Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Gareth Edwards
Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Alan Tudyk, Jiang Wen, Riz Ahmed, Forest Whitaker
Certificate: 12A
Run Time: 133 mins

‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ is the first spin-off in this ever lucrative franchise and follows on from the phenomena that was last year’s ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘ which successfully revitalised this series in true fashion which I found a lot to like with. This film details the rebellion led by Jyn Erso who attempt to steal the plans from the Death Stars leading into the events of ‘Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope’. In the director’s chair for this instalment is Gareth Edwards who was behind the micro-budget sci-fi monster film ‘Monsters’ and 2014’s ‘Godzilla’. I had a lot of reservations over ‘Godzilla’ and thought he did some good work in the film’s first half only for it to spectacularly fall apart in its second half. However, Disney seem to have confidence in him and signed him up for this instalment. ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ has been much publicised for its reshoots which had been reported over its third act which Disney tried to defend saying that this was not to the detriment to the film. Too often reshoots have harmed a film’s quality – take this Summer’s ‘Suicide Squad‘ for example but what a lot of people fail to understand is that reshoots are first and foremost designed to improve the cohesion of the film and make it a more immersive experience as the editor’s assemble the preliminary cuts of the film. So is the film what Edwards originally set out to make or is it yet another meddling of a director’s work?

‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ begins rather poorly and flatly but manages to find its feet in its second and third act and deliver a very satisfying narrative that ties in very neatly to the events of ‘A New Hope’. The visual effects are very efficient and in particular with the film’s final act is enthralling and a pure spectacle to behold on-screen. The acting and script are rather stodgy in places but Edwards manages to cover up the film’s flaws with a very entertaining narrative and good chemistry between the film’s characters. Luckily, the reshoots have been to the film’s benefit as the revision of the third act has clearly proved a success and if the film had been in a similar vein to its first act which showcases the worst habits of Edwards then the film could have been in very serious trouble.

What allows this film to work on so many levels is that it is a war film first and a Star Wars film second which gives viewers a totally new experience of the world they have grown to care and idolise. The film is very dark in moments where it needs to be and the stakes are always high and the film manages to satisfy on these levels. There are many subtle nods that connect to other films in this franchise and the narrative is very coherent despite audiences who are aware of the events of ‘A New Hope’ knowing the outcome.

The performances in this film do let the side down a little bit as quite a few of the actors phone their performances in due to a weak yet efficient script. Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso is very moody in the lead role and does well in a role that doesn’t particularly require much of her and Diego Luna is very sound as Cassian Andor, a Rebel Alliance Captain and is representative of the diverse brand that the ‘Star Wars’ franchise is trying to create and it is very pleasing to see a Hispanic actor taking centre stage in a commercial work. The highlights of this film are Mads Mikkelsen who can never put a foot wrong as Galen Erso, Jyn’s research scientist father, Ben Mendelsohn as the chief villain who is very sinister but not quite as developed or memorable as Adam Driver’s villain in ‘The Force Awakens’ and Alan Tudyk as the zany but well-natured robot, K-2SO who has some great lines. The characters all generally manage to have good chemistry with each other once they finally meet each other in what is a very contrived and conventional opening but it does feel like some of the actor’s phone their performances in a bit due to a stodgy script.

‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ makes a bold move by including characters who appeared in ‘A New Hope’ by digitally superimposing the actor digitally onto another unseen actor who is doing the performance. Whilst this work is quite convincing, it was easy to tell which characters this had been done to and one has to question the ethics of this. For filmic reasons, this is an interesting development but is it really right to use an actor who is no longer living to try and develop a narrative?

The score is by Michael Giacchino and this film makes a departure from other films in this series to not use a score by John Williams. Giacchino came in extremely late into the game as Alexandre Desplat was supposed to reunite with Edwards after his fantastic score for ‘Godzilla’ but Desplat had to leave due to scheduling conflicts and Giacchino had to quickly compile a score for this film. Giacchino does a good job and manages to craft some memorable new themes but this does also raise questions into the role of a composer as hiring someone so late into post-production undermines the importance music plays into a film and I do not believe it is something that can be just created on the spot. The cinematography by Greig Fraser is very strong and there are some simply awe-inspiring shots that really add to the verisimilitude of this film and make it all the more visually astute.

‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ is ultimately a very entertaining film that takes some bold risks and when the film finds its feet, it is a really riveting piece of work. However, a flat and uneven first act is a chore to get through and showcases Edwards’ bad habits of not having much substance in a film and poor character development. The reshoots have clearly worked in this film’s favour in its revision of the third act which is where the film is by far at its most satisfying and has managed to save Edwards who could have made a really mediocre film. Visually and narratively, I had a great time with this film but when one digs beneath the surface with this film at a base level, the film has its fair share of problems that it fails to conceal. Now time for a year’s wait for Rian Johnson’s follow-up to last year’s ‘The Force Awakens which I am confident he will do a good job!

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

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Sully (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney
Certificate: 12A
Run Time: 96 mins

‘Sully’ (also known as ‘Sully: Miracle on the Hudson’) is the latest film by Clint Eastwood who has proved quite the career with both a great track record of great performances and assured directorial works and his most recent film, 2015’s ‘American Sniper’ almost made my best films list of that respective year. ‘Sully’ details the story of a pilot, Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger and the 2009 emergency landing of  his plane in the Hudson River in which all 155 passengers and crew survived. The film explores the repercussions and publicity this event had in its aftermath with the subsequent investigation by the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board). The film stars Tom Hanks as the titular character who has also been on a roll lately with hits such as ‘Captain Phillips’ and ‘Bridge of Spies’ and Aaron Eckhart plays his co-pilot, Jeffrey Skiles with Laura Linney rounding out the cast as Sully’s wife.

