of tricks. Which means two things you're never in any doubt that they will win, so any threat feels meaningless (especially by the time you get to Full Throttle), and it forces the film into the most utterly preposterous set pieces (again something more prevalent second time round). Suspending your disbelief is an important part of watching films, and the degree to which you need to do so is very much based on how the filmmakers choose to present a story, but these films go beyond that, requiring you to accept everything that's thrown at you. They (just about) get away with it because it's all pitched as fun, but that doesn't stop it becoming frustrating after a while, as one crazy scene leads to yet another. 

Both films are very much defined by the era in which they were released. CGI was getting better, hence the pushing what these girls can do, but it frequently looks like they're standing in front of a green screen. McG's background as a director of music videos is a blessing and a curse. On the plus side there's loads of fun music choices, albeit a little too much obvious signposting of what's on screen through song titles/lyrics, but these both feel like ninety minute music videos. That may entertaining at first, but it's ultimately wearying as they schizophrenically jump all over the place. Both films are rife with cameos, which is a highlight, but the faces popping up definitely date it when watching back in 2017 (this also serves as a cautionary warning that no film ever needed Tom Green being Tom Green!!).

Objectively, neither Charlie's Angels nor Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle are good films, but it's impossible to deny that they aren't somewhat fun to watch. At the time these came out the TV series was a distant memory, but this was a reinvention for the MTV generation. Barrymore, Liu and Diaz are a very enjoyable trio, playing off each other well and bringing unique personalities to each character, and that primarily makes these films watchable – along with the many other decent casting choices (Murray, Moore, Rockwell, Glover, Wilson etc). But the ADD approach becomes tiresome, even if does keep things energetic and the stories moving. The first is the better of the two, but mostly because Full Throttle pushes itself too far into over-the-top territory (living up to it's name). But sometimes fun is just about enough.

29 July 2017

Review: War for the Planet of the Apes

(Dir: Matt Reeves, 2017)

An example of a pleasing film watching scenario – you've seen the previous two films in the series and you liked them both as they were very good. But you've struggled to get excited about watching the third. You're not sure this series needs stretching out any further, and the trailer for this new film is doing a far from stellar job at selling you what's on offer this time. More fighting and battles, blah blah blah. Excitement levels are at zero. But you have an opportunity to go to the cinema that you're not going to pass up, and times mean it has to either be this, or that rebooted yet-again superhero desperately trying to tie into an existing interconnected universe – excitement levels for that option so far below zero. So you make the obvious decision. And then, unsurprisingly, you emerge from the cinema pretty damn excited about what you've just seen.

We've had two films to get to know the character of Caesar, watching him learn, grow and grapple with the humanity being forced upon him. So it's satisfying to see War for the Planet of the Apes make the very brave, and wise, decision to turn him into the full on lead character. In the first film he was always just a key character, a plot device if you will, as James Franco and Freida Pinto led the story, whilst the second film saw him become a major character alongside Jason Clarke and Keri Russell's leads. But here, with one small exception, it essentially boils down to apes good, humans bad. The film follows Caesar and his cohort as they try to defend themselves, with most of the screen time dedicated to Caesar. That's a testament, not only to how good the special effects are, but to how good Andy Serkis' motion-capped performance of the character is. The film never feels like it needs a human to base the story around, as Caesar is so well realised that everything you would normally expect from a human character is on offer as you feel his every emotion, be it joy or apoplectic rage. The same applies to the supporting apes – Maurice, Rocket, etc – whom we have seen before and who continue to impress. Plus new addition Bad Ape (portrayed by Steve Zahn – one of those 'of course it is!' realisations) who adds much needed moments of light relief.

The focus on these characters and their mish-mash of communication means we have a major Hollywood film with a surprisingly small amount of dialogue. Some apes speak but with limited vocabularies, some sign which we see translated as subtitles, creating a somewhat refreshing experience as it puts more focus on their actions and the visuals. That's not to say it's entirely lacking dialogue – Woody Harrelson's very human Colonel is certainly verbose. This a chew the scenery role for Harrelson as he pushes the character into over-the-top territory, but it works in the context of the film, offering a balance when most of the characters are apes, pushing you to root for them rather than humans. And what we see of his character as the story climaxes makes him more interesting than most villains in this type of film.

