Review in Brief: Good Time (2017)

For those of you still in denial: Robert Pattinson is a really good actor, given the right material. GOOD TIME, the tale of a robbery gone wrong and good and bad brotherly influence, comes from the ridiculously talented Safdie Brothers Josh (writer-director) and Benny (director-star/beating heart of the film). They have aesthetic flair with imposing aerial shots, sickly neons and deep shadows, they clearly push their actors to go that extra mile with some of the most pained exchanges of heated dialogue I’ve seen in a long time, and they really have something to say about our world and its shortcomings. Admittedly the middle section of the film where Pattinson’s Connie hides out at someone’s house then goes looking for a fellow outlaw’s valuable acid stash doesn’t compel quite as much as the rest of the film. But the final scene, so pure, so simple and affecting, absolutely floored me. SSP

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Review: Black Panther (2018)

black-panther-trailer

Hear me roar: Marvel/Disney

I was thrilled and enthralled by BLACK PANTHER. I can’t imagine what it must be like to watch this if you’re black.

Newly-crowned Kind T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns home to secretive high-tech African nation of Wakanda to rule. He must unite the tribes and maintain order using the royal birthright alter-ego of the Black Pather, not to mention deciding on how his isolationist country should interact with the world. Everthing becomes much more complicated when vengeful radical Erik Killmonger (Michael B Jordan) returns to Wakanda and challenges T’Challa for the crown…

Refreshingly, T’Challa doesn’t subscribe to the old “lone hero thing”. He knows he needs, and he asks for, help. Always having a team to back him up has a lot to do with him being royalty (even back when kings led the charge into battle they were surrounded by loyal bodyguards) but it also speaks volumes of his personality, and how he sees his family and friends. To T’Challa, those he values are indispensable assets.

And what assets these loved ones are! Letitia Wright’s impish gadget gal Shuri (T’Challa’s sister, who must surely be destined for a scene where she emasculates Tony Stark through tech talk in INFINITY WAR) and Danai Guira’s deadly spear-wielder Okoye (imagine how deadly you have to be to be asked to protect a bulletproof warrior-king). Both are undeniable highlights of the film, and Marvel better be busy writing them into anything and everything they can. Chadwick Boseman is strong in the lead even if his accent occasionally veers into uncharted territory and yes, everyone who has proclaimed Michael B Jordan’s Killmonger as the most interesting and compelling villain in a Marvel film are correct. His arc, his aims and motivations carry the entire film and fearlessly skewers and subverts realities of race in our contemporary world.

This is less a superhero movie than a fantastical spy thriller. As for the spy/espionage stuff, the gadgets are better than Bond, the politics more self-aware and the tech displays more original and exciting than in most sci-fis. We see traditional tribal cloaks become energy shields, holograms that disintegrate into sand clouds and a range of remotely-piloted vehicles (Shuri has a moment of panic when taking sudden control of a car in South Korea and wondering, “Which side of the road do they drive on?”).

Black Panther’s action scenes are something else, a whole new scale and level of vital energy for Marvel. I didn’t stop grinning for the entire Busan sequence from the (AVENGERS-topping) long-take casino fight to the deliriously fun gadget-driven car chase that follows it. Later on we have a pitched battle on the plains that wouldn’t look out of place in LORD OF THE RINGS or GAME OF THRONES.

I was not familiar with the concept of Afro-futurism at all, but it’s a fascinating aesthetic, presupposing an untouched African nation as a vibrant cultural collage focussed through a science fiction lens. Director Ryan Coogler revels in the look and feel of this world, with soaring camerawork capturing both vast tableaus (the awe-inspiring first flight into Wakanda) and every little detail of characters’ traditional African dress (taking in the distinctness of each region’s tribe as they gather to observe a bout of ritual combat). Colourful tribal dance performances are played completely straight and without much comment, and as such it just sweeps you up (from an outsider’s perspective) as a striking, vibrant celebration of a wealth of African cultures.