‘Sully’ is quite workmanlike in its execution but it’s a fascinating subject matter that Eastwood is able to spin a riveting narrative out of and it features some fantastic performances, particularly from Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart. It features an efficient blend of awe-inspiring plane crash sequences that play out in Sully’s mind throughout the film and some gripping investigatory work from the NTSB. Although a lot of this  is rather fictionalised, it still makes for great cinematic viewing. However Eastwood’s workmanlike execution is his downfall as he doesn’t particularly do too much out of his comfort zone and this is very alike to some of his other films in its direction – you pretty much get what you expect.

This event that Eastwood has decided to adapt for film perfectly suits him and the deconstructing of the event by the NTSB who investigate what happened is enthralling and Eastwood fires on all cylinders – he clearly has a knack for this with a lot of his other films like ‘Changeling’. The plane crash sequence that repeatedly plays out in Sully’s mind is stunning and is one of the most intense 208 seconds you will see in a film this year – it is expertly staged and really ramps up the tension. The fact that we get to see this from different angles multiple times throughout the film adds further gravitas and depth and is a meticulous re-staging of an event that could have ended in disaster.

The performances in this film are what really propel the source material and Tom Hanks as Sully is fantastic and deserving of an Academy Award nomination. His character is completely empathetic and his PTSD-ridden state after the crash is particularly convincing as his character is deconstructed and we get to see how this ordeal has taken its toll on him. Aaron Eckhart is just as good as his co-pilot giving his best performance since ‘The Dark Knight’ and he offers solid support for Hanks and he too is both empathetic and rational. It’s good to see Eckhart finally redeem himself after a stream of flops and poor decisions and this film showcases the great actor that he can be when he’s in the right film. Laura Linney’s role is quite small but she provides adequate support for Hanks’ character as his wife but her character never really gets developed.

The score by Christian Jacob and The Tierney Sutton Band isn’t particularly memorable but features a few solid cues that help to drive the narrative along. Tom Stern, a regular on Clint Eastwood films, shoots this film perfectly and there are some awe-inspiring shots particularly in the plane-crash sequences that really get to showcase his cinematographic skills.

Ultimately, ‘Sully’ is another winner for Eastwood and is a gripping retelling of this extraordinary event anchored by winning performances by Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart. It is rather workmanlike and doesn’t particularly propel Eastwood to new heights but it’s still a great watch and I was totally enamoured with it for the full 96-minute run time. In terms of Awards prospects, I wouldn’t be surprised if Eastwood manages to sneak into the Best Picture race like he did with ‘American Sniper’ and although it deserves a nod for Hanks and Eckhart, I don’t think it will get it. But as a film, ‘Sully’ is great work by Eastwood and is definitely an enthralling cinematic experience.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Director: David Yates
Starring: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol, Ezra Miller, Samantha Morton, Jon Voight, Carmen Ejogo, Ron Perlman, Colin Farrell, Johnny Depp
Certificate: 12A
Run Time: 133 mins

(POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD)

‘Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them’ has been greatly anticipated ever since it was announced and is a spin-off on the Harry Potter series. Although the film shares the same name as the textbook J.K. Rowling wrote and features the wizard Newt Scamander, the pen name Rowling wrote under, this is a completely different story to Harry Potter. This deals with Scamander (played by Eddie Redmayne) who arrives into New York City with a suitcase of these beasts which unfortunately escape and he has to retrieve them all with the help of Porpentina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston), a former Auror of MACUSA (the American equivalent to the Ministry of Magic), her telepathic sister Queenie (Alison Sudol) and Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler) who is a non-wizard, a No-Maj (American term for a Muggle) who is the audience’s port of call into this world and who we can empathise with. At the same time, MACUSA are trying to protect wizards from humans as there are several circumstances where non-wizard territories are attacked by a strange presence with Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) heading up this investigation and also a character called Mary Lou Barebone (Samantha Morton) is the leader of the New Salem Philanthropic Society, an organisation tasked with exposing and killing witches and wizards. In the director’s chair again is David Yates who was behind the last four Harry Potter films and also directed this Summer’s ‘The Legend of Tarzan‘ which I really liked. Yates is an accomplished director and knows this world very well so I’m confident he’ll do a good job. The cast assembled is also very strong and features some big names who hopefully will be able to do this content justice. J.K. Rowling herself has penned the screenplay for this film so we can be confident for another original story and also as this isn’t an adaptation of a novel, there aren’t any storylines for the director to cut out or change which I think will work in the film’s favour. Has the wait been worth it or is this just a cash grab to milk more money out of this lucrative franchise?

‘Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them’ is an extremely well-directed film which features some great performances and superb character development. The story is exceptionally well-crafted (did we ever not have faith in Rowling in this department?) and I’m especially impressed that the film that we got is a very different one compared to what the trailers suggested – the film has a lot of surprises and twists and storylines that were not shown in the trailers and this is a very strong move. Yates continues to impress me with his direction and again, is a great match for this material and there are numerous sequences that are perfectly crafted which he is able to conjure a very atmospheric tone. Yates may well have his naysayers but I strongly disagree. The tone Yates goes for is very well judged and the film is very dark for a 12A, perhaps more so than the Harry Potter series and he manages to blend darkness, spectacle and humour perfectly. The film however is a little heavy-handed when it comes to romance. Another flaw the film battles is due to the amount of content it has to set up, the first hour is a little uneven compared to the second half when the film fully lets rip but the film is always very engaging and entertaining. This film is the first of what is envisaged to be a 5-film franchise which I would be really interested in but I do think there are some problems that this film sets up for the second film.

