Tag Archives: Cinema Review

LONDON FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW – THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (2018)

LONDON FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW – THE BALLAD OF BUSTER SCRUGGS (2018)

Directed by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Produced by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, Megan Ellison, Sue Naegle, Robert Graf

Written by: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Starring: Tyne Daly, James Franco, Brendan Gleeson, Bill Heck, Zoe Kazan, Liam Neeson, Tim Blake Nelson, Tom Waits and many more.

Music by: Carter Burwell

Cinematography: Bruno Delbonnel

**SPOILER FREE REVIEW**

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Soon to be appearing on the streaming behemoth Netflix, the Coen Brothers latest film is a difficult one to recommend to those not familiar with their quirky vision of humanity and existence. Set within the Western genre the film presents six stories seemingly unconnected but those which resonate resoundingly on the theme of death. The stories are called:  The Ballad of Buster Scruggs; Near Algodones; Meal Ticket; All Gold Canyon; The Gal Who Got Rattled; and The Mortal Remains respectively.

The closest film this anthology resembles from recent times is the riotous black comedy Wild Tales (2014). Moreover, if you ever saw the Coens’ eccentric mid-life crisis comedy A Serious Man (2009), you may recall the prologue which depicted a short stand-alone piece about a ghostly dybbuk visiting a woman at night. Indeed, that story was seemingly unconnected to the film which followed, however, the Coens’ are such skilled storytellers you sense there is a link be it symbolically or thematically.

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Overall, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs is a genuine mixed bag, in a good way. Their mischievous alchemy combines genres – within the Western setting – such as: musical, comedy, horror, crime, thriller and even romance. Moreover, the filmmakers have reached into their decades of film experience and cinematic bag of tricks to deliver an entertaining and memorable collection of: characters, songs, bloody deaths, jokes, landscapes, snappy dialogue, dark humour and spitfire action.

The cast are uniformly brilliant and as well as some familiar faces there are some newer actors added to the Coens’ stable of performers. Bill Heck, especially, in the story The Gal Who Got Rattled, impressed in his role as a likable cowboy. Overall, and in a similar vein to Hail Caesar (2016), this feels like Coens-lite, without the existential depth of say No Country for Old Men (2007) or humanity of Fargo (1996). However, the Coen’s films often improve with each viewing as their work is so full of stylish depth. Quite often, you’re laughing so much you miss the philosophical happenstance which is occurring between the lines.

Mark 8.5 out of 11

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IN DEFENCE OF #2: VENOM (2018): MOVIE REVIEW

IN DEFENCE OF #2: VENOM (2018): MOVIE REVIEW

Directed by: Ruben Fleischer

Produced by:  Avi Arad, Matt Tolmach, Amy Pascal, Marvel Entertainment

Written by: Jeff Pinkner, Scott Rosenberg, Kelly Marcel

Starring: Tom Hardy, Michelle Williams, Riz Ahmed, Reid Scott

Music by: Ludwig Goransson

Cinematography: Matthew Libatique

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As with the failed franchise blockbuster The Mummy (2017) I have once again been to the cinema and watched, not a great film or work of art, but rather a decent bit of popcorn entertainment that has seemingly been critically mauled, not necessarily unfairly, but out of context from the kind of film it is. Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of Venom (2018) which doesn’t work and the film has a couple of serious plot holes, however, if you watch it as the darkly, comedic action film it is intended to be then it has a lot to offer.

I mean, superhero films, over the years, have got – Thor: Ragnarok (2017) and Marvel’s generally witty one-liner littered scripts aside – very serious at times. Most recently, Black Panther (2018) was rooted in familial revenge and of course, Marvel’s Infinity War (2018), ended with an apocalyptic disaster for the Avengers and Earth. While there are serious themes in Venom, the director Ruben Fleischer has gone for more crazed humour rather than serious analysis of the psyche. As such for all its faults Venom actually felt more like an actual comic book or cartoon on screen. So, I get that people may not like the movie for being a bit lacking I think they need to lighten up. Thus, in my second instalment of my occasional series In Defence of:,  I’d like to say why I actually found it very watchable genre entertainment.