Black Panther represents Marvel’s boldest move yet in many ways. It’s one of the darkest and most violent of the studio’s offerings so far, but it’s also one of the most fun and full of life. While the spectacle on offer will surely mean it’ll end up as one of the blockbuster highlights of 2018, it’s an important marker in wider film history as well. The modern superhero movie cycle may not have happened at all without BLADE in 1998, now another black hero is taking the genre into its next phase with wit, bravery and a whole lot of power behind its punches. It’s fantastical but grounded, escapist but about the here and now. Here’s hoping our return to Wakanda isn’t in the too distant future and that Coogler gets to make whatever the hell he wants next. SSP

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Review in Brief: American Made (2017)

In AMERICAN MADE, Tom Cruise turns in his most beguiling performance in years, and much like Leonardo DiCaprio did in THE WOLF OF WALL STREET, he does it by playing a complete and utter bastard. In an exaggerated take on pilot-turned-smuggler Barry Seal’s exploits in Central and South America in the 1970s and 80s, Cruise, director Doug Liman and writer Gary Spinelli produce a zippy, stylish and extremely entertaining comedy-thriller. Seal gets by a lot on luck, avoids death and arrest numerous times and somehow (and unwisely) manages to juggle working for the CIA and the Medellín Cartel. Events have been moved around and compressed, characters combined and dramatic license wholeheartedly embraced, but that’s the norm for biopics. Cruise doesn’t get to run and jump as much as he usually does, but he gets to fly and play off some well-cast supporting players like Domhnall Gleeson (CIA handler “Schaffer”), Alejandro Edda (Medellín’s Jorge Ochoa). Sometimes true stories only need a little Hollywood-ising. SSP

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Valentine’s Day Review: Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)

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Blue is definitely their colour: Universal Pictures/Dark Horse Entertainment

Spoilers ahead for HELLBOY II.

HELLBOY II: THE GOLDEN ARMY is one of my absolute favourites: a beautiful, unique and kick-ass fantasy superhero movie that builds and expands on the solid foundation of its predecessor and ends up, in style and tone, halfway between Guillermo del Toro’s Hollywood output and his artier, richer Spanish-language projects. During my latest re-watch I got to thinking what a lovely alternative Valentine’s Day movie this could be, because it is, in the end, all about love…and kicking ass. Just in time, eh?

Mankind’s demon protector Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and the no-longer-secret Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defence face Prince Nuada (Luke Goss), a vengeful elf renegade who will stop at nothing to reclaim the Earth for his kind. The end of the world may be the least of Red’s worries, with his relationship with Liz (Selma Blair) strained and about to get far more complicated…

We know del Toro marshals wonderful production design teams (the animatronics and creature designs in this are stunning), that he electrifies fantasy spectacle and breathes life into monstrous characters in a unique way. You can’t help but be drawn in by how this universe is realised by del Toro’s, a universe inspired by the whole run of Mike Mignola’s Hellboy comics rather than a particular storyline. Such pleasing details can be found throughout, like how the elves bleed sap and turn to amber when they die, how the faerie folk live and reluctantly grow amongst the rusted pipes, struts and supports of the human world above.

But what makes me really love Hellboy II, weirdly, is the unexpectedly affecting goofy rom-com element. Amphibious Abe Sapien’s (Doug Jones) faltering awkward new relationship with Princess Nuala (Anna Walton), Hellboy’s more established relationship with pyrokinetic girlfriend Liz hitting new roadblocks. The choice of “Can’t smile without you” as the movie’s theme song really was a stroke of genius, resulting in HB and Abe getting sloshed on Mexican beer and mulling over their love lives (“I can’t smile, or cry. I think…I have no tear ducts”, “I would die and do the dishes!”). This scene always makes me think of a friend I don’t speak to anymore; we shared many a moment like this.

Love is everyone’s mortal weakness here. Hellboy can’t fight Nuada to the best of his ability for fear of harming the Princess (the old supernatural bond between twins thing) and is seriously crippled by Liz’s sudden appearance at his duel, ghost-in-a-diving-suit Krauss (Seth Macfarlane/John Alexander/James Dodd) lost his body forever trying to save his fiancé (offscreen), and Abe essentially releases Nuada’s unstoppable Golden Army by keeping the final piece of the all-powerful eleven crown as a bargaining chip for the safety of his elf beaux. Added to this Nuada himself, his twin sister being the one chink in his armour and his ultimate downfall.

Both Nuala and Nuada say “I love you” in their way when they die. Nuala does it in a more explicit fashion, making a final empathic connection with Abe. For Nuada, it’s more a grudging acknowledgment of Hellboy’s impossible position trapped between two worlds, just as he was. He feels for him and hopes he can make it work out (“We die and the world will be poorer for it”).

