Chris at the Pictures

Friday, 16 March 2018

'Annihilation' - Review

3/16/2018 09:04:00 pm 0
'Annihilation' - Review

★ ★ ★ ½ ☆

Alex Garland’s sophomore film as writer-director, based on the book by Jeff VanderMeer, is a sci-fi oddity packed with questions and imagery which overwhelm and outshine its strong cast. Natalie Portman is Lena, a biologist sent to investigate a strange occurrence known as the Shimmer when her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) returns after going missing on his own expedition, wracked with strange symptoms. Lena is joined by four other scientists (Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez and Tuva Novotny) to venture past the Shimmer’s dripping rainbow barrier and into the unknown.

To have a major science fiction film headed up by five women is a wonderful prospect, but in the end their characters are secondary to the visuals and ideas. Portman, Thompson, Isaac and Jason Leigh have the most fleshed-out roles of the bunch, but the nature of their occupations and the unravelling plot means they have little room to display more than quiet disconnect and pure fear. Anyone who’s accused Christopher Nolan of being clinical will soon be admiring his more sentimental qualities after spending two hours in the company of biologists, psychologists and hazmat-suited observers armed with clipboards.

Now for the sadly unavoidable digression, given that yours truly is reviewing this film from the UK: Annihilation doesn’t belong on the straight-to-streaming pile. Its grandiose imagery and even larger ideas belong in a cinema, where an audience is paying directly (thereby showing more tangible support for cerebral sci-fi than a lone viewing statistic), breathing in the visuals from a pristine projection source and, most importantly, not tabbing out every five minutes to check Facebook. Whatever the objective flaws and merits of Netflix’ current sci-fi releases like AnnihilationThe Cloverfield Paradox and Mute (the less said about Bright, the better), they’re shot with the big screen in mind. I can’t for one minute imagine Alex Garland or Duncan Jones conversing on-set with their director of photography about how best to shoot a sequence for optimal impact on a cropped desktop window. 
The best I could do to replicate a theatrical experience for Annihilation was a 23-inch monitor, turning all the lights off, putting on a decent pair of headphones with the volume up and praying my internet connection held long enough to retain maximum resolution. The latter proved the most unreliable element, meaning Rob Hardy’s eerie cinematography resembled something closer to Annihilation: The ZX Spectrum Experience. Drops in bitrate still failed to break the spell of a frightening, spine-chilling score from genius composers Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, returning from Ex Machina.

A few other elements from Garland’s previous directorial outing cling to the surface of Annihilation as it leaps from straight science fiction to bizarre, exploratory philosophy: there’s a lot of photography through glass (cell windows, the warped reflections of a glass of water), large gaps of ambiguous silence between dialogue and a frugal use of CGI. What digital imagery there is flits from astonishing to awkward. Where the VFX budget has been spent really shows, and the more questionable effects weirdly make the film feel more suited to its home platform doom.

As with Ex Machina’s tests, this film is fragmented into stages, each infused with a recurring close-up of dividing cells, an image echoed in the scientists’ continuing discoveries. Much as one cell becomes another, brief physical evidence (plants that have formed themselves into the shape of human bodies, skeletons arranged in the sand) spawns more mental imagery that is harder to shake, itself upstaged by succeeding sequences that teeter on the edge between dream and nightmare. A vignette in an abandoned swimming pool refused to leave the inside of my eyelids for several days.

Garland keeps this adherence to ‘less is more’ to a fault. So much of the screenplay revels in withholding information from the audience, and it’s difficult to decipher whether he’s leaving these questions unanswered or merely open to interpretations. This means Annihilation could be read as any number of things: for yours truly, it’s a fable about leaving the unknown alone, but you can also see commentaries on gender, mankind’s destruction of the environment, and what it means to be human. It’s a film of big ideas, and that’s something no amount of relegation to small screens can diminish.

Wednesday, 14 March 2018

'Gringo' - Review

3/14/2018 07:37:00 pm 0
'Gringo' - Review

★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Laughs are sparse and the plot’s a farce in this occasionally funny but largely overstuffed caper from Nash Edgerton. David Oyelowo stars as Harold Soyinka, a hapless corporate underdog whose attempt to get back at his obnoxious boss, Richard (Joel Edgerton), by faking his own kidnapping by the Mexican cartel goes wrong.

