Wednesday, 28 February 2018

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Something New (Sanaa Hamri, 2006)

Kenya (Love & Basketball's Sanaa Lathan) is a high-flying career woman who has not been able to find that special someone who ticks all the boxes, including being employed and educated to a similar level as herself - and he has to be black.

All her plans go out the window when hunky white gardener Brian (The Mentalist's Simon Baker) turns up to landscape her backyard, and ends up landscaping her heart... 

This movie is the definition of fine. The direction is solid, the evocation of its specific milieu is interesting (and not treated as some kind of ethnographic study), and it features a pair of attractive, likeable lead actors.

All the elements of the production are good - I would say they are better better than the script, but certain gaps in the story make me suspicious that more character beats and context were left on the cutting room floor to make the movie more 'commercial'.

Something New's lack of 'newness' is the key flaw. The premise and first act are laying the foundation for a look at the intricacies of interracial relationships which the movie ultimately fails to explore. I spent too much of this movie wondering what a more incisive version of this story would look like.

The movie is so formulaic that it is easy to start daydreaming about what the movie could have been. It is not a good mindset for analysing a movie (investigate what is there, not what you want to be there), but it did make the movie a little more enjoyable to watch.

Speaking of formulaic, Something New features one of my least favourite romcom archetypes: the man's man who reacquaints the intelligent (i.e. emotionally stunted and sexually repressed) career woman with simple, carnal pleasures.

Brian is particularly odd example of this character. There is something kinda oppressive about how intelligent and empathetic Brian is in the early part of the movie. It's a clumsy attempt to make a character who can complement Kenya's intelligence and self-control, but it just comes off as a bit condescending.

The way that Brian is able to counter Kenya's every move was so ridiculous that it felt like the movie is building toward a mid-act twist where it is revealed that Brian is an obsessive stalker who knows how to gaslight Kenya into loving him.

Sounds familiar...
There is something aggravating about a romcom that presents a professional woman reconnecting with her humanity through a man's man, and the addition of race made it feel ever-so-slightly odious. The moment where Kenya learns to loosen up comes after Brian convinces Kenya to go back to her natural hair. Hey, dude. It's her hair - she can do whatever she wants, dumbass.

Eventually there are fractures in the relationship due to Brian's ignorance of the societal pressures Kenya has to deal with. Since she is an high-paying job, he finds it hard to believe that she still has to deal with racism. In this respect, Something New does manage to offer something different from the usual romcom formula.

The problem is that rather than diving into the dynamics of race and the difficulties Kenya has in communicating this to Brian, the movie does not deviate from a predictable third act, where all conflicts are resolved and our lovebirds live happily ever after in wedded bliss. Zzzz.

As stated at the outset,  while it falls short in terms of saying something new about race, Something New is just fine as a formula rom com. Lathan and Baker are a good-looking pair, even if their chemistry is not quite there, and any movie that features Alfre Woodward and Taraji P. Henson is doing something right.

Saturday, 24 February 2018


A group of friends (Jason Bateman, Rachel McAdams, Billy Magnussen, Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury) find themselves in over their heads when their weekly game night turns into a hunt for Max's (Bateman) missing brother (Kyle Chandler).

This movie is awesome. Not only is it hilarious, but it is also well-written (by Mark Perez) and well-directed (by Vacation's Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley). This movie wants to be a comedy and a dark thriller and manages to walk this line without falling over on either side of it. The movie is filled with weird, creepy choices, which feed into the comedy, rather than detracting from it.

The script manages to flesh out the characters and make them all part of the action: Bateman and McAdams are competitive gamers trying to have a baby; Billy Magnusson is a superficial man-child with a rudimentary understanding of how the world works; Morris and Bunbury are soulmates who have been together since they were kids.

This particular game night sees all these characters forced to deal with their own personal crises: Bateman's jealousy towards his brother; Morris and Bunbury dealing with infidelity; Magnusson learning... stuff about how the world works. Kinda.

What makes the comedy and the thriller elements work is that the characters take the situation dead seriously. No matter how ridiculous the situation gets, they always feel like ordinary people reacting to a situation they have no understanding of: car chases, knowing how to operate heavy machinery and treating flesh wounds. There are some really silly things that happen in this movie, but Bateman and the rest of the cast manage to make it feel grounded. And because the stakes always feel real, the laughs always hit harder.

It is so great to see Jason Bateman in a good comedy again. His forte is the middle-class white guy trying to keep it together, and Game Night is one of his best vehicles, giving him and Rachel McAdams a great showcase for their comedic skills. They make so much sense as a couple, and their dynamic gives the movie a baseline for the chaos that ensues.

