Friday, 16 March 2018

Annihilation (Netflix Originals) - review

Annihilation is a film about a team of scientists who enter "the Shimmer", an environmental disaster area of unknown origin, unsure if they will emerge from the other side.
Writer-Director Alex Garland must have felt a bit like that during the post-production process, wondering if the finished film would ever see the light of day.
The much publicised studio stories claim executives at Paramount felt the film was "too intellectual" and wanted Garland to make changes.
He refused and this resulted in them giving it a small, short theatrical run in America but giving Netflix the international rights.
Now this once again opens up the argument over the audience benefits of a non-theatrical release. 
Some are outraged that they cannot watch it on a cinema screen as the director intended. Others claim that by releasing on the streaming service, more people will watch it there than ever would in a cinematic environment.
Who is right? Well, in this particular case, both are right in some ways.
Following his Oscar-winning Ex_Machina, Garland has moved up in terms of scale from a theatrical three-way chamber piece on what it means to be human, to a much grander (wo)men on a mission story where a group of people (possibly literally) meet their maker.
Natalie Portman plays Lena, a biologist who's soldier husband (Oscar Isaac) has been missing in action for over a year. Consumed by grief, she is all but lost when one day he returns to her dazed and confused. Falling ill he is taking to a military base where she learns he is the only person to have returned from "the Shimmer". Wanting to know what happened to her husband, Lena volunteers to join a team heading in to find the source of the Phenomenon.
Inside the all-female team find plant and animal life that should not exist in nature, along with very real and dangerous threats to their existence, including each other. For the deeper they venture in to the area, the more their connection to reality starts to slip.
Annihilation is a film that was shot to be experienced on the big screen. It has some of the most stunning and visually arresting images you will see all year and some of the impact will understandably be lost if watching it on a laptop or iPhone for example. But its power is in no way diminished and the film's imagery and story will stay with audiences days after watching it.
It is certainly not a film that everyone will appreciate on an initial viewing. The trailer entices audiences in with a brief set up of the story and focuses on certain moments of action and horror but in reality the film has much more in common with films like Arrival and Under The Skin, with a hint of Event Horizon.
That is music to the ears of some film fans to be sure. Arrival and Under The Skin are both five star classics (even if Skin took a few viewings to truly appreciate) and Event Horizon is now a cult classic. However these are not instantly accessible films that found big audiences at the cinema. For Event Horizon in particular, it was the home video market where it truly came alive and that is where Annihilation has the opportunity to grow its potential fanbase.
While there will be some people who just don't get it, there will be some who find it akin to 2001: A Space Odyssey in its themes and messages about humanity. They will spread the word and build up its cult status for years to come. Potentially even organising underground guerilla screenings.
It's legacy on the science fiction genre certainly won't be annihilated. If anything, this is just the beginning!