A simple and perfectly workable setup (disgruntled employee hatches ridiculous plan) soon becomes an odyssey involving not only the cartels but a botched drug deal, a young couple caught in the middle (Harry Treadaway and Amanda Seyfried), a corrupt boss, adultery back home, and corporate espionage. For a labyrinthine spy thriller: great. In terms of keeping a self-billed comedy afloat: very unhelpful.

Almost as unhelpful is the film’s depiction and utilisation of Mexico and it’s culture. It’s all Day of the Dead celebrations, shady bars, drug running and the aforementioned cartels, or simply a foundation for useful - and highly misleading - marketing materials (the poster is plastered with various flowered skulls and similar paraphernalia). The image painted by said posters and the snappy trailer sets the audience up for a laugh-a-minute romp, but in fact the laughter comes dotted across vast deserts of joyless meandering. The one good piece of slapstick (Sharlto Copley’s bearded spy being knocked into a roly-poly by a car) is in the trailer, and the remaining violence is too efficiently brutal, too truly nasty to be in any way amusing. 

And, stuck helplessly in the middle of everything, is Oyelowo. That he’s been given the lead role in a mainstream American comedy should be cause for celebration (even more so when he gets to use his native Nigerian accent), but it’s a piece of casting that puts his powers to little use. His unshakable aura of intelligence betrays any attempt to portray Harold sincerely, but his natural charisma stays the course during all-too-brief scenes of character-building between the clueless stooge and Seyfried’s beaming holidaymaker.

The film is completely stolen from under all of them by Charlize Theron as Edgerton’s number two, a shy and sultry businesswoman with a penchant for loose shirts and cutting insults. Think Cruella de
Vil with a pixie cut. Her quest to toss aside the many useless men makes for some entertaining payoff once the countless convoluted threads come together, but it’s too little too late. 

Saturday, 10 March 2018

'Game Night' - Review

3/10/2018 10:04:00 am 0
'Game Night' - Review

★ ★ ★ ½ ☆

Hanging amiably in the balance between Paul Feig and Edgar Wright, this action comedy from the team behind Horrible Bosses (directors John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein) delivers on its premise with panache and laugh-a-minute gags. Jason Bateman and Rachel McAdams play Max and Annie, a couple who hold regular ‘game nights’ with their friends, all-the-while spurning the self-invitations of creepy cop neighbour, Gary (Jesse Plemons, gurning to perfection). When Max’s brother, Brooks (Kyle Chandler), all fast cars and fancy houses with the mannerisms of a movie trailer narrator appears, Max’s masculinity and sperm mobility (he and Annie are trying in vain for a baby) are threatened. In what seems another effort to outshine his younger brother, Brooks devises his own game night, inviting Max, Annie and their four friends (Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury as a bickering couple, plus Billy Magnussen as Max’s inept pal, who brings along his date, played by Catastrophe’s Sharon Horgan). His promise of a hyperreal, Taken-style scenario goes horribly awry when it appears that an actual kidnapping takes place before the assembled yuppies’ very eyes.

What follows is a surprisingly inventive and raucous affair, as the three couples are left to decipher clues left behind by the kidnappers and fix their various scuffles. Bateman (at his deadpan best) and McAdam’s (on gleefully over-excitable form) adventure includes some light poking fun at performative masculinity and the usual non-committal dithering of a soon-to-be father, while Morris and Bunbury work through their characters’ past lapses in marital loyalty. Magnussen and Horgan are the purely comical duo: he’s an idiot showing her off as proof he can date someone smarter than his usual Instagram-obsessed former lovers, and she’s having none of it. Sliding smarmily in from the side-lines is Plemons, who barely has to shift a facial muscle to elicit snickering.

Mark Perez’ script draws out the best his cast have to offer and skimps on the off-the-cuff stylings that have regrettably become the standard in big screen American comedy. Torturously prolonged improv displays are largely dropped or at least cut short in favour of proper, scripted setups and payoffs that arrive in clever physical gags (the BBFC warning for ‘injury detail’ has never been lived up to with such hilarity), perfectly-pitched awkward interplay and acerbic quips that provide everything from a wry grin to full-on belly laughs. Ensure any food or drink items are a safe distance away during an extended joke involving the contents of Magnussen’s wallet and an all-too-brief appearance by Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s Chelsea Peretti.

