Wonder Woman

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via comingsoon.net

“Wonder Woman” is the best DCEU movie so far and in my view one of the best superhero movies since “The Dark Knight”. It’s a joyful, funny, and intelligent film about the fact that humanity is worth fighting for despite its flaws.

“Wonder Woman” tells an origin story about its titular character, giving us a glimpse of her childhood and explaining how she became the hero that we saw in “Batman v Superman”. It’s a story which opens with Diana/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) growing up on the island of Themyscira, which is home to the Amazons. The Amazons are a race of women created by Zeus to protect humanity against Ares (the god of war), and it’s clear from the moment that this backstory is revealed that Ares is going to be the film’s main villain.

From here the film shows Diana’s grown both physically and emotionally over time, initially on the island as she learns how to use her strength to become a powerful warrior and then in our world during World War One. Having this movie set during that time period is very beneficial to the character of Wonder Woman, as it allows Patty Jenkins to concentrate on developing the character’s personality rather than wasting time with nods to other DCEU franchises.

As a character Diana is extremely well-developed by the end of this movie; we understand her background, her personality, and most importantly her motivations. She’s a character who at her very core wants to fight for justice and she believes that people are inherently good despite the fact that they do bad things. Her faith is tested throughout the movie, (particularly in the final act), and by the time the credits roll she has a much more realistic opinion of humanity, but the relationships that she builds prior to the movie’s close are strong enough to make her believe that despite people’s flaws they are worth saving.

In a worse film the character that I’ve just described would come across as condescending or too good to be true, (this is the way that I feel about Captain America as depicted by Marvel ever since “The First Avenger”), but Patty Jenkins does a great job of making Diana Prince relatable in spite of her perfection, thus making Wonder Woman feel like a superhero rather than a Mary Sue. By taking the character out of her comfort zone and throwing her into an alien environment Jenkins is able to portray flaws in Diana’s character which come across as sweet and well-intentioned, bringing a naivety to her which is completely understandable and also humanising.

“Wonder Woman” isn’t a film which thinks that its audience is going to buy into the main character in virtue of the fact that she can do amazing things in a fight, instead it takes its time to make the character likeable prior to throwing her into the action, something which movies like “Man of Steel” simply didn’t do.

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via celebmafia.com

Towards the start of the film Wonder Woman sees a plane crash into the water surrounding Themyscira and without a second thought she dives in to save the pilot. This pilot, Steve Trevor (Chris Pine), just so happens to be the first man that Wonder Woman has ever seen and she immediately appears to have a fondness for him. From that point onwards Diana and Steve build a relationship with one another, trading jokes and generally being affectionate in small but noticeable ways. When the pair set sail for London at the end of the first act they don’t squabble or act suspicious of one another, they co-exist, have banter, and Diana even goes so far as to insist that Steve sleep next to her despite the fact that she’s only just met him.

There’s an innocence to her character, an earnest lack of cynicism, and it meshes seamlessly with Steve’s idealistic but grounded perspective on the fractured world that’s waiting for them back home. Chris Pine’s performance makes it clear that Steve is tired of fighting and is hurt by the state of the world that he lives in, so there’s something incredibly heart-warming about seeing him build a relationship with someone who in virtue of her existence makes the world seem like a better place. Gal Gadot and Chris Pine are exceptional in this movie, not just because they have great comedic timing or because they have a presence on screen, but because they have strong chemistry and together they are immensely likeable. They make you smile every time that they smile, and as an audience member you can genuinely route for them from start to finish which is so incredibly refreshing in a cinematic universe filled with brooding, jaded characters.

From a technical standpoint this film is also very striking, with solid CGI and a more varied colour palette than we’re used to seeing in DCEU movies. That’s not to say that it’s always a colourful film, after all much of it takes place in scenery which has been ravaged by war, but it doesn’t feel as bereft of vibrancy as “Batman v Superman” did.

The visual style that Zack Snyder developed in films like “Man of Steel” and “Batman v Superman” carries over into this film, making action sequences feel as though they were ripped straight out of a comic book or possibly even out of a video game. This larger-than-life approach to fight scenes is something which I have previously criticised – and I stand by those criticisms – but here Patty Jenkins makes it work because she takes the time to makes us care about the characters, so that by the time the fight scenes become the focus of the film we already believe that Wonder Woman is a badass. She isn’t a man in a suit like Batman, doing things that look so far removed from human possibility that they take you right out of the experience of watching the film; she’s a warrior who was created by Zeus himself with the hope that she could keep people safe. As such, it makes sense that she can do things that normal people can’t do – that she can run faster, jump higher, punch harder, etc. – and the fact that we like her so much makes a huge difference because we want to see her win. When somebody tries to hurt her we’re invested in seeing her prevail, so when she flies through the air to stop a sniper from killing innocent people we don’t scoff at the lack of realism, we cheer because our hero has come out on top!

Of course, there are criticisms which can be levelled at this film. In my view these issues are minimal, but they are noticeable enough to mention and I did find myself considering them whilst I was watching the movie. The first issue I had with this film was that the beginning was too slow, and although it wasn’t bad per se it didn’t give me a concrete indication that this was going to be a good movie.

The start of the film was designed simply to introduce the character of Diana and foreshadow what was going to happen later, which is okay, but for me it was a little uninspired. As mentioned earlier in this review it was clear that Ares was going to be this film’s main villain when he was mentioned in one of its first scenes, and although this is understandable because it’s useful to introduce characters early in a narrative to make them feel important, the way that it was done felt lazy to me.

The first time that we hear Ares’ name in this film is in an expository scene between Diana and her mother, Queen Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), in which the latter tells the story of how the Amazons came to be, what their purpose is, and how they (or rather Zeus) defeated the infamous villain. This scene is fine – it’s the type of scene you see a lot in movies when they don’t know how to get information across to the audience because they can’t show a time-consuming background story – but it isn’t great. It’s the least compelling scene in the whole movie because information is regurgitated to the audience simply so that the rest of the movie can exist. It’s a necessary scene, but it should’ve been executed in a more creative way and it doesn’t feel as though it belongs in a movie which for the most part is fantastic.

