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.

TWIM Reviews: Moana

MOANA (Disney)

Dir.  Ron Clements, John Musker, Script. Jared Bush

Cast (voices): Auli’i Cravalho, Dwayne Johnson

Plot:  The daughter of a village chief (…WE WERE DESCENDED…FROM VOYAGERS! I need to stop singing this soundtrack please help) (Cravalho) is chosen by the ocean itself to restore life to the world. AND NO PRINCES!

Disney animation – the pinnacle of movie-making. A track record of universally loved films resented by all of their competitors. The list is as star-studded as it is endless: The Little Mermaid. Aladdin. The Lion King. Tarzan. Frozen (unfortunately). Moana.

Moana is on this list because it is utterly, spellbindingly beautiful. Moana is a movie of such strength that putting it on a list amidst other classics feels like an insult to it. Moana is a classic plain and simple, a movie that will be watched by families for years upon years to come, and to deny it would simply be cynical and heartless. There’s no question in my mind that Moana is the Disney movie for the 21st Century – you still get the traditional princess narrative we’ve become innately familiar with (although whether Moana will become a Disney princess is somewhat disputed – she’s certainly not quite like the rest of them), as well as the music (although that deserves a larger conversation further down), but with none of the narrative problems and the anti-feminist plot points that older Disney movies have always purported. There are no princes here – and there’s no need for them. Go to this movie; see it even if it isn’t financially viable. I dare you to go to Moana and leave without screaming at the top of your lungs: AHWEEEEEEEEEEH AWHEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEH!

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…EEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH

It’s hard for me to articulate exactly how much Moana worked for me. I’ve always said that the Disney formula is unbreakable, and is probably the perfect distillation of cinema. Leaving that cinema screen, I was convinced (and still am) that Moana is the point at which we can refine film no more. It’s by-the-numbers in its totality, but that’s exactly why Moana will be a movie that literally nobody could hate, or even remotely dislike: Moana is a universal movie hidden within the thoroughly researched, lush world of Polynesia, and amidst all of the references to their culture. And the visual realization of Moana is unbelievable. It is easily the most beautiful movie Disney have ever animated – Moana is so beautiful to look at that real life will seem ugly and washed out. Even the tiny, minor details that aren’t really that important are bejeweled, blinding works of beauty: the lush green of the island grass of Motenui, the maddest, most batshit mental coconuts you’ve ever seen in your life, and of course, the water: animated to become a vivid character in its own right, every wave of it makes the goosebumps course through your veins again, and wake that miserable heart up.

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…EEEEEEEEEEEEHHH WE SAIL A COURSE TO FIND A BRAND NEW ISLAND EVERYWHERE

Part of why this is can be put down to the directors, Ron Clements and John Musker, who are probably the best directorial duo you’ve never really heard of. They’ve been behind a bunch of Disney’s hand-drawn classics before the turn of the century, The Little Mermaid and Aladdin amongst them – basically, these guys know how to make a good Disney movie. Moana is the duo’s first project moving away from traditional animation to the vast banks of supercomputers and dozens of talented animators required to produce a digitally animated film, and they take to it like perfectly-feathered ducks to beautifully turquoise water. The biro-to-byte transition doesn’t hurt one bit, and brings out a whole host of benefits: Moana feels like the perfect blend between the incredible technological capabilities that CGI has presented us with as well as all of the craft and patience required in making a movie by hand – it feels like it was made with time and most definitely love. In regards to actually being directors, Clements and Musker get it bang on, nailing the inspirational tone and making Moana visually entertaining as well as spellbinding. One scene springs to mind, a Mad Max: Fury Road style ocean face-off between Moana and a swarm of incredibly angry coconuts, that is utterly inspired and beyond hilarious. The story also plays near-perfectly, and slight nit-picks into its set-up are literally the only criticisms I can muster of this entire movie. While it may be your typical ‘chosen one’ plot, it plays out in a way that feels refreshing and is watchable beyond measure.

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WE ROOOOOOOAAAAAAMMMM…AWEEEEEEEEEEEH AWEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEH

The protagonist is also a worthy one. Moana is not a Disney princess who sings songs about what they don’t know and when they’re going to find a man to love them, but a strong three-dimensional character. Voiced by Auli’i Cravalho, a 16 year old Hawaiian actress plucked from an audition process of hundreds, you are absolutely going to fall in love with them. Cravalho’s performance is superb, with an innate power and likability that many actresses could only dream of possessing. And that’s before we get onto her singing, which is as good as any Disney singer but reportedly recorded when she was just FOURTEEN, which my little film reviewer mind can’t even compute. But the animal sidekick is present as usual (and hilariously referred to in the movie). On this occasion, its a chicken so dumb that it could define a generation. Called Heihei and voiced (or rather screamed and clucked) by Alan Tudyk, Heihei is a joy in every scene he’s in, constantly walking straight into the sea or screaming bloody murder as he realizes that’s all he can see. Also involved is Dwayne Johnson – the former WWE star turned Disney musical starrer (yes, we live in a world of endless possibilities) who is not only delightful as a brash and arrogant demigod, but actually sings and sings well. Is there nothing this man cannot do? He can ordain weddings, club men to death, and blast a lovely baritone vocal…what’s next, Grade 7 Cello exams? A well-referenced thesis on entropy?