That the film provides a steady stream of laughter is no mean feat, but is even more impressive when wedded effectively to formal ability. Variations of colour-grading, lighting techniques and camera movements in a movie of this type are so rare that even basic displays of technical prowess are a welcome surprise, not to mention CG-free car chases and even a ‘one-take’ fight sequence through a manor house. Sure, it’s no Atomic Blonde staircase brawl, but - along with a neat tilt-shift effect during establishing shots which transform the city streets and parking lots into game boards - it all adds up to a refreshing attempt at a visual identity that comedies rarely bother, let alone strive for in earnest. Composer Cliff Martinez (Drive) is even drafted in to provide a skippy synth score to further swell the film’s slick action credentials.

Said manor house set piece towards the climax is one spot where the overblown game threatens to become more bored than board, and the plot threads begin to pull together with an all-too-familiar sense that we’ve played this one before (gee, I wonder if Max will emerge less threatened by his brother after all?). You’ll forgive - and likely forget - these minor crimes: sheer volume of laughter makes a very convincing ‘Get Out of Jail Free’ card.

Monday, 16 October 2017

'Loving Vincent' - Review

10/16/2017 10:23:00 pm 0
'Loving Vincent' - Review

★ ★ ★ ★ ☆

The father of modern art lives and loves again in this startling visual experiment – the first and only hand-painted motion picture – that continues a golden age of cinematic animation. Directors Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman lead this British-Polish co-production, with Douglas Booth and Saoirse Ronan heading up a perfect cast of performers through ninety minutes of painted poetry, detailing the aftermath of Vincent Van Gogh’s death in 1890.

With twelve individual paintings accounting for every second of footage, it’s incredibly easy to find oneself overwhelmed by the sheer audacity and scale of the project, allowing the story it depicts to become eclipsed by pure awe. It’s a testament to the screenwriters that Loving Vincent’s narrative is as compelling as its colours. Booth (playing Armand Roulin, an acquaintance of the troubled artist) travels to the small French town of Auvers-sur-Oise, ostensibly to deliver a letter to Van Gogh’s brother, Theo. His quest soon becomes an investigation; to divine the reasoning behind the Dutchman’s unexpected suicide.

While the visual canvas of the film is sweeping, majestic and writ large with the brightest tones, the storytelling is intimate, built on small but effective interplays. It’s a portrait of an artist not lectured by scholars or listed in biographical facts but whispered, reminisced and dramatized in memories and anecdotes from the subjects of his many paintings. Standout vignettes include the uppity sniffs sent Roulin’s way by Helen McCrory’s churchgoing matriarch, Chris O'Dowd as a sage postmaster and the earnest regret of Van Gogh’s doctor, Gachet (Jerome Flynn). Like our bemused protagonist, the plot stumbles hither-and-thither (sometimes losing sight of the finer details in pursuit of pithiness), but this lack of coherent structure is redeemed by a mature reliance on gentle humour and subtle heartbreak over melodrama broader than a brushstroke.

I’ve tried typing a description of how this film looks about fifty times, but the only real way to understand is to see it for yourself. See the colours ooze and meld, notice the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it inclusions of Van Gogh’s masterworks, be stricken by the tiniest hint of moisture in Saoirse Ronan’s eyes that remains every bit as disarming through smudged oils as it is through the sharpest of digital lenses. Like all true art, its afterglow will leave you struggling to re-adjust your senses, baffled by the dull tones of reality.

