Soul (Review)

Soul

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Director: Pete Docter 
Starring: (voices of) Jamie Foxx, Tina Fey, Questlove, Phylicia Rashad, Daveed Diggs, Angela Bassett, Graham Norton, Rachel House, Richard Ayoade, Alice Braga, Wes Studi 
Certificate: PG
Run Time: 100 mins

Soul is the second of two Pixar offerings this year, having meant to have originally release back in June but Disney witheld the film and have now chose to debut it on their Disney+ platform. Onward was their first and unfortunately set a new low for the studio. Pixar mastermind Pete Docter is in the director’s chair here, who has previously directed Monsters Inc and Up, two of Pixar’s top tier offerings, Up being my personal favourite out of all their films. He most recently was behind Inside Out which was also a very good effort and attracted unanimous critical acclaim, even if it’s not quite up there with his first two features.

Soul treads similar ground to Inside Out in that both explore cerebral concepts – this feature focusses on Joe Gardner (a passionate Jazz pianist voiced by Jamie Foxx) who needs to reunite his soul with his body after they are separated in a seemingly fatal incident. Joe cannot quite find his place in society and is always trying to get his big break, to fulfil his lifelong ambition of being a successful musician. Joe finds himself on an ominous escalator on the way to ‘The Great Beyond’ but deciding that he isn’t ready to accept his fate, manages to escape to ‘The Great Before’, a realm where souls create their personality before they are dispatched to Earth to live life. There, he meets an uproarious soul called 22 (Tina Fey) who has no desire to go to Earth (in many hilarious cutaways, we see her brush off famous historical figures who act as her mentor such as Mother Theresa and Albert Einstein) and Joe befriends her, seeing an opportunity to use her to return to Earth.

Soul is another winning original creation from Pixar and after a slightly shaky opening act on first viewing, finds its footing and often soars. Docter skilfully interrogates existential themes of what it means to be alive and all the emotions associated with it including anxiety and depression. This is a far more adult film than some of Pixar’s other offerings but the characters and gags here should still enthrall younger viewings, even if the loftier themes go over their heads.

Technically, as with most Pixar films, Soul continues to further the art of animation with some breathtaking sequences. Joe’s home city of New York appears startlingly life-like, particularly an establishing shot of the city towards the end of the film that is just mesmerising. The minute attention to detail in Joe’s numerous piano renditions is also awe-inspiring. Docter juxtaposes the beautiful real world animation with the ethereal ‘Great Before’ and ‘Great Beyond’ landscapes, which are more abstract and unsettling. Soul is beautifully complimented by an excellent score, Jon Batiste behind the original jazz arrangements and score of the real world and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross behind the more atmostpheric and celestial themes of ‘The Great Before’ and ‘The Great Beyond’.

Ultimately, Soul is another very strong addition to the Pixar canon. It’s a shame this film couldn’t make it to the big screen and whilst its release on Disney+ seems rather unceremonious, it’s just what audiences need this Christmas in the time of the coronavirus pandemic. This is another heady film by Pete Docter and whilst its somewhat scattershot structuring doesn’t quite reach Pixar’s very best work, this is still one of the best films of the year.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ (Excellent)

Fatman (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Eshom Nelms & Ian Nelms
Starring: Mel Gibson, Walton Goggins, Marianne Jean-Baptiste, Chance Hurstfield
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 100 mins

Fatman is an adult dark comedy infused with some violent action sequences starring Mel Gibson as an unorthodox Santa Claus. Whilst this sounds like an outlandish concept, the trailer really pulled off the concept of this perverted and hyperviolent Christmas film with glee. Fatman is directed by brothers Eshom and Ian Nelms, both of whom have made very low profile films to date. On Christmas Eve, a mature yet spoiled 12-year-old called Billy receives a lump of coal from Santa and in retalliation, Billy hires a hitman, Jonathan Miller (Walton Goggins) to take out the festive icon. But does Fatman’s high concept translate as well as it does in theory to a feature length film?