While they anchor the movie, if Game Night has an MVP, it is Jessi Plemons as their creepy neighbour. A divorcee who was let out of game night for being too creepy, Plemons' performance is terrific: the blank eyes, the lack of obvious emoting on the face... there is something off about his character throughout the movie, and the filmmakers lean into it. When Plemons is onscreen, the movie becomes deeply uncomfortable, in the best possible way.

This movie has so much to recommend it. It may be the best directed comedy I have seen in a while, particularly a big studio production. There is a care and attention to character and tone that is so specific (the bird's eye shots of the neighbourhood which make the houses look like pieces on a game board) and idiosyncratic  that keeps Game Night feeling singular.

I mean, this movie bothers to have a main title sequence. How many movies do that any more? It does not even look like a comedy. Nowadays, comedies look more like TV than film - even a great comedy like Spy plays out in static wide shots, with bland lighting that does not convey any sense of atmosphere.

From a directorial standpoint, what is great about Game Night shows a grasp of the fundamentals of dramatic story-telling. The movie is lit like a thriller, with a lot of chiaroscuro and neon. Even the moments of visual panache feel completely functional: there is a sequence involving all of our heroes working together to get a Farbarge egg out of a villain's house, all the while being chased by his goons. The entire sequence is captured in a single take, as the characters throw the egg to each other. The camera tracks down hallways, up stairways, and everywhere else. It sounds like a technical exercise, but it never feels like it. Because the shot is focused on the egg, it begins to feel like we are part of a game, watching our team trying to keep the ball out of the other team's hands. It is funny and tense all at the same time, and it feels effortless.

Even the soundtrack is something to write home about. Cliff Martinez is famous for his dark electronica, and he gives Game Night a propulsive, John Carpenterish-sense of synthetic tension that helps to maintain the sense of peril our heroes are in.

This movie is fantastic. Genre-blending comedies are such a rare commodity, particularly as mainstream releases. Heck, it is hard enough trying to find a good comedy, period. 

I cannot recommend it enough. 

Saturday, 17 February 2018

IN THEATRES: Black Panther

T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman), the newly crowned king of Wakanda, is forced to contend with the appearance of an outsider, Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), the American son of T'Challa's uncle. Not only does he contest T'Challa's right to the throne, he reveals a secret that forces the king to reconsider everything he has believed about his family history and Wakanda's place in the world.

If Fruitvale Station was Ryan Coogler learning to fly, Creed was him breaking the sound barrier. Black panther is Ryan Coogler landing on the moon. This is a massively budgeted Hollywood movie, part of THE mainstream franchise of our time, starring a largely black cast and every aspect of the movie is about what it means to be black in the world, both in the past and today: colonialism are white supremacy not alluded to, they are front and centre. It is unbelievably audacious.

Michael B. Jordan's Killmonger will be the focal point of this review, because he is the vehicle for the  film's most pointed criticism. Though he is the son of Wakandan royalty, Erik grew up an orphan in America. Coogler lets the viewer fill in the blanks, but Stevens (or Killmonger) has grown up within a society and a system designed to exclude and oppress people like him. Not only has he lived in that environment, but he has done so with the knowledge that there is a place out there in the world that never felt the impact of European imperialism, where he could be safe. A place that abandoned him, and has isolated itself from the struggles of the people who share the same continent - and their descendants around the world.

Stevens' return to his ancestral home is not just a reconnection with his roots: it is vengeance. Not just against the forces of white supremacy, but against the people with the power to stop it. 

To boil it down, his motive makes complete sense, and Jordan is amazing. There is a righteous fury underpinning every action he takes. Every line of dialogue is a razor blade that cuts deep. This is no comic book placeholder bad guy. Stevens feels like the protagonist of his own story.  

Killmonger is the reality of the African diaspora crashing into Wakanda's utopian image of a world where Africa never suffered under the yoke of European colonialism. His desire for violent revolution and T'Challa's belief in Wakandan isolationism is the central conflict of the movie, and it gives Black Panther a level of depth and moral complexity that you hardly ever get in a mainstream action movie. The movie is dramatically well-structured that it feels mildly aggravating every time someone brings it up as a part of the MCU. This is a movie that feels of a piece with itself.

Phew, there is so much to talk about. I think the portrayal of T'Challa is great. He is not some stoic action hero. Boseman's characterisation is thoughtful, has a sense of self-awareness, empathy and - this extends to the rest of the male cast - emotional vulnerability. I mean this is a movie where men are allowed to cry - there's one scene between Erik and his dad which includes one of the quietist and most devastating moments I have seen in a movie in recent memory ('No tears for me?').

Another thing I really liked was how his character fitted into the story, which is to say, it was his story. There was no white character around with an arc about learning about African culture and blah blah blah. In this movie, the black characters are not supporting players in their own story.

The female characters are also, pound-for-pound, terrific: Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurrira and Letitia Wright deserve all the kudos in the world. I don't want to spoil things so I will focus on the essential things I liked. 