Standing alone, at the time of the action, from the Marvel ‘Universe’ and the recent Spiderman: Homecoming (2017) movie, Venom features the stupendously committed performance of Tom Hardy as crime reporter Eddie Brock. Eddie’s latest case is to delve deeper into uncovering the interplanetary research of Elon Musk-type uber-scientist and corporate mogul, Carlton Drake.  Of course, he goes too deep trying to uncover the deadly experimentation and finds himself infected with a space being that Drake has brought back. Drake, compared to the delirious character rendered by Hardy, is a bit flat and another long line of corporate bad guys which Marvel employs and he deserved some better dialogue to justify his megalomaniacal plans. But Riz Ahmed is a great actor and does his best with an under-written role.

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What works more though is the connection between Brock and his extra-terrestrial host. Perhaps, given this is a Jekyll and Hyde story it should have been a lot more intense. The psychological horror of being absorbed by another being is something David Cronenberg, would have knocked out of the park. Yet here it’s turned into something of a comedy double act; albeit with Venom biting the heads off bad guys in between the insane banter. Tom Hardy’s rat-a-tat spats with his ‘other-half’ are very funny and reminded of another recent film called Upgrade (2018), which combined even more bloody violence within a hosted protagonist narrative.

With the cool persona of Michelle Williams, an actor of high artistry, clearly enjoying playing for laughs within the straight romantic lead, there is at least some level-headedness to counter Hardy’s facials ticks and roars. Moreover, despite glaring holes in the narrative including: the very generic alien invasion plot; clichéd corporate mercenaries providing body fodder and a severe lack of legal consequences to Brock’s ‘Venomous’ attacks, the smart comedy, pacey action, the monster-effects of Venom itself and fighting scenes, keep entertainment stakes high.

Ultimately, while much more could have been done to explore the dark side of their symbiotic relationship it was unlikely with this director. Indeed, as Fleischer showed with Zombieland (2009) and direction of suburban zombie show Santa Clarita Diet (2017), he favours mixing dark matter with black humour. Lastly, with Tom Hardy as a more than willing ally Fleischer and his army of writers have delivered an admittedly flawed comic-book narrative that remains full of parasitic punch and energy.

Mark: 7.5 out of 11 

 

 

THE LITTLE STRANGER (2018) – CINEMA REVIEW

THE LITTLE STRANGER (2018) – CINEMA REVIEW

Directed by: Lenny Abrahamson

Produced by: Gail Egan, Andrea Calderwood, Ed Guiney

Written by: Lucinda Coxon

Based on the novel: The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters

Starring: Domhnall Gleeson, Ruth Wilson, Will Poulter, Charlotte Rampling

Music by: Stephen Rennicks

Cinematography: Ole Bratt Birkeland

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Lenny Abrahamson is one of my favourite directors. Every one of his films has featured memorable and very human characters in compelling situations. He is not a showy filmmaker with a bag of tricks like say Tarantino or Scorsese but rather the same emotional energy of the neo-realism and social realism genres. His authorial style and themes also evoke the work of: Vittorio DeSica, Alan Clarke, Karel Reisz, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. He has a subtle documentary style as his work represents the human condition in all its glorious failures. Most of all the characters in all his films, whatever their situation, are tremendously empathetic and Abrahamson’s power as a storyteller is to make us feel the pain, despair and joy they feel. He’s been nominated for a Best Director Oscar for the incredible film Room (2015) and deserved to win it.

