Blade Runner 2049 (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Denis Villeneuve
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James, Dave Bautista, Jared Leto 

Certificate: 15
Run Time: 163 mins

Blade Runner 2049 is one of the most highly anticipated films of the year, for many different reasons. Firstly and most importantly, it is the sequel to Ridley Scott’s 1982 original, a film that has a turbulent history of its own of underappreciation and misunderstanding. It took a long time for the film to reach the stature it now resides, with different cuts releasing in the process. A sequel has been pondered many a time over the years with Ridley Scott frequently discussing such prospects.

Things took a turn for the better in 2015 when it was announced that Denis Villeneuve would be in the director’s chair, thus leading to  the second reason why this film is so highly anticipated. Blade Runner 2049 feels as though it’s a cumulation of Villeneuve’s previous work, consistently proving multiple times in the past that he is one of the most exciting directors working today. Both Prisoners and Sicario are outstanding pieces of work, Enemy a very interesting piece and although I didn’t love Arrival, there were many who did, garnering Villeneuve a Best Director Oscar nomination and the film a Best Picture nomination. With Villeneuve at the helm, this also means he reunites with cinematographer Roger Deakins. Regular composer Jóhann Jóhannsson was also set to return but his score was unfortunately unused. Thrown in a star-studded cast for good measure and you’re onto a winner. Any normal groans that a sequel was being planned to a film 35 years later would muster were put to rest when everyone noticed the talent involved.

Without divulging any plot spoilers as there are plenty of reveals in the film, it would be fitting to say that this film follows Ryan Gosling’s Officer K and an investigation that he embarks on and that the film is set 30 years later (the clue is in the title) but a lot has happened in this world since the conclusion of Ridley Scott’s original.

My initial reaction to Blade Runner 2049 is the same as it was for Blade Runner in that it wasn’t quite the triumphant feat I expected it to be. There is a lot to admire, particularly on a visual level and there are many moments in the film which are mesmerising to behold on-screen. Roger Deakins’ transfixing cinematography should surely now have earnt him his long overdue Oscar and there are multiple sequences that are destined to be studied by future film students. However, I also have my reservations with it. Bearing in mind the overall history of reception with the original Blade Runner, this is a film that warrants multiple rewatches to truly appreciate it and hopefully then, I will have a higher opinion of the film.

What was really satisfying to observe was Villeneuve’s attitude towards the material. He clearly has a love for the original and the film never felt cynical towards its predecessor at all – it is very much in the same vein. Villeneuve toys with the philosophy and ideas behind the first film and further develops some plot threads but also still manages to keep the enigma sustained in other areas of debate. This is coupled with strong thematic elements such as memory, age and identity and the juxtapositions between what it means to be human or a replicant. There is an excellent exchange in the script that has allusions to Pinnochio which is really fulfilling.

The cast expectedly deliver and Ryan Gosling manages to take the baton from Harrison Ford in the leading role seamlessly. The role suits Gosling perfectly, not too dissimilar from his leading role in Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive. Gosling is our main point of view into this filmic world and he’s pretty much in every scene and the rest of the cast feature around his character’s journey. The two standout performances though are surprisingly from Dave Bautista and Ana de Armas. Bautista, who has steadily been on the rise in recent years in films such as Guardians of the Galaxy (and its sequel) and Spectre, only really appears in one major scene but his character is extremely committed, vulnerable and tranquil. Apparently Villeneuve originally was against casting Bautista until he proved himself in his third interview. I frankly can’t imagine anyone else in that role. Ana de Armas is also surprisingly brilliant and her character is instrumental to the theme of reality and self-awareness in the film. The rest of the cast are all sound although I don’t really understand why people think Harrison Ford’s performance is one of his best – I thought his performance was more in vein with his return to similarly lately revived franchise pieces such as Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull and Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

The quality of the action sequences and Roger Deakins’ cinematography truly elevate the film and distinguish between the macro and micro elements of the world created. Villeneuve continues his trend of strong opening scenes, a scene that manages to both be particularly raw and blunt whilst also situating itself in the grander scheme of things within the film. A fight sequence in a theatre is also wonderfully staged as is a three-way sex scene which has many textual layers to it. Every single shot by Deakins feels meticulously crafted throughout the film and there are many instances in the film where my jaw dropped in amazement. It’s just a little bit of a shame that the final action sequence can’t quite live up to the others as it begins to touch a little too closely to the first film and loses a considerable amount of the spark the film had before.

This is just one of the issues I have on first viewing of the film. Whilst I praise Villeneuve’s stance towards the film, it is also his downfall. There is always the threat in a big budget blockbuster that you lose some of the director’s oeuvre compared to their previous work. Whilst there are some moments where Villeneuve’s input is clear, for example from some of the black imagery of greed and class, a staple of some of his previous works. Whilst this is not because of the fact that the film was made by studio executives (it’s certainly not) like many other blockbusters, perhaps part of the reason why Villeneuve’s input isn’t as apparent is because he channels Ridley Scott’s direction of the first film too much. The film feels like an exact continuation of the first film in the same vein resulting in this loss of authorship. Some may think this is a good thing but I think the film would be a lot more impressive if more of his director’s voice had seeped its way into the film as it certainly suits the material.

Linking to this lack of voice and the self-admiration from the crew of the original film, Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch’s score feels very safe. I covered the departure of original composer and regular Villeneuve collaborator, Johann Jóhannsson in a previous post and this is to the film’s detriment. Zimmer and Wallfisch’s score is too close to home with Vangelis’ original. This isn’t particularly unexpected considering how late they signed onto the project, late into the Summer this year. There are a handful of moments of greatness and I am sure that Jóhannsson’s score hasn’t entirely been removed as there is a moment set in the city early on in the film where Gosling’s character meets Mackenzie Davis which could only have been scored by him. It’s a cue that growls and wails and perfectly meshes with what is being portrayed on-screen.

