15 January 2019

The Favourite review

"Everything is about sex except sex. Sex is about power". It's a quote often misattributed to Oscar Wilde (as far as I'm aware, no one actually knows where it came from), but more importantly, it's a quote that couldn't help but come to mind when thinking about The Favourite, the latest film from The Lobster and The Killing of a Sacred Deer director Yorgos Lanthimos. In The Favourite, sex is seemingly only ever a means of establishing power, whether that be through attempting to create an heir, marrying for a title, paying a debt or even simply gaining someone's favour. It is the latter of these that The Favourite naturally spends most of its time on, but make no mistake - sex and power are intrinsically linked throughout, whether it be staring you in the face or hiding just out of view, obscured somewhat by the norms and systems of society but still very much ever present.

It's a thematic core that in the wrong hands could've easily come across as misogynistic, playing into tired femme fatale tropes without a shred of irony or self-awareness, but thankfully Lanthimos (and writers Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara) are smarter than that, able to ensure that we understand this to be a societal phenomena rather than a gendered one thanks to just how much of The Favourite ultimately circles back and highlights this link. Take, for example, a scene in which a naked guy who looks so much like James Corden that you'll do a double take gets pelted with rotten fruit for the entertainment of a group of bawdy male politicians, or one in which another politician sits there "stroking his goose" (not an innuendo within the context of this review but very much a visual innuendo within the film itself) as he and an opponent speak with the Queen - I wasn't over-exaggerating earlier when I called this link "ever present", and the result is a film just as focused and thematically interesting as The Lobster, and equally fascinating to think about after the fact.

31 December 2018

The Must See Films of 2018

Woah. Welcome to the end of the longest year on record, twelve months so full of global bullshit that it feels like it's been decades since even June. Sadly, I haven't been able to see quite as many films as I would've liked in 2018 - a combination of real life getting in the way, and the simple fact that my local cinema seems dedicated to the cause of advertising interesting movies and then refusing to actually show the bloody things - so if your favourite film doesn't appear in this list, well there's a fair chance that might be because I just haven't seen it. Either that, or you have crap taste and I personally hate you. Either way, below are the films that were released in the UK in 2018 that I would call "unmissable", films that any fan of cinema owes it to themselves to see.

So, in release date order;

Black Panther

I mean, obviously. I'm struggling to think of another film that had the kind of immediate cultural impact that Black Panther had, and while few would argue that it's director Ryan Coogler's best film, there are also few would argue that it doesn't belong somewhere near the top of a list titled "Best films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe". Sure, the CGI is a little rough at times, and that can't help but leave something of a sour taste in the mouth. But between the great performances, the fascinating characters (both heroic and villainous), the deeply thematically rich story and the brilliant Bond-esque middle section, Black Panther still ends up being one of the very best blockbusters released this year.

You can read my full review of Black Panther here.

29 December 2018

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse review

It's been a good couple of years for Spider-Man fans, which is something of a pleasant surprise when you consider the radically different position the character found himself in just four short years ago. Cast your minds back to the winter of 2014 for a moment - Spider-Man couldn't help but feel a tad like yesterday's news, what with the newly crowned Marvel Cinematic Universe dominating the screen, the Raimi trilogy already being something of a distant memory and Webb's attempt to restart the franchise failing to ignite much passion in anyone but its most vocal detractors (myself included - if nothing else, at least The Amazing Spider-Man 2 inspired me to start this very blog). Things weren't looking great for ol' web head - and yet since then, we've seen the character make his debut in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to much applause, star in his first good solo movie since 2004, make a hugely enjoyable appearance in probably the most successful and talked about film of 2018 and even star in his own critically acclaimed and highly successful video game. It's been quite the impressive turnaround - so really, I guess it's only fair that Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse ends that winning streak in such a disappointing fashion.

I'm joking, of course. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse might actually be Spidey's biggest success story yet, a film so top to bottom great that if given the option, I'd have sat there and watched it a second time just as soon as the end credits stopped rolling. And possibly even a third.

We follow Miles Morales, an Afro-Latino New Yorker teenager who (wouldn't you just know it) winds up getting bitten by some kind of radioactive spider and gaining superpowers. But this isn't your average origin story - after a plan to stop a dangerous experiment held by Wilson Fisk goes wrong, several other Spider-Folk are dragged into Miles' universe, all of whom will soon die from the side-effects of being in the wrong universe if they cannot get back to where they came from.