The other issue I have with this film is with its villain, the aforementioned Ares, who remains absent for the majority of the movie. The fact that he doesn’t appear until the end of the movie isn’t a criticism at all, it’s just a normal trope of storytelling where there’s a final act twist or a big reveal; the real problem is that he isn’t very interesting. He basically hates humanity because he sees that people do bad things, and because of this he wants to destroy the world – this, for me, is a very lacklustre motivation.

It’s perhaps unfair to criticise Ares too excessively because he’s the first villain that this iteration of Wonder Woman has faced on screen in her own movie, so the writers can’t really allow him to overshadow the hero, but Ares is just so plain. If he hates humanity so much why doesn’t he just go somewhere where there aren’t any people? There’s an island full of women who are separated from the rest of humanity in the middle of the ocean so we know that that’s a possibility, so why is exterminating humanity so important to him? I know these might seem like throwaway comments designed to denigrate a character that I didn’t like – which they are – but personally I don’t get on with villains who seem like their only reason for existing in a film’s universe is to directly oppose the worldview of the protagonist. He serves a purpose because he establishes a facet of Wonder Woman’s character, which is that she sees the flaws in humanity and yet still chooses to believe that people are worth fighting for, but other than that he has no place in the movie which is why he doesn’t appear until the final battle.

Nonetheless, these criticisms are small when compared to the triumph of “Wonder Woman” as a whole. This is a movie in which almost everything works; the costume design is awesome, the acting is brilliant, the story is effective, and the whole thing is incredibly entertaining from start to finish. Wonder Woman is the perfect character to breathe life into the DCEU and it’s great to see a film in which a female superhero is portrayed as a powerful and sympathetic character rather than as a side-kick, so I would recommend that everyone see this movie as soon as possible.

8.5/10

Baywatch

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via comingsoon.net

“Baywatch” is a bad film; however, it isn’t bad for the reasons that you might expect. It was never going to win any Oscars – it’s a film about lifeguards taking down a drug smuggling operation after all – but it didn’t necessarily have to be awful, in fact, it had every opportunity to be entertaining within the parameters of its story. Unfortunately, Seth Gordon doesn’t seem to know exactly what he wants this movie to be, and as a result it ends up feeling both hollow and confused.

Gordon’s direction of this film is incredibly bad, to the point where it feels like a series of tonally disconnected scenes with the only consistency being a set of blank-slate characters and an insultingly clichéd story. It’s an unfocused, poorly edited, and boring movie which lacks any semblance of fun, completely misunderstanding the reason why its audience would pay to see it in the first place. It’s not as if people paying to see a movie based on a dated television show were expecting this year’s answer to “Citizen Kane”; they wanted to stuff their faces with popcorn, relax, and enjoy a silly comedy – that’s all they wanted. What they definitely didn’t want, and will probably never want again, was to watch this movie.

Now, before I continue I want to make it clear that prior to seeing this film I was completely open-minded – I loved “Horrible Bosses” which was also directed by Gordon, I like The Rock (Dwayne Johnson) in most of his roles, and in my opinion Zac Efron has the potential to be a great comedic actor. The problem isn’t that this movie wasn’t made for me or that it’s somehow less worthy of praise because of the subject matter that it’s adapting, it’s that it just isn’t very good. The jokes are few and far between and the ones that are there aren’t side-splittingly funny (most of the best scenes are in the trailer), the story is dull and we aren’t given any reason to suspend our disbelief because the narrative is nonsensical and the movie’s tone becomes far too serious as it progresses, and the action sequences are unbelievably lazy.

The crazy thing is that the actors involved in “Baywatch” are all reasonably talented, and despite the fact that I didn’t enjoy the movie I didn’t hate any of the performances. The characters were badly written and the relationships that they developed over the course of the movie felt unearned, but the people playing them were likeable enough to make me route for them in some minimalistic way. This only serves to show just how awful a job the writers and the director did, because they had the tools at their disposal to make a good summer movie, they just didn’t have any clue how to use them.

The only real positive that I could find within this movie’s excessive 116 minute runtime was that at certain points the writers did at least try to inject a sense of playful self-awareness to proceedings, with David Hasselhoff and Pamela Anderson appearing for (very) minor cameos. This did nothing to save the movie as a whole, but it’s something… I guess.

So, as I established at the start of this review “Baywatch” is a bad movie. The direction, the editing, the pacing, and the writing are all terrible, and the only substantial thing that it has going for it is a set of charismatic actors. The cameos are novel and somewhat entertaining, but they don’t make the film any better because there’s just too much holding it down. “Baywatch” might be a guilty pleasure for some, but personally I don’t have any desire to watch it again and I doubt that I ever will.

2/10

Alien: Covenant

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“Alien: Covenant” is a film which, like “Prometheus” before it, fails to live up to its potential. It’s a film with a number of positive features, such as its accomplished cinematography and believable performances, but the plot is riddled with holes and ultimately it lacks a true identity.

The tagline for “Alien” was – in space no one can hear you scream – and it was built from that concept. It was about isolation and exploitation – everything from the setting to the monster design was intended to amplify those themes. Fast-forward to “Aliens” and again you’ll see a film which realises its intentions and reveals them through its execution. It built on the original and raised the stakes, and it did this not by trying to outdo the first film on its own terms (using tense psychological horror), but through a shift in tone. “Aliens” took the series in a more action-orientated direction, adding more Xenomorphs to the mix and giving the protagonists the tools with which to fight them, making for a film which was easier to watch and arguably more entertaining.

Unfortunately, “Prometheus” wasn’t a cinematic milestone like “Alien” was, and as such the job that Ridley Scott had on his hands when it came to building upon the first film of this new series was substantially trickier than the job that James Cameron had when he wrote “Aliens”. With this film Scott had to address the plot holes that “Prometheus” dug up and try to fill them with a story that also made sense of “Alien”, which even for a talented director is almost impossible.

To his credit, “Covenant” was entertaining and frightening at certain points; it established its tone with the very first scene and the way that it was shot conveyed the feeling that the human characters were constantly fighting against something more powerful than themselves, whether that be space, their environment, or killer aliens. However, the positive features of this film did nothing to dispel the feeling that its purpose was to paper over the cracks in “Prometheus”, and the fact that it concluded with a clear nod to another sequel only furthered the thought that it was simply a transitional film.