Limiting the dialogue puts more burden on the sound design and music, but it pushes these to work harder and the film feels more evocative because of it. Maybe watching in a Dolby Atmos equipped screen helped, but everything from the tribal drumming to the sounds of the natural environment, monkey calls to explosions and the violence of battle all work in harmony, greatly enhancing the film. Despite the trailer making out it's all battles, this is definitely not the case. The opening scene operates along these lines and is superb, but there's more going on in between this and the inevitable climax, as the story shifts between aping a few different classic film tropes. This helps to keep things moving and holds our interest, never feeling like ideas flung to the wall in the hope they stick.

If you've seen the first two films, the quality of War for the Planet of the Apes should come as no surprise. What is surprising is how effectively it works by mostly jettisoning the human element and having CGI apes as emotionally complex and sympathetic lead characters. It's because of brave decisions like this, and just an overall high quality of film-making, that War ends up being the best part of this trilogy. Subtle allusions to the original films are fun and signpost where a future story could go, but that's not something we need. Sometimes a neatly wrapped up trilogy is just enough.

16 July 2017

Review: Blackhat

(Dir: Michael Mann, 2015)

Michael Mann is one of those directors to whom you sit up and pay attention when they release something new. It's not as if he's a genius auteur or anything, but he has a habit of making interesting films, preoccupied with the part of men's souls that drives them to either journey right to the edge in order to stop someone they perceive is doing wrong, or continue unwaveringly down the path of crime with a fatalistic determination. He shoots with a stylistic eye that emphasises the starkness of reality, but in a hyper-real manner that you would never quite experience. It's equal parts jarring and intoxicating.

Two years ago he released Blackhat, his most recent exploration of these thematic areas. This time we're rooting for convicted hacker Nick Hathaway, in the shape of Chris Hemsworth, whose ability to do special things with computers has the government needing him to stop a similarly skilled individual remotely attempting real world destruction for personal gain. Nothing we haven't seen before of course, but Mann's signature style and his pacing imbues everything with energy, as we globe-trot between the US and Far East. The strong Chinese angle and attendant geopolitics helps keep things feeling a little fresher, particularly setting a lot of the film in Hong Kong. And of course you'd expect some high quality action scenes that eschew over-blown bombast (something else Mann is renowned for), which are happily received here.

Back in the mid-nineties as the internet became widespread, Hollywood latched onto the hacker angle as a new, potentially dangerous threat. It's a part of our modern world that we quickly came to accept, so when Blackhat came out it seemed a rather passé story angle. But watching again just two years later and seeing everything that's currently going on in the world, it suddenly feels more relevant. As ever, Hemsworth is very enjoyable to watch, especially the interplay with his Chinese compatriots Leehom Wang and Wei Tang (both of whom are good), but at times he doesn't always seem to fit the character. It's wrong to presume the computer geek archetype shouldn't extend to someone so physically imposing and possessing such chiseled good looks, which may be a small part of the problem and should be seen as a failing on the viewer's part rather than the casting, but such feelings also likely stem from his particularly wide skillset, especially how good he is in a fight/firefight (regardless of how that's briefly addressed when we first meet him).

Blackhat may not be up there with Mann's best – the bar is set high of course but it remains a decent watch if you're willing to overlook the flaws, much as was the case with Public Enemies and Miami Vice. He has his signature style so you know what you're getting, and he now makes films infrequently enough that you always look forward to what he'll deliver next. Even when you know a director is seemingly past their best, sometimes that just doesn't really matter.

15 July 2017

Review: Blade II

(Dir: Guillermo del Toro, 2002)

It's been fifteen whole years since Blade II was released, and in the intervening time we've still not seen any character quite like Blade. Lest we forget this is a Marvel character, unleashed upon the world in 1998, a full decade before Marvel made its name as a filmic juggernaut. At that time comic book films consisted of Batman, which had just taken a truly awful turn, Superman, whom we hadn't seen in some time, or the odd misadventure like Spawn. Blade was something else – a story rooted in horror, a genuine action movie star in a role he was seemingly born to play, and a fantastic concept. Everything about that film works with the sole exception of some of the effects (even at the time some of the blood effects looked too fake), but that just dates the film and shows it was budgeted more moderately. And that opening sequence... holy shit... it's not hyperbole to say you rarely see an opening that rivals that in any genre, let alone offers that type of adrenaline rush.