5 stars

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

You Were Never Really Here - review

You Were Never Really Here could refer to the protagonist's mental state, the film's runtime of 90 minutes or writer-director Lynne Ramsay's absence from the big screen.
Since debuting in 1999 with Ratcatcher, she has only produced adaptations of Morven Callar in 2002 and We Need To Talk About Kevin in 2011. That means she has made, on average, a film every 4.5 years. That is workrate that rivals Terrence Malick but thankfully, when she does return, it is not with a film full of wistful shots of pixie girls running through fields of wheat and dull, lifeless narration.
Instead Ramsay has returned with another adaptation of a pulp hard-boiled thriller, and similar to Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive, turned it into a tale of vengeance that is simultaneously one of the most brutal yet tender films of the year.
Phoenix goes full on Joaquin Wick as Joe, a man who it would be fair to say has seen some shit in his time, who works as a hired gun rescuing young girls from harm's way.
Taking the job of returning a Senator's young daughter from a brothel in New York's Midtown, Joe is forced to confront some demons of his own as he wages a one man war on the criminal underworld in this thriller that is stripped back to the bare (broken) bones.
The reasons why Joe is the way that he is have a huge influence on his current career choice but these are only glimpsed sparingly and Ramsay wisely leaves it up to the audience to fill in the blanks and determine the cause of Joe's grief and rage.
If anything casts a long shadow over the film, it is not the spectres from Joe's past but Martin Scorsese's Taxi Driver
It would be difficult to ignore given the plot features a mentally disturbed man rescuing a young girl from the clutches of an abusive child abuser with links to a US senator. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the sequence where Joe initially rescues Nina from a brothel contained in a Manhattan Brownstone.
Careful to avoid direct comparisons, Ramsay orchestrates the rescue by seeing the action from the perspectives of the security cameras on stark black and white monitors. This further detaches the audience from the savage violence dispensed by Phoenix's character.
Whilst the film features flashes of severe barbarity, intensified by Jonny Greenwood's discordent score, from the ugliness of the violence emerges moments of incredible beauty and tenderness.
This is glimpsed early on with Joe's care for his mother, a theme that runs through the film with his care and protection for vulnerable women, but is replicated later on when he shows surprising compassion to a dying man who is frightened of death and lies next to him and sings "I've Never Been To Me" while holding his hand. It is completely unexpected but one of the most moving scenes of the year.
It is just one of many visually arresting images that Ramsay paints with cinematographer Thomas Townend (whose only previous DoP credit was Attack The Block), along with a stunning underwater sequence.
Joe is a tortured anti-hero, at times literally hammering the point home, and his relationship with Nina mirrors that of Travis and Iris, hinting that an escape and redemption might be possible for both of them. Yet like Bickle, it is left open to interpretation as to whether he is the rain that washes the scum of the streets or is ultimately another one of the animals that come out at night.

4 stars

Monday, 12 March 2018

Wonder Wheel - review

Wonder Wheel was released in cinemas this weekend but you would be forgiven for not realising that as it has had as much fanfare and publicity as an abandoned fairground.
Given the current climate within Hollywood, Woody Allen's latest film has been unceremoniously dumped into cinemas post-Oscars without as much as a trailer or poster to alert audiences to the fact.
No matter your views on Allen as a person or a filmmaker, ultimately the film should be reviewed on its merits and on that alone, it adds context to the decision to slip it out under the radar as it is not a great film at all and certainly in the lower tier of Allen's recent output.
One of the criticisms of Allen's recent work in the Noughties was that his particular brand of comedy and writing did not translate as well to locations such as Barcelona, London, Rome, etc as he went on an extended Euro Trip. His greatest films were always set in his hometown of New York City and Wonder Wheel sees him return to the Big Apple, in particular Coney Island beach.
The tale, set in the 1950s, revolves around the character of Ginny (Kate Winslet), a woman who feels she is wasting her life waitressing at a diner on the Boardwalk, raising a son obsessed with starting fires and is trapped in an unhappy marriage to a recovering alcoholic (Jim Belushi) who works the carousel at Coney Island fairground.
Her mundane life is thrown for a loop bigger than the Thunderbolt rollercoaster when she begins an affair with a young, handsome lifeguard (Timberlake) and also when her husband's 20 year old daughter (Juno Temple) returns home after going on the run from her gangster ex-husband.
If this is starting to sound like a bit like a bad American play, the kind that Joey Tribbiani from Friends would star in, then this is kind of intentional on Allen's part.
The first few scenes are set within an apartment located within the fairground (possibly a direct reference to Annie Hall which also featured a family living beneath the rollercoaster). The dialogue, acting and blocking of these scenes come across as very theatrical. As if the actors were performing a Eugene O'Neill or Tennessee Williams play.
At first it feels very odd but then the reasoning becomes apparent when it is made clear that the story is being narrated by Timberlake's lifeguard Mickey, a young man who dreams of becoming a playwright.
Only he does not have much of a career ahead of him as a wordsmith because the dialogue and plotting are incredibly stilted and on-the-nose.
Timberlake was an effective screen presence in The Social Network, but his casting here seems out of place. He has the matinee looks for a '50s dreamboat but as the Woody Allen cypher in the film, he is not a good match for the dialogue, even if it is nowhere near the calibre of Allen's early days.
In a nice reversal of one of Allen's most reviled plot devices, this movie finally sees an older woman having a romance with a younger man. Even if this romance is threatened by the younger ingenue who enters stage right and sets in motion the events that will lead to the inevitable tragic climax that must feature in an American play.
Allen's films are often the stuff of fantasy. After all, why do so many of them feature a man in his fifties romancing a girl in her twenties?
Wonder Wheel is a romanticised version of New York which features this red, amber lighting that appears on Winslet's face all of the time, no matter what time of day. A light that for some reason can appear to come from two different directions at once and only on the main characters. It is the type of light that only appears in paintings and postcards. Idealised images of a place that wishes to portray a lifestyle that it cannot live up to and this is ultimately Ginny's downfall.
Winslet is the film's saving grace as the third act comes around and her character finally embraces and revels in the drunken Streetcar Named Desire Stella-esque turn.
As for the rest of the movie, it is very similar to the ferris wheel after which Wonder Wheel is named. It might provide a momentary distraction from your daily routine but ultimately it goes nowhere and will leave you right back where you started.

