TWIM Reviews: Blade Runner 2049

BLADE RUNNER 2049 (Sony Pictures/Warner Bros. Pictures) 

Directed by Denis Villeneuve / Written by Hampton Fancher & Michael Green

Starring Ryan Gosling, Harrison Ford, Ana de Armas, Sylvia Hoeks, Robin Wright, Mackenzie Davis, Carla Juri, Lennie James with Dave Bautista and Jared Leto

Synopsis: It’s Blade Runner. Ryan Gosling is in it. You don’t need a plot. Film critics do dream of electric sequels.

I didn’t get Blade Runner 2049 at first go. 

I entered the biggest screen in town beyond excited on opening night, for a movie that I’ve been dying to see my whole life, and for many others more than 30 years. A sequel to Blade Runner, out in cinemas, with Harrison Ford – the real damn thing. Usually, the idea of a revisitation of a film that is so revered by so many would be considered sacrosanct – that is, until we heard who was directing. Denis Villeneuve is not your typical filmmaker. The man behind the squeeze-your-balls-until-you-cry tense thrills of Sicario, as well as the deep cerebral themes and emotional power of Arrival, seemed on paper to be the absolute dream choice to run some blades. Add to that the casting of Ryan Gosling, who has established himself as Hollywood’s most interesting leading man of the last few years, and of course the return of Ford to perhaps his most enigmatic role. And on first go, I left perplexed. I felt lost, absolutely stunned by the visuals, knowing that there was obviously a movie of significant worth here, but that I’d been retired somewhere along the way. So, a couple of days ago, I went back to the same screen and saw it again, determined to watch the movie rather than read it, to just let the film wash over me like a hot shower before bed.

I was so wrong. I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. 

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2049: The amount of times I think I came just looking at this image

I’ve never been so happy to repent for my sins. Blade Runner 2049 is one of those movies that only comes along every-so-often. Villeneuve, along with original Blade Runner scribe Hampton Fancher and Logan writer Michael Green, have crafted a science fiction spectacular that deserves to be placed in as rarified an airspace as Ridley Scott’s predecessor, and alongside any other film released in the genre. This movie makes normal blockbusters seem like the sketches of pre-school children. This movie does more in one scene thematically than Michael Bay has in his entire career. Visually…holy shit. The cinematography in this film should be parental locked. I made noises; families were disturbed. It’s hard to explain exactly how I felt in a non-sexual way. There are shots that redefine what shots can be. Not only does Blade Runner 2049 stand as one of the best films of this year, but one of the most beautiful, richly emotional and truly soulful films I’ve ever had the pleasure of seeing. And its about beings that don’t have souls – or do they? Blade Runner asked existential questions, and 2049 is entirely tinged with the weight of what existence truly means – the movie is almost like a poem, lyrically dealing with what it means to be human through the eyes of those who are not born, but manufactured, asking: can it ever be the same?

With this movie, Denis Villeneuve has his masterpiece. It could be argued the man already had two, but now…how can anybody argue against a director this good? He is a fucking genius. I sometimes wonder when I watch his movies if I’m watching the development of a filmmaker who will one day be amongst the Spielberg’s, Kubrick’s and Coppola’s, on Best Director lists in publications the world over. For me, Villeneuve has a way of directing movies that wrings out every single drop of its emotion – like a nice dress that’s been caught out in the rain and Rutger Hauer’s tears. Scenes flow in this movie like great waterfalls, absolutely hyper-charged with emotion so powerful it transcends the confines of the frame. And holy fuck, the frames. Blade Runner 2049 is, and I say this with the utmost seriousness that I can muster, is one of the best-looking films ever made. Cinematographer Roger Deakins, widely considered for many years to the world leader in his craft, has created something that cannot be put into mere words. I’m not sure anyone can do justice to it. It’s like an orgasm…wrapped inside another orgasm. Deakins has, somehow, captured the feelings of biblical epics, the dirt of this future’s Los Angeles, the emotions of programmed beings, wrapped them in a bow and made them gleam gold, green, and every other colour in the spectrum (and the colours are…*screams like teenage girl*). And once Deakins starts playing around with the lighting, then you just laugh; because you just cannot be that good. There are lighting arrangements in Blade Runner 2049 that are so gosh-darn ostentatious and impressionistic you want to warn every single prospective director of photography to just go home and become a fucking cashier. If the Academy do not award Deakins the Academy Award now, after he’s left the Dolby empty handed after being nominated THIRTEEN TIMES, then that single decision would render every single good we as a species have done over the past two thousand and forty nine years to be worth absolutely nothing. Villeneuve and Deakins are fast becoming one of the defining visual collaborations of our time – its unashamedly big, romantic and so, so deeply…human.

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GOSLING VOLUME II – That coat is having the best day it will ever have in its life

Because 2049, despite being a movie in which about three quarters (or more, if you think that origami was a ‘coincidence’) of the characters are artificial ‘replicants’ (Nexus 9 models to be exact, proof that Google won’t just make tablets in the future), is completely concerned with what it is to truly live. There’s a steakhouse’s stockroom worth of stellar stories and themes to tuck into, and each delectable bite is as satisfying as that alliteration I threw in there for no other reason than to prove I’m a dick. 2049 takes the questions Blade Runner asked, doubles down on them, throws them into a cannon and gives them such an urgency, a richness of depth, that it could make a broken man love again. Believe me – Hampton Fancher’s screenplay is going to be talked about for years. The characters…are all exemplary. 2049‘s lead character, K, is a Blade Runner like any other. Despite spending his days assassinating outlawed replicants (which, in this age of yellow-haired Presidents, feels so prescient to today), K lives a relatively unfulfilling life, with only Ana de Armas’s Joi for company in his flat, an incredibly versatile women for whom there is much more than meets the eye. And when events begin to unfold in 2049’s beautifully paced and constructed plot, that spoiling in any way here would be a colossal disservice to, Gosling wants to believe he’s part of something special, and so do we. And as the plot unfolds, Gosling proves an incredibly engaging protagonist. Gosling himself might have put in the best performance of his career, at parts filled with angst, even rage, but underneath the cool exterior Nicholas Winding Refn introduced us to in Drive. 2049 keeps K’s dialogue economical, always secondary to the absolutely intoxicating visuals, but somehow just as important – there are scenes where Fancher’s dialogue is, quite simply, perfect. A short sequence involving a twist on the legendary Voight-Kampff test is quite possibly one of the best written minutes of film I’ve ever witnessed.

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Harrison Ford stars in his second franchise heavily affected by the presence of sand 

And while Gosling’s work is absolutely superb, he’s matched by the acting all across the board. Harrison Ford’s press tour for this film might have given the impression he’d rather be drowning in whisky or something, but unlike in Star Wars where he phoned it in from a box on a street, Ford really shows up here. His Deckard 30 years later is changed, bitter from the events of them, but still unmistakably the character we fell in love with in the 1980s. And the new additions, on top of the riveting de Armas as quite possibly the most original character to be in a major-studio blockbuster since Moonlight was accidentally mistaken for a major studio blockbuster, are excellent also. Sylvia Hoeks, a Dutch actress whose previous work I’m not familiar with whatsoever is a Rutger Hauer-level breakout as Luv (in case you hadn’t noticed with Joi, there’s a lot of symbolism within every aspect of 2049, which is also filled with literary references in an attempt to prove to the world Hampton Fancher has read in the past 35 years), the consistently-excellent Robin Wright is – you guessed it – consistently excellent as a police lieutenant, and Jared Leto, while sometimes chewing scenery like a shark chewing a couch, proves suitably menacing as replicant manufacturer Wallace, in what is, if anything, Blade Runner 2049‘s weak link.

Below the line, editor Joe Walker has done a staggering job. 2049 of course is a title that doesn’t just refer to the year in which this masterpiece is set, but the amount of minutes the film’s duration consists of: and yet, the pacing is absolutely hypnotic, keeping you enveloped in its clutch like a Venus flytrap with a hungry streak. A three-hour movie simply soars by, and the action sequences are works of true, visceral beauty. Dennis Gassner’s production design is remarkable, recreating the completely unique world of Blade Runner while also expanding upon it with incredible statues, and whoever did the colour grade deserves millions upon millions of promotions. And then there’s the score – if you’ve seen the original movie you’ll know how important this is. I can gladly report that, despite the controversy surrounding Johann Johannsson being cut from the movie (incredibly, the second time its happened to the Icelandic composer in the space of a month), we were in safe hands all along. Vangelis, the reclusive Greek composer (the only proof the world needs that Greece is one of its greatest nations) who made a masterpiece in his home studio, has been well emulated here by Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer, who have certainly made a solid score in their own right – it could have maybe had just a little more old-style synth, but anyone who knows me knows that of course I would say that – but hark back to the original at just the right times: trust me. Blade Runner 2049 (and the incredible craftsmen and women behind it) deserves Oscar nominations in pretty much every production category.

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THIS IS RYAN GOSLING ON FIRE! ACADEMY, DO NOT FUCK THIS UP

Denis freaking Villeneuve. I remember watching Sicario for the first time, late on a Tuesday night I think, mostly on a whim and just…knowing. Knowing that there might come a day when he made a film so big and yet so unbelievably good. He and Hampton Fancher have made an instant sci-fi classic, and perhaps a classic without the sci-fi classification over the top. The fact of the matter is these two turned an idea that, if 99% of other directors were doing, I would have actively rioted against, into a movie whose deep existential cry will stay with me for an incredibly long time. And if 2049 is a sequel then isn’t it…a replicant itself? An imitation, featuring much the same things as its original but only made possible by its father’s existence? A lot of people might have said its too artificial to come alive, too against something so pure as Blade Runner is to so many: nothing more than a soulless attempt to recycle a classic. Nobody can look at this replicant and claim it isn’t alive. 2049 is the most soulful movie of this year, and probably 2049 when it comes around. Its beautiful, brilliant, bombastic and utterly mesmerising – blades have never been ran on quite like this before. This film is an attack ship off the shoulder of Orion. A C-Beam, glittering in the dark by the Tannhauser Gate. And all those…moments will be lost…in time like tears…in…

Rain.

RATING: 4/4

BEST WATCHED: The biggest screen, the biggest sound system, everything. You have to see this film.

James Stephenson

 

 

 

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TWIM Reviews: Goodbye Christopher Robin

GOODBYE CHRISTOPHER ROBIN (Fox Searchlight) 

Directed by Simon Curtis / Written by Frank Cottrell-Boyce, Simon Vaughan

Starring Domnhall Gleeson, Margot Robbie, Kelly MacDonald

Synopsis: The heartwarming tale about a rich writer who writes something and gets even richer. Also, Harley Quinn thinks she’s in Downton Abbey.

While the logical place to begin a review of a British period drama never usually is France in the 1950s, we start there today because I want to make a point that a much more intelligent man has already made. François Truffaut, the prominent director who in part birthed the French New Wave and then worked quietly on Bonnie and Clyde to spark the American one into life, used to also be a prominent critic, and he (and many others) wrote that French cinema suffered then from a ‘tradition of quality’: in other words, costume drama. French filmmaking was dominated, suffocated almost, by this fixation with films about the lives of aristocrats in palaces – the critics working for the influential French magazine Cahiers du Cinema wanted films that reflected their own lives. And now, like all good history, we find ourselves repeating it.

 

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And here they are! Tweed as costly as tuition fees, a Costume Design Oscar all they crave!

 

British prestige drama is an absolute disaster-zone of a genre, especially once the Summer season ends and cinema chains believe that nobody under 45 would dare pay to come to a movie theatre when they could lip-sync to songs they didn’t even know came from La La Land on Musical.ly or something. You know the movies I’m talking about – you can smell the jingoism from a mile out and see the stiff upper lip from ten times further away. There must be at least ten every year, all the same as last year’s crop and, somehow, this year’s also: its like somebody photocopying a map of the British Empire in its prime. Worse still, if anything is going to change, its going to be an increase in these types of productions. The Academy ADORE them, because they probably think Victoria & Abdul is a portrait of Britain today and not a million yesterdays ago: The King’s Speech is a Best Picture and Best Actor winner, The Theory Of Everything got the latter and came close to the former, and so many come out every single awards season its like the MCU for supporters of UKIP. The worst thing of all, however, is the sheer lack in these films of any sort of adventure, if of course you don’t count the journey into a parallel dimension that these movies take with their unabashed historical revisionism.