Lupita Nyong'o and Letitia Wright
Danai Gurrira
They all have agency, they all contribute to the story and there is no point where - for plot purposes - they lose that characterisation so that the male protagonist can get spotlight. There are also no damsel-in-distress moments (For variety's sake, I would have liked to have seen a female character who was badass but not a closeted action hero. I live and breath for women kicking men in the face, but it seems to be a default for powerful female characters that they can beat people up).

Shuri (Letitia Wright)
The one who steps the furthest out of this archetype is T'Challa's sister, Shuri (played by Wright). A brilliant scientist responsible for her brother's gadgets and suit (in addition to a bunch of other things that keep Wakanda going). Supper-smart, super-funny and willing to jump into the fray, Wright is probably going to be the most talked-about character in the movie. Here is hoping executives in Hollywood give Wright some big roles in other movies. I am basically an ignoramus about Black Panther in the comics, but I've heard that Shuri eventually succeeds her brother as the Black Panther. Well, here's hoping that happens because on this evidence Wright would make a great lead. 

Black Panther is a great movie that will hopefully have its ripple effects in Hollywood, both in terms of pulling in minority filmmakers on either side of the camera, and in terms of the stories that are made for a mainstream audience. 

There is one thing I did not like about the movie and it is a preference thing. It is the same gripe I have had almost every action movie from the last decade or so: gravity-defying computer-generated fight sequences. The scenes in this movie are filled with great details, great character beats and comedic punchlines. For a large portion of these scenes I didn't feel anything.

When I watch an action movie, I want to feel the stakes, and I want to fear that the heroes are not going to make it. The two scenes where I was totally invested where the ritual duels that T'Challa has to earn the right to the thrown. No super powers, no suits or tech. Just two guys with swords and spears on the edge of a waterfall. 

I do not hold this against the movie. It's an aspect of modern-day blockbusters that is expected, and I'm not into it. It is a testament to the strength of the story-telling and the performances that this is a very minor criticism.

That aside, go see Black Panther. It is awesome. It is important. And it is also boatloads of fun

Sunday, 11 February 2018

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: The Omega Man (dir. Boris Sagal, 1971)

In the near future of 1975, a border war between the USSR and China escalates to biological warfare that wipes out humanity. Two years later, scientist Robert Neville (Charlton Heston) lives a lone existence in Los Angeles. By day, he searches for supplies and hunts for the diseased Family. By night, he holes up in his fortified house while the Family lay siege outside.

When he stumbles upon a small group of survivors who have not succumbed like the Family, Neville realises there might be a chance to save humanity...

The second adaptation of Richard Matheson's terrific novel I Am Legend, The Omega Man cannot measure up to the book (for one, it does not include the ending), but on its own merits it is a fun post-apocalyptic thriller. A lot of its watchability comes down to the cast, led by Mr Cold Dead Hands himself, Charlton Heston.

After gaining stardom in historical epics, Charlton Heston used the second wind he received from Planet of the Apes as a springboard into the science fiction genre. Following The Omega Man, Heston would appear in the dystopian thriller Soylent Green. He is on great form here.

With all of his best roles, there is always the sense that Heston's character is a bit of a shit (even Taylor in Planet of the Apes), and that quality works well for his performance as Neville.

A lot of the movie's best scenes are just based around Heston wandering around the city, talking to himself: talking to a statue in his house, or bartering with the desiccated corpse of a car salesman as he gets a new car.

Neville's life gets more complicated when he stumbles into another survivor, Lisa (Rosalind Cash), who is a member of a band of young people and kids who have been infected but have not begun to display symptoms.

Because this is a Hollywood movie made in the 70s, eventually Neville and Lisa fall in love. Why? 'Cause it's a movie. Beyond the age gap, there is something disconcerting about an old-fashioned star like Heston juxtaposed with someone so specifically early 70s.

I have to say,  I thought their chemistry was pretty good. Two lonely people drawn together by shared trauma? I buy it. Could it have been better developed. Definitely. Actually, that's my overall feeling on the movie - and not just because it does not follow the book.

The Omega Man is one of those 70s genre movies with all the components for greatness (cool lead character, interesting world) that does not fulfil its potential. It is fun, but the sense of danger that the filmmakers are aiming for is never really there.

Take the movie's villains: The Family could be solid antagonists, but they never get the opportunity to really shine. Anthony Zerbe is fine as their leader, a former newscaster-turned-prophet, but never feels that intimidating. A big problem is that they are never that smart. They only manage to get the jump on Neville because Lisa turns at the convenient time.

The biggest flaw is the direction. While it is not bad, there is something rather televisual about Boris Sagal's direction which lets the movie down. The movie's fashion sense is extremely contemporary, but it never looks like people have had to deal with any hardship. Everyone is just a little too put-together and made up.