What I’m trying to say is that ultimately this movie felt pointless. It started out as a horror film and then devolved into a CGI action-heavy mess by the final act, its characters were disposable and the majority of them will never be mentioned again, and it didn’t really make the lore of the series any clearer than “Prometheus” did. This was largely a result of the failings of the aforementioned film – it’s certainly clear that much of what “Covenant” got wrong resulted directly from having to contend with what “Prometheus” didn’t explain – but the fact that this movie asked more questions than it answered really didn’t help.

“Covenant” would’ve been a far more coherent and satisfying film if there had been a conscious effort to right the wrongs of “Prometheus” by presenting a tight narrative, rather than leaving the fate of its characters hanging by the end of the film, and although the final twist was a good one on paper it didn’t leave a positive impression. From my perspective the twist rendered most of what had come before it completely superfluous, particularly because David (Michael Fassbender) could’ve achieved the same outcome that he achieved at the end of the movie by leaving the humans to their own devices and stealing their ship whilst Faris (Amy Seimetz) was alone. He would’ve had to contend with the three crew members left on board the Covenant, but I’m sure that that wouldn’t have been too much trouble for him.

You could argue that David is an inquisitive android who is so enamoured with his creation that he wants to admire it by watching it kill the crew one-by-one, and you could also argue that he was looking for an opportunity to test out his facehuggers on living organisms, but that doesn’t change the fact that he could’ve done this with the 2,000 colonists on board the Covenant at a later date.

Still, despite the many issues that I have with this film I would probably watch it again, and it’s far from the worst entry in the “Alien” series. I liked many of its smaller details and there were elements of it which I would keep if I was conceptualising how to improve it as a whole. My assessment of this film is actually almost identical to my assessment of its predecessor, as I feel that it inherits many of the same problems as well as many of its redeeming qualities.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this review the cinematography is impressive and it creates a distinctly science-fiction feel. I’ve seen it described as unoriginal and uninspired but personally I felt that it was suitably classic, presenting a world which was grandiose and diverse, even if it wasn’t fully explored. Scott placed the humans in the middle of a land that they didn’t fully understand, which I think is a great trope of the genre, and he made them seem vulnerable by using wide shots to capture the enormity of the landscape. The scenery was beautiful but foreboding and seeing the characters struggle to make their way through it gave the movie the feeling of isolation that the series is known for, because although they weren’t in a claustrophobic environment they were exposed and alone, unaware of what dangers awaited them and unable to hide.

If there’s one criticism that I would personally level at the film from a cinematography standpoint it would be that some of the action/horror sequences either happened too quickly, in such a way that it was hard to focus on exactly what was going on, or were shot without adequate lighting making it a struggle to work out who had the upper hand. This didn’t happen very often but when it did it was very noticeable and took away from the tension that the film was attempting to create – at the end of the day it’s quite difficult to be afraid of something that’s supposed to be visually disturbing when you can’t actually see it.

Finally, it’s worth noting that despite “Covenant’s” many issues the performances are sound across the board. There was only one performance that I personally didn’t enjoy (Billy Crudup’s portrayal of Christopher Oram) and this was largely down to the writing of his character rather than his delivery or facial expressions. Once again Michael Fassbender was great as David, making him suitably menacing but also compelling to watch, and he was so good that for much of the film I found myself routing for his character rather than the protagonists.

So, overall “Alien: Covenant” was a messy, clichéd, and predictable film from a narrative perspective, but it did have redeeming aspects such as its cinematography and Michael Fassbender’s performance as David. It’s not an insulting film and it hasn’t devalued its predecessors in my opinion, nor has it dampened my enthusiasm to see more Xenomorphs in the future, but ultimately it was a disappointing effort from Ridley Scott. He definitely made an effort to explain some of the issues that arose in “Prometheus” – this is by no means a lazy movie – and there are themes which carry over from that film which are interesting, but it lacks clarity and leaves far too many questions unanswered when the final credits roll.

5.5/10

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

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via flickr.com

“Guardians of the Galaxy” was a cultural phenomenon back in 2014, with a slew of interesting characters, a great soundtrack which helped to entice a wider audience, and a sharp script. It was a merchandise-machine churning out CD’s, Pop figurines, and t-shirts by the boatload, and it catapulted the careers of Chris Pratt and Dave Bautista to heights that even they probably didn’t expect before its release. So, how on earth was a sequel ever going to live up to the hype?

With this film James Gunn faced the almost impossible task of producing the same refreshing feeling that the original evoked without making changes to a winning formula; to balance comedy, action, and character development, whilst continuing to flesh out the movie’s world and protect the wider interests of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Unfortunately, in my opinion this juggling act of tone and story failed to live up to the high standards that the original film set, and although this wasn’t a surprise I still found myself feeling frustrated when the end credits began to roll.

By all accounts “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” is not a terrible movie, but in many ways it’s a movie which feels unnecessary and fails to capture the imagination. Given the fact that James Gunn has an entire galaxy to play with and a set of already interesting and established characters it’s disappointing that for the most part this story takes place either within the interior of a spaceship or on a planet that isn’t explored in a meaningful way, and personally I couldn’t escape the feeling that more could’ve been done.

You could say that this is a result of the fact that “Vol. 2” is a character-driven movie; after all, it’s a story which at its core revolves around family dynamics and overcoming your past. There’s the dynamic between the Guardians themselves and how Rocket (Bradley Cooper) feels undervalued now that Groot (Vin Diesel) isn’t an equal companion, the exploration of the fractured relationship between Nebula (Karen Gillan) and Gamora (Zoe Saldana), and most importantly the relationship between Quill (Chris Pratt) and his estranged father, Ego (Kurt Russell).  However, if you want to explain this film’s failings when it comes to its world-building by appealing to a focus on character development then you’re going to have to explain why nothing was achieved on that front.

In my opinion this film was a step backwards for many of its main characters, particularly Rocket who became less sympathetic and much more annoying. In “Guardians” we empathised with Rocket because he had been mistreated and abused, and it was clear that his aggression was a way of lashing out at the society which made him feel like vermin. This was amplified by the fact that Rocket was experimented on and didn’t ask to be the way that he was made, because this as a concept is something that a lot of people can relate to.