2 stars

Monday, 5 March 2018

Nae Pasaran (Glasgow Film Festival) - review

Not all heroes wear capes...

Gala screenings quite often feature standing ovations following the film to show respect to the filmmakers and cast & crew present at the event. However it is rather rare to attend a screening that starts AND ends with a standing ovation but that is precisely what happened at the Closing Gala for the Glasgow Film Festival on Sunday.
The first Standing "O" was for the staff and volunteers of the Glasgow Film Festival who were forced to battle the #BeastFromTheEast when Glasgow turned into the set from The Day After Tomorrow and forced them to cancel some screenings. Despite the terrible conditions, they worked tirelessly to ensure that as many events went ahead as possible to satisfy the insatiable appetite of film fans and they were rightly praised for their efforts.

This was followed by the film closing the festival, documentary Nae Pasaran by Felipe Bustos Sierra. It explores the true story of the workers in a Rolls Royce engine factory in East Kilbride who refused to repair the engines destined for the Chilean air force so they could not be used to further the military coup in 1974.
Felipe interviews some of the men who refused to work on the engines including Bob Fulton who was the shop steward who made the call to "black" the engines. This was backed by the trade unions, essentially grounding much of the Chilean Air Force.
It is an incredibly powerful and emotional film and you could physically feel the affect it had on the sold out audience, many of whom having a direct link to those involved.
It wasn't just the factory workers who provided testimony but also some of the men who were in government at the time and became political prisoners and tortured by Pinochet's new regime.
These interviews were incredibly difficult to watch but from such pain and despair came hope when they heard about the Scottish protest over the radio and incredibly some of the men were released and found asylum in the UK when, still unconfirmed, they were traded for the release of four of the engines that were mysteriously taken from the factory after three years of sitting in a box on the grounds.
The film concludes with Felipe searching Chile for the stolen engines with the hope of returning them to East Kilbride as a symbolic gesture, along with the honouring of several of the Scottish workers by the Chilean government.
This brought the audience to wave after wave of rapturous applause before taking to their feet in a 10 minute long standing ovation for the cast, crew and the workers who attended the screening.

The film shines a light on a fascinating story from Scottish history, one that not enough people were aware of and demonstrates the power that an act of solidarity can have, no matter how big or small. It also showcased the power and importance that the trade unions had in the Seventies and how industry must look to the future and try to strengthen the unions' positions again in society.
The curtain came down for another year, the entire audience stood in solidarity of the incredible impact the men in front of them had made and for a festival that is equally forward thinking, inclusive and passionate.

4 stars

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Game Night - review

With the world getting people down at the moment, between politics and weather, sometimes audiences just need a good old-fashioned, fun Friday night movie that does not require too much brain power and does exactly what it says on the box.
In the midst of Awards season, finding such a film can sometimes feel like a Trivial Pursuit but Game Night has the Monopoly over the competition going into Oscar weekend.
Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams play the lead characters who are ultra competitive and would normally be that really annoying couple in real life that everyone hates but have enough charm and chemistry to make them likeable.
They run a weekly game night in order to hang out with their friends; childhood sweethearts Kevin and Michelle and the dumb, without a Cluedo Ryan who brings a succession of dates who are certainly no Masterminds either.
They run each night like a military Operation in order to avoid the unwanted attention of neighbour, police officer and former gamer Gary (a scene-stealing Jesse Plemons) but their perfect Game of Life threatens to be sunk like a Battleship when, Guess Who?, Bateman's more successful older brother Brooks turns up to host a special game night involving a murder-mystery style "kidnapping"role play party where one of the guests will be taken and the others must Connect Four clues to solve the crime.
The problems begin when Brooks is kidnapped for real for getting mixed up with real criminals and they teams Scrabble around to win the game, unaware of the real Risk involved.
The film takes several fun Twisters and turns along the way and, unlike many comedies this decade, is shorter than a session of Dungeons and Dragons.
The end result is not a comedy working at the top of its game but it does just enough to pass go and collect $200.