The film is also overlong. I’m all for a film that is willing to take its time to explore its heady themes and tackle a well-woven plot. It is about twenty minutes too long in an intimidating 163 minute run time and whilst I’m all for gaping at Roger Deakins’ stunning cinematography, there are some moments which come to a standstill which could have been improved by a slightly quicker pace. The film also made me feel quite empty – I didn’t really emotionally resonate with it. There are scenes in its plot line which are designed for a reaction but like the numerous replicants that inhabit the film, it left me quite cold.

Blade Runner 2049 is frequently mesmerising to behold on-screen and Villeneuve’s intention towards the project is impressive. Technically, the film is a marvel to behold bolstered by its strong performances. However, it is not quite the victorious slamdunk I expected it to be on the strengths of Denis Villeneuve’s previous works. A lot of this masterful director’s trademarks aren’t immediately apparent in the film due to Villeneuve emulating Ridley Scott’s direction of the first film a little too closely. The film is also overlong and frequently emotionally lacking. Without trying to sound too critical of the film, it is testament to how strongly I regard Villeneuve as a director and the subsequent expectations I had going into this film. Blade Runner 2049 is generally a very strong sequel but like its predecessor, requires time and repeat viewings to further ascertain its quality and lasting impression.

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

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Gerald’s Game (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Mike Flanagan
Starring: Carla Gugino, Bruce Greenwood, Carel Struycken, Henry Thomas, Kate Siegel

Certificate: 18
Run Time: 103 mins

2017 has been quite the year for film adaptations of Stephen King novels, varying in quality and success. The Dark Tower sunk after it was released to terrible reviews back in August and It has been a critical and financial juggernaut. Gerald’s Game is a lot smaller in scale compared to the latter two films, a ‘Netflix Original’ (you can read my rather strong opinion of this format here), an adaptation of King’s 1992 novel.

In case you’re not familiar with the novel, Gerald’s Game is about a sex game gone horrifically wrong between the titular Gerald and his wife, Jessie. Gerald handcuffs Jessie to the bed and suffers a fatal heart attack with Jessie still tied. The film details her struggle to free herself and at the same time, they may have accidentally left the front door open where a hungry stray dog is waiting for its food…

Gerald’s Game is directed by Mike Flanagan who has proven himself multiple times in the horror genre. He did a good job with Oculus, a film that was mostly pretty good other than being overlong Hush, a Netflix Original Film that I really liked and directed Ouija: Origin of Evil and pulling off the incredible feat of U-turning the terrible reception to the first film with his strong second film. The material definitely suits him and if there’s anyone who can do a good job of it, it’s him.

Gerald’s Game is an interesting piece of work – it takes King’s strong concept and implements it pretty well and there are moments where it is thematically enriching. However, for the majority of the film’s runtime, Flanagan’s film resorts to exposition and I found it very challenging to empathise with the film’s characters. Luckily, Flanagan manages to craft a genuinely creepy ending which allows the film to leave on a high note and ties the narrative in beautifully – it’s a shame that the majority of the film is a slog to get through before we are rewarded.

A stronger script would have really worked wonders for Flanagan and could have really elevated the overall quality of the film. It’s a real shame characters tell audiences the information we need to know rather than being shown. King’s novel is quite lengthy and it feels as if Flangan and collaborator Mike Howard’s script has tried to condense a lot of the material into monologues. This makes the film feel oddly like a stage play at times and less cinematic. Flanagan clearly has respect for the material – it’s a faithful adaptation and there are even subtle nods to other Stephen King works. It’s just a shame he didn’t know how to make his script work for the big screen.

At least the cast are up to the task of making the most of the opportunity. Carla Gugino is excellent as Jessie, who excels as she becomes increasingly desperate to be released from her struggle and a character whose past comes back to haunt her. Bruce Greenwood gives a particularly nuanced performance as Gerald, a character who is tired, stuck in a rut but also deeply controlling. Both actors do a great job in portraying the weariness of their characters –  it is clearly a marriage that has reached its end and they are both clutching at straws to try and continue it. Their relationship is awkward and both hide their true feelings from each other.

Unfortunately though, it’s hard to root for unrelatable characters. I found Gerald to be despicable and his death didn’t have any emotional resonance at all. I found it hard to even root for Gugino’s Jessie at times, a character so gullibly ruled by the patriarch and someone who hasn’t done anything with her life except feeling sorry for herself.

It’s a welcome relief that Flanagan manages to make up for the film’s problems with an ending that is genuinely chilling and emotionally resonant. I’m a big believer that it’s always better for a disappointing film to pick up at the end rather than the beginning as audiences will leave on a high note. The ending beautifully allows its narative to come full-circle and is thematically rewarding. Perhaps a rewatch would allow for me to pick up on some of the more subtle aspects that feature in its ending and that would elevate my opinion of the film.

Another high point of the film is Michael Fimognari’s cinematography. Fimognari knows when to hold onto a shot rather than resorting to quick cuts and there are a couple of simply awe-inspiring shots on a beach mid-way into the film. The same can’t be said for The Newton Brother’s score which adds nothing to the film and isn’t memorable in the slightest. A real shame as they have done much better work in the past particularly with Oculus.

Gerald’s Game is ultimately not the slamdunk it should have been and it oddly feels the most distanced from Flanagan’s directorial style compared to his other works. It’s always refreshing to see directors try something new but the film is squandered by a weak script which makes the grave mistake of telling rather than showing. Luckily, the good performances from its cast manage to elevate the film and Flanagan sticks the ending allowing the film to conclude on a high note. It’s a solid effort but Flanagan doesn’t manage to reach the heights of his previous work.