As such, it made no sense from my perspective to position Rocket as a character who felt undervalued by the rest of the Guardians in “Vol. 2”, even though his relationship with Groot was significantly changed, because the events of the first film lead to the audience and the rest of the Guardians already accepting him for who he was. The time that Gunn spent making Rocket less likeable in this film should’ve been spent either on a different subplot which afforded us a chance to see more of the galaxy, or on Ego’s planet with characters like Drax (Dave Bautista) and Mantis (Pom Klementieff), as their scenes together were very entertaining and provided extra insight into their characters.

Beyond specific issues I had with this film’s narrative and the way that characters were treated, the most jarring aspect of it for me was that it didn’t feel necessary. The only thing that “Vol. 2” achieved was to tell us who Star-Lord’s father was, and ultimately I don’t feel as though making that discovery significantly changed anything going forward. The wider ramifications for the MCU were minimal at best, with Thanos (Josh Brolin) only being mentioned in passing and Ego’s plan failing with little consequence when considered alongside the chaos that occurs in “Avengers” movies.

“Guardians” was a law unto itself – it worked in isolation and the best thing about it was that it felt new and exciting without the need for cameos or a barrage of Easter Eggs. However, “Guardians” also properly introduced Thanos into the MCU, and with “Infinity War” on the horizon it was hard to accept such a disconnection from everything else that Marvel is doing right now. There was clear continuity from the first film to the second film as you would expect from any sequel, but there wasn’t a conscious effort made to plant the seeds of what comes next, other than an after-credits scene which teased Adam Warlock. Obviously the pieces will come together in films such as “Thor: Ragnarok”, “Spider-Man: Homecoming”, and “Black Panther”, but that doesn’t change the fact that this film felt too isolated from the rest of the MCU to be taken seriously in the current superhero movie landscape.

Nevertheless, despite the tone of this review so far I think it’s only fair to mention that the comedy in “Vol. 2” was fantastic (for the most part). I don’t think that this film was quite as successful on that front as the original was, simply because a lot of the jokes feel derivative given that they’re building on what characters said and did in that film, but I still found myself laughing a lot more than I usually do when I’m at the cinema. Gunn clearly knows what he’s doing when it comes to comedic dialogue and one-liners, and despite a drop in quality from the first film to the sequel the tone is consistent throughout.

Once again the performances were good across the board, and I definitely look forward to seeing the Guardians again in “Infinity War”. The issues I had with this film weren’t the result of what the actors did or how they handled their characters, they were more to do with the direction of the film and the story, which I felt was unambitious and remarkably dull. The only performance that I would question was Chris Pratt’s, because although I think he’s brilliant he didn’t really work well with Kurt Russell in my opinion. The two didn’t have a lot of chemistry on screen together and they didn’t feel like father and son at all. This could’ve made sense because they were estranged, but Pratt played it as though his character was excited and relieved to have finally met his father when he was speaking to supporting characters like Gamora, yet was understated in his enthusiasm when they were together. This could be an issue with direction, or you could place the blame on Russell because he was the newcomer to the series, but from my perspective there was something off about Chris Pratt’s performance in this film.

So, on the whole “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” was a disappointment. It’s important to understand that whilst my critical opinion of the film isn’t particularly favourable I still had an okay time watching it. As a film taken in complete isolation there’s no one aspect of it that makes it a bad movie – the cinematography, the effects, the performances (mostly), the writing, and the direction are all fine and in some cases great! The problem is that it didn’t live up to the original, (which in all honesty I didn’t think it would), and it didn’t offer anything new to its legion of fans. To me it felt like a copy-and-paste sequel which lacked ambition and hampered its characters, so although it was polished and undoubtedly funny it left a sour taste in my mouth.

6/10

Ghost in the Shell (2017)

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via forbes.com

“Ghost in the Shell” is a difficult film to review. If you’re looking for a complete experience then there’s every chance that you’ll be disappointed, not because it’s a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination, but because it’s clearly lacking in significant areas. However, if you’re hoping for a popcorn-flick then there’s plenty to enjoy – the focus of the film is primarily on presentation and on that front it’s very successful, and Rupert Sanders did a decent job of adapting the source material (Mamoru Oshii’s 1995 anime of the same name) faithfully.

“Ghost in the Shell” is a visually striking film from the very first sequence in which Major (Scarlett Johansson) is created. The world that it presents feels distinctly alien from the one that we live in today, with cyber-enhancement allowing people to change parts of themselves that they dislike on a whim, yet at the same time there’s enough familiarity to suggest that it could one day be our own. The world as depicted by this film definitely has its own personality, and although I would’ve liked to see more of the day-to-day workings of its society I enjoyed the momentary glimpses that I was afforded.

The idea that at some point in the future people could choose robotic limbs as nonchalantly as they choose their tattoos today is novel and actually quite compelling, because although the two might seem distinct (given the differing severity of the changes made to one’s body) that isn’t necessarily the case. People choose tattoos for a number of reasons; sometimes they carry sentimental value, sometimes they’re associated with a certain lifestyle, and sometimes it’s purely aesthetic. The same could easily apply to more drastic changes, such as replacing a human arm with a robotic one, provided that such a change was accepted in society and also that the technology available was sophisticated enough to make the procedure viable. The example works even better when we think about how cyber-enhancement parallels with plastic surgery in the modern day because people voluntarily change their bodies all the time, whether it be for medical reasons or simply because they’re unhappy with the way that they look, so it makes sense that if certain enhancements were financially available in the future people would choose to make them.

“Ghost in the Shell” gives us a taste of what this world might look like and tries to use its tone to encourage us to question whether or not body modification could be truly beneficial, but personally I felt that more could’ve been done to explore the moral dilemma. It’s made clear in this movie that transplanting a human brain into a machine brings up questions of personal identity and playing god, but this is the most drastic type of enhancement presented in the film and as such the problems that come with it are plain for all to see. “Ghost in the Shell” would’ve been far more thought-provoking if there had been a subplot involving someone who didn’t agree with enhancement as a whole and felt that we as a species had crossed a line – something which I mistakenly thought would happen when Batou (Pilou Asbæk) was forced to get cybernetic eyes – and this would’ve also given us time away from the main story arc which eventually became a little stale.