Goodbye Christopher Robin, of course, is the latest instalment of pensioners’ pleasure to hit cinemas and, once again, the same problems emerge. Of course, this movie is about A.A. Milne, the writer of the colossally iconic Winnie The Pooh stories, which I loved as a kid and if you didn’t you probably skipped your childhood. These books were so influential that, as the film tries at great lengths to indicate, they reminded the people living in the aftermath of the First World War what happiness was like. However, spare a few daintily shot scenes of Domnhall Gleeson (whose name WordPress’s Autocorrect software hastily changed to Downhill, in an excellent review of his performance that proves I’ve no reason to be here) and his young son who Milne bases Christopher Robin on, Goodbye comes across as the life-affirming tale of whoring out a child to a world all too happy to idealise him, and the consequences…wait, there are hardly any! Don’t you just love the Empire? For a movie about a book series that this film depicts as almost a burst of pure, angelic light blinding the masses into full-on child worship in much the same way as the house-crashers from the third act of mother!, Goodbye Christopher Robin has so little of an emotional core, it probably thinks the Earth’s a donut (American of course, we Britons are not foolish…). This is more lecture than film, a walking tour around a rich bloke’s life that in every way mimics a hundred other such pictures.

 

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A young boy introduced to the pleasant past-time of throwing sticks at peasants from overhead

 

The main issue is the fundamentally flawed screenplay, worse-still that it comes from the usually stellar Frank Cottrell-Boyce: the absolute worst issue of the film is that it changes its protagonist like Star Wars movies change their directors. Sometimes we’re expected to sympathise with Gleeson, whose upper lip is so stiff that it froze his basic humanity for long periods of this movie, as A.A. Milne deals not only with PTSD from fighting in the war, but with Margot Robbie leaving him as he wants to write a more serious drama (Robbie’s character will be touched upon in a second, I promise you that). Other times however we’re apparently meant to be on the side of Christopher Robin’s nanny, who does a million times more parenting than anybody else does, and then at other times we’re supposed to sympathise with Christopher Robin himself as he deals with the newfound pressure of being the world’s most idolised, bowl-cut brandishing boy. Confused? That’s what watching Goodbye Christopher Robin can feel like – if the film’s a sea and the protagonist is the plank of wood we cling onto, then this plank of wood is made of water. There is no emotional through-line to follow with this movie. And because of this confusion surrounding who we’re meant to be following, the result is that it feels like this movie’s message is ‘these upper class people are exploitative pricks, but the books are nice and all so we’ll let it slide’. The ending in particular functions on an absolutely insane contrivance that is at best cheap and at worst the state of Monarch Airlines’s finances. It doesn’t work at all in terms of common logic, and even more sacrilegiously doesn’t work in terms of the story.

 

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If this film was set today, this would have been the photo they sold the boy with on Ebay

 

The characters might be even worse. Goodbye Christopher Robin seems to be so in love with its period setting and what your Grandma refers to when she screams ‘back in my day’ at the Six O’Clock News that its almost amplified how much of an arsehole everybody sounded when they spoke. The perfect example is Margot Robbie’s character, who looks, sounds, and behaves like a class A twat from start to finish. Daphne, as she’s called, never seems more antagonised than when her own son stands in front of her and seems only concerned with her family’s financial gain than her family’s well-being, which is never really there from the start. While her character is grossly underdeveloped, Robbie doesn’t do much to make the pill sweeter, with an over-accentuated, ‘its gay-TUH, not gate’, if-it-worked-for-Judi-Dench-it-must-work-for-Australians-also voice. In fact, the only character that only resembles a member of our species is the nanny, played with warmth by Kelly MacDonald in the stand-out performance, although thats unfortunately not a hard accolade to achieve. Also, a late appearance in the film by Alex Lawther is especially welcome, as he plays a character haunted by the events of his childhood.

My Week With Marilyn director Simon Curtis helms the film, and while he doesn’t necessarily do a bad job (scenes in the woods, where Milne first theorises the Winnie The Pooh book series, are actually quite nicely done with some pleasant, sun-kissed compositions by DP Ben Smithard), the film never really sets itself out as unique in any way. Also, Curtis really struggles to give Goodbye Christopher Robin a tone that sits nicely – the characters are often acting just so rudely and tightly-wound that the pleasant woodlands and happy feel of the music are totally at odds with the arsehole-dom we’re watching unfold – I found this movie nigh-on impossible to invest in, and I still would’ve even if Ryan Gosling pitched it to me with the assistance of a Jenga tower. Goodbye Christopher Robin‘s production values are, as is the norm and the only thing I can appreciate about these types of movies, of a very high standard, with good costumes and make-up that may very well sway Academy voters into surrendering to their old British upper-class fetishizing ways. Carter Burwell, the supremely underrated composer of movies like Carol and Twilight‘s 1, 4 part 1 and 4 part 2 (its only in retrospect you realise just how much more Twilight the world got than it actually needed), has done better work before, but his score has some nice flourishes at times also.

 

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Explanations Of Poor Screenplays #1: When the executive overseeing script development is SIX

 

Goodbye Christopher Robin is another chapter in what is a systemic problem within the British period drama – the fact that these are supposedly prestige works of cinema that, underneath the old-timer gramophone records and the lavish costumes, feel more streamlined and artificial to me now than even comic book movies. Maybe its the fact that its not for my age range, although I don’t think thats an excuse – Michael Haneke’s Amour is about dementia and old age and I absolutely adore that movie. I just fundamentally do not get what the point of Goodbye Christopher Robin is in terms of the story its trying to tell and why it necessarily needed telling in the first place; the message itself is confusing also. Goodbye is not a disaster of a movie, but it really pissed me off: with some small changes, there’s actually no doubt in my mind that this would have been a solid movie, even if I would have probably been a little miffed by its lack of originality. However, the tonal confusion, and the almost toxic unlike-ability of its two leads makes this heartwarming tale about a rich couple not giving two shits about their child a very difficult proposition indeed. And so, to end as always with a hopelessly obvious and basic zinger: Christopher Robin, Goodbye.

RATING: 1/4

BEST WATCHED: In about fifty years time, when you might actually get it.

James Stephenson

TWIM Reviews: Kingsman: The Golden Circle

KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE (Fox)

Dir. Matthew Vaughn / Script. Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn

Cast: Colin Firth, Julianne Moore, Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Halle Berry with Elton John and Channing Tatum and Jeff Bridges

Synopsis: A decimated Kingsman joins forces with American counterparts Statesmen, to sell high-end clothing on both sides of the Atlantic.

“THE SEQUEL IS NEVER AS GOOD AS THE ORIGINAL…”

Far too many times have we heard that much-repeated, cliched expression, and it makes me wonder…why? A lot of people will say that the creators never expected one, and so the development is carelessly rushed with total disregard for quality. Others are total cynics, and they haven’t even seen the original film, Linda! But if I could throw my humble-but-not-in-any-way-humble opinion into the ring, I’d say that we’ve already experienced the surprise of seeing something new and original, and that sequels can almost never capture that exact feeling, unless the Empire is striking back or Christopher Nolan is directing the hero that this city doesn’t need, but deserves. Yet we always hype sequels up as sure-fire successes, desperate for a new fix of the same fix, always hoping but never quite getting. And I’m certainly not beyond that: I’ve gone into the sequels of movies that I’ve adored and left feeling lukewarm, disappointed…and in the case of certain prequels mesa do not like, completely disgusted beyond measure.

 

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Colin Firth shaving, blissfully unaware of his new purpose as a plot contrivance for Kingsman 2

 

The very same feelings of excitement were present as I sat through adverts and trailers, waiting patiently to see if Kingsman: The Golden Circle, Matthew Vaughn’s follow-up to the original, refreshing and ridiculously entertaining The Secret Service, would live up to its one-shot-church-massacring predecessor. To put it in short, if I’m a hot air balloon, then the original Kingsman lifted me a hundred feet off the ground; The Golden Circle is the needle. I left feeling deflated, not so much angry as this film isn’t terrible – its actually pretty engaging and there are plenty of inventive moments that kept me from totally checking out. That’s not to say that this movie doesn’t try to: it takes a wonderful roast dinner and makes a smoothie out of the whole thing – all the old elements return in a less impressive manner than before, and the new elements fail to register like a Fresher who’s been out three nights straight. Also, while Kingsman‘s mix of alt-right-murdering and heads exploding in all colours of the rainbow felt like a kick in the teeth to your Average Joe $100m blockbuster designed to sell merchandise, this retread (and it feels like nothing more than that, a crime in and of itself) seems more interested in selling its designer treads: half the shots in this movie seem to make the focus point the suits and the shoes.

The Golden Circle would be more appropriately titled the Plasticine Circle: nothing special, far less valuable than hoped, and decidedly fake. Remember how much you loved Colin Firth killing hundreds in a single take, a Birdman via Free Bird? Its been replaced with set pieces that look like Zack Snyder directed them half-asleep. The Golden Circle has a serious over reliance on CGI – the opening sequence in particular is definitely more ILM than IRL – and token slow-motion bits that look nice on certain occasions, but are used so often its hard to tell if the rest of the fight scenes are being fast-forwarded. I’m old-school: I want to see things done for real if possible, and enhanced by CGI if necessary, and I couldn’t help but feel like there was less thought put into the sequences this time. Certainly, nothing comes close to the church scene, and even the regular fight scenes have much less of an impact than before, feeling like less interesting rehashes of previous ones. Matthew Vaughn quickly skyrocketed into my elite tier of action movie directors with the original Kingsman, which not only worked in its own right but paid homage to the thrills, and ridiculous gadgets and plans, of the early Bond movies and other spy films (Matthew takes his surname from the original Man from U.N.C.L.E, Robert). However, while this was true of Vaughn’s direction in Kingsman 1, his work here feels like an homage to the previous movie with none of the meta-referencing, tongue-in-cheek stuff that worked last time. Credit to Vaughn, he has maintained his hyperkinetic visual style and it continues to work well, but the editing sometimes feels a bit excessive and there were certain shots, in action sequences and not, that I found to be very questionable. The fact is, the director has succumbed to the omniscient, looming spectre that is safety – THERE’S NOTHING NEW HAPPENING, and the increased CGI budget only works to The Golden Circle‘s detriment.

 

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Taron Egerton, flogging hyper-expensive suits: Proof that some things need only stay the same

 

On top of that, when it comes to the performances – from the new additions to the cast in particular – Kingsman‘s sequel could be called The Golden Semi-Circle. The acting just feels half-baked. Julianne Moore stands out in this regard, with a one-note ‘I am mentally deranged, just like every other shit villain’ display, that is so phoned in by the Academy Award winner that a simple text would suffice. As the owner and monopoliser of the world’s drug trade, who also has stolen the diner from Pulp Fiction and regretfully replaced its bible-quoting star, Moore shouldn’t have an issue cooking up menace. However, Poppy feels incredibly distant throughout the movie – Moore’s scenes are filmed in such a way that it probably took her a week to shoot them – and she isn’t an interesting character whatsoever, having as much motivation as I did to write film reviews during the early part of this year (sorry). Fellow American superstars are also suspiciously confined to three or four scenes at the most: Channing Tatum shows up early on with his usual charismatic presence, but just when we think he’s going to play a major part he’s kidnapped by a bunch of maniacal teenage girls again, and his character is (quite literally) put on ice. Jeff Bridges and Halle Berry also lend their names to the poster, and nothing else. Elton John’s also in the film, and Daniel is swearing tonight. Apparently Matthew Vaughn considered that novelty as a substitute for good filmmaking. I weep for cinema at night sometimes.