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Kingsman: The Golden Circle (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Matthew Vaughn
Starring: Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Halle Berry, Elton John, Pedro Pascal, Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges 

Certificate: 15
Run Time: 141 mins

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is the sequel to the very unexpectedly brilliant first installment in early 2015. The first one was a very guilty pleasure for me – it’s very boisterous and ultraviolent but still manages to carry all the swagger and suave tone that all the best spy films do with impressive action sequences and comedy to boot. Director Matthew Vaughn has a very impressive resume, directing X-Men: First Class, Stardust and Kick-Ass for example, the latter a very anti-comic book film with plenty of swearing and violence. Kingsman is to the spy genre as Kick-Ass is to the comic-book genre. Vaughn returns in the director’s chair, as does screenwriter Jane Goldman (also behind The Limehouse Golem which was released earlier last month) so the film should be in safe hands.

This time, Taron Egerton’s Eggsy is back for another mission after Kingsman’s headquarters are infiltrated very early on into the film and along with Mark Strong’s loveable Merlin team up with their American counterparts, Statesman. Together, they have to tackle Julianne Moore’s drug kingpin villain who has taken the whole world hostage with a sinister plan. It’s a certainly a well-worn narrative that has been done before, particularly the notion of literally expanding a film across the globe. John Wick: Chapter 2 earlier this year used this device as well to open up its cinematic world. Reviewers have not taken as kindly to this installment with reviews decidedly mixed compared to the positive reception of the first film. Many have been critical of its tone and the fact that it is even more violent, sexual and sweary than the first film.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle revisits a lot of the same notes from its original and is a bit of a mess narratively. Due to this, the film lacks the punch the first film had and suffers in its overlong pacing. These reservations aside, the film still manages to maintain the boisterous nature of the first one and I found it to be very entertaining and enjoyable despite the obvious dip in originality. It draws on a lot of the iconography of the spy genre and Vaughn impresses again with his ability to present a convincing subversion of society, particularly regarding current American politics. 

What allows the film to work and stand on top of its convoluted narrative are the strong characters. All of the characters that return from the original film are excellent again and have some great character beats, particularly Mark Strong’s Merlin. The new characters are also by-and-large a worthy addition to this canon. Jeff Bridges and Pedro Pascal in particular make a good impression as Statesman agents, Pascal’s character in particular is developed assuringly. Halle Berry and Channing Tatum aren’t given all that much to do but manage to do a serviceable job with what they’ve got and I anticipate that in future installments, they would suit the material well. As this next cast member has been heavily marketed in the promotional material so I don’t deem this to be a spoiler, it’s no surprise to see Colin Firth back in the film after his wonderful performance in the first film. Firth does an expectedly good job but I feel that Firth’s presence in the film does detract from the first film where it seemed as if he was well and truly dead. There’s always a problem when you bring people back from the dead that any sense of danger is lost and this is a problem with the film. I’ve lambasted Marvel for doing it many times and I personally would rather he had stayed dead to maximise effect. I’ve also got some problems with Julianne Moore’s vicious yet work-shy villain who is nowhere near as effective as Samuel L. Jackson’s lisping, hilarious villain in the first film but Moore does her best despite her acting ability not holding a candle to Jackson’s. The saying that a spy film is only as good as its villain is certainly the case here and this is where the film loses some ground too.

Vaughn still manages to pack in a few genuine surprises with the narrative that him and Goldman have crafted but the overarching narrative for the film feels rather contrived. The film is a rather hefty 141 minutes which could easily be taken down by 15/20 minutes with a couple of expository scenes. The mission that Eggsy is sent on as well feels like ticking a shopping list at times and it feels like characters need to do awfully complicated things before they can move on. This makes the film rather cluttered and haphazard in its pacing. Contrary to reviewers who have criticised the film for being more violent and crude than the first, I have to disagree. Whilst the film certainly earns its 15 rating, the fact that it’s lesser in tone results in violence that has less impact compared to the first film. The film felt more routine due to the introduction of this world that now has some familiarity.

Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson return for the score, which again isn’t groundbreaking but they manage to craft a few themes that mesh well with the film but not really developing from the foundations of what they had for the first film. The film is again shot by George Richmond who does a really good job and there are a couple of shots that are just wonderful to behold.

Overall, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is a step-down as it revisits a lot of the same notes and themes the original had. But it’s still a rewarding watch that is generally very entertaining, mostly maintaining its obnoxious and crass tone and features some great performances once again. If you were a fan of the first film, I imagine you’d have fun with this and I struggle to see why some have taken so offensively to the film.

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

mother! (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Darren Aronofsky
Starring: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer, Brian Gleeson, Domhnall Gleeson, Kristen Wiig 

Certificate: 18
Run Time: 121 mins

‘mother!’ is one of my most anticipated films of the year mainly because it is directed by Darren Aronofsky. Aronofsky’s entire catalogue (barring his debut ‘Pi’) is extremely strong, a director perhaps most famous for the towering heights of ‘Requiem For A Dream’, ‘The Wrestler’ and ‘Black Swan’. Aronofsky has always been devoted to exploring religion in pretty much all of his films and ‘Noah’, his film prior to ‘mother!’ is a particularly insane Biblical retelling in a mainstream format that could only have been created by this director. Sticking with this theme of creation, the ability to create plays an integral part in a lot of his films, again ‘Noah’ demonstrates this extremely well and ‘The Fountain’ is a similarly bonkers, allegorical account of life.