J.K. Rowling’s story is generally really well thought out and is surprisingly fairly low on exposition which I was expecting seeing as there is a lot of material to set out. It does have some ties to Harry Potter but this is a proper standalone series which goes for its own unique tone and an engaging set of characters. As mentioned, why this film works particularly well on the story front is because this isn’t an adaptation of a novel so there aren’t any storylines to cut out or change so the film feels a lot more refined and well-rounded. Moving into spoiler territory, it has been announced that this series will culminate in the battle between Albus Dumbledore and Gellert Grindelwald which should be a spectacle to behold and this film does begin to set up Grindelwald as a presence in this series so it’ll be interesting to see how this develops. The film has a fair amount of surprises and twist that the marketing has held back which is very reassuring and seeing this story unfold on-screen was a wonder to behold. Rowling’s decision to set this story in New York is an interesting one as we get to see how the wizarding world differs across the Atlantic and Rowling does this with ease. The film is surprisingly very coherent with the amount of content it has to juggle and I never got confused or lost in the narrative which has not been the case with certain superhero films that have been released this year for instance.

The performances in this film are very strong and characters are well-developed and by the end of the film, we really do care for a lot of these characters. Eddie Redmayne makes for a strong lead and is very charismatic and off-beat as Scamander and is someone that I would be happy to spend 5 films with. Out of Waterston, Fogler and Sudol who accompany Redmayne, it is Fogler who makes the biggest impression as the loveable, innocent Jacob Kowalski who dreams of owning a bakery and is a character who the audience can really resonate with as he not only works in this imaginary narrative but is also someone we can relate to in real life. The supporting cast are all really strong too but it is Colin Farrell and Ezra Miller who make the biggest impression, particularly Farrell who gives a very nuanced, sinister performance. I also really liked Jon Voight’s character who plays the father of a US Senator and his character is clearly channeling Donald Trump which resonated very well too. Samantha Morton, Carmen Ejogo and Ron Perlman round up the supporting cast and all are sound in their roles. The film also features a cameo by Johnny Depp which was announced a few weeks prior to the release of this film as the villain of this franchise, Gellert Grindelwald and although it is just a cameo, I am a little nervous. I don’t think Depp is a match for this material and where we do see him in the film, he again puts in a very theatrical performance as opposed to a nuanced one which could be problematic for this franchise in future. Don’t get me wrong, I think Johnny Depp is one of the strongest leading actors alive today and has done some excellent work but I just cannot picture him in this role with this material. Hopefully a fleshed-out rule in future sequels will tell but for now, I am trepidatious.

James Newton Howard’s score is an interesting one. I gave the score a listen before I watched the film and really didn’t like it and thought it was extremely lazy but when I finally saw the film, his score compliments the film very well in places and is very memorable. It’s still a little lazy in places but there are enough original themes to balance it out. The cinematography by Philippe Rousselot is well-judged and Rousselot manages to balance the dark themes and colourful surroundings of New York to a tee. He has had a very strong year so far and also did great work with Shane Black’s ‘The Nice Guys’.

Ultimately, ‘Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them’ is a brilliant film that again is carefully directed by David Yates and works as a great standalone film with a strong narrative and well-developed multi-dimensional characters. I was utterly enthralled with this film from start-to-finish and cannot wait to see how this narrative develops into future sequels. That said, I am a little concerned with how Johnny Depp’s performance will influence future films and the decision to expand this to five films does seem to be a late one as this standalone film is so well-rounded in its arc and you can tell that some storylines have been bolted on late into the film to allow this franchise to emerge. But as for this film, Yates can be very proud of himself that he has managed to deliver not one, but two great films this year that you can clearly see his stamp on them and both cast and crew can be happy that this film manages to not only live up to the legacy of the Harry Potter series but also shift this brand into a new direction.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

A United Kingdom (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Director: Amma Asante
Starring: David Oyelowo, Rosamund Pike, Jack Davenport, Tom Felton
Certificate: 12A
Run Time: 111 mins

‘A United Kingdom’ is the latest film by the talented Amma Asante after 2014’s ‘Belle’ and this film tells the true story of Seretse Khama, the Prince of Bechuanaland (now more commonly known as Botswana) who falls in love with a London office worker and marries her. He is also destined to be King over his land where his Uncle currently rules as regent and the film deals with their struggle to be recognised in their own country due to apartheid, the British Empire’s control of this land and the disapproval of Khama marrying a white British woman. Asante has assembled a strong cast with David Oyelowo as the lead who is always endlessly charismatic and authentic and Rosamund Pike as his wife who has been moving from strength to strength in the film industry particularly with her Oscar-nominated performance in David Fincher’s 2014 film, ‘Gone Girl’. ‘A United Kingdom’ has received strong reviews for its depiction of this true story and Asante seems to be further cementing herself as a key player in the rise of strong female directors.

‘A United Kingdom’ is a very easy film to like – it’s a great blend of being informative on this little-known subject matter which is quite shocking at times, funny at times and always profoundly humane. It’s got a collection of strong performances and it is very well-paced and never outstays its welcome. That said, it does race through its beginning before Oyelowo and Pike reach Bechuanaland and perhaps another ten minutes or so to explore their relationship would have been more realistic because they very quickly get married in the space of 15 minutes. It also doesn’t particularly push the envelope in terms of innovation which is why it doesn’t receive full marks but the film is a very easy watch and is endlessly engaging.

I had no prior knowledge of this portion of history and I suspect this will also be the same for many viewers that choose to watch this film but the history really is shocking at times and Asante manages to perfectly convey these emotions in her direction of the film. It is gruelling and uncomfortable to see the amount of limitations and the racist opinions put on Khama and his struggle for equality and the right to rule his own land that he has been promised.

‘A United Kingdom’ has a wealth of strong performances particularly both Oyelowo and Pike as the central couple. This is normal territory for Oyelowo who has played a pretty similar role as Martin Luther King, of which he was the only redeeming feature in Ava DuVernay’s atrocious, pretentious 2015 biopic ‘Selma‘. He is again, great in this and manages to portray a full humanity in Khama’s character and is a character that is well-developed and who we constantly empathise with. Pike is also great as the humble, kind-natured yet misunderstood wife of Khama. Jack Davenport is very good here as Alistair Canning, a fictional civil servant who is a very slimy character and wants what is best for the British Empire which does clash with the ideals of the inhabitants of the Bechuanaland and Tom Felton continues to improve his post-Harry Potter career with a thoughtful performance as Rufus Lancaster who is equally as slippery and slimy as Davenport. I just wish the film would have developed Pike’s family more so that we could get a viewpoint from both sides and get a chance to understand them as they are very one-dimensional.