The TV aesthetic became really apparent about midway through when Heston and Cash's characters start living together and acting like a couple. With the style of the direction, in these scenes the movie starts to resemble some weird TV comedy about an interracial couple who just happen to be living in a post-apocalyptic environment.

The film is at its best as an offbeat comedy - in one scene where the couple go scavenging in a store. Lisa picks up a pack of birth control and says they won't need it any more. This leads to the most terrifying image in the movie...

Overall, The Omega Man is a pretty entertaining flick that doesn't quite hit the bar it is reaching for. If you are a fan of post-apocalyptic movies, and Charlton Heston being an irate prick, it is worth a look. 

Friday, 9 February 2018

IN THEATRES: The Shape of Water

Baltimore, 1962. Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a cleaner at a top secret government facility. Unable to speak due to an injury during childhood, she communicates via ASL. Her only friends are co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and her neighbour, the closeted artist Giles (Richard Jenkins).

Elisa's life is complete, until she meets the gill man (Doug Jones) imprisoned in the bowels of the complex where she works. As their bond grows into something deeper, Elisa begins to come up with a plan for them to be together forever...

Bloody hell, this was a harder review to write than I thought. How do you write about a movie that in so many ways you loved, even when it contains elements which are fundamentally problematic?

I watched the movie a few weeks ago, and I have been trying to unpack how I felt about it. On the one hand, I loved it.

First, the lead character. Elisa is a female protagonist with agency, not just in terms of pushing the narrative forward, but in terms of how self possessed and independent she is. She knows who she is as a person, and is appears to be content with her life - that includes being able to satisfy her own needs as a sexual being (the 'eggs' scene).

Even before her aquatic lover appears, Elisa is complete - she is not looking for another half, for someone to 'complete' her or satisfy her emotional and sexual needs. In its up-ending of traditional romantic stereotypes (in Hollywood terms), this characterisation feels more radical than her sexual relationship with the gill man (spoilers).

The movie's radicalism is not confined to its sexual content (although that is a part of it). Not only does the Cold War setting provide a layer of distance (the movie is basically a fairy tale), but also provides the perfect setting for a story about the struggle for humanity, empathy and love.

The supposed figures of traditional Americana, Michael Shannon's Colonel Strickland, is a repressed shell of a man - empowered and imprisoned by being a part of the white patriarchy. He has a family yet they are just ornamental, like the car he buys halfway through the movie. He has them because that is what is expected. He is as dead and lifeless as his re-attached fingers.

Richard Jenkins' Giles, is a man trapped by his time, both professionally (he is an illustrator of advertisements who has been made redundant by photography) and personally. In one of the film's most affecting scenes, Giles attempts to make a pass at the young man who works at a local shop. The man rejects him and then ejects an African American couple who come into the shop. My description makes it sound clunky and obvious, but del Toro's staging and timing is so elegant that it feels tonally appropriate. 

Throughout the movie, del Toro does not try to hide or obscure the racism, misogyny and homophobia running through the time period. If played wrong, the juxtaposition of the fantastical romance with this real world context could have been horrifically tone deaf, but del Toro never hits the wrong note. 

Ultimately, this is a story about love through acceptance rather than - as in so many romantic narratives - change. Acceptance is really the underlying theme of the movie. It sounds silly - but so much about this movie sounds silly - yet this idea of acceptance, or more specifically the unwillingness of people to accept each other for who they are, is so universal and so well developed here that it never comes off as diadactic. 

On a technical level, this movie is perfection. From the settings to the camerawork to the score, every element is perfectly pitched.

I loved Alexander Desplat's score. I cannot remember another score in recent times that stands out as a genuine piece of memorable, evocative musical accompaniment. So many scores nowadays go for simple themes (ala Hans Zimmer). With The Shape of Water, there were so many beautiful melodies. It felt like a real classic romantic score, with specific themes for characters and an understanding of the specific moods and tones that fit every scene perfectly.

So much of this movie is great, that it bugs me that on one angle The Shape of Water does not feel particularly radical, and that is in the realm of disability.

I do not bring it up that much on this blog, but I have a disability, and I happen to work in the disability sector. As a disabled person and someone who consumes a lot of media, I am well aware that there is a shocking absence of representations of disabled people in almost every form of media.

This is especially true of Hollywood, where disabled people are either used as a signifiers of evil, weakness or sympathy. They are never allowed to exist as characters who happen to have a disability. We can run through tons of examples, and the ways particular disabilities are used to represent specific characteristics, but this review is long enough as it is and there is a whole internet filled with scholarship on ableism in the media.

Watching this movie reminded me of every time I watch Susan Kohner's performance in Douglas Sirk's Imitation of Life - a wonderful, heartrending performance that gets me every time, but at the end of the day Kohner is a white woman playing an African American character. And that's a blot on that movie.