‘mother!’ has been marketed as a horror-thriler / home invasion film. Jennifer Lawrence (Aronofsky’s current real life muse) plays the titular, unnamed character (all the characters in the film are nameless) who is partner to Javier Bardem’s Him, a poet who is suffering with writer’s block. They lead a tranquil life in their country home where Bardem tries to (and unsuccessfully) write and Lawrence tries to renovate the house, marking their personal stamp on their property. This is all disrupted by the arrival of a man (called Man) played by Ed Harris who mistakes the property for a bed-and-breakfast whom Bardem offers to let him stay. His wife, ‘Woman’ played by Michelle Pfeiffer, arrives shortly after and Bardem’s poet begins to take a strong interest in the characters and finds inspiration for his works when all hell begins to break loose.

Narratively, the film doesn’t take a conventional route and it can be interpreted in many diferent ways. Again, it is extremely allegorical and in my opinion, contains Aronofsky’s signature themes of religion again and I see the film in many way as a continuation of ‘The Fountain’ and ‘Noah’. This is a film that is really going to challenge its audience which has showed by its big divide between critics who generally like the film and audiences who seem to dislike the film. Not that CinemaScore should ever be taken for gospel, but the film scored an F with audiences and there have been many an article online and in print damning the film. Like the vast majority of Aronofsky’s works, ‘mother!’ is more of an experiment into the surreal and spiritual.

One has to be tread very carefully when discussing this film and I am yet to fully form my genuine opinion of the film as the film requires multiple rewatches. My initial response to ‘mother!’ however, is that it is a film that I was enamoured by at times but I also have reservations. The film is a paranoid, nightmarish rush from beginning to end and is set in a world that is desolate, unforgiving and cruel. Lawrence’s character goes through all manners of physical and psychological torture and time and time again, we are made to witness this degradation.

The film showcases all of Darren Aronofsky’s best and worst qualities. Aronofsky revels in exploring religion here again and there are many parallels with the notion of Christianity prevalent in the film. Aronofsky’s characterisations demonstrate this, particularly with Bardem’s character who as the film progresses, is presented as a God-like figure, having physical and creative control of the events that unfold in and he is even referred to rather explicitly as a ‘Creator’. Aronofsky also continues to have a grandiose sense of scale, presenting the house as idyllic and initially a sanctuary that nurtures Lawrence and Bardem’s characters. The house is very much as important a player as the real characters in the film. Equally possible and quite explicitly, Aronofsky is critical of the state of the environmental world, exploring themes of overpopulation and war. The soul of the film literally turns very black as the film continues.

Aronofsky’s reach exceeds his grasp as the film progresses and particularly when the film reaches its latter half and tension really elevates, he can’t quite control the chaos that ensues on-screen. Again, it’s a film that I need to rewatch but I found myself rather lost inside the chaos and found the film hard and jarring to keep up with until it reaches its crescendo. I also found his message (or messages) rather overbearing and explicit (which in hindsight, need to be) in juxtaposition to the more subtle and quieter nature of the first half of the film.

What is easier to determine are the quality of the performances. Jennifer Lawrence continues to impressively progress her career here and she manages to perfectly encapsulate both the idyllic and the torment she faces. She is very much the means to which we explore the film, Aronofsky’s regular cinematographer Matthew Libatique’s lens constantly and uncomfortably focussing on our main character. Javier Bardem has perhaps the meatiest role of the film, a character who we can forgive at first for his seemingly rash decisions but then a character who we feel just as isolated from as Lawrence’s character does too. Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer are also superb here, Pfeiffer particularly unlikeable and smarmy as she begins to tear the couple’s relationship and the house from the inside out. It’s a perfect role for her. Domhnall Gleeson’s performance is also equally paranoid as the film who is also given an important role and Kristen Wiig crops up as a character who her personality perfectly matches too.

The glue to all of Aronofsky’s films thus far has been Clint Mansell’s scores which particularly in ‘Requiem For A Dream’ and ‘The Fountain’ have soared. This is Mansell’s first departure from an Aronofsky film and the film is deeply uncomfortable without it, often giving us a false sense of security. Denis Villeneuve-regular Johann Johannsson had first been approached to score the film and wrote a score but both composer and director came to a mutual decision that the film would be better off sans score. This does work and it only adds to the lack of order and coherence the film has but I think the film could have done with some score in parts to really help the film flow better and give it more weight. In particular when you have Johannsson involved, to throw out a score is sacrilege!

I still haven’t really made up my mind on ‘mother!’ and I doubt I will until I have watched it a few more times. The first two acts are particularly grim and brooding and develop really neatly into what is a bonkers third act. I think I enjoy the film more for its conceptual nature rather than the actual film itself which I found a little hard to get into at times. That said, the film has made a very long lasting impression on me and I keep thinking about it. Aronofsky crafts some really strong and memorable images and I really enjoyed the characterisation. ‘mother!’ reinforces my love of the medium of film particularly as it challenges its audience. It’s not a film designed to just be acceptable and dumb and appeal to the lowest common denominator. I’m not really sure (and it is surely deliberate by Aronofsky) what the film means but on first viewing, I found the film to be delirious, deeply allegorical, manic, paranoid and genuinely unnerving. ‘mother!’ is definitely a film that deserves and I appreciate exists.

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

It (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Andres Muschietti
Starring: Jaeden Liberher, Bill Skarsgård, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer 

Certificate: 15
Run Time: 135 mins

‘It’ is the deliriously anticipated film adaptation of the 1986 Stephen King novel. ‘It’ focuses on the cursed town of Derry, Maine where a demonic presence (taking the form of Pennywise the Dancing Clown) inflicts terror every 27 years, terrorising and murdering children and shapeshifting into their worst nightmares. The narrative follows a group of misfit children who call themselves ‘The Losers Club’, together attempting to end this malevolent curse. There has previously been a mini-series in 1990, perhaps most famous for Tim Curry’s electric performance as Pennywise. This 2017 iteration is directed by Andres Muschietti, his second film after the grating, cliche-ridden ‘Mama’ (2013). Muschietti had replaced Cary Fukunaga who now remains with solely a writing credit.