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WE KEEP OUR ISLAND IN OUR MIND AND WHEN ITS TO FIND HOME WE KNOW THE WAYYY

The Rock has is own solo number, You’re Welcome, a horn-laced blare of braggadocio that is just one part of an unbelievable, utterly beautiful score. Of course, Disney has always had a host of brilliant songs and wonderful compositions, but Moana‘s music, composed in a significant part by Hamilton writer-actor/musical savant Lin-Manuel Miranda, is in a different dimension, an entirely new echelon for Disney music. Miranda’s music and lyrics have shades of his work on the uber-succesful Hamilton, and combined with Disney traditions and the spice of Polynesian rhythms spliced throughout (and a Bowie-infused number delivered by Jermaine Clement with unrelenting , this music is truly awe-inspiring. The centrepiece is of course How Far I’ll Go, a not-so-typical Disney solo empowerment number which is truly one of the best in Disney history, blowing Let It Go straight out of the ice and melting Elsa’s overdone snow castles with glorious, joyful burning intensity. The score will bring tears to your eyes, an outpouring so great that Moana‘s gorgeous ocean will drown the islands with the excess water and leave us with Kevin Costner on a flotilla. I still wonder even now if I’m surrendering to the spectre of overhype but simply put, Moana might be a near-perfect distillation of how to make a movie everybody will enjoy no matter who. It’s everything you wish for in a Disney movie and more – Moana really is movie magic.

RATING: 4/4

BEST WATCHED: Again and forever.

TWIM Reviews: Allied

ALLIED (Paramount)

Dir. Robert Zemeckis,  Script. Steven Knight

Cast: Brad Pitt, Marion Cotillard

Plot: Two spies make love in a sandstorm whilst also wanting to kill Hitler – but the girl might actually like Hitler…which would be a shame.

Allied will probably have the distinction as the movie that killed Brad Pitt’s marriage as well as any acting ability he may or may not have had before he signed on. On paper, Allied seemed like a solid bet, with a brilliant assortment of on and off-screen talent assembled to pay homage to Casablanca, in a way that a dog will often pay homage to your shoes in the morning. You can probably guess that this didn’t quite work; Allied does have its moments granted, but for the most part the new movie from Robert Zemeckis is a plodding and uneven period romance that midway through pulls a complete one-eighty into a psychological thriller, albeit one with the psychological and thriller elements removed. But who cares? We’re only here to watch two attractive people saunter through beautiful locales wearing dresses designed by an angel-winged Tom Ford, right?

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The look of a man who doesn’t delete certain text message conversations

Thing is, most of Allied‘s press has been zoning in on the supposed Pitt-Cotillard tryst that happened on set, and I confess its quite difficult to watch Allied through any other lens. So here I sit, two hours of meandering narrative lying before me, awaiting the steaming hot burning love that the passionate whirlwind romance of the jawline posing as Brad Pitt and the suicidal woman from Inception would obviously provide. After watching this film to its end, I can safely say that the tabloid press know nothing. Pitt and Cotillard have very little chemistry, if not negative chemistry if such a thing can actually exist according to the laws of movie physics. Their romance is as stilted as a Cirque de Soleil performance, although their work is worthy of being filmed and these two’s work less so. Their romance doesn’t have anything setting it up, and when it makes the jump from spies pretending to be married to actually wanting to be married via trying to kill some Nazis it feels especially contrived and forced. They look great at least, so great they can’t possibly be real people: like two Gucci models photoshopped against a green-screen desert.

Cotillard has more meat to chew into, although she’s basically chewing into Quorn: a mysterious resistance spy whose allegiances are what the overlong plot hinges on, Cotillard is such a capable screen presence that she almost transcends the poor dialogue she’s been given. Helping her out is the fact that half of Allied is actually in French, Cotillard’s native language, as if she’d agreed it within her contract so she could chat shit about the film while making it and nobody would know. I’m personally fine with half of a movie being in a foreign language, being a stodgy film critic who you can probably guess says snobby statements like ‘Please, the Romanian New Wave is where its at at the moment if you want affecting personal drama’. But making half of your $85m Hollywood production starring some of the most recognisable actors on the planet French, however admirably risky, is going to alienate audiences after a while. Worse still, this is an hour of French backstory – the real plot of the film i.e. is Cotillard a Nazi double agent or not doesn’t begin until after we see their meeting, which is literally just them swanning about in Casablanca spouting poor dialogue, hallucinating that they are in fact Bogart and Bergman always having Paris when they are in fact Pitt and Cotillard never having my investment – the entire first act is just expensive window-dressing, that feels completely inconsequential and doesn’t really bear any relevance later on, spare the fact that they made out in the desert one time and decided to marry on the strength of that alone.

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Pitt remains emotionless despite setting fire to banquet hall and killing prominent Nazi

Also escaping with some dignity is Zemeckis, who actually keeps a decent hold on the proceedings even with the colossal shift towards the middle of the film. Zemeckis is one of the most experienced and beloved directors around, having directed a beloved classic (Back To The Future), a Best Picture winner (Forrest Gump) and scared the literal daylights out of the children of the world (The Polar Express) – Allied is nowhere near as memorable a film, but his experience comes through. There’s a few scenes during Allied that are well constructed, and the action sequences (that are unfortunately few and far between because of how painfully slow Allied can be) are actually pretty good – they’re surprisingly raw and well shot by cinematographer Don Burgess. Good words also need to be said about the look of this movie: I know I’ve discarded Allied for being one of those movies where hot people swan about in cool costumes but let’s face it, the costumes and the production design are really first-rate. Pitt and Cotillard look fantastic as a spy couple (until such time as they open their mouths and are forced to spew the plot) and some of the expensive digital effects are used for rather odd reasons. Now I know filmmakers have a fear of regressing into cliche, but sometimes the need for being ‘dynamic’ goes a bit too far: take Pitt and Cotillard’s first love-making session, taking place in the midst of a spinning car and shot with a spinning camera, whilst a biblical sandstorm billows over the top. A sandstorm. And in case you hadn’t quite caught the fact that Allied descends into pure and shameless melodrama, the giving birth scene in the middle of a hospital being battered by a Nazi air raid should do the trick.