'The Snowman' - Review

10/16/2017 08:25:00 pm 0
'The Snowman' - Review

★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Why does this film exist? Why did Michael Fassbender waste his talents on this sodden snowdrift of a script? Didn't they draft in the editor of Goodfellas to try and salvage it? Did they hand the Avid to a blind chimpanzee halfway through? Why is Val Kilmer, a real human being, less convincing than the CGI Peter Cushing in Rogue One? What’s with the giant clumsy iPad thingies the police are carrying around? What were those glowing pin badges? Do they exist in real life? Where can I get one? What’s the subplot concering Oslo’s bid for the Winter Olympics all about? Why does Charlotte Gainsbourg dry-humping Michael Fassbender have all the erotic frisson of two stacked chairs? Who was that random woman who got snapped topless by JK Simmons? Where did she go? Is she okay? Did the Snowman killer get her? Why do the snowmen left at crime scenes look so glum? Are they okay? Why is Hot Butter’s ‘Popcorn’ played twice and then never heard again? Why is Toby Jones in this? Is he okay? Surely the director of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is better than this? Am I actually supposed to take ‘Harry Hole’ seriously as a character name? Why is his hair several inches longer in one scene? Why does his apartment have dry rot? Is that a cheap bottom gag? Did they ever get rid of the mould? Why did Hole’s cleaner bring his puppy to such a grimy job? IS THE DOG OKAY?!

Thursday, 5 October 2017

'Blade Runner 2049' - Review

10/05/2017 07:31:00 pm 0
'Blade Runner 2049' - Review

★ ★ ★ ★ ★

It’s the dead of night. Unable to sleep, a man – dressed in his day clothes, a glass clutched in hand – stands watching the city below. Cars roll endlessly past, a thin film of rain trickles streetward and all around, the skyline is lit by the distant diodes of passing aircraft and countless illuminated windows. This is not Los Angeles, November 2019, but Norwich, October 2013. The man is not Rick Deckard, bounty hunter, but me. His reason for restlessness is not the spectre of five active replicants, but five consecutive viewings of Blade Runner, in its various cuts.

Getting so wrapped up in Ridley Scott’s vision, its implications, its warnings and its world was all well and good then for a pretentious film student devoid of a social life, but will serve no good to anyone approaching its newly-arrived sequel, Blade Runner 2049. Due to a combination of hectic working hours, late nights and sheer lack of luck, I had no time to revisit Scott’s troubled, moody masterpiece before diving into Denis Villeneuve’s follow-up. This failure meant that I entered the cinema neither freshly contemplative nor burdened with expectations heaped higher than a dystopian skyscraper.

For months I’ve been confused by Villeneuve’s statement that such a respected artefact of popular culture was impossible to follow, a horrific idea. Having seen it, now I understand why he still dared to take it on. For him (as demonstrated in all his works to date), it’s the storytelling that comes first. Finding a way to step out from under Scott’s near-inescapable shadow – something that took me the first hour of Blade Runner 2049 to accomplish – makes one free to understand the trials of Rick Deckard and his prey on their own terms. No matter the attachments to its predecessor (which are plentiful, necessary, and carry unprecedented catharsis), 2049 stands by itself in a way I could never have dreamed, deftly defying every possible expectation borne upon its back by legions who’ve already decided its redundancy, egged-on by clumsy marketing.

Picking up 30 years since Deckard and Rachel disappeared (during which a Y2K-style blackout all but wiped the records clean), we find ourselves in the shoes of LAPD Officer K (Gosling), deciphering a lead from a long-lost replicant outlaw. Caught between his police chief (Robin Wright) and the hitmen of resurgent replicant-manufacturer Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), K is set on a collision course with Deckard himself (Harrison Ford returns to complete his hat-trick of reprised roles).

It’s easy to crack jokes about Ford resurrecting performances from his eighties heyday, but less so when his latest tops them all by a country mile. Respecting Deckard’s character as originally written – by David Peoples and Hampton Fancher, the latter scribe resurfacing for this film – and Ford’s own doubts about his nature, the screenplay approaches the mystery in a way that not so much extinguishes as pours fresh fuel on the fires of ambiguity.

Gosling, Leto and Ana De Armas (leaps ahead from her turn in Eli Roth’s Knock Knock) were my main sources of contention going in but are cast perfectly by a director who understands how to utilise their strengths. Gosling’s frozen visage is played to unbelievable emotional effect, and Sylvia Hoeks proves herself a scene stealer from the word go as his predator, the ruthless replicant, Luv.

The talent behind the camera shines equally as bright. While many will bemoan the loss of Villeneuve’s long-time collaborator Jóhann Jóhannsson from the project, Hans Zimmer and fellow Dunkirk alumnus Benjamin Wallfisch more than step up to the plate with a soundtrack that dips sensibly into nostalgia without extravagant wallowing. And as for Roger Deakins, everyone else previously considered for upcoming best cinematography awards should stay home. His total mastery of composition allows us to finally glimpse what Roy Batty once told us we wouldn’t believe.