Patrick Doyle’s score is very serviceable and compliments the film nicely and Sam McCurdy’s cinematography is equally thoughtful and allows the film to flow through very coherently without much of a chance to display his talents.

Overall, ‘A United Kingdom’ is an interesting watch for its interesting true story and its performances. It’s a very easy film to like as mentioned as it is well-paced, save for the beginning and has a lot of light moments of comic relief for the audience which really works and makes the film easy to digest. Whilst it is an excellent film, I just wish it would have been a little more innovative in its execution as it is a little workmanlike in execution. Asante can be proud of another great film and I hope she continues to develop into the promising director that she has already demonstrated she is.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Bad Santa 2 (Review)

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⭐⭐ (Poor)

Director: Mark Waters
Starring: Billy Bob Thornton, Kathy Bates, Tony Cox, Christina Hendricks, Brett Kelly, Ryan Hansen, Jenny Zigrino
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 92 mins

‘Bad Santa’ was and continues to be a great Christmas film – it managed to subvert the genre by essentially being an Anti-Christmas film and was suitably raunchy and shocking for its time. It also featured a great central performance by Billy Bob Thornton as the titular character who really made the character his own and as an audience, for all the character’s flaws, one could empathise with him. ‘Bad Santa 2’ is the sequel no one ever really wanted 13 years later and is the latest comedy film of yesteryear to undergo this treatment. More often than not, these sequels have managed to tarnish the original – take this year’s ‘Zoolander 2’ for instance or ‘Dumb and Dumber To’ which was equally disappointing. The only one exception to this rule that comes to mind is ‘Anchorman 2’ which actually managed to be better than its original but Adam McKay, its director is one of the finest comedic directors around at the moment whereas ‘Bad Santa 2’ has Mark Waters in the director’s chair who has actually made some pretty good films such as ‘Freaky Friday’ but has had his fair share of duds too and for a film of this macabre, he doesn’t particularly scream out talent. So is ‘Bad Santa 2’ another bad comedy sequel to ruin its original or not?

It pains me to say that ‘Bad Santa 2′ is a lazy, puerile, mean-spirited sequel. It’s not funny at all save for a few one liners that got a faint chuckle out of me and the film actually really got on my nerves as the film progressed. On the narrative front, it’s pretty ropey but Billy Bob Thornton at least gives a good performance as the titular character but it’s just an awful shame he’s been equipped with such a bad script that pairs him up with hateful characters.  Alarm bells should have been ringing when news of Mark Waters’ hiring was announced – he is not suitable for this material and has spat upon the legacy of a film that I really like.

The performances in ‘Bad Santa 2’ are really lacking other than Billy Bob Thornton and Tony Cox who are both strong here and give exactly the same performance here that they did in the first film but they’re just saddled with an awful script. It’s such a shame to see Billy Bob Thornton’s career take another hit as he is such a versatile actor who is always the standout in everything he is in but he constantly is casted in twaddle but at least through his performance alone, I was still invested in his character. The casting of Kathy  Bates seemed like a great idea on paper and even in the trailers but in the film, she is an annoying and hateful character. I understand the film needs to be vulgar and mean-spirited which the first film managed to do to a tee but her character is just hateful. I couldn’t empathise with her character at all. Conversely, I don’t like Christina Hendricks as an actress and I found her character to be quite hateful as well as her decisions are baffling and stupid. Not stupid as in funny, just plain stupid.

‘Bad Santa 2’ is devoid of both story and laughs and has a total lack of heart and emotion. That’s why I loved the first film as although we witness the characters do some pretty awful things, we can see things from their perspective and can empathise with them. Here, it’s as if the screenwriters have spent 30 minutes crafting a series of events before they pick up their pay cheque and then left the film. The story is so poorly constructed and the ending in particular is rushed and sudden – there are many poor films where an ending has been able to rescue it but here it’s the inverse – as the film got closer and closer towards its end, I was seething and annoyed with how lazy and desperate the filmmakers seem to be here, I was genuinely beginning to think of ways of how this film could have ended that would have been better than this.

The score by Lyle Workman also compliments the film in its laziness and is completely unmemorable and Theo van de Sande’s cinematography detracts from the dirty, grimy look of the first film and the whole film has this made-for-television sheen about it.

Overall, ‘Bad Santa 2’ is extraordinarily lazy a real shame. It’s not quite as offensive as some other comedy sequels as it doesn’t try and turn the humour up to 11, instead ‘Bad Santa 2’ is just painfully flat and has no plot. I was seething out of the cinema and no one laughed during the performance apart from a couple of one-liners near the beginning of the film. It is Billy Bob Thornton’s performance that just about single-handedly manages to carry this film from a 1 to a 2 and  it’s such a shame to see his career take another hit which he doesn’t need. But this puerile, lazy film can be thrown away and burnt on the ever-increasing list of bad comedy sequels. ‘Bad Santa 2’ is not the Christmas treat that we deserved.

⭐⭐ (Poor)

Arrival (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg, Tzi Ma
Certificate: 12A
Run Time: 116 mins

‘Arrival’ is the latest effort by Denis Villeneuve, one of the most exciting directors working in the film industry today who has been behind two astonishing films – 2013’s ‘Prisoners’ and 2015’s ‘Sicario‘. ‘Arrival’ is his first venture into sci-fi and is an adaptation of Ted Chiang’s short story, ‘Story of Your Life’. Villeneuve has been selected to direct next year’s sequel to ‘Blade Runner’, a very prestigious gig, so ‘Arrival’ is an important milestone so he can demonstrate what he can do with this genre. ‘Arrival’ tells the story of leading linguist, Dr Louise Banks who is played by Amy Adams who is brought in to assist translating alien communication when twelve extra-terrestrial spacecrafts land in random locations across the planet. This is the second of two Amy Adams projects released a week apart to try and get her considered for Awards attention, the other being ‘Nocturnal Animals‘ and Adams seems to be promoting this film more as it’s received the better reviews out of the two and arguably is more accessible. Can Villeneuve continue to excite audiences with his originality and craft yet another memorable, masterfully executed film?