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I assume Marion’s bringing up how she gave birth to avoid doing the washing up

And yet, through all these unbelievably over-the-top scenes, Brad Pitt holds course. For Mr. Pitt has taken a new direction in his portrayal of the Canadian spy, Max Vatan. Brad Pitt has put in several charismatic performances over the years, and perhaps feeling that he might be becoming typecast has elected to change it up completely, by bleeding his character dry of anything even remotely resembling human emotion, or any idiosyncrasy related to humanity in general. Brad Pitt is awful in this film, bad enough to the point where he alone ruins the entire thing as if on a personal crusade; his character is flat as a pancake mown down by a truck, and his expression is so empty that empty is too descriptive a word to get the idea across of what its actually like. But even as Brad commits  the sin of being mind-numbingly dull, he’s not done there: his character makes a very good claim for being one of the dumbest protagonists ever to exist. After the hour-long foreign language film prologue, in which Pitt spends most of his time doing relatively stupid things anyway, Allied decides to finally commence with the plot, as Pitt is forced to investigate and thusly entertain the possibility that his wife might actually have been a German spy all along, and her devotion to lebensraum would’ve been so unwaveringly strong that she would have not only slept with the enemy, but given birth for Goebbels. Despite the frequent instructions of his army friends and colleagues not to do his own investigating, Pitt does so anyway, implying that he doesn’t trust his wife enough to believe what she’s told him all of the time she’s known him, and jeopardising not only his and his family’s lives, but actively ending some others. Add that to a performance about as stirring as uncooked cake mixture with the fact that Pitt’s character is so totally unlikeable that there are several moments I was desperately rooting for the Nazis to shoot him point blank and leave his dead-but-possibly-more-alive-than-before corpse in a ditch somewhere, and you are left with a performance that is not only a blot on Pitt’s copybook, but possibly the worst performance he has put to film.

The script isn’t a help either, with jarring dialogue and a far-too-leisurely pace that takes you out of the movie more than it involves you within it. The fact Allied‘s script is a mess is even more surprising when you realise its come from the pen of Steven Knight, the talented director-writer behind the extremely underrated Locke, starring Tom Hardy. The main issue is that the entire thing is structurally off: the prologue that gives numerous handjobs to classic Hollywood romance films is absolutely nothing like the second and third act of the film, and when Knight tries to second-guess you by bringing up things from that opening, you have to travel back up the rabbit hole of unmotivated clutter for about an hour until you get back there, only to have to regurgitate all of it back out again, kind of like what having food poisoning is like. What is more annoying about this is that a few rewrites could have made this script a lot tighter, and it would have stopped what is a relatively good psychological thriller premise’s effect being spoiled and basically nullified by the backstory.

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FINALLY! A smile! A half-smile! A smirk? A sarcastic smirk? Still can’t tell if emotion or not

Allied is a movie that struggles to decide where it wants to go, and so in the end it decides to try to be both half-heartedly and desperately hopes that the audience doesn’t catch on – however, they always do. At 124 minutes, the film’s quite a grind as well, and if you have trouble believing the on screen relationship between Pitt and Cotillard as much as I did then you’re going to spend quite a fair bit of the movie thinking about what you could have been doing instead, like seeing your significant other, or just having fun – you know, stuff Brad Pitt could have been doing instead of making a movie that may very well go down as the worst performance of his entire career. He really is just an attractive thing with no sentience in this movie: if you like watching people be bereft of absolutely everything that makes somebody human then watching mannequin challenges on YouTube are a much cheaper and shorter medium by which to indulge your passion. The fact that Allied and Mr. & Mrs. Smith, two films about spies who fall in love and then mistrust one another, will now act as bookends to one of the world’s most famous marriages feels rather apt: what began as disposable and fun has now turned into a period of time you’d rather want back.

RATING: 1.5/4

BEST WATCHED: From an hour into the movie, and with nothing else to do.

James Stephenson

TWIM Reviews: Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them

FANTASTIC BEASTS AND WHERE TO FIND THEM (Warner Bros.)

Dir. David Yates, Script. J.K. Rowling

Cast: Eddie Redmayne, Katherine Waterston, Dan Fogler, Alison Sudol

Plot: A wizard and a muggle’s briefcases are swapped, causing disastrous consequences for New York and causing Warner Brothers’s pockets to deepen.

So…they were that desperate. Warner’s issues have gotten to the point where they’ve finally taken the chance, and called J.K. Rowling’s speed-dial. It feels longer than the five years interval we’ve had between a seventeen year old boy killing a noseless grandfather and the arrival of Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, yet another reboot attempt from Warner’s that simply has to work, despite their revisitations of Middle Earth and Metropolis not exactly doing the trick critically. Fact is though, despite Fantastic Beasts definitely being a cash-cow, a prime fillet of steak forged from the fires of consumerist greed, there have been worse signals coming from unnecessary movies: for a start, J.K. has written the screenplay (and will write the next four screenplays in the five-part franchise that, once again, Warner has already announced will be produced) and while novel-writing and film-writing are two very opposite styles, at least it more than has the creator of the Wizarding World’s approval: second, David Yates returns to direct, which would have been fine by me if not for his direction of The Legend Of Tarzan being so bad filmgoers have a legitimate claim of bringing his work to trial in front of a United Nations committee.