‘It’ is hypnotic and tension-fuelled for the first half, flowing very naturally. Fukunaga’s influence in tone remains, fully fleshing out its captivating characters. Where the film has wildly succeeded is in its casting. ‘The Losers Club’ are all cast perfectly and Jaeden Libeher and Finn Wolfhard give a particularly genuine performance as Bill, the group’s leader and Richie, a character with an uncommonly foul mouth. Facing stiff competition from Tim Curry who set the bar extremely high, Bill Skarsgard makes Pennywise his own and is supremely sinister and charismatic. The film also features a thoughtful and melodic score by Benjamin Wallfisch and is handsomely shot by Chung-hoon Chung.

Unfortunately, ‘It’ becomes rather wearing in its second half and its scares cheap and uninventive. The ending is quite predictable, with too much concern of setting up the upcoming second part. The visual effects are also surprisingly ropey despite the film’s modest budget.

If you’re looking to be suitably scared, prepare to be disappointed. This is more ‘funhouse’ scary than truly neck-prickling more in the vein of Richard Donner’s ‘The Goonies’ (1985). Although ‘It’ may not do much to advance the horror genre, it’s certainly thrilling enough particularly in its first half to pass the time well.

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Wind River (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Director: Taylor Sheridan
Starring: Jeremy Renner, Elizabeth Olsen, Gil Birmingham, Jon Bernthal, Graham Greene

Certificate: 15
Run Time: 111 mins

‘Wind River’ is Taylor Sheridan’s directorial debut (if you discount the critically mauled torture porn horror, ‘Vile’ in 2011) after writing ‘Sicario‘ and ‘Hell or High Water‘, both films that I really love. Sheridan regards ‘Wind River’  as a third part of a trilogy which began with the aforementioned two films on the modern American frontier, certainly helping ‘Wind River’ gain weight.

Set in Wyoming on the Wind River Indian Reservation, tracker Cory Lambert (Jeremy Renner) discovers the raped and murdered body of Natalie Hanson who has just turned 18 years old. She is barefoot, without proper Winter clothing and miles away from civilisation. FBI Agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is brought in to solve the case who enlists the help of Lambert for his tracking expertise and the local Police headed by its Chief, Ben (Graham Greene). Banner is clearly out of her depth in this chilling climate, a fish-out-of-water character whom the Tribal Police are critical of due to her gender and lack of experience. But Sheridan is deeply respectful as always, he doesn’t explore gender in a derogatory manner.

This narrative is familiar ground for Sheridan but as the film progresses in solving this mystery, we learn about some of the other area’s inhabitants and characters who battle their own demons. The town in ‘Wind River’ is just as important a character as its living ones, its personification of it being a predator to the Indian prey is deeply elegiac. One of the very first scenes we see in the film is a deeply haunting and mournful shot of a herd of sheep being stalked by wolves. This is an environment where one lives to survive or be killed.

‘Wind River’ is another cracker by Sheridan who ably steps up to the task of directing as well as writing. Like his previous projects, it is very poetic in parts and deeply haunting and melancholic and his script intelligently written with memorable lines. The unpredictable outbursts violence are extremely raw and brutal, portraying the utter nastiness that this conflict between cultures has resorted to.

There are clear juxtapositions between the cold, harsh lanscape surrounding this civilization and the warmth of the inside. There is a constant presence of the cold wind breathing on the necks of these characters which makes ‘Wind River’ deeply sensory for its audiences. At times, I got tingles from the cold, piercing feeling of walking barefoot on snow – Sheridan really has succeeded in crafting a believable world for this narrative to inhabit within.

The film is also surprisingly important as it has a lot to say on Native Americans and their mistreatment – a title card at the very end of the film really hits this story home. This mistreatment of Native Americans on a macro scale ties very cleverly into the theme of family on a micro one. We briefly meet the parents of this murdered teenager, the father played by Gil Birmingham who puts in a sombre and reflective performance in the two very powerful scenes in the film that he features in. Even more brief is our insight into how her mother has taken this shocking news. But it is not just Natalie’s death that has caused the Hanson family to descend into turmoil, it is the detachment of their son, Chip, to drugs – again the film is insightfully investigative into how the landscape and town can split our characters up from each other and leave them only clinging on for survival.

Both Jeremy Renner’s and Elizabeth Olsen’s performances as Lambert and Banner are also wonderfully intertwined into the film. Renner, in a career best performance, gives a more subtle and quiet performance as Lambert’s tracker who also secretly battles his own demons. Elizabeth Olsen also excels as the FBI Agent who struggles to get a grip of controlling the volatile situation, a character who is both naive and out of her depth, but academically intelligent and has her heart in the right place.

Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ score is particularly atmospheric and moody and really lends itself well to the film’s harsh and brutal lanscape. Cave and Ellis continue to prove why they are one of the finest composing duo’s of recent memory and also did an outstanding job on ‘Hell or High Water’ last year. They revisit some of the familiar themes implored in that film and their other body of work and Cave lends his soothing voice in multiple moments to further describe the barren and feral environment these characters are living in.

Although overall melancholic and sorrowful, ‘Wind River’ faulters in its third act. The big reveal is quite jarring in its pacing and disrupts the pace of the film. Its conclusion feels a little too neat and the film could have really propelled from another twist – as far as murder mysteries go, this one is fairly simplistic for its audience to solve. It also doesn’t quite boast the same amount of energy ‘Sicario’ or ‘Hell or High Water’ had with their breakneck pace and tension. ‘Wind River’ is a more sensory film about discovery and cruelty and the theme of isolation.