 

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Julianne Moore prepares to unleash her rendition of Beauty School Drop-Out from Grease

 

The returning characters also, and I’m not sure whether this is the movie’s fault or not, feel stale where they once felt fresh and exciting. Kind of like eggs that have been left out just a shade too long. Speaking of: Kingsman‘s newest agent Galahad, Eggsy, is played pretty well by a sharp-suited Taron Egerton, but the character has much less to do than in the first. As a result, the action, however much flashy, over-the-top gunplay, umbrella-play, suitcase-play, whip-play (umm…) and robot dogs Vaughn stuffs the set pieces with like someone trying to put a bus inside of a cake, just doesn’t feel as…consequential. Eggsy also feels like two characters at times, and his more ‘grounded’ persona is written with so many token ‘bruvs’ that it sounds like the unreleased second verse of Mans Not Hot. And Kingsman‘s older agent Galahad is also back, resurrected through the heavenly power of remarkable plot contrivance and proving that not even point blank headshots mean anything in Kingsman’s truly insane universe. Colin Firth does probably do the most genuine acting in the movie, coming back as a slightly different Harry to the one you remember, but at some points can actually come across as pretty unlikeable.

There are saving graces though, and if The Golden Circle wasn’t following up the fantastic movie that led to its production, you would say that it actually has plenty going for it. The irreverent tone has been maintained and still comes across like a breath of fresh air, and a few jokes still land – an early scene involving a mincer generates some particularly meaty laughs (I’ll shoot myself, don’t worry) – with the same gusto as before. Jane Goldman’s screenplay, co-written with Vaughn, is also still more than sprightly and its extremely solid pacing makes up for moments where certain elements can meander along to the point of being infuriating, specifically the absolutely inexplicable appearance of a certain singer being the wind to my candle. Also, drug-taking takes on a surprisingly major role within the film although, worrisomely, I still can’t quite work out what Kingsman‘s opinion on drug-taking actually is – the scenes in which they attempt to clarify this only muddy the waters yet further. Below the line, the editing takes the frenetic style that many liked from the original Kingsman and doubles down on it, perhaps a little bit too much at times, making sequences a little disorientating, and the cinematography is solid if unspectacular, with the excessive use of CGI making it difficult for the visuals to feel tangible.

 

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My name’s Channing, and I’ll be the key member of States…wait, sorry, change of plan

 

But maybe I’m just being harsh; with sequels, I often think we all tend to be much harsher because we all want these movies to be as great, if not greater than what came before them. That’s why we always go and see them, and Hollywood duly responds by churning more and more out. Objectively, The Golden Circle is nowhere near the worst film of all time, I can even understand why somebody would come out of the film and be relatively pleased. But The Golden Circle just feels like a considerable step-back for one of the few film series I found myself genuinely excited about the continuation of, and after finding out none of the new stars have any discernible impact while fan favourites from the first are tossed aside as if they were never impactful at all. Also, the movie has thrown away the sort of spy parody element that made Kingsman feel so different – because of that, no matter how insane the events of the first film were (which included micro-chip implants that cause rage in humans, exploding heads and a whole church being massacred in a single take) you could believe them because the movie was inherently unbelievable. But Kingsman now takes itself seriously, and ironically this means the film is far less likely to be taken in that way by others. The Kingsman series has pretty much become an over-stylised and slightly dirtier Bond, and with no serious new addition to the recipe this time, its hard to see a reason for Kingsman to have 24 movies with more on the way.

RATING: 1.5/4

James Stephenson

 

 

TWIM Reviews: mother!

MOTHER! (Paramount Pictures)

Written & Directed by Darren Aronofsky

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, Ed Harris, Michelle Pfeiffer

Synopsis: Jennifer Lawrence…wait, what?!

Hailed by critics and hated by everybody else, it’s already clear that mother!, the latest movie by the notorious auteur Darren Aronofsky, is one of the most controversial films of this year, and perhaps of this millennium. Ever since its debut on the festival circuit a couple of weeks ago, this movie has been as polarizing as the last ice age, with a reviewer for every possible response. Some have ordained the Black Swan director’s latest work a masterpiece; others have deemed it the worst movie of the century. The only common thread is that, no matter what side of the fence, nobody has been able to walk away from mother! without an incredibly strong opinion. After wilfully volunteering to put myself in Aronosfky’s latest firing line, I can understand exactly why. mother! is bold to the nth degree, astonishing in its ambition, and an experience that, for better or worse, will leave you needing your jaw put back in place – this film deserves an exclamation point in its title (hold on a minute…). But this movie has proved too much for some. It is a gross understatement to say that mother! doesn’t pull any punches. In fact, this movie is to its audience what Floyd Mayweather’s fist would be to your face. mother! could be seen as an experiment to work out what the best way to traumatise somebody is – believe me, there’s a lot of methods they test. There is haunting, you-can’t-unsee-it imagery abounds, all crafted by a director working at absolute maximum, and perhaps even beyond that. And I thought Requiem For A Dream was dark. This film is Requiem For A Therapy Session.

 

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Yes, Jennifer. This is the punishment for being in Passengers that we were talking about…

 

And while many profess mother! to be a work that will be analysed for years to come, general audiences are rejecting this movie with a passion rarely seen for mainstream Hollywood movies. Not only has the film, despite the presence of Academy Award winner and Katniss Ever-scream herself (and she does, believe me) Jennifer Lawrence, performed far below box office expectations, the people who have paid aren’t necessarily making the most of their well-earned bucks. Walk-outs have occurred in multiplexes the world over, and a few even left my screening. Worse still, the surveyed U.S. audiences have brandished mother! with an F CinemaScore grade, the lowest (and rarest, with fewer than 20 movies receiving the dreaded mark in the company’s history) grade possible to be given to a film by the famous audience survey. mother! is being criticised for, and not limited to, a narrative that makes little to no logical sense, the film being wrapped in allegory and metaphor in a way so integral to the film’s structure it’s like pigs-in-blankets at Christmas lunch, and Aronofsky (once again, after his last film Noah) is being accused of being overtly provocative and offensive towards religion. In a way, I see each and every one of those points as well. I’ve found it incredibly difficult to form a definitive opinion on mother! – I appreciate, and am stunned by, the raw power of what Aronofsky has crafted, but I know that if I interrogated the film’s plot it would fall like a house of cards in a storm, or during an Emmy Awards ceremony. And yet, despite all of that, mother! sits with a positive Rotten Tomatoes score as I write this piece, only adding credence to the popular opinion that critics have completely lost touch with their audiences.

So…where to begin? Probably best to start with something I don’t think anybody can disagree on – Jennifer Lawrence probably contracted laryngitis after filming this. Her character, the eponymous Mother (and before this gets confusing, not a single character in mother! has a name, which makes re-reading the plot synopsis back one of the most confusing experiences a human can access today), goes through a hell of a lot in this movie, with every minute seemingly bringing a new, ever more bat-shit insane nightmare to her door. While the nature of these nightmares is impossible to make sense of without a Bachelor’s in Philosophy, Lawrence proves herself up to the challenge vocal-wise, with screams so blood-curdling and shrill they’ll haunt your dreams, and shriller screams that will haunt the dreams of any dog within two miles of a multiplex. Lawrence is also up to the challenge acting-wise – this is definitely the best work she’s done in a while, perhaps since American Hustle. She carries this film from start to finish, and with so little of it making obvious sense, I ended up clinging to Lawrence’s performance like a life-raft. What makes this performance even more impressive is just how much of the movie is spent on her – cinematographer Matthew Libatique chooses to shoot Lawrence in an intensely claustrophobic close-up style, almost never pulling back – seriously, its like mother! has wideshotaphobia – from her reaction to the indescribable depravity going on around her, and yet I never felt tired of her performance despite seeing so much of it. The other actors in mother! also do their part, with Michelle Pfeiffer having a ton of fun as she brilliantly plays a bitchy, ungrateful guest inside Lawrence’s house (which, like everything probably does, has some kind of pretentious religious meaning behind it), while Ed Harris is restrained and enigmatic as Pfeiffer’s husband.

 

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This is what mother!’s cinematographer considers a mid-shot

 

In particular though, Javier Bardem, and more importantly the character he plays (known as Him in the credits, but Javier Bardem to you and me), really stands out. mother! is like an elegantly crafted box of chocolates, and each event and character has its own flavour, lending itself to a near-infinite number of interpretations. In the film, Mother dotes after Bardem’s character, a writer who wants nothing more than for his ego to be inflated – yes, he is based on me! How did you know? Therefore, when more and more people come to this couple’s mysterious, secluded country home, Bardem seems far more interested in the stranger’s compliments than his wife’s presence. The No Country For Old Men actor cuts a rugged, off-kilter figure throughout the film, and as his fans begin to adore him more and more still, we really do feel his almost total ignorance to somebody who has sacrificed almost everything for them. Its one of many guttural, intense emotions that mother! has the capacity to bring out of you, and a lot of them come from the film placing us in a perspective where we feel completely powerless to stop anything from happening – it’s truly horrible, and it makes the events that transpire in Aronofsky’s utterly mental twist on the home invasion movie all the more visceral.

 

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Two acclaimed actors, staring off-camera at the hopeless abyss that was this summer’s box office

 

And, even though the gaping hole has some plot that gets in the way, mother! isn’t a film (at least according to a director so coal-hearted he allegedly made Lawrence repeat a scene after she ripped her own diaphragm) to be made sense of, but to simply be experienced and absorbed. If that is what Darren Aronofsky’s intention was, then 1) holy shit 2) he needs to talk about his problems sometimes and 3) he is the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy of the filmmaking world. Describing the experience of watching mother! requires every superlative. Every. Single. One. This movie is astonishing for what it can do to its audience alone – on provocation alone, mother! might very well go down as one of the most intense films of all time. While I obviously don’t want to go into the specific things that happen in mother! – to summarise, imagine a version of Eyes Wide Shut twinned with Dante’s Inferno, on meth – the third act is…unprecedented in mainstream filmmaking. After you see it, you’ll wonder if Paramount greenlit this movie at gunpoint. If you have seen it, there will forever be a smidgen of your brain maintaining the memories of it, clinging on to the horror like Star Wars directors try to cling on to their jobs. And yet, while all these tenuously related vomit-inducing slices of pure, unadulterated insanity play out one after the other, and often all at once, Aronofsky somehow keeps us invested in a story that, on the surface, doesn’t even follow the fundamental rules of storytelling. There is some truly beautiful visual imagery at times, just as much as there’s some that can cause permanent scarring. This film has been described by its own cast as being about the rape and torment of Mother Earth. During a press junket, where they market the movie. That’s how mother! is being MARKETED! NB: Jennifer Lawrence also marketed this movie by saying that Hurricane Irma was nature’s revenge for Donald Trump getting elected, so its been a dark campaign all round

It’s an experience that is just so…deliberately incendiary, shocking and designed for the sole purpose of making you feel complete horror, that I don’t blame anybody for walking out of mother!, and usually if I see somebody walking out of a movie I feel legitimate rage. mother! might very well be the most powerful film Darren Aronofsky has ever made, an absolute fireball of a movie that, although I would honestly know more about what was going on if I watched the Spanish dub in fucking reverse, simply has to be applauded for the sheer ballsy-ness of the thing, even if that is through a permanent wince and involuntary tears. It’s not just the things that happen when the movie kicks into twelve-thousandth gear (not an exaggeration) either. mother! is an incredibly disquieting film: Aronofsky’s script, despite its obvious, um, issues…does a fantastic job of making you feel incredibly uneasy. The dialogue is cleverly done, albeit pausing sometimes to deliver the second hour of a theology lecture, and in particular the scenes where Bardem ignores all Mother has done for him at almost every turn had a real impact on me, and made me feel just as disgusted as anything mother!‘s (every time I write that the red spellcheck signal of the apocalypse shows up like a stain on a hospital wall and it does not make me feel comfortable – the sacrifices I make sometimes) depraved plotline can throw at me, including its piece de resistance, which is simply indescribable, and on reflection is the most macabre thing I’ve ever referred to as a piece de resistance. Honestly, its one of those moments that hits you in your very core.