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‘No…No, I am not David Yates…please help me’

So…is this finally the time Warner get it right by doing the same thing over again? Incredibly…I think Fantastic Beasts might have managed it. It’s very rare that revisiting a franchise works – the sheer cynicism of audiences today makes it hard enough a task, let alone the fact that nervy studio execs can’t take a risk for fear that one of them will spontaneously combust at the world premiere. But I’m honest, and genuinely quite pleased, when I say that Fantastic Beasts is not only a relatively welcome addition to the Potterverse, but also has compelling characters that allow this new franchise to stand on its own too. It’s no perfect film (it isn’t a scratch on my personal favourite Potter, Alfonso Cuaron’s truly brilliant Prisoner of Azkaban), but Fantastic Beasts more than gets by on some quite stunningly cute animated magical creatures and an Eddie Redmayne display that positively breaks the cuteness scale, shattering through it with the velocity of a 100,000 bunny rabbits and with the piercing precision of a golden retriever’s longing stare.

But you might say (and if you get enjoyment from this blog, you most definitely will), ‘But James, I’m a cynic beyond moral contempt, no furry freshly caught Cornish pixies (nor Kenneth Branagh’s gorgeous, chiseled jawline as he delivers such lines) could worm their way through the heavily fortified wall that surrounds my heart’. Honestly, I don’t buy that; you’d have to be an axe-murderer not to feel the all-encompassing cuteness of this film. That’s not even counting the creatures either; when Eddie Redmayne, fresh off of his Oscar-winning performance in The Theory Of Everything, it felt like more of a statement casting than anything else. However, while I don’t admit I’m wrong ever, Redmayne is the perfect actor for Newt Scamander, the insular, Asperger-ic protagonist of Fantastic Beasts that is one of the most refreshing main characters in movies for some time. As brash, confident leads have quietly wormed their way into literally every major film quietly, spreading like a plague with delayed symptoms, Newt is a shy type, not suited to big action, only comfortable when alone with his creatures: Eddie nails Newt’s character, and its the little details, such as his loose stride and the way in which he struggles to make eye contact with everybody apart from his beloved beasts – he’s a protagonist that you are going to fall in love with, no matter what barriers you put up against him.

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‘Still not Mr. Yates…wait you just want the hot guy back…yeah, so do I’

Rowling has also chucked in a number of compelling players in the wings as well – most impressive is Dan Fogler, an actor who I confess wholeheartedly to not being too familiar with, but is a delight to watch. Positioned as a muggle (or a ‘no-maj’, as Rowling has the American wizarding community shoehorn in there because apparently the word ‘muggle’ was just a tad too highbrow), Fogler reacts exactly as we all would if suddenly presented with spells, snifflers and the like, and he is very rarely not hilarious when on screen. Following that up, it was a massive surprise to me just how much humour Fantastic Beasts not only attempted to get in the movie, but how much of it landed: Beasts is funnier than most mainstream comedies, and while it goes for the cutesy humour of Redmayne trying to catch his escaped creatures a little too often, there’s no denying that Rowling hits the sweet spot. Yet another newcomer, Alison Sudol, is also a joy as a skilled legillimens (that’s a mind reader, to those who have not scratched the surface of Potter lore and subsequently are the subject of many gasps and sharp breaths when they confess their blasphemy), and her and Fogler’s chemistry is absolutely excellent. In a sense, the strength of their characters undermines the work of Katherine Waterston, who doesn’t really have an awful lot of depth as an auror (that’s a detective, and if you still need to read these captions, what are you doing?) trying to rebuild her career – Waterston is fine in her role, but feels underserved when compared to the many other characters who I’d much prefer to spend my time with.

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Colin Farrell tries and fails to slip into Wizarding World by shaving beard and coifing hair

And there really are a ton – I haven’t even mentioned the antagonistic forces at work. Colin Farrell, once the Irish Antonio Banderas, and the speaker of such poetic expressions as “I’ve had no memory for as long as I can remember“, shows up and is actually kind of entertaining as a duplicitous dark wizard catcher named Percival Graves, a name so telegraphed to represent death and darkness that it sounds like the alias Gerard Way takes when he goes to the shops. His plan is an awfully complex one: in order to bring about a war of some description, he must locate a highly powerful young wizard with the help of Credence, a squib (in English that’s…you know what, no. You’re not getting my hand-outs. Face the wrath of the Potter fan) of around 16 played by the 24-year old Ezra Miller, whose baby-faced looks Warner couldn’t help exploiting yet again after casting him as The Flash for Zach Snyder’s colossal, inevitably in-cohesive and most definitely self emasculating ‘JUSTICE LEAGUE: PART 1‘, the type of title that presents the greatest threat to narrative cinema since Michael Bay’s virgin birth in an exploding stable. Back to Colin’s plan: in order to convince Ezra Miller of his importance to his mission, and to gain his unquestioning loyalty and devotion, Graves must hold Credence’s head into his chest as if he’s cradling a winged angel fallen from the sky, with all the intimacy and love a mother offers her newborn child (although, in a plot point that does jar massively, motherly love is not something Credence can say he has experienced) – the way I’ve always wanted to be held, really. What I’m trying to say is, there’s a lot of plot in this movie – and unfortunately, a lot of it doesn’t really go anywhere. Rowling is a novel-writer by trade, and while spending the first third of your movie setting up multiple threads and building the world works fine in a novel, the first hour is very heavy, and the plot doesn’t really get going. Once Fantastic Beasts actually finds its gear the film works very well, and Rowling’s jump to screenwriter is a pretty impressive one, but it does take a frustratingly long time to find its feet.