‘Arrival’ is masterfully constructed by Villeneuve and for its first two thirds  is particularly gripping. The performances are strong here too and yet again, Villeneuve’s team behind-the-camera do some good work. However, the film bites off a bit more than it can chew in its last third and although the film is still very interesting and original, it does begin to derail and struggle through towards its ending. I’m not going to go into spoilers as this is a film that needs to be watched blindly but I felt the film did leave a lot of questions unanswered and the ending does have a few plot holes to it. This is a film that warrants multiple rewatches so perhaps things will become clearer on subsequent viewings It’s a film that for a sci-fi is very low on action and big set-pieces – this is very much a thinking person’s sci-fi and is not too dissimilar thematically from films such as ‘Contact’ or ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’ for example.

The cast that Villeneuve has assembled for ‘Arrival’ is strong and Amy Adams makes for a great lead as Dr Banks who we follow throughout the film and we feel her frustration and determination to try and communicate with these extra terrestrial beings. She is joined by Ian Donnelly, played by Jeremy Renner, a physician and the pair try and find methods to try and find out what the aliens purpose is and to try and find out more about them. The vessel opens up once every 18 hours which is a window of opportunity for them to meet with the two aliens, nicknamed Abbott and Costello (after the famous 1940’s/50’s comedy duo) separated by a screen and try and decipher their writing and eerie sounds. I’ve been critical of Renner in the past but here he’s pretty good and is able to hold his own against Adams. Forest Whitaker is also very good strong here as a Colonel who brings these two individuals in to help make contact with the aliens and Michael Stuhlbarg is excellent here too but frustratingly is underused – I would happily watch him reading from a phone book, he is that talented.

The narrative is very original here too and as mentioned, for the first two thirds this film is gripping. Rather than settle for big-budget set-pieces or action sequences, ‘Arrival’ is instead more thoughtful and delves into the intricacies of language and what it means to be human and investigates humanities triumphs by being able to work together but also its flaws with violence and aggression. This perhaps is more effective than simply being an alien film as it resonates with the audience on an emotional level. I have already said that the film does derail in its third act and it does, rather flatly, strain towards its ending which offers a very interesting twist albeit one with some holes to pick. I will have to watch this film a few more times to make more sense of it and see how the whole film connects up now I know what its climax is but regardless, the film is very intelligent and I hope that this intelligence flows through to Villeneuve’s ‘Blade Runner’ sequel.

A Denis Villeneuve film wouldn’t be a Denis Villeneuve film without having a score by Jóhann Jóhannsson and once again, it is a very original soundtrack and is both atmospheric and subdued yet also utterly bombastic in parts. This is however his weakest score for me thus far as it isn’t quite as layered as ‘Sicario’ or as atmospheric as ‘Prisoners’ but it’s still very strong and original. Villeneuve hasn’t reunited with Roger Deakins for this film for its cinematography which is a bit of shame as Deakins is one of the very best in his profession but instead uses Bradford Young, another cinematographer who is slowly growing to become more and more talented and here is no exception. There are some shots which are simply awe-inspiring, particularly the first time we see the spacecraft and Young implores a tracking shot that slowly pans around the craft, demonstrating the sheer size and scale of this thing and is simply one of the very best uses of camera work this year. Young’s work is extremely promising here and hopefully he will continue to demonstrate his talent behind the camera in future films. Villenueve will however be reuniting with regular Roger Deakins for ‘Blade Runner 2049’ which should be exciting.

‘Arrival’ is ultimately a satisfying film that for its first two thirds is particularly gripping and although the film cannot sustain this in its final act, it does offer a satisfying, intelligent ending that is better in terms of ideas than execution. Villeneuve continues to prove that he is a masterclass director and is one of the very best talents working in the film industry today. Although ‘Arrival’ isn’t quite as good as some of his other efforts, the fact that he has consistency cements this status. I have full hope he can pull off a great ‘Blade Runner’ sequel, particularly with the talent that he has assembled both in front and behind-the-camera. As for Amy Adams, she’s had a very good year and has put in two great performances but I personally feel that ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is the better film, by quite some distance and it is a bit of a shame that she is going to campaign for this instead but this is ultimately the more accessible film and the one that has received better reviews. As for this film getting Awards attention, I don’t think it’s as strong as Villeneuve’s other work which was underappreciated by the Academy so it would be a little unfair if this film suddenly got a slew of nominations and other films that are better didn’t but in some technical categories, this film is worthy. If this film manages to creep in to the Best Picture category, it would be quite disappointing and it would be a undeserving winner if it did go on to win. But we’ll see what happens. Ultimately, ‘Arrival’ is not quite the knock-out from Villeneuve that I was anticipating and it does have its fair share of problems, but it is still extremely intelligent and I was totally immersed in this world for the first two thirds, just about earning a 4-star rating.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Nocturnal Animals (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Director: Tom Ford
Starring: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen, Ellie Bamber, Jena Malone
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 116 mins

‘Nocturnal Animals’ heralds the return of fashion designer / occasional director Tom Ford after 2009’s ‘A Single Man’ which received stellar reviews and got lead star Colin Firth an Oscar nomination. ‘Nocturnal Animals’ is a neo-noir crime thriller that tells the story of Amy Adams who plays a rich yet emotionally troubled art gallery owner who out-of-the-blue, is sent the manuscript of her ex-husband’s novel titled ‘Nocturnal Animals’ that is dark and violent and she begins to notices parallels with the events being portrayed in the book and of her marriage. The film has opened to positive reviews and Adams has received stellar reviews for her performance both here and in Denis Villeneuve’s sci-fi ‘Arrival’, both of which opened in the UK a week apart. After what has been a lengthy 7 year wait, here’s hoping that Ford is able to craft yet another intricately crafted and exciting film.