 

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FEAR HIM: Cinema’s most twisted man. That was a colourful flowerbed before he crouched on it

 

A lot of that disquieting sensation comes from the work done below the line, with the aforementioned Matthew Libatique using close-ups effectively enough to make mother! feel like a paper bag suffocating you, and Andrew Weisblum’s editing also has great variances in pace that, just like everything else in this film, make you react. Considering the nature of the material the editor was working with, praise should also be given for his surviving of the editing process. As for the music, Aronofsky hired the composer extraordinaire Johann Johannsson of Arrival and Sicario fame, but then threw his score out altogether for the final cut – the lack of a musical score altogether is a really uncomfortable feeling, and without it I felt like there was one less thing for me to hold onto as the horror of mother! enveloped me further and further into the mind of the most fucked up director in Hollywood. And mother! is a movie so against convention, against what we usually expect movies to be, and against its audience at large, that its very easy to feel lost watching the unrelenting hell that Aronofsky creates all around us. You might fall in love with it or spend years trying to delete it from your memories, but I implore you to please, give this a go – no matter what your response may be, I have no doubt that it’s a once-in-a-blue-moon film that you do not want to miss. And yes, I do think that if you have to Google the meaning of a film in the immediate aftermath of seeing it, then somewhere down the line that movie has some fundamental problems; in fact, by nearly all known rules of storytelling, mother! is a total failure. But when I go to the movies, I want to see something that provokes me – granted, I don’t want to see a movie that gives most of its audience PTSD every week, but I’d take mother! over a hundred generic blockbusters any day. And you know what? Coming out of that cinema, ready to burst into Rutger Hauer’s monologue at the end of Blade Runner at a moment’s notice, I found myself feeling absolutely elated.

Considering I apparently watched the rape and torment of Mother Earth, I think that makes me the insane one.

RATING: 3/4

(Yes, I’m a critic – I just don’t know how I can hate something so gosh-darn ambitious)

BEST WATCHED: In a cinema. Through the cracks in your hands. And with a therapist on stand-by.

James Stephenson

P.S. If you fancy reading this again, read it but when you see mother!, read it as a posh rich kid. Cheap way of getting multiple reads I know, but you won’t regret it…promise!!

 

 

TWIM Reviews: It

IT (Warner Bros. Pictures) 

Dir. Andy Muschetti / Script. Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, Gary Dauberman

Cast: Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Wyatt Oleff, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer and Bill Skarsgard

Synopsis: In the late ’80s, a demonic clown returns to the town of Derry, to put some new kids on the block.

I saw one of the best films of the year this weekend. And It came out of nowhere. 

There are some movies that carry a kind of intangible essence to them, a feeling that makes them feel adventurous; timeless. And plenty of the movies that have that sort of oeuvre have come from the 1980s, a decade for which our nostalgia has possibly never been higher. Stranger Things is one of the biggest shows in the world these days, what with its countless shots of kids riding bikes a la E.T. down deserted streets in a way that today would probably give parents full-fledged aneurysms, and even some of the biggest songs on the charts these days sound like I’ve entered a time warp by accident. The ’80s really is the new now; the same goes for the kids in Stephen King’s epic novel so big you could genuinely use it as a stepladder (believe me, I bought it on Thursday and have been rigorously testing just what its 1000 pages-plus can do for the benefit of household living) It, who have been beamed from the decidedly out of fashion ’50s into the hip then, hipper now ’80s, in Warner Brothers’ feature film(s) adaptation of the classic book. Is this decision a little bit of a cash-grab? Probably. Does it work?

Definitely.

 

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Finally, Panic! At The Disco return to the baroque aesthetic we all fell in love with 

 

It is a truly wonderful, heartfelt piece of filmmaking that bolts every member of its audience into a rollercoaster seat and flings them up and down the track to glorious effect. It has such a timeless quality to it you can almost smell it, just as much as you’ll smell the sweat from the people either side of you. All the best kids movies had a little bit of horror, a bite of darkness in its centre that made it so memorable; It not only knows this, but has turned the bite into a 100ft wide clown mouth chomping down on you where you sit. It is a properly scary movie, bringing the modern horror of films like The Conjuring to a picture, that on first glance, could be mistaken for another movie based on a Stephen King adaptation, Stand By Me. It turns out to be a wonderful marriage of your parents’ favourite movies and yours – besides the countless numbers of killed children, the gallons of blood, the leper, the horrifying visual realization of a version of the Mona Lisa that could easily be Radiohead’s next album cover, and obviously the clowns. Fear not however, for there are balloons! For the kids! NB: This is a 15 rated movie please don’t traumatise your precious babies

Insanely, I adore this movie and its led by seven child actors. Child actors, for me, really can make or break a film. You can either get Jacob Tremblay in Room, or Jake Lloyd in The Phantom Menace and, worse still, Jake Lloyd in Jake Lloyd’s life. It’s almost impossible to find one solid child lead, let alone seven. With that in mind, this film’s casting director must have either done a deal with God, have enough luck to win the lottery on the daily, or be Brie Larson, because they’re all absolutely brilliant. From top to bottom, the members of the ‘Losers Club’, which our protagonists endearingly refer to themselves as, are all top notch leads, and by the end I promise you you’ll love each and every one. In particular (although its unfair to single out one over the other in a way), Jaeden Lieberher shines as the group’s de facto leader Bill Denbrough, imbuing him with an inner steel behind a convincing stutter; Sophia Lillis is also hugely memorable as the only female in the group, Beverley, whose fear of Pennywise The Dancing Clown is secondary to her home life. Honestly, I’d love to talk about each and every one of these actors, because they made me fall in love with these characters. Each of them brings something different to the table, each of them is wholly investable, and by the end of It‘s 135 minute runtime (which, by the way, is wonderfully paced and steams by), I found myself genuinely emotional. Because amidst all the scares, the tension and an atmosphere laid on like a thick quilt, It is a movie that tells the story of its young characters, and how they grow, in a truly affecting way.

 

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What? I said they were likeable, not spelling bee champions…we can’t have it all folks

 

A lot of that emotional impact comes from Andres Muschetti’s truly excellent direction. An Argentine filmmaker best known for the Jessica Chastain-led film Mama back in 2013, Muschetti seems to have as much love for the Losers Club as anybody else; he’s not afraid to bring their emotions, as well as their humour (Finn Wolfhard in particular brings the house down multiple times, spinning the f-bomb into enough unique ways to make Samuel L. Jackson blush), right into the foreground. When he isn’t pushing us to invest more convincingly than Ryan Gosling did in The Big Short, Muschetti is also just as deft, if not even more so, in crafting awesome horror sequences. While he isn’t averse to a classic jump scare, It’s horror is a slower burn, with more time given to building tension and setting the scare up. And when it hits, Muschetti doesn’t hesitate to show you some gore – a scene very early on had me shocked, mouthing I did not sign up for this repeatedly. A lot of the set pieces gave me a Del Toro vibe (he’s actually a big Muschetti fan, describing one of Muschetti’s shorts as including some of the scariest scenes he’d ever seen), and just like the Mexican master, whose latest film just won the Venice Film Festival, you get the sense he’s almost grinning through the celluloid with a perverse glee. Muschetti’s work here is a marriage between him and Steven Spielberg in a lot of ways: so if you ever wondered what their love-child would look like, look no further than an extraordinarily pale man who hides in the sewers and has quite the thing for kids.

 

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Seven kids stare down at the black, hopeless abyss that was this summer’s box office

 

And what of the clown in question? If Bill Skarsgard’s Pennywise turned up to a circus somewhere, I promise there’ll be air raid signals. While a lot of people of a certain age will be betrothed to Tim Curry’s portrayal 27 years ago in the TV miniseries, Skarsgard’s quieter, Heath Ledger-esque take is more than a match. Skarsgard spoke his native Swedish on set to spook the kids out, and based on the common knowledge that somebody whispering the various names of IKEA furniture products at you while in a clown costume would be absolutely fucking terrifying, you can guess his Pennywise will keep you on edge all the way through. Even more creative is Pennywise’s nifty habit of turning into whatever his victims fear most – he chillingly takes the form of Bill’s missing brother George in one very effective scene – and the screenplay by Chase Palmer, Gary Dauberman and True Detective season 1 director Cary Fukunaga (who once upon a time was set to direct It, and had even cast The Revenant‘s Will Poulter as his Pennywise) does an excellent job of getting under its characters, and audiences, skin. It’s not just Pennywise though to fear in Derry: many of the Losers Club’s parents are just as adversarial, with Beverley’s father having a particular proclivity for some horrible deeds, that rank up there with anything Pennywise can do. Furthermore, a gang of bullies WITH KNIVES seems intent on bully/murder-ing them, although not a lot of reason is given for why some fifteen-year-olds are so downright bloodthirsty they look like they’d commit drive-by’s before breakfast.

There are some other drawbacks to It: while the editing is for the most part pretty solid, a key third-act sequence was quite discombobulating to keep up with, and while Muschetti does a highly skilled job of balancing the contrasting tones of the horror and the scenes with the Losers Club, there are occasions where there can be perhaps too many intense sequences piled onto each other, with little/no time to catch your breath. Also, one of the seven members of the Losers Club – a far more magnificent group than anything Denzel Washington’s been involved in recently – had a bit less screen time than the others, and felt noticeably underdeveloped relative to Bill and Beverley. Below the line, I would implore you to remember (and not laugh at) the name of Benjamin Wallfisch, because the score he’s crafted here is truly remarkable. It not only makes the on-screen horror infinitely more intense, but contains themes that hark back to John Williams at his best: this soundtrack has as much of a capacity to soar as it would be welcome in Saw. This is music that will make your eyes water, for very different reasons, and each time involuntarily. It’s so good I’d compare it to the Dunkirk score (Zimmer shades it, but then again he doesn’t win the Oscar then I honestly give up). That’s how serious I’m taking this, folks. Elsewhere, DP Chung-hoon Chung captures the film’s ’80s sensibility boldly, with a number of great shots peppered throughout, and special mention should be given to whomever was in charge of lighting Pennywise, because he looks unearthly in every scene he’s in, only adding further to his many evil charms.

 

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PARENTS: This is what happens to seven-year-olds who see It this weekend. Also, he’s floating

 

It’s hard really to justice to quite how good It is. It brings me back to those classic films of mine and many of you reading’s childhood: the Back To The Future‘s, the E.T‘s, even the Breakfast Club‘s (a film that gets a hilarious shout-out in one of the movie’s many ’80s-referencing jokes). These are movies that have earned their place in pop culture, in our shared cultural shorthand, and It is a film that I truly believe has the potential to do the same. In a sense, It’s already doing as much: the list of box office records It broke this weekend (making a truly insane $123m this weekend in Trump-land alone, the biggest ever opening for a horror and third biggest for any film in 2017) is as long as the list of directors I want to kill. It‘s being embraced by an incredible mass of people, and in 10 years I think It will be held in the same revered plane as any of those ’80s films. If ‘timelessness’ can be defined or broken down into a formula of any nature, the ingredients are all here. Unforgettable, likeable characters who go on great journeys – timeless. Movies that aren’t hesitant to tackle serious dramatic themes – timeless. And of course, sitting in a dark room with a bunch of people communally getting a cinematic adrenalin shot and turning your whites brown with addictive, intoxicating fear – timeless. It does all of this and more – it certainly makes you confused wondering how many times I named the movie and not the synonymous pronoun, now you’re thinking about it. I adored this film. And if this critic can, I promise you with my best clown grin –

You’ll float too. 