Ultimately, enhancement isn’t the focal point of the film despite the fact that it’s the most interesting aspect of the story, which is a shame even though I admit that it didn’t ruin the experience for me. This issue lies in the script which was unambitious and at times frustrating; in this film there are themes and ideas which are practically begging to be explored that never get off the ground, and the story lacks true conflict as characters accept their circumstances far too readily. This makes for a film which is easy to watch and places the focus squarely on the effects and the action, but in the process it detracts from any drama and thus creates a disconnect between the audience and the narrative.

This is a shame because across the board the performances are good, especially given the fact that the actors involved aren’t given much to work with. Scarlett Johansson has proved in the past that she can perform in action-heavy movies through her role as Black Widow in the MCU, so it was nice to see her carry a film like this one on her shoulders after her disappointing turn in “Lucy”. Johansson is definitely the star of this film, and although there are only a couple of scenes that require her to do substantial acting she carries herself with confidence and is believable in the role.

Overall, I felt that “Ghost of the Shell” delivered as a throwaway action movie and I enjoyed it for what it was, but it could’ve been improved had the writers been more ambitious. It looked fantastic in IMAX and I thought that the 3D was used really well, but at times the film was a little too reliant on CGI and special effects. I can imagine a version of this film which focuses intently on its themes, (such as the social ramifications of enhancing one’s body and losing your humanity in the process, the question of what constitutes personhood, and exploitation), but at the end of the day that film is wholly different to the one that we’ve got and in truth there’s no telling whether or not it would be an improvement. This is an action movie from start to finish; the production values are great, the effects are captivating, and it’s a fun film to sit back and watch, so although it’s far from perfect I can still say with confidence that I enjoyed the experience.

7.5/10

Get Out

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via flixster.com

“Get Out” is a film that deserves to be seen. I’m not saying that it’s perfect, far from it actually, but it’s the latest in a string of horror movies that show what can be done within the confines of the genre. In recent times films like “It Follows”, “Don’t Breathe”, “The Witch”, and “The Babadook” have each renewed my love for horror by championing their concepts above all else and using them to explore themes such as sexuality, grief, religion, and mental health. “Get Out” is similar in that it uses a simple premise to examine its theme, racism in the modern world, whilst intelligently allowing one to inform the other and vice versa.

Jordan Peele (the film’s director) introduces tension immediately, setting the stakes for what’s to come with an eerie opening scene in which a young man is kidnapped by a masked assailant. This scene doesn’t necessarily give the audience any further information than that which could’ve been deduced from the film’s trailer, but it does its job by creating an unsettling tone and eliminating any inclination to believe that strange moments in the story are the result of coincidence. It lets you know conclusively that something sordid is going on behind the scenes, thus establishing a sense of intrigue and giving you the satisfying feeling that you know something that the protagonist does not.

Peele then turns his attention to said protagonist, Chris (Daniel Kaluuya), fleshing out his basic motivations and establishing his relationship with his girlfriend, Rose (Allison Williams). From here it’s all about creating a mood, something which is crucial in any horror movie but especially when there’s an element of comedy involved as well. It’s fair to say that this is where “Get Out” shines as the mood which is produced fits the film perfectly and permeates every scene. There’s a hypnotic feel to “Get Out” which gives the experience a dreamlike quality, something which is clearly intentional as hypnosis is a key plot device in the film. There’s also a sense of voyeurism about the film, as oftentimes it feels as though you’re watching something that you really shouldn’t be – something private and alien.

Still, whilst “Get Out” is unsettling in many ways there’s also something surreally funny about it, even in its darker moments, with the eccentricity of the antagonists making the situation almost too bizarre to be taken seriously. This again feels completely intentional, not only because this film has been marketed as a comedy-horror hybrid, but also because it plays on the absurdity which is inherent in the situation that Chris is placed in.

The film’s initial tension is built upon the notion that there’s some sort of problem with a white woman bringing a black man home to meet her parents, so it makes sense to present the situation as peculiar given that a normal person wouldn’t hold that belief. Peele is careful to ensure that social commentary isn’t the film’s primary focus, cleverly framing it within an outlandish narrative in order to show just how laughable the problem is to begin with, whilst also making that narrative interesting enough to hold the audience’s attention regardless of whether or not the commentary was there at all.

The form of racism that “Get Out” considers is commonplace and often unintentional; the kind that’s implicit in the efforts that we make to portray ourselves as free from any and all prejudices. In trying to convince the world that we believe in equality it often happens that we display the opposite, as in virtue of that fact that we’re making a special effort to accommodate a certain race of people we inadvertently acknowledge that race plays a role in the judgements that we are making. Peele’s way of examining this issue is through extreme scenarios given the story that he’s telling, so it’s pretty easy to pick up on if you’re willing to look for it but also easy to ignore if you’d prefer to turn your brain off. The most obvious scene in which Peele presents this type of racism is at a party in which a guest notes that ‘black is in’. This comment is insulting and degrading for Chris as the guest is comparing his skin colour to a fashion accessory, thus devaluing his humanity, but the guest views it as a compliment made to build rapport.

Perhaps the most striking aspect of this scene is that whilst it’s clear that Chris is offended by the comment he decides not to speak out. He stays silent to avoid embarrassing himself and others, to avoid conflict, and to make a good impression in front of his girlfriend’s family, just as we feign ignorance on a daily basis when we see people act in ways that we don’t agree with. In this film the way that Chris rationalises strange behaviour works perfectly, as it allows Peele to justify typical examples of horror movie logic without relying on the stupidity of his characters. Instead of relying on coincidence or the suspension of disbelief Peele uses the fact that Chris is in some sense desensitised to being treated differently to explain why he disregards strange behaviour and continues to surround himself with ignorance, thus making the character relatable and making his fate seem inevitable given that he’s also desperately trying to make a good impression.

Still, having heaped praise on “Get Out” and placing it alongside other modern horror triumphs like “It Follows” and “Don’t Breathe”, I should concede that it inherits some of their issues as well. Whilst both of the aforementioned films live long in the memory and have some excellent moments, their universes are populated with inconsistent rules and narrative oversights. “Get Out” is no different in either respect, as although bizarre behaviour is well explained for the most part, there are instances in which characters act irrationally simply in order to progress the plot.