Fatman is generally a success and the film has a lot more heart than its trailer suggests. It is always entertaining and for its budget, has surprisingly high quality production values. That said, the tone of the film doesn’t quite gel and the film isn’t quite as deviant as it should be. Although the film carries a 15 rating, its violence is also surprisingly toothless. The film also has some valuable commentary on Christmas which is surprising and there is emotional heft in the interplay between its characters.

Gibson is very well cast and carries the baggage of his world-weariness extremely convincingly. He is well supported by Marianne Jean-Baptiste as his wife and Walton Goggins as the hitman tasked to assassinate Santa, who both put in solid performances. Chance Hurstfield as the twisted pre-teen Billy is excellent – an early scene where he takes revenge on one of his peers for beating him in a competition is carried out with twisted, sadistic glee.

Overall, Fatman is successful for what it is even if it doesn’t quite have the guts to turn the tone up to eleven like it seemed to promise. This is a sound and original Christmas film and is far better than it has any right to be and is only further elevated by the strong performances. It will be interesting to see where the directorial duo go next but Fatman proves they have talent and can conjure wholly original concepts.

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Mank (Review)

mank

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: David Fincher 
Starring: Gary Oldman, Amanda Seyfried, Lily Collins, Arliss Howard, Tom Pelphrey, Sam Troughton, Ferdinand Kingsley, Tuppence Middleton, Tom Burke, Charles Dance 
Certificate: 12A
Run Time: 131 mins

It has been an uncomfortably long wait for another David Fincher feature film, six years since his gripping and refreshingly unconventional adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s novel, Gone Girl. Since Gone Girl, Fincher has dabbled in television with the Netflix series Manhunter and was attached for a while to direct the now on hold sequel to World War Z.

Mank represents a passion project for the esteemed director and his father penned the screenplay before Fincher’s under-appreciated and infamous directorial debut Alien 3, a film that he has since famously disowned. Mank chronicles Fincher’s interpretation of Citizen Kane screenwriter Herman J. Mankiewicz, an alcoholic and unstable literary genius and his process of writing the screenplay. This would then go on to cause controversy over authorship of the script between Mankiewicz and director Orson Welles.

Mank is certainly not for everyone but given my fascination of the subject matter, I found a lot to admire here. Gary Oldman is superb as the titular character and this is a much more fitting and natural performance for him to win any Awards compared to his Oscar-winning turn in Darkest Hour a couple of years ago. Mankiewicz is a fascinating character and Fincher manages to perfectly encapsulate his genius, juxtaposed with his messy, incoherent descents into alcoholism.

Critics have also raved about Amanda Seyfried’s performance but both Lily Collins and Tuppence Middleton give far more nuanced performances as Mank’s secretary who he dictates the script to and his wife. Fincher’s depiction of women is particularly interesting, portraying them as motherly and sympathetic to Mank here, very much his voice of conscience. Charles Dance also features briefly as William Randolph Hearst, the tycoon that Citizen Kane’s Robert Foster Kane is based on and Tom Burke is mesmerising as Orson Welles, perfectly embodying the director’s towering and temperamental aura.

David Fincher’s films typically involve murder and grisly violence as a narrative and this represents a radical departure from his usual subject matter. The script has an Aaron Sorkin-like talky nature and the dialogue is razor-sharp and rich. Like Citizen Kane, Mank is also non-linear in its storytelling and on a first viewing, its structure rather messy and clouded.

Technically, this film feels like it’s straight out of the Hollywood Golden Age from the black-and-white photography to the carefully crafted cigarette burns of the film at certain moments. This is complimented by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ sympathetic, swooning score and there are multiple shots here by Erik Messerschmidt that are beautiful to behold. Citizen Kane is famous for its shot early on with the young Robert Foster Kane playing outside in the snow, unaware of his impending fate as the camera tracks to inside the house where his parents are sealing his fate, the window behind acting as the young Kane’s prison.  Mank also does this to a degree and it will be interesting to rewatch this film to see what else can be discovered visually.