21 December 2018

Creed II review

Is it OK to admit that I was kind of dreading the release of Creed II? It's predecessor is, at least in my opinion, one of the best old-fashioned capital M Movies released this decade, and the promise of a sequel to that - a sequel without writer/director Ryan Coogler at the helm and acting as a follow-up of sorts to Rocky IV, of all things - was always going to be something of a shaky proposition at best. After all, the Rocky franchise is almost defined by the phrase "diminishing returns", and my love for Creed meant that I didn't want that to happen again here. Happily though, my fears were misplaced - Creed II might not reach the heights of Creed (and in fairness, I really don't think it was ever going to), but it still manages to be a worthy sequel and an entertaining movie in its own right.

The plot couldn't be simpler if it tried, what with the whole film being pretty much just a new lick of paint on the bones of virtually any boxing movie (and especially Rocky IV), but that's not really intended as a criticism - no one is going to see these movies for innovative storytelling or shocking plot twists, after all. Instead, Creed II is more than happy to hit the beats you expect when you expect them, choosing to focus it efforts not on subverting expectations or doing something brilliantly original but instead on just delivering a really good version of what it is, and that's exactly where it succeeds.

2 December 2018

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald review

Before we start this review in earnest, I'd like to take a moment to direct your attention to the title of the latest entry in what Warner Bros are trying to establish as the "Wizarding World" franchise. It is, as you likely know (how else did you get here?), Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald. Let's think about that for a second, shall we? To put it in non-magical terms, the title of this film is "Cool Animals: Race War", and it's about David Attenborough getting into a fist-fight with Adolf Hitler. I'm making light of it, but there's a clear, undeniable friction between the "Fantastic Beasts" branding and the path these films have actually took, resulting in a film - and indeed, a franchise - that feels at war with itself, tugging in two different directions throughout and nearly tearing itself in half. And that's just the title - the opening scene of the film only reinforces this sense of friction, a sequence that sees Grindelwald (again, the wizarding version of Hitler) escape from prison that ends with some classic Harry Potter happy twinkly music as the title card appears. "The magical Nazis are on the rise again! Time for a fun adventure!".

It's a staggering miscalculation, the first of many that Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald commits over the course of its running time that all add up to create something that simply shouldn't exist, if not at all then certainly in the form it's currently in. From a film-making perspective it's bad - drab and unexciting in all the ways that instantly mark it as a David Yates movie - but from a Harry Potter perspective it's downright insulting, inserting clearly made up on the spot backstory where none is needed and (seemingly) altering established facts about this world and its characters on a whim. It's fan fiction-y and pandering in all the worst ways, and it ends with a "shocking reveal" so deeply unearned by the film itself and totally at odds with the larger Harry Potter canon around it that I have to assume that the characters involved are either mistaken or simply lying, less my brain be turned to mush trying to figure out just what the hell J.K. Rowling was thinking. Making a film "just for fans" is easy - making a film that's "just for fans" that even the fans are going to hate is bloody hard, yet it's the one thing that Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald unequivocally succeeds at.

22 November 2018

Widows review

Widows, the latest film from writer/director Steve McQueen, is something of a strange film to try to talk about, and not just because this fairly prestigious production from the director of 12 Years a Slave and starring a number of big name actors turns out to be based on an early 1980's ITV series of the same name. The premise is simple enough - after their husbands die during a job gone wrong, a group of widows must pull off a heist their husbands had planned before their deaths in order to placate a dangerous criminal - but it's the way that Widows tackles that premise that makes it complicated to discuss.

You see, while Widows is inarguably a heist film, it's quite unlike any heist film I've seen before, certainly a far cry away from the glitz and glamour of the Ocean's movies. It terms of tone it's far more similar to something like Michael Mann's Heat, but even then there are fundamental differences in how each film approaches its story, characters and themes that keep them arms length apart. Widows isn't a film about absurdly complex plans or criminal codes of honour - it's just the story of a group of determined women forced to do something they'd all much rather not be doing, and doing it to the best of their abilities.

31 October 2018

First Man review

We hear the metal of the ship groaning in protest of the immense forces being placed upon it. We see various dials and displays that are shaking so violently they're impossible to read. Over a headset, a voice gives barely audible instructions that the crafts pilot can do literally nothing about thanks to the intense G-forces that are pinning him to the back of his chair. This flight isn't graceful, or easy: it's a tiny, claustrophobic tin can that is propelling itself through sky not with finesse or grace but through nothing more than a vaguely controlled explosion that has been pointed in roughly the right direction, and the grimace of the astronauts face as he endures the shaking and hopes against hope that everything will turn out OK only worsens as the screaming of the metal gets all the louder and the shaking all the more vicious. And then, as the nose of the craft begins to glow red hot, just as you think this almost comically primitive shuttle hurtling through the air at incredible speeds can't possibly take much more: silence. Stillness. Peaceful serenity as it exits the atmosphere. Floating gently, the shuttle offers its inhabitant a beautiful glimpse of Earth from afar. It's a view that very few people are lucky enough to have seen to this day. The journey was a success - he survives, at least for now.