(SPOILER ALERT) The best example of this occurred late in the film when Chris freed himself from his restraints by using a pair of makeshift earbuds, ensuring that Rose’s family couldn’t trigger his hypnosis. This in itself was actually a clever scene as it justified the inclusion of Chris’ backstory, but the problem was that he then immediately removed the earbuds before trying to leave the house. This didn’t make sense, as although he might have wanted to be able to hear movements in the house in order to navigate his way to freedom and avoid attacks, he opened himself up to being made unconscious at a moment’s notice! This isn’t a risk that he should’ve been willing to take given that he was fully aware of the consequences, and it seemed as though this decision was made simply to create further tension when he encountered Rose’s mother, Missy (Catherine Keener), who predictably attempted to hypnotise him.

Nevertheless, issues such as this were infrequent, and although they did alter my opinion of the film slightly they didn’t ruin it by any stretch of the imagination. Overall “Get Out” was an engaging and intelligent film with two excellent lead performances from Daniel Kaluuya and Allison Williams respectively, and it was successful in establishing its mood early on and then capitalising on the creepiness of its premise. It was a beautiful film to watch and the dialogue was sharp, making for an experience which was both satisfying and entertaining.

8.5/10

Free Fire

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Free Fire

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“Free Fire” is the latest film from celebrated director Ben Wheatley, the man behind last year’s “High-Rise” and the critically acclaimed psychological horror “Kill List”. After thoroughly disliking both of those films I was sceptical about this one, particularly because what I found most frustrating about them was that they were over-stylised and self-indulgent. However, “Free Fire” is a much less jarring cinematic experience, mainly because it’s localised to one setting and focuses on comedy rather than drama. This focus makes “Free Fire” easier to watch than both “High-Rise” and “Kill List”, as it allows Wheatley to concentrate on sharp dialogue and a clear narrative, and as such I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Initial reviews for this film suggest that it could be divisive, which isn’t too surprising given that critics failed to reach a consensus as to whether “High-Rise” was a well-realised artistic endeavour or an overly ambitious mess. What’s immediately apparent about this film is that there was a conscious effort made by Wheatley and his team to make it more accessible to a wider audience than his previous work. This is something which will obviously effect perceptions depending what your opinions on his movies are, so given that my opinions on said movies are largely negative I was relieved by the shift in focus. The way that characters behave and interact with one another in this film is still off-kilter compared to what mainstream audiences are used to, but it works on this occasion because it’s employed for the sake of comedy and turns a serious situation into something absurdly funny.

If there’s one criticism of “Free Fire” that I think holds real weight it’s that the camerawork is surprisingly uninspired. There are points at which characters are moving around in the warehouse (the film’s primary location) amidst a sea of oncoming bullets, trying to reach a briefcase or hunt down an enemy, and you don’t have any sort of clear perception as to where they’ve ended up. They move around quite a bit, crawling from cover to cover like bad A.I. in a video game, but you can’t keep up because the camera seems to spin around almost aimlessly. For the most part this lack of clarity didn’t detract significantly from the experience for me because I felt that it fit with the chaotic tone that the film was going for, but I did find it annoying and I have to question why more wasn’t done to make things visually compelling.

Nevertheless, from a personal perspective I found “Free Fire” very entertaining – the humour hit its mark much more accurately than the characters hit their targets, and the interactions between characters are a joy for the most part. I found the absurdist nature of the film endearing yet familiar, generating comparisons to Tarantino as the characters faced life-threatening situations yet seemed detached from their own peril, and I felt that the performances went a long way to making the characters believable.

Sharlto Copley (“District 9”) was particularly funny as cowardly arms dealer Vernon, making the character as loveable as he was despicable, and his performance was nicely offset by the straight-talking Chris (Cillian Murphy) who was the de facto protagonist in a film filled with horrible people. Every actor in the film did a great job, from Oscar winner Brie Larson to Michael Smiley who frequently collaborates with Wheatley, and I can’t think of one person who let the movie down.

Overall I felt that “Free Fire” was genuinely funny, with an array of entertaining performances and a strong premise which forced Ben Wheatley to tone down some of his more frustrating directorial tendencies. It’s a much more straightforward and thus less messy film than his previous work, but it still feels like a thoughtful and inventive take on a simple concept. It’s my favourite Wheatley film so far and I’d recommend it to almost anyone, which is testament to how he has adapted his style to something more widely accessible following the mixed reception he received for the almost unwatchable “High-Rise”.

8/10

Fences

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via comingsoon.net

“Fences” is a strange film to watch. For long periods I enjoyed the experience as the performances and the script were admirable, but at the same time I felt slightly underwhelmed when it reached its conclusion. This is partly down to the fact that the film dragged towards the end, but it’s also because it felt as though it belonged on the stage rather than the big screen.

This doesn’t make “Fences” a bad movie by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s a criticism which has been fairly raised in a number of reviews. “Fences” just isn’t the most entertaining of films – it’s strong from a technical standpoint, but it doesn’t demand your attention. For the most part this movie focuses on events taking place in the back garden of the main character’s house; it’s a dialogue-heavy piece and it’s often visually mundane. Nevertheless, there’s something oddly refreshing about the grounded story that it attempts to tell, and having gone to see it with low expectations I was pleasantly surprised by its overall quality. I appreciated Washington’s performance and I was impressed by his direction as well – it felt like his vision was well-realised, so I respect what he achieved even if I don’t necessarily agree with the direction in which he took the film.

Personally, I think that the film’s story would’ve been better served if things hadn’t been confined to the comfort of Troy Maxson’s (Washington) house, because there’s something jarring about the restriction that the singular setting places on the film as a whole. When it comes to translating something from the stage onto the big screen there are going to be certain limitations, but this is an adaptation and as such there should be room to make changes for the sake of improving the cinematic experience. It makes sense to restrict the setting from a budgetary standpoint, and it does fit thematically with the nature of the film, but by the end I lost interest in what was happening on screen because the movie felt like it wasn’t going anywhere both narratively and geographically.

With this said, I should elaborate on the fact that this film’s narrow focus fit with its themes when it came to the setting. “Fences” is about the fact that these characters are trapped by their commitment to one another and also in their ways, which makes sense of the film’s title as well as its tagline. As such, it’s an intelligent decision to have the audience confined to the world that Troy and Rose (Viola Davis) have built. It gives the film a claustrophobic feel which mirrors the way that the characters are feeling, and it allows the audience to sympathise with Troy even though his attitude is outdated, as we spend a lot of time with him and get an insight into the limitations of his stable but humdrum existence.