Also, while in this instance taking the style from the Harry Potter movies would have been desirable, it does often feel like a retread visually: David Yates, the director of the last four movies in the original series, is obviously a man I’ve had a recent qualm with, due to what I believe so far was the worst piece of direction of this year and most others with his misguided work on The Legend Of Tarzan. Thankfully, this is a far better film to watch (although so is waterboarding, or the cremation of a dead aunt), but even so I don’t think he’s a visually interesting director. Fantastic Beasts makes use of the same rough shots, the same structures: it even has the effect where exposition is delivered through dynamically thrusting the audience through magically animated newspaper images, although this time Yates makes the subtle change of making it last for what feels like 5 full minutes. The sequences, while technically fantastic, are overcomplicated, and certainly though what is a first hour full of heavy plot and world building Yates doesn’t ease matters with his lack of a central focus. However, once the movie finds its feet, the visuals do improve, and I have to admit that Yates knows the Potterverse better than anybody, and the sequences where wands come out still have the same high-octane feel as they did before.

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Eddie Redmayne was conned by Warner Bros. into thinking he’d be in Live By Night

On a technical note, $180m of panicked investment does go a hell of a long way, and Fantastic Beasts is an excellent production. New York in the 1920s, the film’s setting so as to not get in the way of the original Potter saga and thusly not piss the fanbase off into space, has been gloriously rendered here through a mix of first-rate CGI and Colleen Atwood’s excellent costuming. Fantastic Beasts could have been a bit tighter as well, with what are admittedly amusing and dazzling sequences not really serving the overall plot, and to my mind they felt like more of an excuse to get in more cute creatures (speaking of, a mobile app with all of these creatures essentially ripping off Pokemon Go would make an absolute shitload of money). But for a franchise, and let alone a franchise purposefully existing within the shadow of another, highly successful franchise, and LET ALONE a franchise existing within a world so beloved by so many as this one is, Fantastic Beasts is a highly promising start. While the movie does have a few teething problems, it hints at yet another confection full of narrative riches that good J.K. Rowling stories are: with a hugely investable and refreshing protagonist led by an absolutely brilliant Eddie Redmayne, compelling characters all around, and a few choice plot threads that Rowling has left hanging (including a surprise, which you may know if you’ve checked any movie news sites in recent weeks, but if you haven’t I will leave unspoiled), Fantastic Beasts could not only be a welcome addition to the pre-existing Potterverse, but if got right could become just as memorable of a franchise in its own right. As my now dearly beloved Newt would say, the suitcase has been opened just a smidge.

RATING: 2.5/4

BEST WATCHED: If you’re already a Potter fan, this is an absolute essential. If not, you’ll still probably enjoy it regardless.

TWIM Reviews: Arrival

ARRIVAL (Entertainment One)

Dir. Denis Villeneuve, Script. Eric Heisserer

Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker

Plot:  An alien invasion turns into an A-Level English Language lesson for aliens.

Last year, Denis Villeneuve released upon us Sicario, one of the most atmospheric and tense movies of the last few years, and this came as no surprise to all those watching the French-Canadian director’s rise over the past few years. Sicario followed Enemy, a criminally under-watched and inconceivably weird movie with Jake Gyllenhaal, and the brilliant Prisoners from three years ago now. Certainly for myself, a new Villeneuve film is automatically a must-watch: but with Arrival, Villeneuve’s attempt to dip into science fiction, I’ve been even more excitable than normal, to the point where I’ve had to sit in a dark room and literally calm down. Not only that, the buzz has been absolutely monumental – Arrival has been variously heralded for being a game-changer in science fiction, to one reviewer even saying the film has ‘invented a new visual language’. Better still, the word from some is that Arrival is so stunning it might even get a Best Picture nod at the Oscars.

Basically: do not adjust your sets and fasten your fucking seat-belts.

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Earth’s peace shattered by alien invaders: nearby mountains decide to stress-vape

And Arrival, unsurprisingly, is a movie I greatly respect. This movie is breathtakingly good. But I couldn’t bring myself to adore it, to love it like many critics have been over the festival circuit: in a sense, its almost too brilliant, too clever for its own good. Pardon the oxymoron, but there are some movies that are operating on a level so much higher than we’ve been numbed into accepting by the summer blockbusters that they almost feel too constructed, too much like an academic exercise in filmmaking than a burst of cinematic passion. Arrival is fantastic – a thinking man’s science fiction movie, that knows its genre perfectly, and has a plot so clever and twisty some of the more dramatic revelations will actually cause you to fall back off of your seat into an endless mind-hole through which you question the very nature of reality and the fabric of the universe, all while screaming because you have to hit the floor soon, right? Wrong, because the alien spacecraft have their own artificial gravity too, so you’re just going to be left floating in the ether, left to ponder just how brilliant Arrival‘s storyline is at the brink of some kind of narrative-induced orgasm. But I couldn’t fall in love with it, I couldn’t quite take it to my heart like I wanted to. Arrival is a bit like a McDonald’s chicken nugget. I know that they taste very nice, and if offered one I wouldn’t hesitate to eat it again and again – but inside I am fully aware that they’ve been made unnaturally with artificial stuff put there to sweeten the flavour (I mean I’m still going to devour that thing but…wait why I am I nitpicking my own metaphor//)