RATING: 3.5/4

BEST WATCHED: Through your hands. And in IMAX, if you’re comfortable with having the sound mix blow your head off.

James Stephenson

 

 

About Last Night

“Guys, guys, sorry, no. There’s a mistake. Moonlight, you guys won Best Picture.”

With those words, La La Land producer Jordan Horowitz announced to the world, and almost to himself, that the unthinkable had happened in the most unthinkable way possible. The fact that Moonlight, a film made with a budget most blockbusters waste by a hundredfold, directed by a virtual unknown, starring no big name actors, released by independent distributor A24, and with a gay black man as its central character released a year after the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, toppled a fourteen-times-nominated, white-people-fall-in-love powerhouse that had swept all precursor awards before it and, for 150 remarkable seconds, won the ultimate prize, is the single greatest upset in modern Oscar history. That was enough to provoke gasps on its own. The manner in which this jaw-dropping triumph was revealed however, will remain embossed into the minds, and the mouths, of myself and the rest of the watching world.

Unsurprisingly, speculation as to what the flying fuck actually happened in the chambers of the Dolby Theatre last night is running rampant: multiple theories have been put forth as to the person who made the catastrophic error, the process by which such an error was allowed to take place, and (hilariously) if this was all a beautiful revenge plot orchestrated by Leonardo DiCaprio. However, I don’t want to do that right now: there will be many more times, and many more awards ceremonies to wonder wildly whether Warren Beatty did away with Dunaway on that Dolby stage. As heart-stopping as that reveal was, a twist so shocking M. Night Shyamalan has desperately claimed to have written it, it has unfortunately hurt the men and women behind two utterly spectacular films, both of which were worthy winners. My heart goes out to everybody behind La La Land, a sun-kissed musical miracle that spoke to me so personally and intoxicated me so severely that I couldn’t possibly write a review of it here, for what happened. The Best Picture Oscar is the pinnacle, the peak of movie mountain, and for them to have reached it for a couple of minutes before being taken out by a gale force wind is unthinkable. Their grace in handing the award to the Moonlight team was exemplary, and for them my respect and love knows no bounds.

In the case of Moonlight, its hard to say right now how the envelope mix-up has changed the nature of their victory. On one hand, no other film will win quite that dramatically for as long as the Academy Awards continue to be presented – the footage of director Barry Jenkins, co-writer Tarell Alvin McCraney and the rest of that wonderful team realising they had pulled off the nigh-on impossible is spine-tingling. They have that distinction forever. But in a sense, I feel like that moment when the name is read and the audience rise to applaud was taken from them, amidst the bedlam that began to transpire on stage. I know that in my case I was still in such a state of paralysis, my hands clasped to my mouth like the air was toxic, that it was simply impossible to take in what was happening before my eyes. From the perspective of the Academy, the PR department will have a shift on for this to not reflect badly on the organisation: PwC, the accounting firm that handles the envelopes and the voting, has already issued a statement of apology, but I wonder whether that will be enough. Questions must be raised over how the envelopes were even in the position to be mixed up, and over the security of Oscar winners six months in the campaigning. I see us movie obsessives like prospectors in a mine ran dry, relentlessly poring through the dust, waiting for it to settle.

But despite a disaster nobody involved in will want to think about again, the Oscars are, and always will be, about the remarkable films that won those prestigious statuettes. Staying with Best Picture for a little while longer, what’s been lost in all this a little is that Moonlight‘s victory is MOMENTOUS. On paper, its everything a Best Picture winner never is, apart from the one key thing that it was: an incredible, challenging, astonishing, powerful, brilliant film. To describe Moonlight in tangible movie reviewing terms is actually difficult when you start to try: the more you think about it, the more this film turns into an epic poem, or striking triptych hanging in a famous gallery. Moonlight explores themes about as heavy as the Earth’s gravity currently allows for, and tackles them head-on, but in a way that is subtle, elegant and never ever exploitative. If you haven’t had a chance to see Moonlight, or were planning on it, then I urge you to give this movie your time. For most of the people who have the displeasure of me spamming them with this, its playing at the ODEON in Bournemouth tomorrow and on Wednesday in a limited engagement, and if you can make it then I strongly encourage you to make it – you won’t regret it, I promise. The performances from Oscar-winning Mahershala Ali (the first Muslim actor to ever win an Oscar: how’s that for a trump card), the electrifying Naomie Harris (who could have easily won in a year where Viola Davis’s snot blocked out all of her competitors from view), and the three superbly talented actors that play protagonist Chiron during the film – Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes – are all impactful, affecting, and above all genuine. Sand has never been held like this.

This Oscars also celebrated a wide variety of movies: La La Land of course did major damage, picking up six Academy Awards including Best Director for Damien Chazelle, a teenage film prodigy whose victory ensures he can pay his tuition at University (he’s the youngest ever winner of the award), every musical award that they could throw at Justin Hurwitz (within 30 seconds he had won the same amount of Oscars as Denzel Washington) for his beautiful compositions – personally, I thought Audition was better than City Of Stars (braces self) – and of course Emma Stone, one of the certified best human beings to ever human, won Best Actress, exuding the kind of real-world charm Jennifer Lawrence has been forcing with all of her strength for years. Anyone that knows me can tell you that La La Land hit me like no movie has in a long time: Whiplash was already enough to prove to me that Chazelle knew what he was doing, a white-hot knuckle-crash-cymbal of a film, but La La Land somehow went further. The music was packed with heart, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone are an on-screen couple to rival the best of the Golden Age, and the final scenes have a raw, unfettered magic that had me frozen to my seat, trying desperately to read the credits through the wall of my own tears. If you haven’t seen La La Land either, same goes for Moonlight: just find a way, take your partner, take your dog, take a random stranger, anybody who you can hum the earworm melody of Another Day Of Sun to without them trying to scupper your trip.

While Stone took the Best Actress prize to jubilation, her male counterpart faced a tetchier response: Casey Affleck took home the award, and depending on what reports and allegations you have read, there’s a lot of evidence to suggest he’s a bit of a Manchester By The Sea U-N-T. The announcement of his triumph over actors favourite Denzel Washington was decidedly muted, and possibly apprehensive considering the face last year’s Best Actress and my actual muse Brie Larson gave to the envelope, one of those stares most people reserve for killing their greatest enemies (massive tangent but since we’re talking Brie: I watched Room again and its a fucking masterpiece. Also, the cheese of the same name is pretty excellent as well, very creamy and succulent…and before I forget, Brie’s in Kong: Skull Island and Free Fire which are both out next month. Also, please return my fan mail, that expensive photo frame isn’t going to fill itself). Kenneth Lonergan’s two and a half hour sadness train also picked up the Original Screenplay honour, presented by Matt Damon whilst being played off by long-time rival and Oscar host Jimmy Kimmel, who did an excellent job that makes Neil Patrick Harris look like someone who just stumbled in from literally being stabbed by an ex-lover who delivers straight fire monologues (yes I rewatched that as well).

Hacksaw Ridge picked up two below the line awards, including Best Editing (literally I’m still not over that, in the single most revealing piece of information on how sad I really am since I promoted a French cheese one paragraph ago) in what would have been the shock of the night if not for the star of Town & Country refusing to die. You get the sense that the triumphs are what will maintain the life-force of Bond villain and Trump’s pick for ambassador to Israel Meldolf Gibler as he moves on to whatever car-crash publicity that awaits him in the future. The rest of the single-Oscar-winning films included Denis Villeneuve’s remarkable sci-fi Arrival, which picked up a sound nod and was vicariously the hottest thing in the world when Amy Adams came out in a halo of binding light to present Adapted Screenplay to Moonlight. Adams was of course dealt the greatest injustice since O.J. Simpson’s trial when she was denied a nomination for Best Actress so we could wheel Meryl Streep out for another year, and in a further twist of the knife a documentary about O.J. Simpson’s trial went home with an Oscar. If we could all donate something to her, whether it be homemade cake, fan art of her in Junebug, even hand-drawn heptapod letters of condolence amongst other things, just to remind her that we’re all willing her on, that would be much appreciated.

Viola Davis’s powerhouse performance ensured Fences went home with a statuette, as the How To Get Away With Murder star became the 23rd actor to take home the Triple Crown (Emmy, Tony, Oscar). Disney also had a good night as Zootopia‘s socially conscious cartoon animals took home the Best Animated Feature prize, The Jungle Book‘s socially conscious CGI animals were awarded with the Best Visual Effects gong, and the sudden announcement by Dwayne Johnson that the performance of How Far I’ll Go would begin with an original prologue by Lin-Manuel Miranda (which was exactly as good as it sounds) made animals of us all. The performance by Auli’i Cravalho, the Moana star so young that she hasn’t even had a certain ABBA song be about her yet, was probably the best of the night, with barely a note out of place. She’s achieved more than any of us probably ever will. The three other musical performances for Best Original Song included John Legend’s medley of Audition and City Of Stars, which was excellent but just not Emma Stone in the darkness with a camera spinning around the back of her; Sting’s random appearance to perform that random song from that random film, which was so forgettable it would have been irrelevant in a show where that was the only performance; and Justin Timberlake’s show-opening Can’t Stop The Feeling proved that the Oscars is not a place for pop intros to ‘get the crowd mad lit, yo’. Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them also became the first Oscar-winning Potter flick with a surprise costume design nod, casting a spell to make the entire of the world forget that Jackie was a film that came out and was one that had the best costumes of the year. Credit must also be given to all the shorts that won their respective prizes, including Pixar who got their first ever win in the Animated Short category for Piper. And, finally, in a reminder that the Doomsday Clock is at two-and-a-half minutes to midnight, Kellyanne Conway could find the nuclear codes down the back of a Trump Tower sofa tonight, and that Vladimir Putin was probably a huge fan of Moonlight, Suicide Squad is an Oscar-winning film. Hair & Make-Up was the award in question: apparently Margot Robbie can make middle-aged white men do anything.

So I think that’s all bases covered. Of course, the Oscars has its winners and its unfortunate losers as well, and while there’s far too many to go in depth with, special mentions should go to three Best Picture nominees that aimed high and got to the top.  Hidden Figures, the feel-good movie about the three most badass mathematicians you have ever seen in your life, reached for the top through calculating rocket-ship trajectories. Lion, the feel-good Where Are They Now? documentary about the guy who won Indian Who Wants To Be A Millionaire that one time, reached for the top through 8-year-old cherub Sunny Pawar being lifted into the air to the music from The Lion King. And Hell Or High Water, the not-so-feel-good movie about an economic climate so harsh bank robbers are getting fucked over by the bank as well, reached for the top and found Jeff Bridges’ truly ascendant facial hair, and got him a Supporting Actor nomination in return. That just about wraps the 89th Academy Awards: not that the last 2000 words was relevant in any way as literally nobody will be talking about that nor will remember it by the time the 90th Academy Awards roll into town. You’ll probably just stay up the top of the article, reading Horowitz’s words over and over again, wondering whether DiCaprio really did plot to destroy the Oscars, whether Warren Beatty was bitter enough over Rules Don’t Apply to mess around with the Academy, or whether things would have felt any different, or been somehow more right if they’d read Moonlight out the first time. All that can be said is that the world would be much less interesting if everything went according to plan.

Roll on next year. Also if there’s anyone that can get my hands from my face, they’ve been plastered to my lips since about 5am. I really need to have some food. Also, I hope I can return that telepathic typing machine, as she was fucking dear.

James Stephenson

 

 

 

TWIM Reviews: Passengers

PASSENGERS (Sony)

Dir. Morten Tyldum, Script. Jon Spaihts

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt

Plot: Two passengers wake up on a spaceship 90 years from landing, but are conveniently rather attractive so they try to fuck the years away.

Haven’t I been here before?