I find it surprising that there wasn’t more of a buzz surrounding this film during award season, because to me it feels like a movie that The Academy would like. It has the emotional conflict that most good films need and it also boasts an undoubtedly superb lead performance from Denzel Washington, a man who is obviously respected in Hollywood. It’s the most passionate performance I’ve seen from him in a long time and he balanced directing and acting incredibly well, so it’s a bit of a shame that more people aren’t talking about this movie.

There are smart decisions being made throughout, because whilst it does feel very theatrical this is embraced in the way that the movie is shot and Washington often allows the camera to linger in order to get a reaction out of scenes which could’ve fallen flat. Regularly you’ll find that the whole room is in frame when conversations are relaxed and stories are being told, but as tension mounts and tempers flare the camera focuses in on one character and lets them portray their emotions. This is simple cinematography and in most cases it’s the natural way to frame a scene, but it works well in this movie as it plays into the theatrical nature of the film. In a theatrical production your eyes will be drawn to the person who is speaking when they’re heated or in the middle of a conversation, whereas when things are quiet and a scene is building you’ll survey the stage for smaller details of each actor’s performance, so it makes sense that this film does that work for you given the medium.

I have to say that I liked this film quite a lot despite the issues I have with it; the two lead characters were well defined and the performances were superb, and it was a film to be appreciated if not always enjoyed. Viola Davis was excellent and more than deserving of her Oscar win, (although she was definitely playing a lead character in this film and as such shouldn’t have been nominated as a supporting actress), and her performance was definitely my favourite aspect of the film.

The only real qualm I had with “Fences” was that it dragged towards the end, because I felt as though it could’ve been a great film had it shown some restraint. As a theatrical piece the pacing would’ve been more palatable because there would’ve been an intermission in the middle, but without this break the film overstays its welcome. This is a shame because by the end you’re actually waiting for the movie to finish, taking away from a story which is often moving and very much relatable.

This merges into the issue that I mentioned earlier which is that this is an adaptation and should’ve been treated as such. There are scenes and characters in this movie which could’ve and perhaps should’ve been cut out to streamline the experience, not because they weren’t good in isolation, but because the movie as a whole would’ve benefited by being more condensed and having more clarity in how its story was presented. For instance, Troy has a mentally handicapped brother, Gabriel (Mykelti Williamson), who often appears out of nowhere in the middle of a scene when his presence isn’t necessary. He doesn’t ruin any of the scenes he’s in and Williamson’s performance is fine, but the character just feels superfluous. I can see how seeing Troy interact with his brother could humanise him and thus make the movie more effective from a conceptual standpoint, but given the strength of Washington’s performance I really don’t think that this was required. Troy is often presented as the villain of the piece and he undoubtedly makes mistakes, but I could definitely understand his perspective even if he wasn’t always likeable.

So, “Fences” is a good film carried by terrific performances and accomplished direction. Denzel Washington thrives in the lead role and Viola Davis deserved to win the Oscar given that she was placed in the supporting actress category. Unfortunately, I feel that certain choices were made regarding this film’s production which limited its potential, but it’s still a movie that I admire in a lot of ways and would happily watch again.

7.5/10

Logan

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via empireonline.com

Hugh Jackman made his name by playing Wolverine in the first “X-Men” film; he wasn’t the studio’s first choice for the role and at the time he was far from a household name. Seventeen years on Jackman has become known as a dependable box office draw as well as a talented actor in his own right, with lead roles in films like “The Prestige”, “Prisoners”, and “Les Misérables” solidifying his position as one of Hollywood’s best. With that in mind “Logan” had a lot riding on it; it was always going to be Jackman’s last turn as Wolverine – his last chance to play the character that made him famous – so it really was a career-defining film for him. Thankfully his performance is filled with heart, soul, emotion, and most importantly a thorough understanding of the character that he helped to create. In this movie we see Hugh Jackman the actor rather than Hugh Jackman the movie star, just as we see Logan rather than Wolverine, and his performance makes it the most powerful film I’ve seen this year.

It’s rare that I leave the cinema completely satisfied; there’s always something that could’ve been better or something that didn’t really work the way that I wanted it to, but in my opinion “Logan” is as good as faultless. It’s not technically perfect because no film ever is, but it’s better than anyone could ever have dreamt it would be, especially given how average the last two standalone Wolverine films were. There’s a sense of clarity in every scene, and there’s a feeling of finality to the whole thing that you can’t help but be captivated by. You want to know what’s going to happen and you don’t want to take your eyes off the screen in case you miss it, which at the end of the day is the art of telling a good story and something that so many filmmakers fail to translate onto the screen.

It helps of course that Wolverine as a character has been well treated in the past – we’ve seen him go through hell and back in the previous “X-Men” movies, and even in the films which didn’t hit their mark he was the shining light, so when we see him stripped back we immediately sympathise with him and want him to succeed. However, this film doesn’t only work because of what has come before it, it works because the story is clear, precise, and directed firmly towards a satisfying conclusion. There are only two options for how the story can end and anyone paying attention knows exactly what they are; either 1) Logan dies a hero; or 2) he gets to live happily ever after. He gets what he wants either way because it’s said throughout the movie that he wants to die, so the only thing left to do as an audience member is to sit back and hope that whichever way the plot goes it does justice to the character – thankfully it does.

The story is magnificent, starting by reducing Logan to a shell of himself and then gradually building him back up into the man that we know he can be. It’s quick to highlight that Logan is still a force to be reckoned with, showing us exactly how vicious he can be and making the most of its R rating in its very first scene, but there’s also a clear indication that he isn’t a well man. In “X-Men” Logan explains to Rogue (Anna Paquin) that it hurts every time his claws come out, and this is graphically displayed to us very early on in this film as the camera pans down to his hands which are covered in blood and puss. The film doesn’t tone itself down at any point; it’s a bleak tale filled with tragedy and pain, pushing the idea that no matter what we achieve in life we’re all heading towards the same destination. For some audience members this won’t mesh neatly with their expectations for what a superhero movie should be, and as such the experience may be slightly jarring for them, but from my perspective the tone that this movie creates makes it feel more significant than any other film in the genre.

