4 November 2017

Review: Thor: Ragnarok

(Dir: Taika Waititi, 2017)

Thor has always been the most interesting and the most fun of the characters in the Avengers universe (talking in filmic terms, obviously). The first Thor film which introduced us to this character back in 2011 was the most challenging to get right, successfully balancing how an arrogant, war-loving Norse god became humanised and a real loveable character, whilst gleefully shifting between worlds. Having a great cast of characters/actors certainly helped with striking the perfect balance of drama, action and comedy. Follow up Thor: The Dark World lost something in both story terms and general joie de vivre – it's a solid big budget superhero movie, just not as good as it's predecessor in almost every regard. Thankfully Thor: Ragnarok, the third film focused on this character, is a move back in the right direction.

The general tone is set right from the very first scene Ragnarok wants to play for laughs whilst giving us more amazing spectacle. As ever Chris Hemsworth completely embodies the Thor character, whether with long or short hair, carrying the ideal balance of heroism, egoism and humour. The script is super sharp, knowing enough and pokes just enough fun at itself. Three positive story decisions are made that really affect things here. After two films where Thor's romance with Natalie Portman's Jane has been an important side plot, this now merits just a single line of dialogue ensuring it does not get in the way of this story where it would've otherwise made things start to feel repetitive. Secondly, apart from a brief trip to Earth early on, the film takes place on Asgard and other fantastical worlds, a strength that none of the other (Earth-bound) Avengers characters can legitimately bring. Finally, and most importantly, Loki is back. Of course he is, because what would a Thor film be without him!? Tom Hiddlestone is as great as ever, forever having fun with this character, but even now still adding new nuances.

Conversely, the one decision that threatened to drag the film down was bringing in one of the weaker Avenger characters (spoiler alert, or not, as it's in their marketing for the film!). Saying this is one of the weaker characters is a controversial statement but that's simply because Hulk is usually just too one note, but somehow he works here and is both entertaining whilst offering a layer of pathos that takes time to reveal itself. Equally, we see Thor dumped on a world that had a lot of potential to be an annoying distraction, but it comes to life thanks to three characters Tessa Thompson's intriguing is she good/bad Scrapper 142, the Grandmaster who is superbly overplayed by Jeff Goldblum basically being an over-the-top Jeff Goldblum, and Korg, a CGI character comprised of rocks who is hilariously voiced in an unexpected manner by director Taika Waititi. All three are equally engaging and entertaining yet with hidden depths, proving again how good the casting is in this series.

Ragnarok also keeps things interesting with primary villain Hela, who actually offers serious threat and challenge to Thor. Cate Blanchett clearly had a hell of a lot of fun playing her and that comes across, very much to the film's benefit. Plus we finally get a female villain in one of these films! Comparatively, the devious dark elves in The Dark World were far too emotionless, showing that the threat is more intriguing when it comes from closer within. The only complaint might be the fleeting presence of the Warriors Three and a lack of Sif. It feels like Waititi had more creative freedom than Alan Taylor who directed The Dark World (it's a Marvel film so "freedom" is a relative word), as it's just that much more full of personality and charm. 

Thor: Ragnarok is a ridiculous amount of fun, yet again proving that the Marvel films focusing on a single character are just far superior to those where the priority is showing as many heroes on screen as possible. It's a positive step towards lifting the core of this series out of the rut it's become stuck in after the flaccid Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and as the audience is yet again re-introduced to Spider-Man. Where Marvel have recently been winning is with the Guardians of the Galaxy films, which Ragnarok feels closer too  it is genuinely hilarious, the action is decent as ever, there's a sense of mythos and actual character development, whilst a good amount of directorial personality bleeds through. Thankfully this is Marvel doing right by their most interesting character.

29 October 2017

Review: The Snowman

(Dir: Tomas Alfredson, 2017)

The right setting can make such a difference to a film. The coldness and snow-adorned beauty of Norway (primarily Oslo and Bergen) feels an essential part of The Snowman, and not because of the significance of the titular creations. It feels all-encompassing in its starkness as you are effectively transported there, but without any of the negative aspects, as you sit cocooned (hopefully) in a warm place. The setting feels as much a character as the actors on screen. The lead is Michael Fassbender's Harry Hole, a deeply flawed detective who seemingly means to do right, but struggles following through with that intent. Fassbender is compelling to watch as ever, but it feels as if we're just skating the surface of this character without digging as deep as we could or should, which is probably only a complaint from those of us who have never read any of Jo Nesbø's books featuring him. Elsewhere, Rebecca Ferguson's Katrine has strong potential but ends up in the realm of being a little too obvious, Charlotte Gainsbourg's Rakel is curiously flawed in a way that Gainsbourg seems to play so well, and who knows what the hell Val Kilmer is doing with his character!

As with the cast, the story has a lot of potential, sometimes managing to deliver despite never feeling new or fresh. It remains an intriguing mystery to follow and is engaging up to the final denouement which comes about with a whimper, somewhat appropriately but that's equally unsatisfying. This is the conundrum with The Snowman – it's flawed and lacks originality, but it is an enjoyable film to watch mostly due to the Norwegian setting and the unrushed pace director Tomas Alfredson takes, not to mention decent cinematography and sound/music. One you get over the jarring nature of Hollywood actors playing Norwegian characters in that very country, which causes some of the cultural elements of the story to lose resonance (as with the remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), it easy enough to go with it, despite it offering nothing remotely new or revelatory. Move it to more familiar settings however (ie North America), and something in the story would no doubt be lost.

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.