‘Wind River’ is definitely a film worthy of your time and attention and Sheridan manages to deliver another satisfying rural Western that is very thematic. It boasts some terrific performances and an intelligent script that has a lot to say on its subject matter. Although on first viewing ‘Wind River’ doesn’t feel quite as strong as Sheridan’s other work, it’s still an excellent piece of work and hopefully a film that will further improve the more it is unpacked and rewatched.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

The Limehouse Golem (Review)

the-limehouse-golem

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Juan Carlos Medina
Starring: Bill Nighy, Olivia Cooke, Douglas Booth, Daniel Mays, Sam Reid, Maria Valverde, Eddie Marsan

Certificate: 15
Run Time: 109 mins

“Let us begin, my friends, at the end”, a theatrical actor states in the film’s first frame before enticing audiences into a thrilling murder mystery blend of fact and fiction. Bill Nighy’s Inspector Kildare, “a man not of the marrying kind”, is thrown straight in the deep end, assigned to a seemingly unsolvable case against the titular Limehouse Golem serial killer. Intertwined to this narrative is the poisoning of John Cree (Sam Reid), who Kildare soon investigates as a suspect to the murders by linking him to a library where the Golem has attended. His actress wife, Elizabeth (Olivia Cooke) is also suspected and brought to trial and Kildare, convinced of her innocence, tries to save her but also use her recounting of events to try and catch the killer.

‘The Limehouse Golem’ is an adaptation by screenwriter Jane Goldman of Peter Ackroyd’s 1994 novel. This material suits Goldman to a tee, previously writing similarly Gothic material such as the excellent ‘The Woman in Black’. The film is directed by Juan Carlos Medina, who previously directed a film called ‘Painless’ which similarly intertwined two stories in the horror genre. An all-star cast round out the film with the ever-reliable Bill Nighy in the lead, replacing Alan Rickman after his sad death. Rising stars Olivia Cooke and Douglas Booth also star as does an almost unrecognisable Eddie Marsan who can always be relied on to elevate the quality of a film.

‘The Limehouse Golem’ is generally a solid film and thematically rich, knowingly investigating themes of duality, the theatre and performance, gender and blame. It boasts some very assured performances and particularly in its second half, has some well-executed twists and turns. However, the film is a little cluttered and severely lacks tension. There are many graphic blood splatterings and images of murdered bodies but the intended shock is never earned due to this lack of tension – there never really are any stakes. But when the film finds its footing in its second half and its narrative develops, it’s very solid and I did generally have a good time watching this film.

Elevating the material are the impressive performances by its cast and they don’t disappoint. I can’t remember the last time Bill Nighy has had a lead role in a film, but he is fantastic here as Inspector Kildare and proves why he is one of Britain’s finest actors. Olivia Cooke continues to impress after impressive turns in ‘The Quiet Ones’ and ‘Me and Earl and the Dying Girl’ and proves which she is one of Britain’s rising stars. She suits this film to a tee and really seems to revel in the horror-thriller genre. Douglas Booth’s theatre owner Dan Leno manages to pull off multiple performances that the character plays in productions. Daniel Mays as a policeman, George Flood, shares great chemistry with Nighy’s Inspector and Sam Reid also has good chemistry with Cooke’s suspected murdering wife. The ever-reliable Eddie Marsan, who is almost unrecognisable in this film, plays a very multi-dimensional character who walks a fine line between comedy and sternness.

The script by Jane Goldman is another fine one to add to her resume, who seemingly revels in the material. The film moves at quite a fast pace but not without neglecting to thoroughly investigate its characters and more importantly, its suspects. As the film progresses to its explosive finale, I started to really care for quite a few of its unpredictable characters. Both Medina and Goldman throughly delve into the film’s thematic elements, particularly through metatheatre. The stage is a big presence in the film and it is here that we see multiple sides to these different characters and their duality. It is also a place where both genders are portrayed in ways that challenge convention in their context.

A shortcoming, largely of Medina’s direction more than Goldman’s script is the film’s depriving of tension. There are many instances where the film could have implored more of this particularly prior to each of the grisly murders that are explicitly detailed on-screen, fully earning the film’s 15 rating. Medina, bizarrely, seems to just gloss over these and prioritises gore over what the audience cannot see. Perhaps if he had managed to carve a more nerve-wracking atmosphere prior to showing the murders, this would have been more thrilling but there really isn’t much horror in this film other than some bloody images. There was certainly scope for a more suspense-fuelled film in Goldman’s script but Medina seems to have overlooked this. It’s a testament to the quality of the characters and narrative that the film still manages to succeed.

‘The Limehouse Golem’ is another strong Victorian-set murder mystery film which is elevated by its strong analysis of its core themes. It features some very assured performances and a fine script. I was very satisfied by the film’s climax and where its narrative had developed and the film is generally quite intelligent and thoughtful. What it lacks though is atmosphere and tension which would really have elevated the film and cemented it into more of the horror genre as opposed to the grisly murders feeling quite mechanical and mere plot devices to advance the narrative. Otherwise, a generally solid effort and its plethora of talent do the film proud.