For those still put off Blade Runner from its perceived emotional iciness (something I’ve always struggled to understand, despite close friends emphatically claiming a lack of attachment to any of the characters), fear not. Though it begins in a similar lonely place, it grows into something that elicited an array of stricken and adoring responses from the shocked stillness of a murder scene to sobs as tremulous as the deepest earthquake.

In a mode of address more in line with the original, it still doesn’t see itself as an all-important delegate of decades still to come: Villeneuve, Scott and Fancher just want to tell a compelling story, to rediscover the key ideals of Philip K Dick’s source legend for a new generation. 2049 fills its (somehow breezy) 163-minute running time with questions about the aspirations of artificial beings and the nature of memory because such matters are demanded by the story, not out of some portentous desire to occupy the pages of philosophy textbooks for the next three decades. In an odd parallel to Scott’s own Prometheus, this takes the backdrop of a lonely, grimy sci-fi actioner to tell a story more concerned with belonging and promise. Forged in the crucible of an android’s dream, it looks tentatively, beautifully, to a future that may not discard its most helpless children after all.

Friday, 29 September 2017

'Flatliners' - Review

9/29/2017 09:39:00 pm 0
'Flatliners' - Review

★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆

In a revelation as inevitable as the “dead on arrival” gags accompanying its reviews, this sequel to Joel Schumacher’s 1990 thriller is as pointless as it is sterile. Five medical students become obsessed with triggering their own near-deaths in attempts to capture evidence of the afterlife. After initial highs and cognitive awakenings, the group find themselves hunted by the ghosts of their individual pasts.

The post-flatline powers exhibit themselves in trust fund hunk Jamie (James Norton) as increased proficiency in medical practices, whilst in the three lead women (Ellen Page, Nina Dobrev and Kiersey Clemons) as a sudden desire to get into Jamie and Ray's (Diego Luna) pants. Though they each have their own unique traumas to shape the apparitions, increasingly tiresome jump-scares and dark corridors morph them all into interchangeable quivering wrecks by the end. Courtney (Page) at least has some of her character fleshed out (the opening sequence clues us into the revelation she withholds from her peers, so they’ll indulge her experiment), but it’s all for nothing come the final act.

Luna plays the token sceptic, and is immediately engaging to the point that he almost pulls the whole enterprise together, though his hairstyle (perhaps in unspoken homage to the original’s fabulous array of wild wigs) is a choice almost as poor as his recent decision to work with Woody Allen.

A more befuddling decision is made by the filmmakers to include Kiefer Sutherland, reprising his role from the original as the students’ mentor. Again, it’s all for naught: never does he factor into their decision to explore flatlining, investigate them, or even deliver a knowing sermon. It’s the screenwriters showing they care enough to draw Sutherland back, but not quite enough to give him anything to do, nor to provide any other tangible connections to the first film, narratively or visually. Religious imagery and reveries make way for insipid sob stories, and the smoky streets and dark architecture are swapped out for crisp surfaces and vapid digital backdrops.

All this heavy comparison might fool you into thinking I hold the first Flatliners in high esteem. For the record; I don’t. Any interesting concepts are rapidly overridden by hammy performances and Schumacher’s total reliance on imagery over intelligence. This new iteration can barely pretend to offer the former, exhibiting drama as slack as its characters, living or dead.

Thursday, 21 September 2017

'Kingsman: The Golden Circle' - Review

9/21/2017 03:13:00 pm 0
'Kingsman: The Golden Circle' - Review

★ ★ ☆ ☆ ☆

Matthew Vaughn’s spy series makes a haphazard pivot from ‘parody of bad Bond films’ to ‘bad parody of itself’ in this simultaneously listless yet overblown sequel. Taron Egerton returns as Eggsy, now left with only Mark Strong’s agent Merlin for company when the Kingsman organisation is all-but obliterated around them. Their enemy: Julianne Moore’s drug overlord, Poppy, a sugary-voiced villainess with a penchant for human meat burgers, robots, and Elton John.