One thing I should make abundantly clear, first off, is that Arrival is nothing like Independence Day: this is not an invasion film, in fact its probably the antithesis of such a thing, if there can ever be one. Arrival‘s…arrival (I can hear the wailing sirens of the unoriginality police now)…is a much more elegant affair, with twelve disturbingly other-worldly chrome semicircular vessels hovering an inch off the ground in the most off-putting image I’ve perhaps ever seen. It’s a shape that will make your skin crawl like a six month old child. And when the alien pods make their slow, co-ordinated movements, your skin will further grow into a one-year-old baby desperately attempting to walk unaided and digest real food. Once Villeneuve, an absolute master of creating atmosphere and tension, decides to mercifully relent on putting you through the wringer, this film becomes a character drama first and foremost, a genuinely quite affecting story of grief that will knock you sideways – oh, and Amy Adams has to teach English to space octopi, and also learn their language, a bizarre symbolical representation of what happens when you put a wet glass on some black paint and move it around a bit.

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The mysterious alien creatures tell Amy Adams: “You were better in Nocturnal Animals

Villeneuve’s direction is absolutely immaculate: he is easily one of the best visual storytellers we have around, and he creates an atmosphere better than anybody. Arrival never lets up its tone (although it does have some pacing issues) and its fantastic to look at, shot strongly by cinematographer Bradford Young. I don’t think what Denis does on Arrival is quite as strong as his unbelievable direction on Sicario, although it really is like comparing two golden nuggets of directorial genius: I am constantly bawled over by Villeneuve’s work, and this is no exception, with purposeful camerawork and brilliant sequences that rely on wonder and mystery rather than fireballs and Wilhelm screams. My god is Arrival a palate cleanser – finally, this isn’t a movie in which there isn’t all out nuclear cataclysm or 20,000 superheroes fighting each other for no random reason. Arrival is a movie that feels like it has an agenda, feels like its fighting for something, feels more special than your typical summer fare.

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Adams plays a character so nervous that her nose emits literal shards of light when scared

Arrival tackles some really heavy stuff, adapted from a short story called ‘Story Of Your Life’ (which the film was originally called and remains titled on Google search, strangely), which tackles even heavier stuff, but Eric Heisserer’s immaculately written script somehow pulls out of the hat concepts and theories that would be a brick wall which the film’s audience would repeatedly smash into, again and again, into an absolutely tremendous story that is not only easy to follow, but really damn engaging. Heisserer’s script is something of a minor miracle: this script is flat-out excellent, the dialogue is well-chosen and purposeful, and you don’t notice Arrival‘s near two hour run time at all. Also, it would be criminal of me not to talk about the music and sound design, which should all be in the frame at the Dolby in February: Johann Johansson, Villeneuve’s preferred composer, writes a compelling and beautiful score, while the general use of sound is top-notch as well – an early sequence of Amy Adams trying to get about her day while the world panics over the aliens has sound design good enough to cause jump scares.

The only thing I would criticise here are the characters which are unfortunately quite bland, and this is a bit of an issue for a film that is essentially a character study that just so happens to take place under the backdrop of first contact. Louise, a linguist so good at weird human languages she must surely know some alien ones in the eyes of the U.S. Military (seen here represented by a Forest Whitaker accent so strange that its as if he was convinced he was still filming Rogue One, or had watched Jodie Foster’s performance in Elysium the night before), is played strongly by Amy Adams pulling double duty in this year’s Oscar race with the stunning Nocturnal Animals which I am absolutely still in love with, but while Amy’s subtle performance gets us to really sympathise with Louise’s grief, she feels like a blank slate to me. An intelligent and resilient blank slate, but still quite empty, and she doesn’t feel three-dimensional. Jeremy Renner’s character, a physicist named Ian whose worldview is at odds with Louise’s, struggles to even be one-dimensional however. Renner, who after showing up in so many Marvel movies to be invisible (he could have been in all of them without me noticing) has somehow not learnt from this, and has turned up to the Arrival set only to be told he’s playing Hawkeye in plaid, in so much as he could have honestly been taken out of the movie and it would have made virtually no difference. Renner isn’t bad at all, but once again his role has less meat to it than a vegan protest at Holland & Barrett – the most unique thing he does throughout is praise Amy Adams’s character for actually doing stuff that Renner doesn’t do, watching open-mouthed in total wonderment and not for one second thinking ‘wait a minute, I’m supposed to be a theoretical physicist so smart and clever I was chosen to be here’.

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Jeremy Renner: from forgotten Avenger to forgotten physicist/love interest device

The other thing is, for all of Arrival‘s beautifully constructed tension, the film does feel a little bit constructed itself; a bit cold, or remote. It’s a movie that plays in more ball-pits than you might be expecting (without wishing to give too much away), and while it jumps into those ball-pits with enthusiasm and skill not often seen from a relatively big-budget movie (at $47m, all of which came from independent financing, Arrival looks an awful lot more costly than it actually was), I couldn’t help but feel like they were forcing it just a little bit. Also, there’s a couple of scenes that don’t feel right, such as a montage where Renner suddenly narrates (the only purpose his character really serves) despite the fact its clearly Louise’s story we’re following. Also, while the film is a pretty slow burn for the first two acts, the third absolutely hurtles for the conclusion – I certainly wouldn’t have minded 15 minutes, even half an hour more of Arrival that would have given the movie more impact, as well as more time to get to know Amy Adams’s character, that I’m still not quite sure I know at all. Having said that, I thought Arrival was an absolutely marvellous picture. It’s extraordinarily rare that you see movies like this in cinema these days: its a sci-fi movie that dares to go further, that really engages your mind. I can definitively say that Arrival left me with more questions and a greater curiosity to understand the themes it was wrestling with than any other movie I’ve seen for this blog, and that’s a good thing. Arrival may very well be the genre film that worms its way into the thinking of the Academy this year – it should at least do well in the technical categories, and based on his recent output Villeneuve really is owed a Best Director nomination – Arrival might even stumble into Best Picture contention as well…no I’m kidding, the Academy hates sci-fi so much it would build a wall to keep it out of their territory.