Sally Hawkins is wonderful in the movie. I loved her performance to death, but I spent the movie wondering what could have been had del Toro been genuinely boundary-breaking and cast a disabled actress in the role. There are probably heaps of actresses with hearing impairments or disabilities similar to the character's, and it is disappointing that they did not get a shot. It has been about 30 years since Marlee Matlin, a deaf actress, won an Oscar for playing a deaf character involved in a romantic love story. There are people out there who are capable of playing these roles.

The other issue I had is based around the ending. Spoilers if you have not seen the movie (why not?) the movie ends with Elisa and the gill man escaping into the sea. Initially it looks like she is going to drown, but then the gill man kisses her, and via whatever magic he possesses, the scars on her throat turn into gills.

To me that started to ring alarm bells. One of the major obstacles in perceptions of disabled people is the idea that we lack something, that we are in need of improvement to be fully functional in society. Elisa growing gills struck me as off, and it made feel a bit conflicted about the way the movie viewed its disabled protagonist.

After I read Elsa Sjunneson-Henry's review, that the movie's flaws in respect to its representation of disability really began to stick out. Check out her review - she goes through the film in more detail, and I would just end up echoing the same points.

I still love this movie, but this is a major problem that seems to have ben skated over by most of the reviews. My hope is that criticism like this helps nudge filmmakers toward representations of disability that do not uphold the ableist ideology that we are fighting against in the real world.

Tuesday, 6 February 2018

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Urban Hymn (dir. Michael Caton-Jones, 2015)

Errant teenager Jamie (Black Panther's Letitia Wright) does not have a lot to look forward to in life. She is facing adulthood with no family, no prospects and - through her friendship with Leanne (Isabella Laughland) - the likelihood of prison time.

When her new care worker Kate (Shirley Henderson) hears her singing, she invites Jamie to join her in a local community choir. As Jamie embraces this new opportunity, Leanne feels her friend slipping away.

As the conflict between Leanne and Kate escalates, Jamie has to decide between her self-destructive friend and a chance at a different life...

Man, it is so hard to come up with a plot synopsis for this movie that does not sound like condescending claptrap. At face value, Urban Hymn looks like the kind of 'white saviour' BS we've had since Dangerous Minds: a white woman goes into the 'hood and helps redeem a minority kid by helping them to nurture a specific artistic talent. 

To its credit, Urban Hymn does not push the 'music saves a poor black kid' narrative too hard. It ends up being more of a subplot that is folded into the more interesting story of two lonely people fighting over the protagonist's future.

It helps that the acting by the principal cast is terrific. 

Shirley Henderson rarely gets a leading role, and her quiet, understated portrayal prevents Kate from coming off as a two-dimensional do-gooder. The script grounds Kate's  interest in Jamie in a personal tragedy - the murder of her young son. While the movie only pays lip service to the idea that she is overstepping her role, and putting too much of herself into her job, Henderson gives the role a fragility and a lack of status that makes up for the limitations of the script. Henderson is not a commanding presence, which gives her fledgling rapport with Wright (Blank Panther!) a greater sense of verisimilitude. Their relationship feels like a slow-burn because of how lopsided their dynamic is.

As Jamie, Letitia Wright (Blank Panther!) is really good. She offsets Jamie's bravado with a nervy tension that makes her interactions with Henderson far more exciting than they probably read on the page. Their uneven power dynamic, and the way that power is re-distributed is really the best aspect of the film.

If there is a standout, it is Isabella Laughland as Leanne - she is completely believable as Jamie's anarchic bestie, and a frightening thug who will intimidate a care worker (basically every scene with Kate) or annihilate three prison inmates who get on her bad side (one of the film's standout scenes). As with Wright, there is a brittleness to Laughland's aggressive front - there is a fundamental loneliness and neediness to her relationship with Jamie that makes Leanne far more empathetic than she would be. 

The movie's greatest strength is that every character's actions are grounded in believable motivations. Even Leanne, who commits some terrible acts during the film, never comes across as a two-dimensional heavy. There is a level of moral grey to Urban Hymn that prevents it from coming off as another 'redemption of a teen offender' movie.

Director Michael Caton-Jones has had an extremely varied career, oscillating between well-mounted dramas (ScandalThis Boy's Life) and big budget bollocks (his remake of The JackalBasic Instinct 2). His direction here is fine - the tone is fairly leaden, but there are occasional flashes of inspiration: The movie opens with Jamie and Leanne taking part in the 2011 student riots, which Caton-Jones shoots from the POV of a teen's cellphone camera; Leanne's one-woman assault  on the prison toughs, a great scene which Caton-Jones covers in a single wide shot.  

Overall, Urban Hymn plays all the familiar notes, but the well-judged lead performances help to elucidate ideas that the script only hints at.