‘Nocturnal Animals’ is a suitably dark, poetic and meticulously crafted film by Tom Ford and features some utterly spellbinding sequences. It features brilliant performances across the board but the standouts are Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon and surprisingly Aaron Taylor-Johnson. The stories are intricately woven together and the cinematography and score are absolutely stunning. It is a near-perfect film but where perhaps the film is a little flawed is in Ford’s precise attention to detail and the film can feel a little removed from its material as it sometimes doesn’t get a chance to breathe. Jake Gyllenhaal’s characters novel which becomes a central focus in the story and slowly begins to drip into Amy Adams’ reality is by far the strongest link in the film and it is perfectly crafted but Adams’ arc is also carefully constructed and the juxtapositions between these different arcs and stories are endlessly poetic.

The performances in ‘Nocturnal Animals’ are absolutely stunning, perhaps the strongest of the year so far. Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon and Aaron Taylor-Johnson are the standouts here. Gyllenhaal cements himself as one of the best actors of his generation and gives an absolute knock-out performance as the fragile husband of Adams and the devastated main protagonist of his novel. This is not the first time he has played a dual role – he did a great job in Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Enemy’ and alongside ‘Prisoners’ and ‘Nightcrawler’, this is one of his best performances. Michael Shannon gives a career-best performance here as the unorthodox, cancer-ridden Detective who assists Gyllenhaal’s character in the novel sequence when all hell breaks loose. Shannon has always been an actor that always gives great performances but the films he plays in are often lacking, particularly the filmography of Jeff Nichols, but here he is perfectly cast for a role that is very much suited to his demeanour. I owe Aaron Taylor-Johnson an apology. I have written in the past how I find him bland and he pretty much single-handedly ruined the latest adaptation of ‘Godzilla’ but here he is frightening, menacing and unpredictable. He is more than able to keep his own against the strengths of Gyllenhaal and Shannon. Surprisingly, Amy Adams is the weakest link out of the main four here, despite being heralded for her performance. She is still very competent here but her character is given the lesser character arc out of these actors and doesn’t really get a chance to electrify the audiences with a three dimensional performance, she is very much a narrative device. The film also features multiple cameo’s from established actors and Isla Fisher (who bears many resemblances to Amy Adams in her scenes which surely is on purpose) is very strong here as well as Laura Linney who makes a lasting impression as the mother of Adams’ character that comments that we all turn into our mothers one day. It is a haunting sequence, powerfully acted by both Linney and Adams and justifies why we feel cold around Adams’ character.

The story is split into three sections – Adams’ in the present and how she is suffering a failing marriage to Armie Hammer’s cheating husband who reads this manuscript, Adams’ past with Gyllenhaal’s character and how she betrays him and Gyllenhaal’s novel.  As mentioned, the most gripping of the three is the novel and is one of the best revenge thrillers I have ever seen put to screen combining the grit of the Coen Brothers, the brooding atmosphere by the filmography of Denis Villeneuve and hints of Cormac McCarthy  – it is violent, harrowing and incredibly intense – there are multiple sequences that are just nerve-racking to watch unfold on-screen and solidifies why cinema is a medium that can reach anyone. The other stories too are very engaging and intricately crafted by Ford’s mise-en-scene. If the film has a flaw, it’s in the fact that the story can be a little cold at times due to Ford’s meticulous direction whose fashion roots have clearly inspired this film and this can clash with the characters on-screen a little and not give the film a chance to play out on its own terms – he has total control here and every single frame is precisely what Ford envisioned.  The film is extremely intelligent and methodical in what it chooses to reveal and when. This is a film that will challenge audiences and offer many different interpretations over the meanings this film might have.

The score by Abel Korzeniowski is stunning and very Bernard Hermann-esque and fits the film perfectly – one of the best scores of the year and I hope it gets attention at the Academy Awards. The cinematography by Seamus McGarvey, who is on an impressive streak lately, has clearly been under the rein of Ford’s direction and is able to bring this imaging to life. Every single shot in this film is extremely precise and there are many different images that clash and contrast with each other, offering multiple meanings and interpretations.

‘Nocturnal Animals’ is quite simply, a remarkable film that boasts many layers and interpretations to it – quite simply it is one of the best films of the year. The performances here are incredible and will be hard to top for Gyllenhaal, Shannon and Taylor-Johnson. It combines the best traits of the revenge thriller genre juxtaposed with Ford’s fashion-heavy world that Amy Adams’ character exhibits and although perhaps Gyllenhaal’s novel is the most resonating arc of the three, the film manages to blend these stories together. The film ends on a particularly bleak yet beautifully crafted note and when it had finished, it was clear that this film was a near-masterpiece. Although I feel that this film will be short-changed when it comes to Award Season (it will not work for everyone) and I am a little disappointed that Adams has chosen to put her efforts into ‘Arrival’ as this won’t do anything in this film’s favour, ‘Nocturnal Animals’ serves as a great reminder about why we go to the cinema and consume films. This film is challenging, endlessly sophisticated and takes a lot of risks. It is definitely worth your attention.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

The Light Between Oceans (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Derek Cianfrance
Starring: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, Bryan Brown, Jack Thompson, Caren Pistorius, Anthony Hayes
Certificate: 12A
Run Time: 133 mins

‘The Light Between Oceans’ is an adaptation of the novel of the same film and is the new film by Derek Cianfrance who is most famous for directing Ryan Gosling in ‘Blue Valentine’ and ‘The Place Between The Pines’. It tells the story of Tom Sherbourne, a traumatised and out-of-place World War I hero who decides to become a lighthouse keeper at Janus Rock, an island off the coast of West Australia which has a brooding, separate from civilisation feel to it and as time, he befriends and ultimately marries a local girl, Isabel Graysmark who subsequently moves over to Janus Rock with him. Unfortunately over the course of a few years, she suffers miscarriages and is wracked with guilt and depression but one day, a boat with a deceased man and a baby washes up onto shore and Tom wants to report it but Isabel wants to keep it for them and the rest of the film details the upbringing of this little girl and the consequences this has on the close-knit society.