RATING: 3.5/4

BEST WATCHED: Worth the price of admission and then some – they don’t make movies like this anymore.

TWIM Reviews: Nocturnal Animals (with a Reintroduction)

Whatever happened to that film critic?

You know, the one who sounds like he has a hand-bound copy of the OED stuffed up his backside? The one who loves to hate on big blockbuster movies because he’s intelligent. That one who says more terrible stuff about films than some people say about 20th Century dictators?

Well…this colossal idiot thought about putting the brakes on. The last time I posted anything on this magical page was in the midst of starting a new job, as well as preparing to start a three-to-four year process of debt accumulation that is British university. And, to be honest, I didn’t think much of it at the time: I thought to myself that if I did let TWIM fall by the wayside (which seemed to be the only thing I could do what with my sudden commitments), it probably wouldn’t be missed, and it could lurk away into the black hole of the modern internet, left there to never be found. However, what I didn’t account for was how much the people who’ve read this blog these past few months have actually enjoyed it, including myself: it’s a strange thing to have people define you by what you write about terrible movies, but that’s the way the world has played out in recent weeks. I’ve had compliments from friends, family, even random people at university dorm parties. TWIM has been read on every single continent, by people in more than 50 countries. My review of The Angry Birds Movie became surprisingly popular in Nigeria. And these past couple of weeks, I’ve taken stock and realized: you know what, I don’t mind having this old thing. And my absence probably led to the Donald Trump presidency. So to all those, like me, who are currently seeking therapy for this sudden turn of events, I feel like I owe you something (stop James. you’re making yourself too important you narcissist).

So, as you will probably have astutely observed by now, I am here to announce my not-so-long awaited (or awaited at all for that matter) return to the cutthroat, dramatic and most likely profane world that is film blogging. Frankly, the film industry probably had its easiest two months in some time, what with me not striking movies down at every turn, finding every pressure point and deformity and exploiting it for all its worth like the diseased vultures we film critics (supposedly, and in the twisted mind of Gods Of Egypt director Alex Proyas) are. But now, like the first dawn of a polar winter, a new Oscar race is upon us: a new year of great movies, great directors, and the inevitable shut-out of any nominations for minorities. And I couldn’t stand by, what with all this to come in the next few months, as well as the quiet and inevitable releases of absolutely terrible movies, which are the reviews that i know for a fact you’re all waiting for.

So let me reintroduce myself. My name is James Stephenson, and I love movies to the point of being mentally unstable, no matter how much I might look like I hate them. I’ve invested more money into cinema tickets than I have material possessions. While other moviegoers can’t bring themselves to rip a movie to shreds, I scythe my way through poor stories, cut my way through bad characters, walk over bad writers and destroy bad direction. My favourite film is 2001: A Space Odyssey. I work in an office supply store. My perfect day would be spent out on a beach as the sun goes down. I’m not sure if I’ve created this blog for myself to get exposure, or just to scream in a way that doesn’t harm anyone. And in the end, you can scream back at me for anything I might say that you think is utter rubbish. Either way, this is the prick that writes TWIM, and he is proud to say that he is, above anything else, a movie reviewer. So, let’s review a movie.

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS (Universal)

Dir, Script. Tom Ford

Cast: Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson

Plot: An incredibly successful gallery owner (Adams) has her beautifully colour-coordinated and Greek God-populated world shattered by the arrival of her ex-husband’s (Gyllenhaal) novel, which is dedicated to her.

On Friday, November 4th, in a small and tatty screen in an ODEON cinema, I fell in love.

I fell in love with a dream – some kind of breathtaking, sensory, staggering fever of a dream where beautiful compositions and stunning performances ran free, to be appreciated by the faux-intellectual movie reviewers of which I confess wholeheartedly to being. An absorbing, engrossing vision of a film; a brutal contemporary Western on the one hand, with some of the tensest scenes you’re ever likely to find, and on the other an adept and incisive study of what happens to us when we let the wrong people go. That Friday night, in the darkness, with the sounds of Doctor Strange‘s ludicrous visual effects bleeding through the left-side wall, the discarded remnants of some kind of popcorn war to my right and an audience all around me held captive by the screen in front of them, I fell in love with a movie called Nocturnal Animals.

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Five nominations. No wins. Amy Adams is out for the kill. 

In a fair and just world (i.e. one which I am all-powerful), Nocturnal Animals wouldn’t just have forcefully stamped his name on Oscar ballots all around Hollywood in the coming months, but have ignited through them with its sheer intensity. To say the touch-paper has been lit on the 2016 Oscar battle is an understatement – this film, written and directed by fashion wonder-man Tom Ford with such a skill that implies his first career was a colossal mistake, has taken the toys from the prestige pictures’s prams, ran up the stairs and shouted ‘come and get me’ whilst blowing a raspberry. As you may have gathered, I thought Nocturnal Animals was particularly good. Brilliant, really: a biting psychological thriller with intersecting narratives, Tom Ford’s long-awaited follow-up to his promising debut A Single Man delivers in all the right areas, as well as those you couldn’t possibly have thought about.