I spent a great deal of the time I spent watching Passengers wondering what other movies I was vicariously watching through it. Of course you have all the space movies it cherry picks from, such as Gravity (alone in space), the Alien series (the far future setting, massive fictional companies) which not-too-coincidentally in my mind screenwriter Jon Spaihts wrote for with Prometheus, and most notably WALL-E, from which Sony’s big-budget interstellar shoplifter derives its production design, its musical score, romantic elements, loneliness of the central character – even the gorgeous space dance scene, one of my personal favourites in the annals of film, has been unapologetically reworked here to feature two, if artificial, far-too-human beings who just so happened to do as well with the focus groups as those previous science fiction films did at the box office. And that’s not getting into the movies from other genres that have also had their inerds chopped up, mangled and reinserted into the $110m composited amalgamation in question. In short, I feel compelled to put on my spacesuit, relieve the airlock pressure, and scream out into the vacuum of space (where sound waves do not travel – how you wish they didn’t inside your head as it starts saying what I’ve typed here back to you) that Passengers is the world’s first collage film, comprised entirely of chunks of other movies, and as much an affront at times as one of those serial killer death threats made from newspaper clippings. But a collage does require some element of skill: Passengers is more like the sinister concoction of spirits the unfortunate bastard who draws the final ace has to down at the end of Ring Of Fire.

 

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SAVE US!

 

Passengers is actually not too bad of a movie. Although it’s touching two hours in length, its engaging enough that I didn’t desperately try to guess how much of my life had passed by in the screening room, nor did my mind try to convince my body that it really was time for a well-earned piss. There’s actually plenty going for it in fact. But, like all big Sony movies seem to do, Passengers has the unfortunate, uncomfortable and even slightly unnerving feeling that this was a movie designed by a committee. And rather than talk about the script, the basic plot and other things we cinemagoers take as gospel that all the roundtables and meetings are designed for, you get the sense that the production team made director Morten Tyldum (brought onto the project in the wake of an Oscar nomination for The Imitation Game) play an expensively twisted dot-to-dot game, forced to connect elements that simply HAD to show up in the film regardless of the tenuousness of the connections themselves. Passengers has a lot of issues, and it boils down to the movie having an identity crisis – simply not knowing who it is, what it wants to be, even where the thing’s from. There are tonal shifts aplenty, from a science fiction thriller one minute to a survival style vibe the next; it even becomes a straight up disaster movie as it begins to hurtle towards its conclusion, existentially screaming bloody murder as it ponders the only question the movie, and many of us will ask ourselves after seeing this movie – ‘What have I become?’

But what I think Passengers is striving towards more than anything else is to enter a hallowed and often derided genre – the ‘epic romance’. You know, one of those movies with a love story so powerful and enduring it transcends space (especially in this instance), dimensions and sometimes even inept filmmaking (in the case of The Notebook). Titanic is one such film, Casablanca a better example, and Allied an example of a complete failure. In its efforts to create a love story for all time, Passengers has recruited (in another move that reeks of audience pandering) Chris Pratt, who has enjoyed truly monolithic box office success in the last couple of years, and Jennifer Lawrence, whose performances have not enjoyed me for the same rough amount of time. They’re not the problem at all: if anything, their charisma and surprisingly strong romantic chemistry is what keeps Passengers – sort of – afloat. Pratt plays a salt-of-the-Earth (although he’ll regret leaving it behind) engineer who takes the chance of moving to a colony planet 120 years away, waking up from his malfunctioning hibernation pod a quarter down the line and realising he’s stuck here with no chance of escape. Pratt actually gets the opportunity to show some range here in Passengers‘ early stages, doing a pretty solid job of it. Pratt is the only character we see for a good chunk of the first act, exempting an android bartender played winningly by Michael Sheen. That’s a daunting task for any actor, but Pratt is able to remain a compelling presence as he grows despondent, alone, drunk, and a killer beard that recalls Tom Hanks in a chrome version of Cast Away.

 

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They say under that water there’s nothing – Aurora really is just a pretty face, nothing more

 

Of course, one of the key parts of Cast Away is Tom Hanks’s desperation for a companion, and Pratt too seeks a beach-ball to draw crude facial features on. This is where Passengers makes a mistake so fatal it makes Hiroshima seem like a child falling off a swing-set. Of course Jennifer Lawrence is the companion chosen, and she might as well be called Wilson as she’s given about as much personality as a spherical plaything and treated as such – thrown around, owned predominantly by white men, and kicked over the fence between characters and objects. Basically, Pratt wakes Lawrence up. And the way this is done is really poorly judged, carelessly misogynistic and downright creepy. While the moral quandary Passengers presents here (i.e. whether to end your loneliness but effectively end somebody’s life in the process is worth it) is an extremely interesting conceit that probably stands out as the script’s biggest strength, it doesn’t feel like enough time is given for us to think about it before Pratt’s already hotwired it and basically murdered a stranger (what Pratt does is actually referred to as murder later in the movie, in perhaps the one moment Passengers realises that its an obscenely long commercial for Stockholm Syndrome). Except they’re not a stranger to Pratt at all, having spotted her in her hibernation pod one day, effectively space-wanked (even though you can’t get an erection in space, but that’s besides the point), and literally STALKED HER VIDEOS AND PASSENGER PROFILES SHE MADE WHEN SHE GOT ON BOARD. This is pre-meditated. Worse still, Passengers doesn’t really tackle Pratt’s utterly horrific act rather than dance around the edges for the most part; if anything, the intergalactic coitus is his REWARD! And if you see it like I do it will have a significantly detrimental effect on your viewing experience – its kind of like eating a cake only to find someone shat in the middle of it. I understand totally that Pratt’s character had been alone for a period of time that we’d only have nightmares about, but this is unsettling, and not in a good way – safe to say, this plot point got under me like a toothpick underneath my fingernails. I wanted to be turned inside out and dry cleaned, washed and tumble-dried a thousand times to get the smell off.

 

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*prepares to film hostage video*

 

So basically Passengers is like a sexist version of WALL-E. The biggest shame about all of this is that Jennifer Lawrence is doing some half-decent acting at times – she may have one too many breakdowns over the course of the movie, but Lawrence sells it well and you do believe she is a woman that Chris Pratt would pick over thousands to straight up trap with him for the rest of her life (yeah, I won’t be over this for a while). Her character does not nearly do her justice though, and on top of her being perhaps the most mistreated female lead in a movie since Margot Robbie in The Legend Of Tarzan, the script doesn’t even know on what terms Aurora Lane is inconsistent on. She changes direction like a ceiling fan inside a windmill inside a tornado, and her motivational shifts get so fucking

different completely looks thing whole the that and reverse in seeing your like feel you that jarring.

The Jon Spaihts-penned original screenplay has plenty of moments that feel exactly like this. As well as the whole genre issue, which is as unbelievably scattershot as the inept gunman who couldn’t hit Travolta and Jackson with ten thousand rounds in Pulp Fiction, Spaihts often plots his way straight into a corner, and in order to actually get the movie to a point where it can end, Passengers pulls out a couple of ludicrous deus ex machina’s that do not go unnoticed – if they are even trying to, that is. To delve into just how bad these devices are, spoilers would be required and those are for another time. Putting it bluntly, they’re lazy, and the entire third act in general (which could have been ripped directly from the Titanic script for all I care, Celine Dion included) feels like an entirely different movie because of them – the tone pretty much does a backflip and runs up a vertical wall. Passengers apparently bumps its head 80 minutes in, so much so that it gets retrograde amnesia and forgets what’s already happened and just sort of stumbles to the end holding an icepack on its scalp.

Director Morten Tyldum is relatively powerless to keep this fast-sinking ship afloat, although he doesn’t do a bad job on the visual side. Passengers is still a good-looking science fiction flick, with some pretty convincing special effects sequences involving zero-gravity proving a distraction, welcome or otherwise, from the increasingly choppy waters of the ‘plot’, said in much the same way I say ‘yeah’ to my extended family at Christmas gatherings. It’s shot very nicely by Rodrigo Prieto, and Guy Hendrix Dyas’s production design really works in putting you in this far-future, space-faring future. What I will criticise Tyldum for though is not tackling the subject matter enough: as far as I could tell, the crux of Passengers was that skin-crawlingly disturbing plot point of Pratt killing Lawrence because she looked nice in the pod, implying that the only music he brought with him was The 1975’s second album. Tyldum tussles with it at points, but mainly tries to push the moral debate to one side in order to focus on the stars’ chemistry (which is admittedly quite strong).  Passengers just feels inconsequential, and for the most part you want to see Pratt get his just desserts, but nothing really comes. Tyldum’s attempts to keep things light ironically make the film feel a bit darker.

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Passengers is also available as a feature length promotion of Stockholm Syndrome

 

The entire of the movie seems primed to become more of a psychological thriller/romance that examines what Pratt’s done, but Passengers seems more preoccupied with sweeping it all under the ultra-thin LCD carpet. As an epic romance between Pratt and Lawrence, the chemistry isn’t bad but it’s still not quite powerful enough to drag the movie along with it, and the plot is just a bit too rose-tinted for Passengers to work on that level. Passengers definitely feels like a patchwork: cobbled and knitted together quickly in an attempt to make it work on ten scales, but the frays are obvious enough to make the movie work on none. And the continual genre-shafting only makes matters worse – its like jumping between high-rise buildings: you will slip eventually. It feels apt that this review is coming out on Boxing Day, the day when we reflect on yesterday’s festivities and storm out to return and re-gift all the pointless crap we got, and of course eat the bits of Christmas lunch and dinner our stomachs couldn’t get round to the first time. Passengers is the Boxing Day of blockbuster movies: it’s just leftovers.

RATING: 1.5/4

BEST WATCHED: In space, ninety years from landing.

James Stephenson

 

TWIM Reviews: Manchester by the Sea

MANCHESTER BY THE SEA (STUDIOCANAL/AMAZON)

Dir, Script. Kenneth Lonergan

Cast: Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams, Kyle Chandler, Lucas Hedges

Plot: A story of grief, guilt and most likely the Gallaghers…no, wrong Manchester.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: I saw this film early through ODEON Screen Unseen a week and a half ago – Manchester by the Sea opens in UK cinemas nationwide on January 13th.

Manchester by the Sea is one of those films that is frighteningly real. Movies are dramatic by design, full of big stunts and big effects, but the new movie by Kenneth Lonergan takes away all of the trimmings. And the meat. Only the bones remain; Manchester by the Sea is so devoid of stylistic flares that its like looking through a perfectly transparent window, and as the ten-thousand-dimensional characters begin to compel you to the panels you realise that the window got taken out three days ago, and you fall through and face-plant into the nicely trimmed hedges and well-fertilised soil. Manchester makes you realise, through its uber-realistic everything, right down to the camera movement, that nearly all movies are still detached as involving as they can be – here its as if you are sitting at the dinner table with Casey Affleck, having collective flashbacks with Casey Affleck, even assisting him as he shits. Positioning an audience like that is always a risk – nobody wants to be made that uncomfortable, and sometimes you can cross the line into reality too much, and you lose sight of the fact you’re in a movie theatre at all. Manchester By The Sea has truly brilliant writing, truly brilliant acting, truly brilliant direction – but this one didn’t hit me like I expected it would. I feel like I should clarify that what I’m about to write is in the full knowledge that this is my personal take on the film, and that yours may be vastly different – if it hits you in the right way, you think Manchester By The Sea is an unbelievable film, and to all those who have maybe already seen it or are planning to due to its colossal Oscar buzz, then nothing I’m about to say is a condemnation of the film, but rather what I felt in that moment. To my mind, Manchester By The Sea‘s exploration of grief is too constructed, and feels like it belongs as a work of theatre deserving of performance on a stage with circle seating and matinee performances – however, for as good as this is, Manchester By The Sea for me does not work as a piece of cinema specifically.