Monday, 5 February 2018

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: The Cloverfield Paradox (dir. Julius Onah, 2018)

In the near future, Earth is running out of gas and countries are ready to go to war over the scant resource. In a last ditch effort to ward off a Mad Max-style scenario, the world's major powers band together to build a space station holding a particle accelerator that they hope will create a new source of energy. During one of the final test firings, something goes wrong.

Lost in space, the crew desperately try to figure out what happened and get home. But what they do not realise is that because of their experiments, something has entered the space station - something which has no intention of letting them escape...

Or something like that. I probably missed something important. But I don't care.

The third in the Cloverfield anthology series, The Cloverfield Paradox was shot two years ago, and like the characters, it has been sitting in limbo ever since. Reports were that the film needed more work, but with producer JJ Abrams busy working on Star Wars IX, Paramount decided to cut its losses and sold it to Netflix, who released it yesterday with no fanfare.

Upon viewing, I think they made the right decision. While the previous movies were rather small in scale, and boasted digestible high concepts, The Cloverfield Paradox's story feels distractedly overcomplicated.

Despite the movie's main action being set on the space station, we get numerous cutaways to an unnecessary subplot on another Earth in another dimension. That specific is important, because not only does nothing important happen in this storyline, but since it is in another dimension, it has no effect on the main story.

The other problem is that it is impossible to figure out the rules of the threat that the crew is facing. A vague reference is made to the particle accelerator ripping open space and time, allowing creatures and demons from other dimensions to enter our world. But that is all we get.

When the crew proceed to die, there is no sense of a pattern or real escalation. It just feels like a subpar Final Destination, with a crew member offed every 10-15 minutes. It just starts to feel like a slasher movie.

The movie's most terrifying aspect is that the crew have merged and replaced most of this other dimension's station and crew. One of the film's most unsettling images is their discovery of one of these 'other' crew members merged into the wall, screaming in agony.

Honestly, the film might have been more interesting if the premise had been boiled down to this - it is the most immediate aspect of the film, with a real antagonist with a genuine grievance. It is also the only element of the story that ties into the lead character's (skimpy) arc.

Enough bashing. The acting by the core cast is good: Gugu Mbatha-Raw is great in the lead role, and Chris O'Dowd mines some good laughs where he can. If this movie has a saving grace it is that, pound for pound, this is one of the best ensembles I have seen in a movie in a while. It is just a pity that most of them get almost nothing to do.

Overall, The Cloverfield Paradox is about as scary as being slapped with warm lettuce. It's not offensively bad, but it just never comes together as a legitimate horror film.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: Privilege (dir. Peter Watkins, 1967)

In the near future, the UK is under a tyrannical coalition government. To curb the non-conformist impulses of its youth, the state has created a pop star, Steve Shorter (Paul Jones), to control and modify their behaviour.

His every move controlled and monitored by the Government, Steve finds himself unable to lead a normal life. In a last-ditch attempt to assert his own individuality, Steve stages a public rebellion.

But will it work?

Constructed as a 'fly on the wall' documentary, Privilege presents a dark reading of fandom, the construction of star personas, the 'accessibility'/'reliability' of said personas, a satire of the ways old institutions attempt to use  contemporary pop culture to maintain relevance, AND an indictment of the way religion can be manipulated to stoke nationalist sentiment.

This is highlighted during one of the most disturbing sequences: Shorter forsakes his 'badboy' image during a religious event at a stadium featuring a lot of people marching, martial music and red flags. An overt callback to Nazism (complete with a ranting priest reminiscent of Adolf Hitler), the iconography and staging of this sequence looks forward to the fictional fascist dictatorship of Alan Moore's V for Vendetta and the (sadly real) cocktail of Christian Evangelism and White Nationalism on display at Donald Trump's rallies.

Peter Watkins is famous for pioneering docudrama, with his news-style recreation of the battle of Culloden (Culloden, 1964); the Oscar-winning The War Game (1965), about the dangers of nuclear armageddon; and Punishment Park (1971), a savage indictment of the mindset of American police that will be a future review on this blog.  

Occasionally evoking the Direct Cinema popularised by documentaries like the Bob Dylan-based Don't Look Back (D.A. Pennebaker, 1967), Watkins uses the documentary form to isolate his protagonist and damn the machinations around him. In one sequence, we watch Steve's awkward attempts to express his attraction to Jean Shrimpton's Vanessa. Before he succeeds, Watkins intercuts this subplot with a to-camera interview from one of his minders who casually reveals that he scuppered this relationship before it could get too serious.

Purely as a de-construction of form, Privilege is often fascinating, and occasionally bleakly hilarious. Overall however, I found the movie is more interesting than engrossing. 

While I liked the premise, and the style, the story was not really that interesting. Watkins' meta-style is rather distancing, and while that is interesting, it is never that involving. It does not help that Paul Jones is a blank slate. 