And so four years later we had the distinct pleasure of Blade's return – bigger budget, more action, more vampires, the story continues. Shifting the focus from the darkened streets of New York, which felt more ingrained with the character, to the older city of Prague where he really is an outsider, makes for a different feeling film that implies it's more about Blade getting on and doing the job, jettisoning some of the more stylised elements of that first film the would seem out of place. This time we get a reluctant team up as Blade needs to work with the vampires to stop an even worse menace. Of course he works best alone, but the fun here is watching Blade try to play nice, allowed only to unleash his acerbic tongue, whilst a shaven headed Ron Perlman playing the asshole he does so well, becomes his main foil. These two sparring is of course a part of the film's appeal.

The real draw is of course Blade. In just the first few minutes he is on screen in the first film, Wesley Snipes has so effectively personified this character that it's impossible to see anyone else as Blade (there was a TV series in 2006 and it lasted 12 episodes – was it possible to fill Snipes' shoes?). There's the imposing physicality, the sharp knowing humour, the pathos as he continually battles being something he hates whilst painfully controlling it, and quite simply the fact that he is an incredible fighter. That latter point gets amped up with a superb fight scene in Blade II when he first encounters Leonor Varela and Danny John-Jules' vampire characters – it might be enhanced by CGI but the raw skill and choreography is there and it's enhanced just enough so it's believable for these characters. Put simply, Blade is the main draw of these films and it's impossible to imagine any other actor playing him quite so effectively.

As ever, any character like this needs someone to make their vampire killin' toys and so we are blessed with Whistler (Kris Kristofferson). Under the dictionary definition of "grizzled", the word's meaning could be very eloquently conveyed by simply showing a picture of Whistler. This is a man who hates bloodsuckers with a seething passion (with good cause) and is the perfect pairing to Blade, part father figure, part mentor, part world weary shit-kicking asshole. (Spoiler alert) Considering the quality of this character it's a shame to complain that he's even in Blade II but his presence is thanks to that awkward cop-out, 'well maybe he wasn't actually dead after all', diminishing some of the emotional impact of the first film where events worked just right in the confines of an isolated story. That was an era when if a film did well then great, maybe the studio might consider making another, rather than the current approach of having two sequels announced before the first has even made it to screens, with a story arc pre-tooled to run across them all. The door may have been left open for more at the end of the first film with a little "you never know" throwaway, but that didn't necessitate the full on resurrection of a key character. Still, we do get to see a young and verbose Norman Reedus fulfilling a similar role a good few years before he turned all silent and moody.

When making a film about vampires, one of the fundamentals is getting the creatures right and having an effective villain. The first film set the bar high with Deacon Frost. Stephen Dorff was perfect casting offering a stylish, effortlessly cool vampyric evil with even some social class politics thrown into has megalomania. Blade II surrounds our hero in a wider swathe of villainy. We get a mixture of the crone-like ancient, the traditional and Luke Goss' Nomak, who represents a new, mutated breed. This new breed are far more savage and terrifying (just look at how they feed), with Goss playing this character more on the low key side only enhancing his effectiveness. The film begins by introducing us to Nomak and it's another effective start, with a surprising sting. Good villains aside, it is a little disappointing that for two films in a row the bad guys end up tying our hero down to try and bleed him dry. Of course they want his enviable daywalker powers, but a little more creativity would not have gone amiss this second time round.

In the director's chair we have Guillermo del Toro, the ultimate geek director, making his second Hollywood movie. Mimic, released a few years earlier, had some good ideas but could have been better executed, but del Toro's potential had already shone through with Cronos and The Devil's Backbone, both of which were on the more subtle side. There is a definite personality that comes through in his films, but beyond the creature effects it is mostly lacking in Blade II, as such it could be from almost any director. Surely that's due to the nature of it being a comic book sequel, where such strong, previously defined characters need to dominate. Two year's later he'd give us the great Hellboy and his fingerprints are all over that because he was instrumental in defining how it should translate to screen. Lack of personality aside, del Toro's involvement ensures we have a decent film, even if it doesn't quite live up to the first.

Blade II is a worthy successor (unlike Blade: Trinity, but the less said about that the better), although this review seems to have ended up as a comparison between the two, but in hindsight that's inescapable because the first is just so damn good. It's the axis of high quality characters being really well portrayed, decent stories, and tonally aiming at the appropriate level. These films have bite and don't tone anything down. Had they come out in more recent years one can only imagine how unsatisfyingly toothless they would have been. Thanks to the recent huge successes of both Deadpool and Logan, the tide may be turning with studios no longer running quite so scared of comic book movies with more appropriately adult content that's actually representative of the source. Both Blade and Blade II show how things should be done correctly.