Happy Valentine’s Day everybody. If you’re with someone, watch a film together. If you’re on your own, watch a film, and consider Hellboy II in both situations, the best of alt-romantic movies and tragically unresolved relationship stories. I really wanted to find out what kind of endearingly weird parents Hellboy and Liz would have made, ah well… SSP

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Review in Brief: The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

THE CLOVERFIELD PARADOX is bad, but not bad enough to be interesting. It’s weird, but not weird enough to be memorable. A few neat visuals and tech demonstrations aside, it mostly amounts to 100 minutes of bad exposition, unanswered questions and ideas from about three different screenplays. Once again, as seems to be the Cloverfield model, the franchise this has become part of seems to have been reverse-engineered after the fact. You find yourself clamouring for more of the fun stuff where objects and people end up inside things they shouldn’t (doubtless why the experiment that drives the plot has to take place well away from civilisation) but instead we’re left slogging it with first-draft characters trying to recreate the experiment that plonked them into another dimension in the off chance it might reverse itself because…science? We really were spoiled by 10 CLOVERFIELD LANE weren’t we? SSP

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Review: Darkest Hour (2017)

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Gunning for the Oshkar: Perfect World Pictures/Working Title Films

DARKEST HOUR left me cold. Yes, Gary Oldman will probably win the Oscar for portraying Winston Churchill. Yes, he probably should. And yet, something about the presentation of the film around him left me feeling pretty empty and disconnected.

May 1940, political outcast and fine orator Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) takes over the mantle of Prime Minister of Great Britain from the ailing Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup). Over the initial months of his premiership, he faces political infighting, a lack of faith from his monarch George VI (Ben Mendelsohn) and the potentially harrowing loss of hundreds of thousands of soldiers stranded and surrounded in Dunkirk…

Churchill was a big personality to say the least. With Oldman’s performance and seamless prosthetics being so big, isn’t it pretty redundant, even reductive, to have big stylistic flourishes throughout the film as well? Here’s a good drinking game: take a swig every time there’s a dramatically imposing crane shot or desaturation and high-contrast film noirish lighting in the same scene, it won’t take long to get as sozzled as the man with the ever-present cigar. Revealing Churchill for the first time in total darkness with the strike of a match from his bed was a stroke of genuis, but elsewhere you just want director Joe Wright to tone it down a bit and let the story and the man speak for themselves.

The best scenes are not the speeches or the war room strategising (AKA the money shots for the awards reels), they are the simple exchanges between Churchill and King George (a refreshingly dialed-back Mendelsohn is the next-best thing in this) the two most powerful men in the country trying to work each other out and if not agree, then not entirely disagree. Their first meeting is made awkward by Churchill requesting they reschedule their weekly meetings to fit around his nap time, in subsequent scenes the King and the PM’s relationship is made sourer by Winston’s increasingly erratic behaviour until his monarch seems to take pity on him when he at his lowest ebb.

Darkest Hour has a fair bit of crossover with THE CROWN, and it’s not just because Pip Torrens is in both. Though this story takes place nearly a decade before Elizabeth II ascended the throne and Churchill won his second premiership, a lot of the same figures are involved in the key events. John Lithgow plays a more tragic and frail Churchill in the Netflix series, but you can understand the appeal of focussing on the man at the height of his powers for the big screen.

I think Wright was going for something akin to Spielberg’s LINCOLN, something grand but focussed, something to throw light on political plotting behind the seminal moments in a dark era of history. Despite the force of Oldman’s performance, you never really get into what is making Churchill tick, even less so the motivations of his conniving political opponents. Though it was completely made up, I thought the scene where Churchill rides the Underground and speaks to ordinary Londoners did its job rather well, unlike other scenes designed to show his humanity which fall a bit flat. Let’s not even get started on the real Churchill’s darker side, his prejudices and unfeeling acts made throughout his career, all deftly skipped over for the film. The worst we hear about the old dog here is that he was mean to his secretary (Lily James) after too many morning brandies.

You already know this story (especially if you’re British, doubly so if you saw DUNKIRK a few months back), and you’re not going to learn anything new about this wartime icon from Darkest Hour. It stops just short of being a hagiography, but over-styling and characters frequently standing around explaining the plot might sink Joe Wright’s latest were it not for the man in the jowls. SSP

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Review in Brief: Leatherface (2017)

Well, I’ve certainly seen worse TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE reboots. The last one, for instance. Asylum horror and hillbilly horror are both thoroughly outdated scare sub-genres, and LEATHERFACE tries a bit of both, approaching neither with any more subtlety than power tool butchery. As a Texas Chainsaw film it’s probably a bit too slick (not just with blood) but it’s got a pretty neat premise: which of our escaped band of teenage mental patients will turn out to be the titular skin-wearer? You can see the twists coming a mile off and nothing in it, from the scares to the tension-building to the performances are all that sophisticated. Kudos for finding an actor who looks just like a twenty year younger Jim Siedow (Dimo Alexiev) though: they didn’t need to do that, but it’s such touches like that, and the painstaking recreation of the Sawyer farmhouse from the 70s blueprints that ties this latest hit-and-miss reimagining to that depraved universe. SSP