My biggest complaint about the genre as a whole is that the end of the world materialises every other week and the heroes seem more interested in spitting out one-liners than fixing the problem, but “Logan” does away with this. It invites the audience to see what it would really be like to be a killer with metal cutting through your hands every time you lose your temper – spoiler alert, it wouldn’t be very nice.

In my opinion “Logan” should be a benchmark rather than an outlier; this is what can be achieved in the superhero genre if filmmakers aren’t held back by studios looking to market towards a pre-teen demographic, and as such it’s not just a great film but an important one as well. You can take a larger-than-life idea and turn it into something real, something that can move people and entertain them without the need to lower the tone, you just have to be brave and make decisions which enhance the movie rather than the contents of your wallet.

Of course, you can have the best intentions in the world but if your film isn’t well made then those intentions are irrelevant. With that in mind, what makes “Logan” great are its lead performances; those of Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, and Dafne Keen respectively. I’ve touched on Jackman already, but it’s worth reiterating that he is fantastic in this film. He knows the character so well and he’s able to express his emotions without ever overacting – he just does everything right from start to finish. Stewart is a brilliant actor and there’s not a lot more to say about him that people don’t already know. In this film he’s given more to work with than he was in the previous “X-Men” films which allows him to make the character seem worthy of the adoration that Logan has for him. He draws every ounce of emotion from the lines that he’s given, and he’s able to create some much needed comic relief in the middle of the film when things become a little overwhelming.

Then there’s Keen in her feature film debut. This was a make or break role, because if Keen had been your typical example of a child actor nervously delivering her lines then “Logan” would’ve fell apart. No matter how good the script or the other actors were the film rested squarely on her diminutive shoulders, because the film is as much about her character (Laura) as it is about Logan. With that said, she held her own with two of the best actors alive today and she stole a number of scenes without even needing to speak. She held herself so well and seemed to understand exactly what was required of her. Her performance is assured and aggressive, fitting her character perfectly, and she deserves as much credit as Jackman for making the film as good as it ended up being.

After gushing about the performances and the narrative it should be pretty obvious what I think of this film. It’s exceptional from start to finish and I was enthralled throughout. The ending was perfect, Jackman was incredible, and I really wouldn’t change a thing about it.

10/10

Moonlight

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via dayandadream.com

“Moonlight” is a focused and nuanced film chronicling one man’s journey to adulthood. On the surface it’s a simple film – the story it presents is quite specific and there are three clearly defined acts which give it a sense of clarity throughout – but it tackles real issues that people face on a daily basis such as addiction, sexuality, and identity. It doesn’t shy away from reality at any point and it boasts one of the most honest depictions of coming to terms with homosexuality that I’ve seen put to film, making it a fascinating film to watch.

The film boasts a plethora of exceptional performances, particularly in the first and second acts, but for me there were three performances which stood out; namely those of Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Mahershala Ali. Sanders in particular was excellent in the second act, doing a great job in a number of difficult scenes – he held the film together at a point where for me it could’ve still gone either way, and he captured the character as established in the first act impeccably.

In my opinion, act two was by far the strongest segment of the film, but I appreciated all of them and I could understand the narrative decisions that were made throughout. Personally I found the final act slightly underwhelming, but I felt that it did what it was intended to do. The second act presented the main conflict of the film, so the job of the final act was to follow-up on this and examine the aftermath; the act did exactly that in a subdued but uplifting way, as it attempted to show that whilst Chiron (Sanders) had transitioned into Black (Trevante Rhodes) he was still the same person that we saw in the previous acts. He’d had to change to adapt to his circumstances, but the person that we saw in acts one and two was still there having been importantly altered by the events of his past.

What I’d say to anyone who is interested in watching this film is that whist it deserves all the praise that it has been getting it isn’t always captivating. You have to allow yourself to become invested to get something out of the experience, and if you can’t relate to Chiron’s situation then this may be easier said than done. I personally didn’t feel moved by anything that happened in this movie, even though much of it was tragic, and it’s actually quite difficult to put my finger on why.

Visually it’s a striking film and it never feels invasive despite the fact that you’re following a character as he navigates intimate moments in his life. The camera often dwells on the eyes of the actors involved, giving them the chance to showcase their emotions and capture the drama of everyday life, and it’s obvious that Barry Jenkins knew exactly what he wanted the film to be.

Nevertheless, I’d be lying if I said that I loved this movie, and in fact it wasn’t even my favourite film of the day as I also went to see “T2 Trainspotting”. For me “Moonlight” was lacking an emotive pull despite all of its technical achievements, and the committed performances on display weren’t enough to capture my interest. I felt sorry for Chiron in the second act and I was impressed by the child actor playing him in the first (Hibbert), but I didn’t care about the character at all. To me he felt like a blank canvass, because whilst I understood that he was shy and introverted I didn’t feel like I knew who he was apart from his pain.

He came from a broken home and had a difficult school life so it was easy to empathise with his situation, but I didn’t have enough of a grasp on who he was separate to the challenging circumstances that he found himself in. I didn’t feel that I was afforded the chance to see him come out of his shell, so I didn’t have any idea as to what I was supposed to want for him by the end of the film.

This is highlighted, in my opinion, by the fact that the most memorable scene of the film is the exception to this rule – the beach scene. This scene was incredibly well done and the performances of the actors involved were perfect in giving the situation the feeling of sincerity and affection that it both needed and deserved. In this scene we get a glimpse of what Chiron wants for his future; we’re able to sympathise with the internal struggle that he’s going through as he tries to come to terms with who he is and we also get to see him be happy, which makes a big difference when you’re trying to route for him. It’s scenes like this which elevate “Moonlight” above the sum of its parts and make it worthy of the acclaim that it has received.

Stylistically “Moonlight” was well-realised and the performances were impressive. Its exploration of homosexuality was sensitive and understated, presenting Chiron’s feelings as natural and earnest which I found refreshing. It was a film with a lot to like and the cinematography was beautiful throughout, but I wasn’t fully invested. It’s definitely worth watching, but I wouldn’t recommend it over other films that are in cinemas right now.

7.5/10