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.

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.

1 October 2017

Review: Live By Night

(Dir: Ben Affleck, 2016)

Live By Night is an interesting film that never feels like it's living up to its potential. As an adaptation of a novel perhaps the fault lies with the source material, but having never read it it's hard to know. As we've seen elsewhere, the Prohibition influenced 1920's is rife for intriguing stories – all gangsters, tommy guns and loose morals. What Live By Night does differently is supplant the majority of the film from the chill of Boston to the glowing, sweaty climes of Florida, throwing Cuban gangsters into the mix of Irish and Italian mobsters. They are potentially more fascinating yet too thinly sketched out there's clearly a lot more to Zoe Saldana's Graciela for example (and her brother Esteban (Miguel Pimental)), who retains a strength throughout despite being all too quickly relegated to love interest with a conscious.

The focus lies with Ben Affleck's Joe Coughlin whose character is too broadly presented. He is strongly driven by his 'no masters' ethos and a burning desire for revenge, all the while exhibiting a ruthless business acumen and an over-powering sense of altruism. He's a gangster who has to do bad things when required but doesn't feel good about it, meaning Affleck presents his character as the most idealised example of what a gangster should be, and it never sits quite right. Nonetheless Affleck is enjoyable to watch and his easy charm and somewhat old school movie star quality sit well with the film's period. The setting adds some warmth to proceedings and makes a nice change, but certain sub plots, such as Sam Shepherd's police chief and his daughter Elle Fanning, probably worked better more fleshed out on page. The film seems to lack a sense of flow, effectively jumping from one small plot development to the next, as if there are just too many story beats that it must fit in. And the less said about Affleck spending the last few minutes channelling his time with Terrence Malick the better!

There's certainly some enjoyment to be had from Live By Night. Within it there is an interesting story, and it's great to look at thanks to excellent production design and some well staged shoot-outs and car chases. You just can't help but think that had it pared down the story a little, and done more with Zoe Saldana's character, it could've been so much better.

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.

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.