Ultimately, Mank is a different type of film for Fincher but one that retains a lot of his artistic qualities. It will be divisive amongst audiences but if the subject matter appeals and you appreciate Citizen Kane, this is a very fine companion piece to what is considered one of the most iconic and memorable films ever made. I’m not sure at this point how well Mank will do in the upcoming Awards season but despite its messy structure, this is a film that often soars more than it misses.

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

The Witches (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Robert Zemeckis
Starring: Anne Hathaway, Octavia Spencer, Stanley Tucci, Chris Rock
Certificate: PG
Run Time: 106 mins

The Witches is the second film adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic children’s fantasy horror 1983 novel about a young orphan who lives with his wise grandmother who is entangled with a coven of witches in a hotel, who are hell-bent on eradicating all children from the world by turning them into mice. The combination of Robert Zemeckis and Guillermo Del Toro is a strange, yet exciting choice to adapt Roald Dahl’s classic children’s novel, mirroring the strange fit of Steven Spielberg for The BFG. Zemeckis has had a generally strong career with heights such as Back to the Future and Forrest Gump, although his last couple of films Allied and Welcome to Marwen weren’t as well received as his other filmography. I found both to be very interesting and a refreshing departure from his normal visual-effects heavy work. Of course, Dahl’s novel was also adapted by Nicolas Roeg back in 1990 and Angelica Huston’s portrayal of The Grand High Witch was very memorable, especially the sequence where she reveals her true appearance, which is a mastery of puppetry work from Jim Henson.

Robert Zemeckis’ rendition of The Witches is entertaining and its heart is in the right place but this could have been directed by anyone – it doesn’t feel like Zemeckis at all. There doesn’t really seem to be much of Del Toro here either, which is odd, as his films are very heavily framed by his authorship.

This version relocates the narrative to the US state of Alabama and changes the race of the main protagonist to African American. This is an interesting choice and contrasts the cold and stark European setting of Dahl’s novel and Roeg’s adaptation. However, the concept is thinly explored and more could have been done here. The opening of the film is strong in that we witness the car accident that orphaned our main protagonist, allowing the audience to emotionally invest in him. There is also a particularly chilling flasback sequence to the Grandmother’s childhood where she crosses paths with The Grand High Witch, although its effect is undone with a juvenile choice of action and sub-par effects.

In fact, rather embarrassingly for a 2020 release, the visual effects generally aren’t particularly convincing. They feel dated, particularly a scene in which a group of mice navigate their way around some vents which feels straight out of an early noughties kids film. This is all the more surprising given that Zemeckis is renowned as a visual director.

The performances are energetic here with Octavia Spencer the highlight as the wise Grandmother but peppered with sass and humour. Anne Hathaway is far more pantomime-like in her performance as The Grand High Witch. She’s rather cringey in parts but there’s no denying that she’s a plausible threat to the main characters. It’s a shame that Stanley Tucci and Chris Rock are under-utilised in their roles, given how they are normally both able to elevate the material.

Overall, The Witches is an entertaining remake and the departures it takes from the book and original film validates its existence. But its lack of authorship and hesitance to further the material by exploring its themes never allow the film to soar when it should. There is probably enough here for younger children to enjoy but for its adult audience, there could have been more substance here to make this a more definitive take on Roald Dahl’s novel.