The first Kingsman was very much a Marmite film: you were either won over by its homegrown Bond/Bourne/Bauer pastiche or disgusted by its button-pushing. Being an awkward sort, I fell somewhere in the middle, appreciating the unabashed comic violence and Alex Rider overtones but blanching somewhat at its seedier elements, particularly that final bum note (pun fully intended).

Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman have clearly taken the controversy over Hanna Alström’s backside deeply to heart…and doubled-down. Partway through The Golden Circle (which sees Eggsy and Merlin join forces with their American counterparts, the Statesman), Egerton’s character is tasked with tagging the girlfriend of an enemy agent with a tracking device. With no explanation besides a sly wink from Pedro Pascal’s Agent Whiskey and a shrugged “It’s not going up her nose!”, our hero is to secrete the tracker within the genitalia of the oblivious Clara (Poppy Delevigne). After calling his girlfriend to ask her permission (which she does not give), Eggsy commits. As composers Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson deliver a heroic fanfare, Matthew “bloody feminists” Vaughn treats us to a close-up the likes of which a certain orange-faced misogynist would call “Tremendous”.

Looking for any excuse for this abhorrence, some fans might reach for The Golden Circle’s plethora of great female roles. They’d come up short. Halström is a plot motivation, Eggsy’s classmate Roxy is blown to smithereens in the opening salvo, and Halle Berry (playing Merlin’s equivalent in the Statesman organization) is exposition in a wig.

Moore’s villain finds me yet again confused as to why I’m supposed to dislike the Kingsman antagonists (decapitation bombs and cannibal fast food hobbies aside). Hot on the heels of Samuel L. Jackson’s eco-warrior from the first film, Poppy’s demand to the government is the legalization and supervised access to recreational drugs, an aim that makes her more sympathetic than the brutish Anglo-American spies bulldozing their way across the globe to find her (at least, until her relationship with the US president is revealed, to more sinister ends).

Her beaming smile as she feeds Keith Allen into a mincer provides some glee, as do the rough-and-tumble brawls towards the film’s conclusion. A robot arm-wielding henchman allows for some inventive choreography, and in the long-take ballets of umbrellas and uppercuts, it’s easy to see where the budget’s been spent. It certainly didn’t go towards the CGI, which is replete with green-screen outlines and aliasing as digital models of buildings, landscapes and cages meld into one-another.

You may have noticed I haven’t got around to mentioning the other big names from the poster campaign: Channing Tatum, Jeff Bridges, and the inexplicable return of Colin Firth as Harry Hart. I only thought it fair to give them their representation as reflected by the film. Tatum is little more than a cameo appearance, Bridges is…well, Bridges, and I’m still not entirely convinced that Firth ever showed up. There’s a catchphrase-spouting waxwork doing an impression of him, though, the artifice of which is further exacerbated by Egerton’s uncrackable charisma.

As for Moore, her total screen-time is eclipsed by that of her popstar prisoner. John’s gormlessly smug guest spot culminates in his offering free tickets to his next gig, should the Kingsman help him escape. If his eye-scraping appearance here is any indication of his current talents, he can keep them.

Tuesday, 19 September 2017

'mother!' - Review

9/19/2017 10:29:00 pm 0
'mother!' - Review

★ ½ ☆ ☆ ☆

After the big budget blowout of Noah, Darren Aronofsky returns to simpler times with this deliberately provocative tale of a man and woman (Javier Bardem and Jennifer Lawrence, whose characters remain unnamed) living peaceful, but soon-to-be interrupted lives. Basking in their Eden-like seclusion, Lawrence’s eponymous matriarch sets about restoring the house (with which she shares a mysterious, organic connection), while Bardem plays a troubled poet looking to write his masterwork. Just as inspiration appears to strike, an unknown couple (Ed Harris and Michelle Pfeiffer) stumble upon the pair, bringing with them the unspoken threat of upset and destruction.

For all it’s unclear narrative strokes and ambiguous dialogue, mother! is not a subtle film. The instant it’s central metaphor takes root, it's nigh-on impossible to focus on anything else. The intended discomfort and tension as Harris and Pfeiffer encroach upon the couple’s handiwork is totally undermined by an allegory so ham-fisted you could slice it up and serve it in sandwiches.