For a start, this movie is a vision to behold. Nocturnal Animals is breathtaking to look at and painstakingly constructed. Every little detail in every frame, all composed by Seamus McGarvey in a cinematographic tour de force worthy of awards attention in any year, feels deliberate and important as well. Nocturnal Animals tells the story of Susan Morrow, a successful-yet-hollow member of the Los Angeles art world played deliciously by a dark-lipsticked Amy Adams, whose troubled relationship with her chiselled beyond human comprehension husband (Armie Hammer, putting up tents the world over this winter if you catch my drift) – this is a Tom Ford movie, what did you expect – is causing her to effectively doubt what her life has become. Staging these images of stunning, eye-watering wealth, Ford takes plenty of cues from Hitchcock here, not only from Abel Korzeniowski’s alluring and tense score, but from the fantastic shadows at work. It’s a difficult task making an audience sympathetic with somebody who isn’t happy with having a bathtub the size of a lake and transparent glass all around, but Ford somehow manages it: Adams’s excellent and subtle performance doesn’t do the film any harm either.

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Woman wears heavy eyeliner – a life on the rails, in the language of fashionista Tom Ford

But, of course, this is just one of the three narratives at work in Nocturnal Animals: not only is there some wonderful flashbacks detailing Susan’s marriage with her ex-husband (a clean shaven, too cute for his own good Jake Gyllenhaal), but the ex-husband in question has written his first novel (from which the film takes its title), and sent the manuscript to Susan, and as she reads it, we see it with our own eyes. It’s not reinventing the wheel or anything, granted: films within films and ‘meta-texts’ or whatever you may call them have been around for a fair while, but often they feel far less real than the main story. Not so here. We are flung without warning into the barren Texan desert, where Tony Hastings (a not-so-clean shaven Jake Gyllenhaal, in a dual role), along with his wife (Isla Fisher, a deliberate dead-ringer for Amy Adams) and their daughter, are terrorised by a group of Texan rednecks, led by an unrecognisable Aaron Taylor-Johnson, putting in a career-best performance. The world of the novel is, as you can probably imagine, perfectly juxtaposed with the homogenised, minimalist bubble that Adams finds herself increasingly trapped within, and is so visceral I wouldn’t recommend anyone with high blood pressure going to watch this movie (although I am tabling whether its worth risking your life to go and see Nocturnal Animals – I’m definitely considering that argument). It’s opening, a frighteningly tense car-chase-cum-psychological terror trap, is not only edge-of-your-seat’s-edge-on-the-edge-of-a-cliff-on-the-edge-of-the-universe stuff, but has a truly harrowing pay-off.

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On the set of Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal lost his razor – his search continues

And yet, with all of my swooning over the beautiful cinematography, Shane Valentino’s appealing production design and the superb editing by Joan Sobel (quick sidenote: yes, I know I’m deliberately shoe-horning all the technical people in here and I know it doesn’t read incredibly, but Nocturnal Animals is one of the best technically made films I think I’ve ever seen: everyone deserves to be celebrated), its the acting and the writing that makes all of this work. I’ve already touched on Adams’s terrific work, but the acting within the fictional world of the novel is more brilliant still. Taylor-Johnson really is fantastic as the antagonistic Ray (although he could have been a shade more subtle), Jake Gyllenhaal gives us the type of performance that has established him as one of the best actors in the world right now, simultaneously charming and sensitive in the role of Adams’s ex-husband and determined, strong but vulnerable as the tortured Tony. But I haven’t even mentioned the film’s stand-out performance yet: Michael Shannon is Academy Award worthy here. Period. As a rough-as-nails detective who helps Tony in his plight, Shannon is as enigmatic as he is believable. It’s the type of supporting performance, in my eyes, that defines a career: I don’t want to give too much away, but if you go and see this (which, if you haven’t interpreted my words even now, you definitely should) you will know exactly what I mean.

Are there drawbacks? Definitely. Nocturnal Animals hasn’t quite been getting all-around lavish praise across the board as much as I feel it should be, and I can see why: some have said that the film has been so obsessively stylised that its suffocating the plot, and while I admit that everything within the movie is incredibly meticulous, and put there for a reason, it only adds to what is at its heart a gripping story about engrossing characters, which is after all what great stories have always been forged on. What I will say is that there are moments where Ford’s obsession with image (being a fashion designer, I’ll let him have that one) does get in the way; take the film’s opening, which is certainly striking, but feels a little unnecessary. There’s also scarcely little Amy Adams to sink my teeth into – while she does make her appearance extremely memorable of course, I couldn’t help but want a little more of her.

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Come on – that moustache is Oscar-worthy…also, I WILL FIND HIM

But in the grand framework that Ford has created here, its practically irrelevant. Fact of the matter is, Nocturnal Animals is a remarkable, remarkable piece of cinema. All the way to its end, this movie blew me away – it blew through any expectation I had, any ceiling I gave it. I loved this film: I respect its errors, and its certainly not a perfect movie. It’s a little too cold if you ask me, slightly too remote, although I think the spellbinding performances by pretty much the entire cast and especially the technical crew more than make up for it. I never wanted Nocturnal Animals to end…but I knew that it had to. And when it did, when that sudden and silent gut-punch of an ending arrived and threw me and the rest of that audience out of its all-encompassing grasp – I wasn’t quite sure what to do with myself. I left the cinema screen, went out into the cold and the rain, and immediately wanted to get back in there.

RATING: 3.5/4

BEST WATCHED: Immediately – be there now. Teleport yourself. Sneak in. Any way will do. Just go.