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This makes even more sense when you see that writer-director Kenneth Lonergan started out as a playwright, and Manchester by the Sea is, without doubt, the best stage play I have seen this year. But a stage play doesn’t translate as is – and there’s plenty of times where I felt like I was in the theatre, and not watching a movie at all. The problem begins with the visuals – Lonergan’s direction is spot-on when it comes to the mood, an all-encompassing quiet tranquillity, but his camera unfortunately forgets to move whatsoever. Once the shots are set up (and they are lovely shots, framed with real class), its as if Lonergan’s cinematographer just fell asleep and let the camera . While that adds to the realism Manchester by the Sea is so obviously trying (and most definitely succeeding) to achieve, I don’t think it works cinematically. Now this is totally my opinion, although, what else does this blog exist for, but there’s a reason the last word of its title is ‘movie’, and that’s because a movie is supposed to MOVE. If I want to see Manchester by the Sea, which is for the record a brilliant piece of drama, I would have preferred to see it on the stage. Saying that, as a cinema experience it is refreshing to see a film of this nature. It’s the least narcissistic movie I’ve maybe ever seen, focusing only on the story without any ego-driven distraction, and it allows the performances and characters, of a depth simply not seen in cinema every day, even every year, to come through vividly.

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It all comes from Lee Chandler, a superbly defined character that has more depth than a hundred blockbuster leading men – the way his character is revealed to us is like a drip-feed, Lonergan giving us more and more details of Lee’s self through conversation and action. The only time there’s even any inconsistency in Lonergan’s direction and Lee’s character is during a major flashback sequence that feels a little bit too melodramatic, although its done with such skill by the actors that Manchester just about gets away with it. The man playing Lee helps as well: a career-best performance by Casey Affleck that looks to be a surefire bet for an Academy Award for the time being. I can promise you that he’ll have earned it. The way I personally distinguish a good performance from a great one is how much an actor adds to the character as written on the page – Lee Chandler is written so well by Lonergan, with so many dimensions to him Rose Tyler is stuck in one of them, that its scarcely believable to think he could be added to, and yet Casey makes him even richer and deeper than before. It’s not showy either: unrelentingly bleak and permanently grieving, Affleck’s performance is nuanced and as dignified as any you have ever seen. He’s closed-off for, as we see, incredibly valid reason, and watching him constantly on the precipice of breaking his already fraught illusion of control as events seem to threaten the quiet routine he’s created for himself is incredibly compelling. The conversations with the few people he talks to out of obligation rather than choice are the best indicators of Lee as a character, and Affleck’s awkward demeanour and weak stance say just as much as Lonergan’s razor-sharp and impactful dialogue.

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His script, however theatrical it may be, is utterly stupendous – easily the early front-runner for my favourite script of the year, and most likely earning Kenneth Lonergan a trip up to the Dolby stage at the end of February as well. I do have issues with it: a lot of the sub-plots feel narratively irrelevant, but they provide a lot of colour and make the world this story inhabits have even greater clarity, and as Manchester is a character study more than anything it can be overlooked. Also, this movie is as bleak as Jack Kerouac in a black raincoat on a cold and damp December day, and there isn’t a whole lot of let-up either, so Manchester (with its runtime of something like 2 hours and 20 minutes, a marathon of a film by any definition) can feel like a major grind at times. However, what else are we to expect from a film concerned with grief? Lonergan captures the feeling of small-town life and of ordinary people in Manchester, going through tough times personally without their obstacles having to be Earth-bound asteroids or Earth-sized superweapons. Every supporting character is another unique individual that is greatly watchable; their brilliance comes performed by actors doing superb work under Lonergan’s direction. Lee’s ex-wife is a feisty yet (like everybody in this film seems to be) tragic Michelle Williams, who is absolutely superb in the role of a woman trying to blank out old times but struggling in her new life – she’s been nominated for Oscars before, and her vivid work here should see her receive the honour again. But perhaps even more impressive is young Lucas Hedges, who plays a young man made fatherless who Lee is forced to become the legal guardian of – Hedges announces himself here as an acutely capable performer with a confident display, and he not only delivers Lonergan’s extraordinary dialogue terrifically and bounces off of the stupendous Affleck, but the pair chart the way their relationship develops perfectly – here’s hoping the young star gets many more roles in the future.

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But for all of my praises, something in the back of my head still eats away at me when thinking about Manchester by the Sea. While I will admit that this film is a brilliant piece of drama and a terrific character study to boot, its a film I couldn’t quite crack. I still can’t quite work out why – Manchester is a piece of drama that I respect with everything I have, and yet I felt more like I was having a film thrown at me rather than me being able to dive into it. And while the characters are superbly well-rounded and meaty, I didn’t really like any of them – I was impressed by their quality, but the story never quite invested me, and felt more like a collection of brilliant scenes rather than a driving narrative. Then again, while I personally may not have been struck by Manchester by the Sea on an emotional level, the person to my left spent most of the 140 minute run-time leaking like a bucket that’s been through the Vietnam war and back, as did many others – maybe I’m just a heartless cynic? I definitely recommend this one though – its as good an exploration of guilt and grief as you may ever see, and as theatrical as it may be there’s plenty to stick your teeth into. My issue simply remains that I couldn’t justify why it was a movie, or why I was supposed to care about the story – I saw it, and I saw it for all of its quality, but I didn’t feel it in my gut, and I confess that through some of the more protracted scenes that I was bored a fair bit, and I just couldn’t see where the plot was going to actually do something rather than let things flow. Scenes on their own can be worth their weight in gold but without much really happening it can be easy to lose sight of where a movie is going, and that happened a fair few times for me. I think Affleck is utterly utterly brilliant, as are Williams and Hedges who also impress enough to justify potential Oscar love, and Lonergan succeeds completely in creating a really spectacular piece of stage drama. But in a sense it feels just a little bit too staged. In my opinion, if you want to spend 2 and a half hours of my life trying to move me, move the camera first.

RATING: 2.5/4

BEST WATCHED: At a matinee performance at a London theatre.

Manchester by the Sea opens in UK cinemas nationwide on January 13th.

TWIM Reviews: Rogue One A Star Wars Story

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (Disney)

Dir. Gareth Edwards, Script. Chris Weitz, Tony Gilroy

Cast: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Mads Mikkelsen, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker, (VOICE + MO-CAP) Alan Tudyk

Plot: Jyn Erso (Jones) is the Rebel Alliance’s best hope of preventing the construction of an intergalactic superweapon that will be copied a lot in the future, only bigger.

Rogue One is a film that needs no introduction. Has a film ever been bigger, have the stakes ever been higher? If you don’t know just why Rogue One is the most important film released in years, I would invite you into the mind of scared execs at Warner, Sony and every studio which isn’t Disney and is therefore practically a second-class citizen to them in the movie world’s new hierarchy: Rogue One is the guinea pig for Star Wars to adopt the Marvel model (which Disney also reap the benefits of as owners of the MCU) of having spin-off movies, and perhaps spin-off franchises in the future, within the most rich universe in fan lore. That wouldn’t just be a cash-cow for two or three years – that’s a cash-cow for infinity. And unfortunately for their rivals, Disney are a company that simply do no wrong. While it doesn’t quite hit the lofty heights of the original trilogy (although very few blockbusters ever have), and is behind the quality of The Force Awakens as well, Rogue One is enough to affirm Star Wars as a franchise too monolithically massive to fall – only enough.

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We’re back.

 

But, and I’ve asked this question since 3am yesterday morning – should I compare Rogue One to the other movies? Of course, there’s stormtroopers and lightsabers and, no matter if you think they’ll get bored of using them, Deathstars just like the other seven, but this is a totally new story, with no Jedi, no Skywalkers or descendants of them; Rogue One isn’t even in the same genre. Rogue One is a war film, about the collective rather than the individual, about sacrifice rather than glory. Rogue One has been referred to as Star Wars 3.5 by some as it takes place between Hayden Christensen burning violently on Mustafar for his crimes against acting and James Earl J0nes destroying Alderaan, and apparently in a world where the staples of Star Wars, the noble and singular conflict between good and evil, the dark and light sides of the Force, is blurred. Rogue One‘s motives aren’t entirely ambivalent – the rebellion is of course rooted for unequivocally – but here we see imperial pilots defecting and rebel soldiers killing in cold blood, and it all comes at a cost. To put it in short, this is not your typical Star Wars movie and must be respected as such.

Saying that, Rogue One still has all the feel of a Star Wars movie, just with a fresh lick of paint: Michael Giacchino steps in for the legendary John Williams, but repurposes many of his signature themes amidst his own take. Gone are the dissolve edits – even the iconic opening crawl has fallen by the wayside – for a quick and modern style. And Gareth Edwards, while staying true to the look and feel of the original series movies (almost obsessively in the case of its unbelievably faithful production design), most definitely puts his own stamp on things. Edwards showed promise with his visually memorable if narratively D.O.A. Godzilla adaptation a couple of years ago, and while Rogue One is a beautifully made film with absolutely top-notch visuals, Edwards still doesn’t quite have a hold of the narrative; he just about keeps things on track for the most part, but when he drops the ball it drops as fast as it does for a twelve-year-old boy. Rogue One is heavy on the exposition (and light on the character development, but more on that later) for its first act, and it gets dished up faster than I could chew it: a good six or seven new planets get introduced in a whirlwind, and Rogue One throws points at us and we see how they connect rather than the other way around – the first hour of the film is so desperate to make you breathe in that you can’t breathe out, and the exposition nearly suffocates the entire movie. Rogue One doesn’t really kick until its third act, a superb and colossal battle sequence on a tropical looking moon that is the most epic battle we’ve seen in the galaxy far far away since that AT-AT was tied in knots back on Hoth. It recalls classic Vietnam War movies with its huge scale and candid brutality – Edwards has put a great deal of effort into making the Empire feel as unstoppable and downright scary as they did in the originals. The Deathstar blasts (there are multiple) are biblical and have special effects so outlandish even Michael Bay would be put off by them, yet Edwards makes them feel all-powerful rather than all-comical, which is the mistake of the previously named director. And despite having scarcely any screen-time, Darth Vader is back and more epically frightening than ever – a certain scene which you’ll recognise immediately when you watch it (don’t lie, you will and probably already have) is simply awe-inspiring.

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An all-powerful Empire, the figurehead of which still sucks his thumb

 

But while Vader’s reintroduction, however brief, is almost perfect, the introduction of Rogue One‘s new characters is muted at best. Barely any of the new faces (although it must be said that its brilliant to see such a variety of faces – Rogue One‘s international cast is incredibly refreshing in a time where the pressure against Hollywood whitewashing is a gas explosion waiting to happen) really have any depth to them, and for the most part they’ve been thrown in as the plot dictates they must be. There are a couple of exceptions to this: Hong Kong action superstar Donnie Yen makes a brilliant impression as Chirrut, a blind warrior who is as close to being a Jedi as Rogue One allows itself, and although he only really shows up in flashback, Jyn’s father Galen is probably the most well-defined character in the entire film (which says a lot about the characters who the narrative actually focuses on as well). Played by Hannibal star Mads Mikkelsen in a unexpectedly nuanced display, his story is the one that best exemplifies what the film is about, and will draw the emotion from out of you as fast as Disney drains my wallet with each new wave of Star Wars merchandise. But everybody else is merely a blank shell of a human being: its hard not to feel the dark irony of the line ‘You’re all rebels aren’t you’ when none of them look like they’ve even ever argued with their mums over the contents of their lunchbox. Cassian Andor (Pedro Pascal, apparently dying to get back to the Game Of Thrones set) is a rebel captain that would have captained the Hindenburg in the real world, and probably have been outvoted for the position – an overly serious brooding expression stays on his person like the stench of wet dog on your clothes. Ahmed’s character, an Imperial fighter who defects to the Alliance, is nothing more than an insultingly bad replica of Poe Dameron with a trigonometrically perfect beard far too clean for the Rebel wasteland, and provides comic relief despite having totally forgotten the comic bit, although relief is distributed when he is cut away from.

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“So, you’re telling me this isn’t drama school, and you don’t know where I can find one?”