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Pinocchio (Review)

Pinocchio-2019

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Matteo Garrone 
Starring: Roberto Benigni, Federico Ielapi, Rocco Papaleo, Massimo Ceccherini, Marine Vacth, Gigi Proietti
Certificate: PG
Run Time: 125 mins

At face value, Pinocchio seems a departure for Italian director Matteo Garonne in that this is his first film to be aimed more for children than his adult offerings. Garrone found fame with his gangster film, Gomorrah and has most recently made the excellent Dogman, a film about a timid dog groomer who sells drugs on the side who is bullied by a thug that terrorises his community. However, Garrone making Pinocchio makes him a perfect fit as he directed Tale of Tales which was a satisfyingly grotesque adult fantasy feature. Can Garrone sucessfully add his signature to this well-told property?

Pinocchio is a visually arresting and generally interesting adaptation that is far more in line with Carlo Collidi’s 1883 children’s tale than the Disney version. The performances are excellent across the board and Pinocchio is well developed as a character in how he is subject to bad luck time and time again after he doesn’t learn from his previous mistakes.

The use of prosthetic make-up and practical effects rather than CGI is a bold choice and the film is all the better for it. There are numerous shots here which are haunting and awe-inspiring to behold, a shot of birds restoring Pinocchio’s grown nose back to its original length particularly mesmerising and creative.

However, Garrone’s crucial misstep is that the film is overlong and it feels like it’s ticking a checklist in its storyline. Trimming the film by half an hour or so would have really been for the better. The other big problem here is the tone. Certain sequences of the film are clearly aimed for more mature audiences. There is a scene of drowning and one of hanging that really shouldn’t belong in a PG-rated film and the film is all the better for it. However, there are sequences where Pinocchio is child-like which totally are more in keeping with Disney. If Garrone had stuck to his guns to make the film consistently more mature, this would have furthered this take on the material and given it more of a unique spin.

Ultimately, Garrone’s rendition of Pinocchio is a successful venture but one that would have benefitted from some tighter pacing and more conviction in its aim to be more for mature audiences. With two further adapatations in the pipeline by esteemed directors Robert Zemeckis and Guillermo Del Toro that are sure to be on the opposite ends of the scales themselves, it will be interesting to see how they compare and further the famous Collodi tale.

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

The New Mutants (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Josh Boone 
Starring: Maisie Williams, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Heaton, Alice Braga, Blu Hunt, Henry Zaga
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 94 mins

It feels rather surreal that The New Mutants has actually been released in cinemas (more like unceremoniously dumped) in a pandemic no less, considering the endless delays this film has faced. The New Mutants was originally to release in April 2018, prior to Deadpool 2 and Dark Phoenix in the X-Men canon. This film kept getting delayed, first for additional reshoots, then as Fox was acquired by Disney and finally just because of bad luck due to the coronavirus pandemic. At one point, rumours started to spread that it would be released directly to streaming. As always, when a film faces delays to this extent and is then quietly released, the fact that the film is not very good springs into mind and the producers just want to wash their hands of it, a la Fantastic Four. Directed by Josh Boone, who found success with the teenage weepie The Fault In Our Stars, this film sees five teenage mutants find themselves in a secret hospital facility together. They are overseen by Doctor Reyes (Alice Braga), who is tasked with curing them and encouraging them to control their newfound powers. However, sinister events start to occur sending the hospital and the group into disarray.

The New Mutants is a far better film than it has any right to be or as the delays would suggest. The notion of Boone melding a comic-book film with the horror genre is an interesting decision and whilst the film isn’t particularly scary, there are some unsettling images of some of the team’s greatest fears. The smaller scale works wonders for the film, with Boone successfully establishing and developing its close-knit characters. By the time the film reaches the third act, all of the characters make compelling cases to really care for them. Unfortunately, The New Mutants commits the classic comic-film sin with its last 15 mins as it descends into a bit of a CGI-fest but it’s relatively short-lived. It does undo the sense of intrigue somewhat but it needs to integrate into the genre somehow, I suppose.