To an extent, this works for the role - Steve Shorter is meant to be a mannequin onto which his minders and sycophants can superimpose their own feelings and desires. But when the movie requires him to show Steve's crumbling psyche, Jones fails. When Steve has his final breakdown in front of a room full of press, it lacks the emotional impact that Watkins was probably aiming for.

An interesting experiment more than a successful film, Privilege's focus on the merging of politics, celebrity and the media is still worth a look.

Saturday, 3 February 2018

BITE-SIZED REVIEW: 20 Million Miles to Earth (dir. Nathan Juran, 1957)

It's the heart-warming story of a kid who discovers a creature from another world, and the military who blow it to pieces.

One of Ray Harryhausen's 'early, sci fi ones', 20 Million Miles to Earth is really two movies in one - on the one hand, you have a stock alien invasion story directed by Nathan Juran, featuring a cardboard military hero (William Hopper) and his 'not-as-smart-cause-girls-stoopid' female companion (Joan Taylor). On the other hand, you have Harryhausen's humane, empathetic portrayal of the strong but innocent Ymir.

It is easy to read this movie as an indictment against US militarism. After a token period of wanting to imprison and perform tests on the poor creature, the US military's plan switches to 'F*** it, blow everything up'.

Their ethos is summed up in a even a scene where two military bigwigs stress about the thousands of people the Ymir might kill in Rome, before ordering tanks and artillery into the highly populated area.

A few minutes later - as though the filmmakers are in on the joke - there is a sequence which involves soldiers lobbing grenades into a river hoping to kill the Ymir.

In the middle of this nonsense, the Ymir emerges as the most sympathetic character in the movie. Taken from its home, borne into a strange world where it faces nothing but pain and aggression, the Ymir never feels like a true monster.

Influenced by Willis O'Brien's work on King Kong, Ray Harryhausen shared his talent for creating characters that felt more alive and relatable than the humans gawking at them. Giving them emotional reactions and individual tics, incidental characters like the Cyclops (The 7th Voyage of Sinbad) or Medusa in Clash of the Titans, who would just be obstacles in other movies, feel fleshed-out - as though they have been interrupted in the middle of their own story to go and deal with these pesky little men who are trying to stir up trouble.

The disparity in empathy for the Ymir and the human cast is a testament to the care and attention to detail that Harryhausen took with his creations. Without him, the Ymir might have just been another monster that needed to be destroyed. By giving it a personality, Harryhausen shifts the movie's centre of gravity.

Harryhausen portrays the Ymir as a innocent naif, trying to figure out how the world works. It never attacks unprovoked, and when it is attacked (by a dog; a farmer; or an elephant) there is no sense of rage, just shock and fear. The sound design also plays a part in this: The Ymir's cries are those of a terrified child, not some malicious alien invader.

Cutting between the bewildered Ymir's plight and the non-nonsense military men tasked with taking it down, 20 Million Miles to Earth develops a strangely moral subtext that the filmmakers may not have intended. Suddenly the men of action who are our 'heroes' come off as trigger-happy hot heads whose only response to the Ymir is to destroy it. Once the Ymir has grown to the size of a dinosaur and the military is running around Rome, blowing up landmarks, the movie starts to feel like Team America: World Police.

At only 79 minutes, 20 Million Miles to Earth moves at a clip, and is never dull. The seams occasionally show, particularly toward the climax - some shoddy back projection; the Ymir changes size several times - but nothing that hurts the viewing experience.

There's one unintentionally funny bit where the sound guy clearly gave up. Our hero tells an Italian officer to "deploy your men". He runs off and it sounds like ten men instead of one. The same foley is used a few seconds later when he does deploy said men.

Without Ray Harryhausen, 20 Million Miles to Earth would be an okay movie that you would probably never need to see. But thanks to Harryhausen's work on the Ymir, the film is far more impactful than it otherwise would be.

Friday, 2 February 2018

IN THEATRES: Padmaavat

After hearing tale of a queen, Padmavati (Deepika Padukone), whose beauty is without equal, the greedy, bloodthirsty Sultan Alauddin Khilji (Ranveer Singh) decides that he must possess her as well. Taking his massive army, he lays siege to the Chittor fort where she resides. As the siege continues, Padmavati and her husband, King Ratan Singh (Shahid Kapoor), try to figure out a way out of their predicament...   

I haven't watched an Indian movie in awhile. After watching this, I need to rectify that. A big budget take on Malik Muhammad Jayasi's epic poem Padmavat, Padmaavat's production was plagued by controversy last year. Thankfully, it made to the screen.

I heard good things about this movie going in, but I was leery of the 164 minute runtime. It did not matter. This movie is so well-paced and filled with so many great scenes that the time flew by. 

The standout of the cast is Ranveer Singh as the conquerer Sultan Alauddin Khilji. Narcissistic, psychopathic and possessed of a malevolent sense of humour, the movie gets a fresh shot of adrenaline every time he swaggers onscreen.