His latest film is a departure from the more steadfastly realistic dramas he has delivered to date. The Little Stranger is adapted from the critically acclaimed author Sarah Waters’ 2009 gothic novel. It’s a dense and subtle character drama with elements of the ghost story and crime story genres. However, the on the whole it’s a crime story without the police and a ghost story without a ghost, because all the dread, mystery and mischief happens very much between the lines of the screen and the viewer’s imagination. In many literary adaptations, what may work on the page doesn’t necessarily translate to the screen, but Abrahamson and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon have fashioned an intriguingly dark and chilling character drama which stays with you long after the credits have rolled.

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Leading the cast are the ever impressive Domhnall Gleeson as Dr Faraday, and the brilliant Ruth Wilson as Caroline Ayres. Gleeson is our sombre narrator who traverses his past as a poor, working class boy to his present, which is that of a reliable and stoic doctor. He reminisces about the desirous lure of Hundreds Hall, an 18th Century Estate owned by the Ayres family, who are now struggling to keep it going. Getting closer to the Ayres family he begins to fall in love with Caroline, however, their difference in class and a series of tragic events conspire to keep them apart. While the story moves slowly the narrative builds both character and drama subtly; and what it lacks in exposition it pulses with quiet power.

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Overall, this is probably a film not many people will see. It’s difficult to recommend as it falls between the gap of a proper genre film and art-house cinema. Moreover, I was surprised Abrahamson took on such a curious project, given he would probably have had his pick after the success of Room (2015). Nonetheless, he proves once again his directorial brilliance, utilizing Sarah Waters’ formidable text as the basis for a paranoiac examination of the collapse of an upper class household, amidst the cloaked device of a hypnotic “ghost” mystery.

Mark 8.5 out of 11

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE BINGO incorporating: FALLOUT (2018) MOVIE REVIEW

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE BINGO incorporating: FALLOUT (2018) MOVIE REVIEW

I have found  it’s difficult to find an original angle when reviewing certain films i.e. franchise movies or sequels. Indeed, unless they are absolutely brilliant I tend not to review them. Therefore, I had no major intention of writing about the new Tom Cruise produced Mission Impossible release, as these films, despite their technical movie-making brilliance, follow a very strict and safe formula. I mean what can I really add critically other than say I enjoyed it or I didn’t. However, it really is such a fantastic blockbuster movie I accepted an impossible mission, of sorts, to create something interesting while reviewing it.

So, here we go: Mission Impossible BINGO! It’s both recognition of the formula but also praise for the latest instalment which had me on the edge of my seat, heart in my mouth and biting my nails throughout. In the context of story it’s very generic but in terms of action, thrills and stunts it gets a Mark of 9 out of 11!

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McQUARRIE directs Fallout which is essentially a direct sequel to Rogue Nation. We know his track record as a writer but he’s now proving himself a fantastic director too. I enjoyed Rogue Nation but Fallout raises the stakes with a witty, double-crossing, high octane and explosive movie, which actually improves the clichés of the formula in wonderful fashion.

INGENIOUS double-crossing is at the heart of the original Mission: Impossible television series and the film franchise. This is done through identification theft, impersonation, lies, deceit, scene-shifting, fake walls, and the famous face and voice changing technology.

STUNNING locations feature throughout the franchise. Changing the scenery is a means of tricking us into thinking we haven’t somehow seen this car-chase, foot chase or air chase before. Yet, what Mission: Impossible does brilliantly is take us into existing locations like the CIA Langley Headquarters, The Vatican City and even the Kremlin.

STUNTS and extravagant set-pieces dominate the whole of this franchise. From the original 1996 film’s wire-from-the-ceiling-hanging set-piece downloading a CIA encrypted agent list to the current Fall Out nuke-ticking-time-bomb denouement, Tom Cruise’ has committed some of the most breath-taking and technically brilliant action stunts ever.

ICONIC soundtrack composed by Lalo Schifrin has been often imitated but never a bettered. Those simple but effective notes fire up and immediately you know the action is about to start.

OPPOSING government agents are rife in the original show and film series, as inspired by the devious nature of the East v West “Cold War” from the 1950s onwards. In M: I you’ve got good agents, rogue agents, double agents, triple agents and ghost agents pretending to be good, bad and all of the above.