The performances across the board are strong. Maisie Williams and Anya Taylor-Joy are both great as Wolfsbane and Magik respectively. Rahne Sinclair (Wolfsbane) is a young and reserved Scottish mutant who can transform into a wolf and struggles with her mutant nature in its juxtaposition with her religion. The ever-versatile Anya Taylor-Joy plays Illyana Rasputin (Magik) who has sorcery powers and can teleport, who has a strong, bullish personality. Blu Hunt plays Danielle Moonstar, who is the main character of the film, which opens with her escaping a tornado, which she loses the entirety of her family in. Other than a short film, this is Blu Hunt’s feature film debut and she is excellent. The interplay between Moonstar and Wolfsbane and Magik is excellent, their relationships developing throughout the film. Charlie Heaton and Henry Zaga play the two males in the group, Cannonball and Sunspot, but they have less to do than the females but they are established well enough. Alice Braga is also compelling as Dr Reyes who is the mentor of the facility, whose true nature is revealed slowly through the film.

Technically, The New Mutants is up to scratch for its small budget. Peter Deming crafts some interesting images with his cinematography and the score by Mark Snow is fitting and subdued, but not particularly memorable. Despite the climax being flawed, the CGI in it is not bad and it’s certainly not unconvincing.

Josh Boone had plans to create a trilogy with this film and had included a post-credits stinger with Jon Hamm’s introduction as the villain Mister Sinister. That was then scrapped following the cataclysmic failure of X-Men: Apocalypse with a new scene with Antonio Banderas as Sunspot’s father which would also tease a second film. Unfortunately, no such thing exists in the final product and it’s a real shame as this is a different, but successful direction which the X-Men franchise could have gone in.

The X-Men will next be seen when they are integrated into the Marvel Cinematic Universe canon and it is a tall order to exceed the Fox canon, which has generally been pretty consistently solid. Despite the ambitions for The New Mutants to start a new series, this standalone film is a valiant effort in its final form and is worth watching for viewers of the series. 

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Unhinged (Review)

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⭐⭐⭐ (Good)

Director: Derrick Borte 
Starring: Russell Crowe, Caren Pistorius, Gabriel Bateman, Jimmi Simpson, Austin P. McKenzie
Certificate: 15
Run Time: 93 mins

Unhinged is the first notable theatrical release to come into UK cinemas since they have partially reopened after the Coronavirus lockdown. Directed by Derrick Borte, it tells the story of Rachel, a young, recently divorced mother who is terrorised by Tom Cooper, a mentally deranged stranger, after a road rage incident between the two. Russell Crowe and Caren Pistorius play the duo, Crowe putting on a significant amount of weight to fit the macho and aggressive nature of Tom. The film opens with Crowe coolly walking into his ex-wife’s house, brutally slaughtering her and her boyfriend with a hammer. This is a very effective opening as we know we’re in for trouble straightaway as an audience!

Unhinged is surprisingly far better than this type of film ought to be and it goes surprisingly far in terms of its violence and subject matter in how Tom terrorises Rachel. She is sent to hell and back with Tom’s torment and he is unrelenting in dishing out his revenge, satisfying his moral righteousness and ethic high ground.

Both Crowe and Pistorius are excellent in the lead roles, Crowe suitably revelling in the role. It is great to see Caren Pistorius in a lead role, after she impressed in Slow West back in 2014 and has only really taken smaller supporting roles since then. She is more than up for the challenge and the film develops her character very well at the start so that when the inciting incident of her meeting Crowe’s character occurs, as an audience we can more than empathise with her life situation.

Perhaps rather unsurprisingly for a film of this type, Unhinged falters in its plausibility. There are multiple instances in the beginning where you think surely the relevant authorities would have captured and arrested Tom but you just have to get on board that the film is going to defy logic somewhat and go with it.

Ultimately, Unhinged is far better than this type of film ought to have been and despite its success is undeniably further heightened by its opportunist release date, in that cinema audiences haven’t had anything else new to watch on the big screen for a while, exceeds expectations in what UK cinema’s real comeback film should be. It’s a big, dumb blast from start to finish.

⭐⭐⭐ (Good)