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

The Hitman’s Bodyguard (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Patrick Hughes
Starring: Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Gary Oldman, Salma Hayek, Elodie Yung, Joaquim de Almeida, Kirsty Mitchell, Sam Hazeldine, Richard E. Grant

Certificate: 15
Run Time: 118 mins

‘The Hitman’s Bodyguard’ is frankly, a terrible title for a film but if you look beyond this oversight, what you get here is what seemingly appears to be an old-school throwback 80’s style action film with two wisecracking actors, Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson. The film has looked like an extremely fun film from its trailers with plenty of swearing and violence thrown in for good measure.  The story is rather run-of-the-mill where Reynolds and Jackson’s characters have to put aside their differences to take down a ruthless, merciless Belarussian director played by Gary Oldman. Where the film looks a little less promising is behind the scenes. The film is directed by Patrick Hughes of whom this is his third title to his belt after ‘Red Hill’ and the utterly awful ‘The Expendables 3′. Hughes’ career has been pretty patchy to say the least so far so one has to be weary of this film as a trailer can always look good but the film could be just as incoherent, humourless and overlong as the latter.

‘The Hitman’s Bodyguard’ doesn’t break any new ground and is quite simplistic on the narrative front. That said though, it is ashamedly enjoyable, the leads have fantastic chemistry and it’s really quite funny in parts. The film is a little wearing in places and overlong but Hughes actually has been able to craft a good-enough film here. He even shows considerably flair for the action sequences which are finely crafted. I was never bored throughout the film and it always managed to grab my attention.

The performances are what really propel this film and without the electric chemistry shared between Reynolds and Jackson, ‘The Hitman’s Bodyguard’ could have had a very different critical fate. Both Reynolds and Jackson play themselves in effect and both characters are suitably developed so we actually care for them as the film progresses. In particular, Samuel L. Jackson in great in anything he’s in and here is no exception. Out of the rest of the cast, Salma Hayek and Elodie Yung fare the best, the former as Jackson’s wife and the latter, Reynold’s ex. Gary Oldman is suitably ruthless as the over-the-top villain.

Perhaps the most impressive aspect of the film is in conjunction with the strong characters are the action sequences. An extended sequence set in Amsterdam later into the film is particularly impressive and I was really impressed with the camera work by Jules O’Loughlin and playfulness of the action being portrayed on-screen. Compared to ‘The Expendables 3’ which was lazily crafted and its action incoherent due to there being far too many edits, O’Loughlin manages to have a good variety of camera trickery. It’s a brilliant sequence that manages to blend action film tropes, innovation and stakes for the well-developed characters.

‘The Hitman’s Bodyguard’ is luckily not the disaster it could have been and whilst it holds its badge of pride high and it is a little obnoxious tonally, it is generally really solid and always fun. Reynolds and Jackson really help to anchor this film and combined with some thrilling action sequences elevate the material that these filmmakers had to work with. Had these two aspects not been so good, the film could seriously have suffered. I feel rather ashamed to have liked it as much as I did but ‘The Hitman’s Bodyguard’ ultimately makes for a dumb but fun Summer action flick with a beaming heart.

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Annabelle: Creation (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: David F. Sandberg
Starring: Stephanie Sigman, Talitha Bateman, Lulu Wilson, Anthony LaPaglia, Miranda Otto 

Certificate: 15
Run Time: 109 mins

‘Annabelle: Creation’ is a sequel-cum-prequel to 2014’s ‘Annabelle’ and is the next entry set in the filmic universe of ‘The Conjuring’. I thought ‘Annabelle’ was incredibly disappointing after James Wan had done an excellent job on ‘The Conjuring’ the year before. It is laugh-out-loud funny in parts, boring and has some atrocious performances from its cast. There’s a reason Ward Horton has seemingly vanished off the film scene… Although it would seem as if I aggressively didn’t want a sequel, when news came that in the director’s chair would be David F. Sandberg, I instantly had faith he’d do a good job. Sandberg is an excellent director who did a very efficient job with last year’s ‘Lights Out’ and he is infinitely more creative than John R. Leonetti who had directed the first film. I also really like both ‘Conjuring’ films and having Wan’s name on a film mostly indicates to a quality production. ‘Annabelle: Creation’ is set before ‘Annabelle’ and we are first introduced to the Mullins family played by Anthony LaPaglia as Samuel, a toymaker and Miranda Otto as Esther and their daughter, Annabelle but nicknamed ‘Bee’. Very quickly into the film, Bee is run over by a car and is killed. 12 years later, a still-grieving Samuel and Esther welcome a nun and several orphans from an orphange to live in their property but as you can probably guess, things don’t turn out so well. The story doesn’t exactly break new ground but if the film is able to craft a creepy atmosphere and narratively advance this wider universe, the film has done its job.

And it does. ‘Annabelle: Creation’ is a marked improvement over its predecessor and is suitably scary, features good character development and is shot beautifully by cinematographer Maxime Alexandre. It also ties itself nicely into the wider universe but not enough to detract from the film – Sandberg still manages to satisfy on a standalone level. One must applaud Sandberg for having a go at crafting many different types of scare and seeing what sticks and there are several sequences which are superbly crafted. Unfortunately, the film does stick to convention at times and there are a few sections bordering on comedy but it is so, so much better than its predecessor in every level.

The performances in the film are great. Both Talitha Bateman and Lulu Wilson as Janice and Linda, two young orphans, the former a sufferer of polio who is confined to crutches excel in this film and have so much charisma and chemistry together. It’s also refreshing to see Anthony LaPaglia and Miranda Otto in a mainstream film and both remind us why they deserve to act more often.

The scares are what Sandberg really nails and it’s good to see him try to stray away from convention. All of the films in ‘The Conjuring’ universe so far have impressed by being 15-rated without strong language, gore or sex. ‘Annabelle: Creation’ strays from the pack a bit as there are several sequences which are quite bloody and gory but it works in the film as Sandberg tries to shock audiences. One doesn’t really expect much other than a jump scare and Sandberg shakes up this tired routine. It is definitely the most startling entry in the canon so far in this regard.