 

However, the worst is yet to come, and that is unfortunately Jyn Erso herself, an effectively useless character whose flat, lifeless personality could put an excitable toddler in a coma and makes a generic Stormtrooper look like the type of person that commands the conversation at the dinner table. The massive problem with Jyn is that you feel like she has to be saved more frequently than she saves herself, and rather than actively discovering and shaping the plot she stumbles into it and does as she is told to by others. Worse still is who has been tasked to play this mannequin of a Rebel fighter. Felicity Jones’s performance is the greatest proof ever that Academy Award nominations should be taken away as well as given. While her performance as super-smart, super-snooze-inducing scientist Sienna in Inferno was as flat as a trampled on cream cracker in a block of flats that had just been demolished beyond recognition, there was an extremely powerful argument that the movie it took place in didn’t exactly help (and believe me, I will talk about Inferno in greater depth when the time comes round to create more lists). However, Rogue One is not a bad movie, and Jones has nowhere to hide here. Watching Felicity Jones bumble her way through this movie looking like Twilight-era Kristen Stewart with an permanent overbite that has to be measured in yards is like watching one of those *insert prominent figure here* EXPOSED videos on YouTube. I’m not saying the dialogue she was relaying was Oscar-worthy or anything, but Felicity made it sound Raspberry-worthy. If you told me that the casting director had pranked the filmmakers by replacing Jones with a life-size version of the action figure that will be sold in Disney stores all across the universe with all due haste, I would honestly be more accepting of this performance. Jones’s line delivery in this film is certainly like an action figure, with everything she says feeling like one of the 27 repurposed lines and phrases that an animatronic My Little Pony says with aggressive, contemptuous joy (and also feels suspiciously dubbed). It was just unbelievably wooden, wooden enough to be IKEA product placement: I’m not entirely sure what’s happened to Felicity in her last couple of films, because in The Theory Of Everything she was superb, but her performance here is most certainly not in the same ballpark.

The rest of the performances are also pretty forgettable, with Ahmed nowhere near his best and Forest Whitaker apparently using his performance in the laughably bad pseudo-Scientology-religious text Battlefield Earth as a reference point for his cartoon-like display, although I admit that Whitaker’s character is good to watch. Also, main villain Ben Mendelsohn, playing a power-hungry Imperial bigwig, has scenes stolen from him by James Earl Jones and Peter Cushing, which there’s no shame in…until you realise that Earl Jones is now 85 and his voice had to be put through about a million effects to have the same impact and that Peter Cushing has actually been dead for more than 30 years, with Grand Moff Tarkin being recreated digitally in a spectacular, amongst many others, special effects achievement. In all honesty though, along with some pacing issues during the second and third acts where Rogue One kind of leaps into its brilliant final battle with less set-up than I feel was really necessary, Chris Weitz (yes, the scribe of that wondrous tapestry American Pie was given the keys to TIE fighters) and Tony Gilroy’s screenplay is more than functional, with efficient dialogue, a strong storyline that despite some clunky exposition early on always feels like its going somewhere and some smatters of humour mainly coming from a sarcastic droid played with great verve by Alan Tudyk (who also wrapped up creating the dumbest chicken in history for the absolutely brilliant Moana – most definitely on a roll then). The movie is also technically incredible, with the CG befitting Rogue One‘s estimated $200m budget, frequently impressive cinematography from Greig Fraser and, as touched on before, Michael Giacchino’s strong score which cherry picks plenty of the classic Williams themes but twisted around into a slightly darker suite to fit in with the rougher aesthetic of Rogue One.

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And now, a visual representation of Star Wars bearing down on its puny box-office opponents this weekend

 

I think the best way to describe my feelings on the first of *pick any number* Star Wars spin-offs is to say that I enjoyed it, but with reservations. Rogue One did what it mainly set out to do very well though: it justifies why it was written and produced in the first place, and provides a slightly new take on the Star Wars universe that still feels rooted in the style that we as, not overstating the impact of this franchise whatsoever, the entire human race, have become accustomed to over the last 40 years. And, although this shouldn’t have been a great surprise, Rogue One proves that the Star Wars universe is ripe for films, and filmmakers, to come in and tell new and slightly different stories outside the relatively strict constraints that the numbered episodes have always imposed on themselves. But the reservations are there, and without the strong visuals and storyline, the sub-par acting from the main cast and the weak characters played weakly are not just food for thought, but banquets for the brain trust behind George Lucas’s uber-commercialised wet dream to ponder as they move forward, as the great DJ Khaled would say, ‘through the journey of more success’. Rogue One‘s better than the prequels though – that’s really all you can ask for.

RATING: 2.5/4

BEST WATCHED: You’ve already seen it. I know you have. Stop reading this, do something else. You’ll feel better.

TWIM Reviews: Sully

SULLY: MIRACLE ON THE HUDSON (Warner Bros.)

Dir. Clint Eastwood, Script. Todd Komarnicki

Cast: Tom Hanks

Plot: Despite saving over a hundred lives and being declared a national hero, airline pilot Chesley Sullenberger (Hanks) faces scrutiny over his actions.

Sully is the movie that just would be directed by Clint Eastwood, and it is. For many who didn’t catch the controversial and wildly successful American Sniper a couple of years ago, this is a second opportunity, as the parallels between the two aren’t just present, but aggressive. It’s another entry in what seems to be Eastwood (the white, Republican man’s favourite filmmaker)’s ‘Great American Heroes’ series; take quiet, patriotic man who did great deeds and while experiencing hardships triumphed, and the stars and stripes wave in the background like your racist uncle randomly does in the wedding photos. And just like American Sniper, Sully is a compact, very well-edited and workmanlike drama that gets the job done without too many frills, cornering on an absolutely terrific lead performance (as American Sniper had with Bradley Cooper’s impactful turn) from the ever-reliable Tom Hanks, who apparently decided Forrest Gump hadn’t given him enough of a right-wing fix. It shouldn’t draw quite as much controversy as Eastwood’s previous film either, as the demonising of the National Transportation Safety Board and that of Iraqi twelve year olds is really incomparable. Also, with awards season kicking off, Sully looks like it could be in the thick of things come February: while I don’t think its quite good enough to merit a Best Picture nom, movies like this have a track record of doing very well with the predominantly white and old voting membership of the Academy.

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THIS IS MOUSTACHE-OFF! SULLENBERGER VS STALIN!

 

Eastwood’s direction is expectedly efficient, and Sully is a much shorter movie than you may have bargained on – mainly because there’s not a ton of story here. Sully is about the aftermath of heroism, when a person becomes glorified and vilified all at once, their face and name everywhere, and Eastwood portrays both sides of this with candour. He also treats his movie like a medieval peasant being tortured by rack: because most of Sully‘s story has already happened as we arrive, the movie stretches to 96 minutes by sheer force of will, protracting scenes out and taking multiple looks at the incident that inspired the film, that being the water landing on the Hudson River back in 2009. However, while events can be repetitive from time to time, the plot is really ancilliary to Sully himself, a well-defined, stiff-jawed man which Todd Komarnicki’s script depicts with great dignity, and that you constantly want to see more of. Also, because its the manifestation of old-world, real men don’t cry masculinity behind the camera, Sully is remarkably straight faced, with so little emotion allowed a single whimper feels like Gerard Butler has just walked on set pretending to be an Egyptian God. While Sully does let the taps flow on very brief moments, the entire thing is underplayed to the point where it approaches parody: take the plane crash, where the 155 passengers aren’t traumatised as they really wouldn’t be derided for, but brace calmly, as if emitting some kind of collective star-spangled aura as they potentially ride into the jaws of death. And then there’s the air traffic controller who loses contact with the flight – he takes the ultimate action in Eastwood’s universe and goes to the staff canteen to reflect on the innocent civilians he thinks he’s complicit in killing.

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EASTWOOD EMOTIONS (An Example): ‘Mum passed last night.’ ‘Hmmm. What’s for lunch?’

 

So, the only thing Sully is really missing is a bald eagle screaming about fourscore on top of Mount Rushmore listening to Bruce fucking Springsteen – but the greatest bearer of this super-American spirit is Sully himself, who jokes aside is a heroic man that Eastwood depicts as he deserves to be depicted. While, like me, you can take shots at how resolute the entire cast of the film seems to be, its the little details that make Sully a hero you can completely invest in. He’s a calm, icy-veined pilot with great experience, and when things start to run awry (both of the plane’s engines are rendered inoperable by an unfortunate flock of birds, who I assume took being sliced and diced by propeller like Kevin Costner took that tornado in Man Of Steel) he and his co-pilot Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart, providing Tom Selleck an answer on who stole his moustache) stay on top of the situation, firm in their actions. The script, while extremely padded out, allows for a great deal of time with Sully and Skiles, who have a quiet friendship and mutual respect for one another, and Eckhart’s quiet, yet often wise-cracking turn provides levity to proceedings. There’s also good time with Sully’s family matters, with Laura Linney doing a good job despite not having too much to do despite call Sully a hero (the director is a well-known Trump supporter, let’s take what we can get), but their phone conversations (despite their often inadvertently hilarious abrupt endings) probably give us the most candid look at Sully’s character that we get in the movie.

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‘Those who do not play the Star-Spangled Banner as they wake deserve death…’

 

And the star, make no mistake, is Tom Hanks: the wise, loveable man of the movies, the man who can do no wrong. Hanks’s performance is one of extreme skill and pathos. Without Hanks, and I cannot stress this enough, Sully would have been a heck of a grind; luckily for us, Hanks is utterly superb in this movie. Once again, the little details are what makes this performance a shoe-in for awards nominations this year (although he was surprisingly snubbed at the Golden Globe noms yesterday), and that’s not just because he’s in an Eastwood (who the Academy utterly adore, and gave American Sniper a Best Picture nomination from out of the blue) film either. Hanks stays quiet, not talking unless he really has to, instead letting us into Sully’s psyche, giving us a great deal of depth and yet not opening the box of chocolates too far, hinting at a great deal more; Hanks shows in full effect Sully’s angels as well as his psychological demons. Hanks is especially touching in his conversations with Linney over the phone, and his slightly tearful response to being told that every single crew member and passenger on his flight had not been cast away is truly worth the price of admission alone. Even in a career as extraordinary and as full of pun opportunities as Hanks’s, this is a big (okay I’ll stop now) performance that should stand as a highlight in an incredibly long reel of them.

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“I’m amazed that worked! Last time someone had to put it in the water Hayley Atwell never had that dance…”

 

Hanks not only makes you humbled by Sully’s remarkable heroism, he also accentuates how shockingly he was treated by the safety committees who investigated and at times seemingly looked for a reason to blame Sully for the incident, in what is the narrative of the movie. The plot doesn’t feel massively important though, and the depiction of the NTSB as really being out to get Sully feels quite narrow, especially in comparison to the all-sides look we get at the incident (the multiple viewings superbly laced into the movie by editor Blu Murray). Sully also doesn’t feel very structured, kind of just moving on by until such time as Hanks and Eckhart learn their fates in an incredibly long scene (which just about gets Sully to feature length) in which they see simulations conducted of their flight in order to ascertain if their actions were correct – we see every simulation (and there are a number of them) in near-totality, and despite the pilots conducting them saying ‘birds’ in a manner so emotionless it can’t not provoke my especially odd funny bone to react, it really does bring Sully‘s pace to a flat halt, along with a few other moments that feel slightly too slow. But Sully feels resolute and staunch, a quite refreshingly understated depiction of heroism that Eastwood is making a lot of quality (and in the wake of Sully‘s strong box office numbers, money as well), a movie that feels so unapologetically patriotic that, while a complete affront to the rest of the world, its hard not to respect. So definitely give Sully a look: after its done you’ll want to dip your French fries in ranch dressing, grill a T-bone with your boys on your Chevy tailgate, and pick up an AR-15 from the corner shop.

RATING: 3/4

BEST WATCHED: In America – if you can’t afford the flight, worth a look regardless. Also, don’t watch on a flight.