‘The Light Between Oceans’ is a well-acted, well-intentioned film that is always fairly engaging but the film has a whole host of problems with its irrational characters despite how convincing the performances are. I’m not going to spoil the film at all but you will hopefully understand if you watch it then read this review – surely this would never happen in reality or if it did, it wouldn’t be dealt with in the same way. Despite an extremely problematic narrative, the crew are generally fairly impressive here and the film is beautifully shot by rising talent Adam Arkapaw and has a competent score by the always reliable Alexandre Desplat.

Cianfrance has to thank the film’s impressive cast otherwise this film would potentially have been very, very bad. Michael Fassbender has slowly been crafting a very impressive resume of performances over the years and peaked with the trio of ‘Slow West’, ‘Macbeth’ and ‘Steve Jobs’ last year. This year, he already hit a bump with ‘X-Men: Apocalypse’ and whilst this film is by no means bad, this is just standard fare for him. His performance is fairly nuanced and we do feel empathy for him with the events that happen in the film and the film is very lucky to have him because with a lesser actor in the film’s final act, the film could have been laughably bad. The two other standouts here are Jack Thompson and Caren Pistorius, Thompson at times managing to emotionally connect with the audience and although Pistorius only shows up in one scene, she manages to blend subtlety and emotion and I hope she manages to find a big break soon as the roles she chooses are very promising so far.  Both Alicia Vikander and Rachel Weisz are good here too and their performance just about manages to mask some of her characters incredibly irrational decisions, particularly Weisz.

The story is the biggest problem and it is only on the strength of the talent involved here that just about manage to carry this film over into the ‘Good’ category. As mentioned, the film is an adaptation of a novel penned by M. L. Stedman and whilst I have not read it, I’m surprised it has been adapted for a film if this adaptation is faithful to the novel. There are multiple instances in this film where you question characters decisions and apparent personality that it really, really threw me out of the film and got me quite annoyed. However when this isn’t the case, the film manages to plod along through its lengthy 133 minute run time just about fine, never particularly impressing in its story but being competent enough. Luckily, the film’s closing scene manages to save the film as it is subtle and nuanced and offers good closure to the audience. If the film ended a scene prior, it would have left a very sour taste and got me out of the cinema feeling very annoyed.

Adam Arkapaw’s cinematography is absolutely stunning and the film looks incredible. He has proven himself already with his work on ‘Macbeth’ last year and this further cements his talent and I hope he does a good job on the upcoming ‘Assassin’s Creed’ too but judging from the trailers, it would seem he has. Arkapaw’s cinematography does a terrific job of demonstrating the scope of the ocean that is surrounding Janus Rock and the balance of the whites and blues that he shows us give this film a really clean look, it’s just a shame that inside this wonderful world that is crafted a middling film exists in it. The always reliable Alexandre Desplat’s score supplements the film very well and gives the audience many opportunities to emotionally connect with the events being portrayed on-screen.

Overall, ‘The Light Between Oceans’ is a frustratingly middling adaptation – by no means a bad film but not a terribly good one either. It just about crosses the boundary for a ‘Good’ rating due to the strengths of the performances in the film and the assured direction by Derek Cianfrance and Adam Arkapaw’s stunning cinematography. If the book is the same as the film, I don’t know why this was picked to be adapted as let’s face it, the frankly stupid characters in this film really challenge the intelligence of the viewer. It’s an oddly old-fashioned drama which really isn’t in line with Cianfrance’s more gritty, real previous efforts but this does demonstrate that Cianfrance can handle this type of material but unfortunately, the characters are just too irrational to care for and spend 133 minutes with.

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

The Accountant (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Gavin O’Connor
Starring: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J.K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal, Jeffrey Tambor, John Lithgow, Cynthia Addai-Robinson
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 128 mins

‘The Accountant’ is the second of Gavin O’Connor’s directorial efforts this year after ‘Jane Got A Gun’ earlier in the year which received mixed reviews. It details the story of Christian Wolff, played by Ben Affleck who works as a freelance accountant as the title would suggest for dangerous criminal organisations. As he is starting to be investigated by the Treasury Department, he becomes a legitimate client of a company which he audits and finds discrepancies. However, Wolff also suffers from autism and when he was a child,  was diagnosed by an institute and offered the chance to live there but his father decides that he needs to learn the hard way by overcoming his condition rather than being accepted by society for what he is. Wolff is also an extremely skilled marksman who is able to take out swarms of hitmen at once. It’s an odd mix for a film but it’s certainly original and the film boasts an impressive cast but can it synthesise these themes together into an engaging film?

‘The Accountant’ is an extremely uneven film and has a hard time balancing its themes. It is equal parts drama, action-thriller and mystery and these themes are all carelessly scattered around the film. It lunk-headedly handles its different character arcs and its premise is rather ludicrous. The film just doesn’t know what it wants to be. That said though, the film is thrilling to watch at times and has some admirable performances from its very solid cast, particularly in its lead Ben Affleck and as ludicrous as it all is, there are several good twists in its ending that satisfy all of the dodgy storytelling going on beforehand.

The film wouldn’t be half as entertaining as it is if not for the great cast that has been assembled here. Ben Affleck as the lead character, Christian Wolff is excellent and manages to blend the persona of a socially challenged mathematician and a masterful hitman together very well as ludicrous as that sounds. Anna Kendrick makes for sympathetic support for Affleck’s character and there are some nuanced performances from both John Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor. Jon Bernthal is very good here too and is quite menacing and sinister in places and the always-reliable J.K. Simmons manages to put in a good performance in a terribly written role.