2 stars

Lady Bird - review

For many years, possibly unfairly, thanks to films such as Damsels In DistressFrances Ha and Mistress America, Gerwig became synonymous as many cinemagoers idea of the a-typical New York generation X hipster who would live in an loft-style apartment in Brooklyn and be more concerned with going out and putting their dinner on Instagram than having a proper job.
However, with her debut feature film as writer-director Greta Gerwig proves that a beautiful Lady Bird is just waiting to emerge from the cocoon of the cover girl for manic, hipster pixie girls.
Being a 38 year old man from Aberdeen, Scotland, this reviewer had no idea what it would have been like for an 18 year old girl growing up in a Catholic school in Sacramento, California but having watched this honest and heartfelt coming-of-age story, they do know.
A large part of this comes from Saoirse Ronan's award worthy performance as the fiercely independent, eponymous Lady Bird and the rest from Gerwig's direction and script based partly on her own experiences of growing up in Sacramento.
The film has a truthfulness and honesty that is enhanced by the attention to detail that successfully creates a period film set in 2002 (which is incredibly depressing for this formerly young reviewer who also would know all the words to Alanis Morrisette's Jagged Little Pill album. But then again who didn't back then?).
While Lady Bird provides the wit and warmth, the real heart comes from the relationship between her and her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf). It has an authenticity to it where you believe every interaction between whether it comes from anger or love, all tempered by the quietly calming influence of Tracy Letts as the father. In fact it is probably the best example of a cinematic parent/daughter relationship since Olive, Rosemary and Dill Penderghast in Easy A.
At one point Marion tells Lady Bird, "I just want you to be the very best version of yourself you can be" and she replies "What if this is the best version?".
Well if this is the best version of Greta Gerwig, then she certainly has a long and successful career in front of her... and not just as a t-shirt!

4 stars

Monday, 26 February 2018

I, Tonya - review

Tonya Harding faced obstacle after obstacle in her pursuit to become the greatest figure skater in the world. Whether it was an overbearing mother, abusive husband or judging panels who dislike her trailer trash upbringing, Tonya refused to let anything stand in her way. Even an opponent's kneecap. She just kept moving towards her goal.
Like someone once said "Some motherfuckers are always trying to ice skate uphill".
While she may not have achieved her dream of becoming an Olympic champion, Harding did achieve notariety and infamy as one of the first "celebrities" born of the 24 hour news channel era, coming just before O.J. Simpson.
Indeed, the Harding/Kerrigan incident is one of the first celebrity news stories this reviewer remembers following during the Nineties and now, 24 years later, director Craig Gillespie aims to tell Tonya Harding's story through the people that lived it. Even if it might not be the "truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth" but based on "irony-free, wildly contradictory, totally true interviews with Tonya Harding and Jeff Gillooly".
The mockumentary-style of interviews, killer soundtrack and fourth-wall breaking may not bring audiences any closer to knowing whether of not Tonya really did or did not have anything to do with the attack on Kerrigan but will bring close comparisons to Scorsese's Goodfellas. "As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a figure skater".
It will also generate sympathy and empathy for Harding thanks to an incredible performance from Margot Robbie. She nails the brashness and bravado of the impetuous skater as perfectly as Tonya could land the famed Triple Axel but also the sadness and vunerability of a woman who lived with abuse from everyone she loved, including her mother who is played with a foul-mouthed frenzy by the scene-stealing Allison Janney.
But it is towards the end of the film, when she is faced with the prospect of losing everything that she has worked so hard to achieve that Robbie delivers a performance as good as Tom Hanks' breakdown at the end of Captain Phillips.
In any other year, the Best Actress Oscar would have Margot's name on it but sadly, right now the only way for Robbie to win now is to hobble McDormand on her way to the podium!

3 stars