NEFARIOUS villains, like the Bond films, are necessary to precipitate some evil doings and kick off the plot.  My personal favourite was Philip Seymour Hoffman in M:I 3 – as he really was evil. Solomon Lane as played by Sean Harris is cool too and is given some great speeches. His plan to blow up the world isn’t the most original but he has a blast trying it.

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IMPOSSIBLE missions are at the heart of the film franchise. I mean the characters are mainly paper thin and the narratives are mainly empty so the gadgets and all manner of ticking time bombs, impenetrable garrisons, bad guys shooting and blowing stuff up; plus the covert interrogations and switcheroos provide the substance to the cinema experience.

MACGUFFIN-LED plots are not the strength of the franchise and on occasions the narratives a threadbare with Ethan chasing something called a “rabbit foot” or stolen nuke heads being the target. But who cares as long as we get to see things blow up.

PLAYFUL humour and one-liners dominate the scripts as a means to punctuate the action. The first three arguably had less gags but with Simon Pegg joining the cast in M:I 4 the joke quota increased and it settled into the a more humour-led vein. Personally, I prefer the serious espionage stuff, but the gags punch up the entertainment value nonetheless.

OUTSTANDING casting always brings a raft of class to these movies. Indeed, despite the style-over-substance nature of the narratives casting heavyweight actors such as:  Jon Voight, Vanessa Redgrave, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Alec Baldwin, Sean Harris, Jean Reno, Ving Rhames, Billy Crudup, Jeremy Renner, Rebecca Ferguson and many more raise the quality of the productions no doubt.

SUBTERFUGE and double-crosses are a major part of the plots. Often we never quite know whose side certain characters are on at any one time. In Rogue Nation and Fallout the troubled spy Ilsa Faust is simultaneously batting for three teams in order to keep herself alive. Such devilish plotting keeps the stories bouncing along, which is why they are never dull.

SPECIAL effects are a major part of M:I, however, what is incredible to that Tom Cruise will strive to make the stunts as real as possible by actually doing them himself. The opening of Rogue Nation and the end of Fallout are absolutely stupendous feats of daring which I would never contemplate. Similarly, bungee jumps, rock-climbing, free-jumping and many other effects-free actions give a very realistic feeling to proceedings.

INCREDIBLY talented directors who have worked on the franchise include: Brian DePalma, Brad Bird, John Woo, Christopher McQuarrie and JJ Abrams bringing their own inimitable styles to the various films and while Woo’s is pretty weak the franchise abides as each film has its own identity, look and feel.

BIG budgets are required to drive the Mission: Impossible film behemoth and while they continue to make the studio billions of revenue long will they continue. The first film cost a whopping $80 million dollars while the Fallout cost a mere $178 million. Although, given Fallout absolutely rocks it’s already made that back and much more besides.

LEAPING, running, driving, diving, swimming, crashing, disguising, fighting, flying, biking, parachuting, moving – you name it the IMF do it at incredible speeds and heights!

ETHAN HUNT as presented by Tom Cruise is a righteous dude fighting the good fight against the evil wrongdoers in the world. His commitment to the cause is unwavering and in defending the innocent against the corrupt goverments, villains and agents of evil. We all root for him as an aspirational action man of the people.

 

 

 

 

 

FIRST REFORMED (2017) – CINEMA REVIEW – “Stunning work from Hawke and Schrader.”

FIRST REFORMED (2017) – CINEMA REVIEW

Written and Directed by: Paul Schrader

Produced by: Jack Binder, Greg Clark, Victoria Hill, Gary Hamilton, Deepak Sikka, Christine Vachon, David Hinojosa, Frank Murray

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric Kyles, Philip Ettinger

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Paul Schrader is one of the greatest writers that has ever committed a career to cinema. He has been involved in the writing of exceptional films including: Taxi Driver (1976), Raging Bull (1980), Last Temptation of Christ (1988), and Bringing Out the Dead (1999), Blue Collar (1978), American Gigolo (1980), Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985), Light Sleeper (1992), Affliction (1997) etc. Of late he’d had some misfires, however, First Reformed, is a devastating return to form for Schrader.