The narrative is where the film takes a significant nose-dive and the film’s script by Bill Dubuque who penned the disappointing 2014 film, ‘The Judge’ has an identity crisis in that it cannot handle and mesh together its themes. The film feels very erratic as it constantly chops-and-changes between being a thoughtful but heavy-handed drama to a violent, slick action thriller. Particularly poorly written is J.K. Simmons’ character, the director of Financial Crimes for the Treasury Department,  who is dumped into the film who coerces a young analyst, Marybeth Medina played by Cynthia Addai-Robinson, to help him investigate Affleck’s character. I really hoped that this arc would amount to something but it doesn’t and Simmons’ character has a particularly awful monologue mid-way throughout the film which makes the simple mistake of showing, not telling and it is so cliched and heavy-handed that it really spoils the film and makes his character arc seem all the more pointless. The film’s portrayal of the theme of disability is very heavy-handed  and several critics have pointed out that it gives Affleck’s character a superhero-like quality which is territory that the film does wander into at times which isn’t a particularly effective message to send out. The action sequences are well-written and slickly composed but don’t have much emotional heft.

The score by Mark Isham is solid and compliments the events being portrayed on-screen fairly well and the cinematography by Seamus McGarvey is very assured – the film is suitably bleak and dimly lit and the action sequences in particular are very slick and well orchestrated.

Overall, ‘The Accountant’ is a preposterous film that has an identity crisis in the fact that it cannot juggle its themes consistently. However, it is always entertaining and does offer some good twists along with some fine performances from its talented cast that has been assembled. The actual premise itself is quite original and I think with a tighter and more coherent script, this could have been a lot more subtle and nuanced. There have been calls for a sequel and I would quite happily watch these characters in a different story but serious work needs to go behind the camera to ensure that the film is more subtle in execution and decides on a direction it wants to go in, not just chop-and-change between themes and ideas. But the film is more than entertaining enough and it more than manages to pull itself up in its closing scenes with a couple of good twists hence why it deserves a solid three out of five.

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

I, Daniel Blake (Review) 

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⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Director: Ken Loach
Starring: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 100 mins

Veteran director Ken Loach’s latest film, ‘I, Daniel Blake’ electrified audiences at this year’s Cannes Film Festival and took home the coveted Palme D’Or Award, Loach’s second win after ‘The Wind That Shakes The Barley’. ‘I, Daniel Blake’ tackles an issue that is all too prominent in English society – the benefits system and how it fails the titular character who has suffered a major heart attack but is deemed fit for work. Over the course of the film, we witness Daniel’s struggle against the system and his befriending of a single mother, Katie and her two children who have been rehoused in Newcastle away from London, almost 500km away. The film stars Dave Johns as the titular character and Hayley Squires as Katie, Johns normally known for his stand-up comedy so this is a very different ground for him and Squires known for both TV and film.

‘I, Daniel Blake’ is hard-hitting, heart-tugging and at times, invokes feelings of sheer devastation. It is one of the best films of the year and is incredibly well-directed and acted, both Johns and Squires are perfect in their respective roles and their characters are so well-developed that as an audience, we really care for them. There are multiple scenes here which are very hard to watch and the film offers a very realistic take on the benefits system in England. What the film doesn’t do and why it doesn’t earn the full 5-stars is it doesn’t explore the opposite end of the spectrum – people who do take advantage of the benefits system and if the film had done this, it would have been much more well-rounded and justified in its approach.

Both Dave Johns and Hayley Squires are as mentioned, perfect in their roles. Johns who is most famous for being a stand-up comedian is fully developed as a character and we really feel him as he is constantly let down by the system and we feel his frustration and feel defeated when he is constantly knocked down by the system but always gets up again to fight. Even the simple things such as his inability to use a computer we feel sympathy for and the script always tries to drive his character forward so he can get himself out of this horrific situation. Hayley Squires is equally as effective as Johns as single-mother Katie and there are several scenes which are very hard to watch as she goes to extreme lengths to provide for her children and her wellbeing, one very tough scene to watch in a food bank. Briana Shann and Dylan McKiernan are both perfect as her children who are also very well developed and their innocence and inquisitiveness adds another layer to this rich story. The rest of the cast are all perfect in their roles too and there are many great performances by those working in the benefits system.

The film is scripted by Paul Laverty, a frequent collaborator with Ken Loach who also wrote ‘The Wind That Shakes The Barley’ and the script is near-perfect. It offers a great blend of facts, emotional arcs and the film is even quite funny in parts – I laughed at this film a lot more than I’ve laughed at other ‘comedy’ films this year. However, it is a very cynical take on the benefits system and I would have liked to have seen Laverty include examples of how people take advantage of the benefits system. Arguably that is what has driven the system to be so scrutinous and at times, it does paint a picture that this system fails everyone which it doesn’t – there are many people in the country who unfairly receive benefits which comes out of the taxpayer’s pocket.

The lack of score help to emphasise the plot points to the audience but where frequent collaborator, George Fenton’s score is used is meaningful and helps to elevate the drama but it is very minimalistic. Robbie Ryan’s cinematography is equally raw and unflinching and the lack of colour helps to showcase the bare and deprived lifestyles that these characters have to live.

Overall, ‘I, Daniel Blake’ is a powerhouse of a film and one that took a few hours to digest after it had ended. The brilliant performances complimented by the tight script allow this film a chance to breathe and fully explore this difficult scenario. There are many difficult scenes in this film to watch and the fact that this film earns these scenes is testament to the great work it does behind the camera to develop this story and make us feel the way we do for these characters. I just wish the film was a little less close-minded and came more full-circle by exploring the opposite end of the spectrum and if it had done this, it would earn the full 5-stars. But as it stands, it’s a fantastic piece of work and is one of the best films that 2016 has yet to offer.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)