It's in these moments that First Man is at its very best, managing to imbue the NASA missions that Neil Armstrong and others undertook with an incredible amount of tension despite the fact that we already know what the outcomes are, fully managing to make us understand both how dangerous the early space missions were and how terrifying they must've been for those brave enough to undertake them. Sequences like this punctuate First Man's nearly two and half hour long running time throughout, each one more tense and gripping than the last.

9 October 2018

Hold The Dark review

Any long time readers of ScreenNerds - or even people who I've spoken to about films at any length over the last few years - are probably well aware of the high esteem that I hold filmmaker Jeremy Saulnier in, and I doubt that many people who have seen his previous films (namely Blue Ruin and Green Room) would argue that he hasn't earned it. They're both genuinely brilliant movies, taught and tense and impossibly tight experiences that each leave lasting impressions in very different ways, united by an approach to violence that neither glorifies it nor shys away from just how horrible and damaging it really is. So it was with a great deal of optimism that I sat down to watch Saulnier's latest film, the Netflix produced Hold The Dark - and a great deal of disappointment when I eventually realised that it wouldn't be offering any of the things that made his previous films... well, good, and uniquely, identifiably his.

The plot sees wolf expert Russell Core travelling to a small Alaskan town in order to hunt down a pack of wolves that have been killing local children, but that's really just a kicking off point for what Hold The Dark becomes. The problem? Even having seen it, I'm not really sure exactly what that is, a crime thriller dabbling in a strange, primal mysticism that defies both definition and explanation. Come the credits I was none the wiser about why any of the events of the film happened and what it was all meant to mean - and unfortunately, I'm not particularly bothered about finding out either.

6 September 2018

Upgrade review

If there's one thing that film folk love talking about in this post-Netflix world, it's the importance of the theatrical experience, and while it's something I've always by and large agreed with (there are few things better than seeing a great film on the big screen as far as I'm concerned), it's actually Upgrade that has made me realise how right they are - albeit for a very different reason than the ones usually given. You see, if I'd have been watching Upgrade at home in my living room, I'd have turned it off within the first twenty minutes. But the act of having paid for a ticket and gone to the effort of getting to the cinema compelled me to stay, and I'm glad that I did. Those first twenty minutes or so might be incredibly rough to say the least, but by the time Upgrade gets to where it so obviously wants to be, there is a marked uptick in quality that ends up resulting in a film that while a long, long way from perfect, I'm mostly glad I stuck around for.

I realise that's pretty mild praise, but it's also the truth. Those opening twenty minutes or so are legitimately difficult to sit through, burdened by some truly atrocious dialogue, weak characterisation and stilted editing that all point towards the idea that no-one involved with the production really cared all that much about this part of the movie, especially when you compare it to some of the scenes that come along later. It's the definition of a paint-by-numbers opening, a series of scenes that exist solely to clue up the audience before the film gets to where it actually wants to be, and that shows.

30 July 2018

Mission: Impossible - Fallout review

Do me a favour, will you? Take yourself back a decade or so, to the summer of 2008. It's been a full 2 years since the release of JJ Abrams' Mission: Impossible 3 (which, let's not forget, disappointed at the box office), and Brad Bird's Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol hasn't even been announced, let alone started to pique the public's interest. You've just seen the release of both Iron Man and The Dark Knight, two highly successful films that have gone on to become hugely iconic and influential in their own right. Now imagine that I appear in front of you through some kind of time hole, and tell you not just that there will be more Mission: Impossible films, but that they'll go on to become one of the very best action franchises in all of Hollywood.

No-one would believe what I had to say, right? And yet here we are in the year of our Lord 2018, and the Mission: Impossible franchise has a strong claim - virtually uncontested, in fact - towards being just that. There isn't another series of films out there even attempting to match the kind of visceral action or practical stunt work that the Mission: Impossible series has become incredibly good at providing, and in a cinematic landscape otherwise ruled by CGI? Well, that's simply hugely refreshing, quite rightly marking the series out as something very special indeed. It may have taken four films and a full 15 years to truly find its footing, but if Mission: Impossible - Fallout is anything to go by, this franchise shows no sign of slipping up now.