Tapping into the structure and themes of arguably his greatest work, Taxi Driver (1976), we find Ethan Hawke portraying New York chaplain, Reverend Ernst Toller. He is a complex, haunted and sad man, yet instilled with a strong sense of duty and commitment to his dwindling congregation. He keeps a journal to record his thoughts and these are delivered via a devastating voice-over. Hawke’s voice staggers across the images delivering a combination of existential pleas for understanding and an intelligent questioning of the world around him. Toller’s depression or malaise is not helped by his alcoholism and illness spreading through his body. Thus, Schrader and Hawke create a very empathetic character, out of sync and in grief but very likable to his peers and flock.

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When Amanda Seyfried’s local mum-to-be Mary comes to see him about her troubled husband, Michael, Toller agrees to speak with him about his concerns for the world and the damage humans are inflicting on the environment. When the drama arrives you just feel every agonising moment through Hawke’s beautifully realised character. Just watching Ethan Hawke in a room is enough for me as he is such a nuanced and clever actor. Schrader frames Toller in doorways, rooms, shadows, mirrors and pulpits, pushing him into spaces and trapping him. The sparse nature of the sets also acts as a symbol of Toller’s emptiness and feeling of despair at the world. Yet, at no time does he question his faith per se. The film certainly has an air of that but the big indictment is the horror we have perpetuated upon God’s Earth; challenging whether we deserve this beautiful planet.

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Ultimately, this is quintessential Paul Schrader. Taking a broken individual in the midst of a life crisis and attempting to find salvation or redemption. Whereas Taxi Driver (1976) was, in part, about Travis Bickle cleaning up the streets of New York, Ernst Toller finds a desire to clean up the corporate and capitalist industrial processes which are destroying the Earth. While First Reformed’s ending is not as explosive or cathartic as Taxi Driver it paradoxically creates hope for a fascinating character nonetheless. While he may not be able to save the Earth, Reverend Toller, may somehow be able to save himself.

Mark: 9.5 out of 11

ON CHESIL BEACH (2017) – CINEMA REVIEW

ON CHESIL BEACH (2017) – CINEMA REVIEW

Directed by: Dominic Cooke

Produced by: Elizabeth Karlsen, Stephen Woolley

Screenplay by: Ian McEwan (Based on: On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan)

Starring: Saoirse Ronan, Billy Howle, Emily Watson, Anne-Marie Duff, Samuel West, Adrian Scarborough

Cinematography: Sean Bobbitt

**MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS**

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I watch a lot of films. I also write screenplays. Indeed, over the last twenty-five years I have studied and read many “how to” write screenplay courses, books, and articles. One of the major rules of screenwriting, as opposed to radio and television writing is to SHOW and not tell. Deliver your story via the images, performance and shot composition rather than obvious dialogue which spells everything out. As a writer of incredible talent Ian McEwan has, along with director Dominic Cooke and their editor, created an intriguing story of lost love and romance. It flashes forward and back between the past and present beautifully and certainly shows rather than tells the story in a less than obvious fashion. In fact, for me it was ultimately TOO subtle in delivery and the emotional ramifications of certain events are lost in the subtext.

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The story begins in the 1960s as newlyweds, Florence and Edward, nervously entwine on their wedding day. As portrayed by the imperious Saoirse Ronan and compelling Billy Howle we are immediately empathetic of their situation and time. Because traditionally, unlike the more sexualised mores of today, religion and social convention would dictate that the couple were more likely to be virgins. Therefore the nervous glances and small-talk slowly build a sexual tension creating an incredibly awkward and embarrassing mid-point moment between the characters. McEwan’s script also flashes back to the past establishing how the characters met. Edward is a lower-middle class boy from a rural background while Florence’s family are more upper-middle class capitalists. As presented in other McEwan works class tensions also propel the drama as Florence’s family look down on Edward somewhat.