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Review: The Open House (2018)

Open House

Fire indeed hot!: Netflix

My first new movie of 2018 is a Netflix Original, mostly because between moving house and being ill, I haven’t managed to get to the cinema to see any Oscar Bait in January. OPEN HOUSE has a lot we’ve seen before: dead dads, isolated locales with no phone signal, slightly off locals with vague yet specific warnings (“the quiet can get awful loud!”) and glimpses of weird things going on just outside your field of vision. There’s even a couple of scenes when characters go into a basement alone when the lights don’t work, because of course there are.

Following the sudden, tragic death of his dad, Logan (Dylan Minnette) and his mum Naomi (Piercey Dalton) take a sabbatical at her sister’s house for sale in the country, only having to clear out for the occasional “open house” day for prospective buyers. Try as they might to forget their troubles, their troubles follow them on vacation, as something else may have also done…

The house of the title is a ridiculously spacious, handsome building with plenty of room for things to go wrong. You don’t quite know from what direction the wrongness is going to come from, but you know it’s coming. Some of my favourite horrors/suspense films of the last few years (THE GIFT, HUSH, DON’T BREATHE: none of which does this film hold a temperamental match to) have made the very most of the scare potential of an ordinary domestic setting. It’s amazing how scary just a house can be with the right lighting, camera angles and Foley artistry. The previous sentence is true for a movie that does all of this well.

“You ever thought about how weird open houses are?” Well, for any non-Americans out there (including yours truly) I reckon the answer is yes, and it’s why we don’t do them. This is a much scarier story for a Brit where the concept is completely alien. It’s the mundanity of the horror here that could have made it special, made it last in the mind. Individual scares – bumps, lights cutting out, slamming doors and whip-pans aren’t all that frightening on their own, but it gains tension and traction when the pieces fall into place and you realise that the threat will remain nameless but all-too-real. Sadly, this is only the last ten minutes of the movie, not really enough to justify having to sit through the whole thing.

It’s difficult to get past the nagging feeling that Logan and Naomi wouldn’t go through half the torment if she just took shorter showers, and that she might feel a bit less vulnerable if she got the basement light fixed and put on something more than a towel to restart the pilot light. But hey, if real-world logic always applies to horror movies then we wouldn’t have horror movies.

Hamstrung as they are by how characters in horror movies are supposed to act, these are two really strong lead performances, Dalton and Minnette utterly believable as mother and son trying to overcome trauma. They play off each other well, the supporting cast are appropriately bizarre and off-putting, but the film as a whole comes across as more competent than memorable, far from a horror highlight this early in the year. It’s fine, but aside from the acting it’s little more. SSP

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Review in Brief: The Big Sick (2017)

I’ve seen THE BIG SICK twice now, and both times it got me at exactly the same moments. These weren’t particularly emotionally manipulative or maudlin scenes, but the weight of emotion that had built up over the two hours of this true story just overcomes you. My first viewing was on a plane, and the edited, toothless version of this film is not the way to see it. If you watch as intended it’s razor-sharp, bittersweet and refreshingly unconventional in its key relationship dynamics. It’s Kumail Nanjiani’s story as told and acted out by Kumail Nanjiani, a potentially self-indulgent move. Nanjiani strikes the right balance though, keeping it honest (he doesn’t always come out of things well) and connected to what matters to him (falling in love with doing comedy as a living, his difficult relationship with religion and family expectations). Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan manage to be a compelling couple despite their relationship being (tragically, necessarily) one-sided, so Holly Hunter and Ray Romano bear a lot of the emotional weight as Emily’s distraught parents. It’s something special indeed. SSP

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Review in Brief: The Limehouse Golem (2016/17)

THE LIMEHOUSE GOLEM is an odd, inconsistent beast. I liked that this murder-mystery takes place in a gritty, nasty vision of Victorian London: children being sold and horrifically abused, seedy backstreet businesses, no desirable place in society unless you’re lucky enough to be a man of means. Are you poor? Are you a woman? Are you “not of the marrying kind”? Say goodbye to any hopes of respect or freedom. The down and dirty historical kitchen sink drama portions of the film have real impact, as does the B-storyline in the music hall, but the murders and the mystery element are weirdly uncompelling, unfocussed and can’t decide whether it wants to be coy or gothically graphic from scene to scene. The cast are good (especially Olivia Cooke and Douglas Booth) but are often smothered by the muddled material, and the red herrings. SSP

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