That a film so steeped in parable and analogy is playing in multiplexes should be something to celebrate, making Aranofsky’s failure to combine symbolism with a compelling story that much more infuriating. The overriding thesis of the film – at least, as it was apparent to me – is one I sympathise with, but I can’t see it winning over the average movie-goer. As evidenced by the movie’s plummeting CinemaScore across the pond, they’re likely to remain resolutely alienated by a mood piece comprised mostly of Jennifer Lawrence gasping and shrieking at the camera.

To see Lawrence return to comparatively ‘out there’ cinema after her string of mainstream roles is an exciting prospect, and sadly remains just that: something still to come. Her role here (to use the word ‘character’ seems generous considering her deployment as reflection or caricature) gives us nothing but fear and loathing, of which she gave ample demonstration across all four instalments of the Hunger Games series.

Pfieffer tries to save what she can (largely through a particularly delicate method of sipping lemonade), but it’s a hopeless effort. She – along with Harris and brief spells from Dohmnall Gleeson and Kristen Wiig – becomes just another face in the crown of walking, talking emblems that slowly but surely begin to overwhelm the isolated abode.

This increasingly fraught and claustrophobic home-invasion section of the film is where things truly go to pot. In terms of pure technical construction, there should be much to admire as time, space and bodies fast-forward, tighten and twist in a finale clearly designed to shock and awe. The established composition of mother! (a repetitive, clumsy and dull array of close-ups and over-the-shoulder shots) instead consigns us to crock and bore.

Thursday, 14 September 2017

'American Assassin' - Review

9/14/2017 05:47:00 pm 0
'American Assassin' - Review

★ ☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

A charmless Dylan O’Brien takes the lead in this callous thriller which may as well be titled Toxic Masculinity: The Movie. He stars as Mitch Rapp, a young-ish man on the warpath for those who shot his girlfriend dead on a beach in Ibiza. His attempts to connect with vaguely-defined Muslim terror groups catch the attention of the CIA, and he’s brought in to face brutal training at the hands of no-nonsense Stan Hurley (Michael Keaton, just about managing not to nod off).

I’ve no idea how much of the plot has carries over verbatim from Vince Flynn’s 2010 source novel, but the opening massacre on a Mediterranean beach, a shootout in a crowded market and a subplot involving the threat of nuclear war couldn’t be more politically insensitive and exploitative if they tried.

The many scenes of cruelty are classified by the BBFC as ‘sadistic’, and believe me, that’s a generous appraisal. Not merely content with the customary CG splatter, American Assassin delights in looming, lingering shots of civilians and gunmen alike screaming, choking on blood and clutching hideous exit wounds. Women are usually victims of the nastier killings, the most distasteful offence occurring when Mitch follows a lead back to his luxury hotel. The businessman’s mistress wanders around topless for a few moments before getting cut down in the crossfire.

I don’t want to get on some moral high horse about this, but the kind of message the film sends through its constant depiction of shooting and stabbing as the quickest solution to any problem is troubling, and doubly uncomfortable when we consider that the whole reason for our hero's fractured psyche is exposure to horrific bloodshed. Stan’s cruel boot camp only serves to enhance the young man’s thirst for barbarity, and the only character who displays the slightest hint of pity is soon revealed to be minimally untrustworthy. Mitch immediately attempts to drown them in a bathtub.

Look: I’ve enjoyed a bunch of movies with as much – if not more – violence than this. Gareth Evan’s The Raid and its sequel are two of my favourite movies. But whereas they bring technical elegance, an empathetic lead, winning composition and threatening villains, Michael Cuesta's effort offers only the exhibition of a perfectly-manicured white man carving his way through faceless foreigners.

And that’s all Dylan O’Brien really brings to the role: eternally-windswept hair and skinny jeans in place of a personality. His eventual antagonist, appearing in the form of Taylor ‘glad to be working’ Kitsch, is equally laughable. During their final confrontation, the two trade blows and stagger around a small room. Both sport short, untidy facial hair, black slim-fit shirts and identical accents. In shots where O’Brien’s fluffier hairdo is out of frame, the two are genuinely indistinguishable, reducing what should be a nail-biting climax upon which the fate of the world rests to a pair of Hollister models having a special cuddle.