Unfortunately, the story is rather conventional at times and characters do make some quite frankly stupid decisions. There are some moments which dangerously veer into comedic territory but Sandberg’s innovative scares manage to outweigh this problem. Had Sandberg been equipped with a stronger script, he really could have knocked this film out of the park.

Maxime Alexandre’s cinematography is excellent here and there are multiple moments where the images crafted were just breathtaking. Alexandre’s camera angles also differ from the norm and he knows when to hold onto a shot for dramatic effect. Benjamin Wallfisch’s score is also strong at times and fits in nicely with the film.

Overall, my high hopes for this film proved to be correct and Sandberg continues to cement himself as a strong horror director. ‘Annabelle: Creation’ is one of those rare sequels that manages to improve on its original in every way, a very poor film and this is a very reasonable one. It’s suitably scary and manages to tie itself nicely into the cinematic universe neatly without feeling forced. It proves the point that spin-off’s aren’t always cash-grabs, if anything it further enrichens the main canon of ‘Conjuring’ films. With ‘The Nun’ and ‘The Crooked Man’ in the pipeline following their introduction in ‘The Conjuring 2‘, there’s a good possiblity we’re in for a set of more quality films.

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

 

 

Dunkirk (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurin Barnard, James D’Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy 

Certificate: 12A
Run Time: 106 mins

‘Dunkirk’ is one of my most hotly anticipated films of the year, a war film based on the titular 1940 event directed by one of my favourite directors, Christopher Nolan. Nolan has been behind some of my favourite films of all time such as ‘Inception’, ‘The Dark Knight’ and ‘The Prestige’ to name a few and even his weaker films are still excellent in their own right. The man hasn’t put a foot wrong yet and consistently crafts intelligent films for his audiences. ‘Dunkirk’ is another lofty concept by this intelligent director, a retelling of the World War Two event told in the structure of a triptych. We follow front-line soldiers for a week on land, we follow Mark Rylance’s civilian, Mr Dawson take their boat rather than have it commandeered by the Royal Navy out to sea to rescue soldiers over a day. Finally, we follow three RAF Spitfires (one being Tom Hardy) who provide air support to the battle over an hour. As the film progresses, we see how these three stories interlink with each other. It’s refreshing to see filmmakers such as Nolan try and experiment with genre convention. As good as some war films are, by-and-large there are always characters which we can sympathise with who guide the audience’s way through the film – not so much here. Nolan’s script is also reportedly very short with not a lot of dialogue so frequent collaborator Hans Zimmer’s score needs to cut the mustard to give the film its flow as well as cinematography and editing. Initial reviews for this film have been extremely positive, some even citing this film as his best work.

Whilst there is undoubtedly a lot to admire in ‘Dunkirk’, unfortunately I also have a lot of problems with it. It’s not a bad film by any means but Nolan misses the mark for me in a story that is too ambitious and hard to have any care towards. This was a point that kept cropping up in a lot of the more lukewarm reviews that I read prior to watching the film and I got a little bit annoyed as it seems as if those reviewers want convention. I can’t quite put my finger on it but the actual tone of the film seems off and I didn’t really find myself caring much for not just the characters but the actual event as the approach for me felt too conservative. It’s a very strange approach to take and I applaud Nolan for taking it but along with other reasons which I will discuss, I couldn’t find an emotional response.

The performances and characters in this film aren’t particularly developed as mentioned as Nolan tries to tell the story as it is, not by emotionally manipulating its audience by caring for its characters. That said, Fionn Whitehead certainly makes an impression in the highest-billed role and epitomises the notion of the faceless soldier. Barry Keoghan as a young boy heading off to sea with Mark Rylance’s father is also excellent. Even Harry Styles manages to suprisingly make an impression as a young British Private. Out of the more veteran cast, it is only really Mark Rylance that makes a strong impression whose guilt-ridden self haunts the picture throughout. The rest of the performances are all serviceable but could have been played by anyone – Kenneth Branagh is particularly wasted in a completely expository role only in the film to tell audiences of the wider context and Tom Hardy, again covered by a mask doesn’t have all that much to do.

The visual effects are frequently impressive but I have to say there was nothing mind-blowing about this film compared to other Nolan works. There wasn’t a single moment which particularly captivated me to gaze at the screen in awe unlike pretty much the rest of Nolan’s filmography. This was also why I frequently failed to connect with ‘Dunkirk’ as the battle isn’t visually done justice. The film also fails in establishing a sense of scope – we are only ever told mainly by Branagh’s expository Captain of what is happening in terms of the battle as opposed to being given a visual representation. It’s hard to care for a film that looks smaller than it is.

Hans Zimmer’s score plays an integral part of the film, particularly with Nolan’s lack of dialogue but none of it really managed to stick with me or reach the heights of some of his previous Nolan work. Many have described his score as intensifying with the events being portrayed on-screen but I found it to be quite tonally jumbled and again, as Nolan cannot establish a sense of scope, it all feels a bit for nothing. Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography is also serviceable but again, there was nothing particularly memorable to latch onto compared to what I had expected.

Overall, ‘Dunkirk’ is a disappointment when it comes to Nolan’s previous films and I’m quite frustrated with it. Perhaps my expectations were too high and this is a wildly different film compared to the rest of his back catalogue. There can be no doubt of Nolan’s ambition with this project but ‘Dunkirk’ is frequently hollow and empty. I can appreciate what Nolan was trying to do with this and perhaps a rewatch may iron out some of these negatives but it defintely failed to capture me like the rest of Nolan’s work does the first time. This review may sound negative – don’t get me wrong, it’s a good film but it falls well short of what I have come to expect from this masterful director. I’d still recommend going and seeing it as it is a story that needs to be told and there are quite a few nice moments but ultimately, the film left me rather cold in its depiction of this momentous event.

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)