The movie is great but his performance is really the backbone of the movie. After two-and-a-half hours of being plugged into this man's psyche, and his obsession with Queen Padmavati, it gives the ending a real kick. We get a real sense of his loss, and hence the magnitude of the Queen's sacrifice - her victory - really hits home.

Singh in costume
Playing a man with ambitions to replicate Alexander the Great, Singh is all appetite all the time. And it is awesome, terrifying and hilarious (often all at once).

There are so many weird, wonderful touches to his character. The one scene that is seared into my brain is when a concubine tries to apply perfume before his dinner with Ratan Singh, he snatches the bottle out of her hand, splashes the liquid all over her, than manhandles her so that the scent gets rubbed all over his body. 

Really, this whole review could just be a list of all his scenes. He's so evil, and yet so charismatic and funny that you cannot take your eyes off him.

Deepika Padukone and Shahid Kapoor play Padmavati and Ratan Singh, respectively. He is the honourable king of Mewar, a small independent kingdom located in north-west India (present day). She is his second wife, who he meets after she mistakes him for a deer and shoots him with an arrow.

You might recognise Padukone from her appearance as one of Vin Diesel's crew in the ego-powered xXx: Return of Xander Cage. Playing an iconic character can be a bit thankless, but Padukone does provide a certain steel which works for the film's tragic final scenes. 

If Khilji is all appetite without restraint, Ratan Singh is the polar opposite. Honouring tradition and always ready to restore balance (the reason he meets Padmavati is because he is trying to repair an unintended slight to his first wife).

They are both good, but are basically stuck playing straight men while Singh tears hunks out of the scenery.

As far as the supporting cast go, the most memorable performer is Jim Sarbh. He plays Khilji’s right-hand man Malik Kafur, a man whose loyalty is clearly born of something more than just loyalty to the crown. His desire for his master is just as powerful as the Sultan’s Padmavati, and leads to a musical number which, in content and staging, makes clear that he wishes to take the queen’s place in Khilji's affections.

The queer subtext underpinning their relationship is well-handled, especially for how it feeds into Khilji's narcissism - Kafur's flattery and loyalty are just another possession to him, something that he can use for his own ends. 

Hydari as Mehrunisa, the Sultan's doormat/wife

Aditi Rao Hydari plays the Sultan’s first wife, Mehrunisa, a character who gets the worst of it in the movie: learns her husband is unfaithful on her wedding night; has to watch her husband parade her uncle's decapitated head (he also kills her cousin); and of course, she has to listen to her husband rant on and on about another woman that he has never seen. And then she ends up in jail. What a life.
Her character really highlights the limits imposed on female agency in this movie. All the men are interested in pursuing their own interests, and ignore the women's good advice (like their alternatives to violence). It is a subtle vein of critique running through the movie, that gives it a little more bite and dimension.

The movie's portrayal of the Ranjput characters' philosophy is interesting for similar reasons. The filmmakers are clearly on the side of their sense of honour and tradition, but is also willing to highlight the cost of their adherence to their principles. 

Padmavati questions the king's unwillingness to ambush his enemy when Khilji accepts his offer to dinner at the fort, unarmed. This is later compounded by his belief that the Sultan will treat him likewise when Khilji reciprocates the offer of a meal in his tent.

During the final sequence, when Padmavati and the women of the Chittor fort commit jahuar (mass self-immolation), one shot really stood out: a pregnant woman (head out of frame) holding hands with her daughter as they run down the stairs after the Queen. The movie is constantly juggling between upholding the righteousness of the protagonist's actions, but also highlighting their costs and consequences. I am not familiar with the original text, but I did like the ways in which the filmmakers chose emphasise the true cost of the women's 'noble' act. 

The movie gets very dark, but what really endeared it to me was how it leavened the drama with dollops of dark wit, largely framed around Singh's self-aware performance. The Sultan's musical number 'Khalibali', in which he boasts of how his love for Padmavati has made him 'aloof' from the world's problems ends with him being filled with an assassin's arrows. 

There are only six songs, but apart from  'Khalibali' they do not fit the stereotype of musicals. Co-writer/directer Sanjay Leela Bhansali was also the film's composer, and his integration of the music into the story is so subtle but extremely effective.

From a production standpoint, the movie looks great. I saw it in a traditional 2D screening, but I almost regret not splurging for the IMAX 3D. There are some terrific uses of mobile camerawork, and the hyper-real sound design (the women's defiant screams as they charge into the inferno pursued by a frenzied Khilji, are haunting) is really effective.

Padmaavat is just an all-round great movie. You don't have to be a fan of Indian cinema. It stands on its own legs - and Ranveer Singh's performance is worth the price of a ticket by itself.

Check it out.