There is a lot of depth within the characterisations notably from Ann-Marie McDuff as Edward’s unfortunate mother. Although, at times I wasn’t sure how her mental condition was linked to the themes of the piece, the performance of the actor alone was fascinating throughout. Ultimately, it’s a film about love, loss and terrible secrets; notably how past events can haunt the present. However, in choosing to bury the big reveal within a blink-and-you-miss-it flashback, the poetic editing, in my opinion, took away from the dramatic power and potential catharsis in denouement. On occasions telling us as well as showing us can empower an audience to feel even more for the characters.

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Dominic Cooke marshals the film with an assured hand as befits an experienced theatre director. Ronan and Howle give brilliant performances. In fact, I don’t think there is a better and more consistent young actor than Saoirse Ronan. In films such as: Atonement (2007), Hanna (2011), Brooklyn (2015), Lady Bird (2017) and now On Chesil Beach (2017), she has proved herself capable of capturing depth and emotional power with her performances. Ronan and her romantic counterpart, Howle, make the film worthy of your attention even if I was left mildly bewildered, valiantly trying to work out why their characters’ relationship was doomed to fail.

(Mark: 8 out of 11)

 

LEAN ON PETE (2017) – CINEMA REVIEW

LEAN ON PETE (2017) – CINEMA REVIEW

Directed by: Andrew Haigh

Produced by: Tristan Goligher

Screenplay by: Andrew Haigh

Based on: Lean on Pete by Willy Vlautin

Starring: Charlie Plummer, Chloë Sevigny, Travis Fimmel, Steve Buscemi

Music by: James Edward Barker

Cinematography: Magnus Joenck

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More times than not I go to the cinema to escape the nagging existential doubt I have in respect of life. I watch movies, even the movies based in some believable reality to escape MY reality, my work, my everyday life. Sometimes, though you find a film which will not allow you to escape. It is so relentlessly realistic in its representation of the human spirit that it does not allow you to get away. You are stuck; imprisoned by the misery and hopelessness one can feel with life. Lean on Pete (2017) is such a film.

Adapted and directed by Andrew Haigh, Lean on Pete is a tunnel-focussed character drama based in the dustbowl plains of Portland, Oregon. The lead protagonist is Charlie Thompson who is portrayed with an incredible maturity by Charlie Plummer. The director Haigh and Plummer deserve much praise for creating such an empathetic and troubled character. I mean he’s a good kid who works hard. He jogs everyday in order to keep his fitness up so he can return to playing football at school. Yet, his life suffers from ennui, poverty and family discord. Put simply: Charlie was born with no luck. His mother left when he was a baby and he’s brought up by a father (Travis Kimmel), who loves him, but is somewhat of a nomad; moving from a different job to a different location to a different women every few years.

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Movement defines Charlie. He’s either running down roads or walking or driving or leading the horses out. He gets a job working with irascible horse race trainer portrayed by the excellent Steve Buscemi and befriends a rundown racehorse called ‘Lean on Pete’. Charlie becomes, against the advice of everyone, attached to the horse and this affection will drive his actions in the tragic latter half of the film. This is no Disney-kid-befriends-animal-rites-of-passage-fairy-tale but rather a depressing and harsh neo-Western where the American dream is a distant memory.

Overall, it’s a strange thing to say that, while brilliantly filmed by cinematographer Magnus Joenck and directed by Andrew Haigh, Lean on Pete, is a tough film to recommend due to the relentless existential misery on screen. However, there is hope there in Charlie’s character as he won’t give in and just keeps moving trying to find some light at the end of that tunnel we call life.

(Mark: 8 out of 11)