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.

23 July 2018

Disney were wrong to fire James Gunn

James Gunn was fired from directing Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 because he criticised Donald Trump.

There's a lot of context and additional information behind this whole shitty situation that I'm hoping to get to in a second, but ultimately, that's exactly what has happened here. After repeatedly speaking out against Trump on Twitter, known alt-right (read: Neo-Nazi) Internet personality Mike Cernovich dug out some old, bad taste tweets made by Gunn and screamed about it until someone was stupid enough to listen. The people stupid enough to listen were Disney, and Gunn was fired. He's the latest victim of a culture war that's been particularly ugly since 2014, all because Cernovich, a self-confessed rapist and all-round piece of shit, didn't like someone speaking out against an equally awful human being.

25 June 2018

Hereditary review

Empathy is a funny old thing. The ability to put ourselves in someone else's shoes and imagine what it must feel like to be in the same situation as them is, as far as I'm aware, a uniquely human trait, one that allows us to be more compassionate than any other creature on the face of the planet. It's also something that we often choose to ignore when it might be an inconvenience, shutting ourselves off from the plight of others if it might disrupt something as simple as the way we like to think of the world, or the ease with which we go about living our lives. Empathy is behind all that humanity should be most proud of; our ability to ignore it is responsible for our most terrible acts.

Which is part of what makes Hereditary, a film that plays with empathy throughout, such an interesting movie. It's a horror film first and foremost, but behind that there's a story of family, loss and the strain that can put on any relationship that ultimately ends up being Hereditary's most compelling feature. Yes, it's a film that asks more of its audience than a lot of horror films do, both in the level you're expected to engage with the material and in accepting a handful of what can only be described as goofy moments - but it's also got a lot more to offer than a lot of horror films too, a trade off that is at least in my eyes completely worth it.

1 June 2018

Solo: A Star Wars Story review

There never should have been a Han Solo prequel movie. Before we can talk about Solo: A Star Wars Story in any meaningful way, this is a fact we simply have to accept - not only is it a really boring, tired idea for a film (who the hell cares what Han might have been up to before meeting Luke and Obi-Wan in Mos Eisley?), it's also continuing the franchises inability to look beyond the original trilogy in any meaningful way, falling into the same trap of the prequel trilogy by assuming that the more details we know of a character's backstory, the better. Coming just a handful of months after Star Wars: The Last Jedi dared to do something new with the franchise, that can't help but feel like a huge step backwards - but around the clumsy references and eye-roll inducing nods at the audience, Solo: A Star Wars Story is at its core just an excuse to see some characters you know and some you don't on a mostly standalone and refreshingly small-scale adventure, and from that perspective... well, it's not bad.

At the very least it's more entertaining than you might expect, especially once you take into account its more than just troubled production. For those not in the know, original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller had been filming Solo: A Star Wars Story for four months before they were unceremoniously fired and replaced by Ron Howard, who went on to reshoot approximately 70% of the film. That the end product isn't a complete and utter mess is nothing short of a minor miracle, one only made all the more impressive by the film somehow feeling more cohesive as a movie than Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (which had a significantly less troubled production) ever did.

6 May 2018

Avengers: Infinity War review

It's too damn big.

I mean, no doy, right? All but one of Marvel Studios' previous "event movies" have felt at times overstuffed, and they were only trying to juggle a fraction of the characters - Avengers: Infinity War is attempting to balance an unprecedented twenty-two, and that's not even including those who only show up for a couple of scenes. Something with this many moving parts was always going to be far too big to function as an actual movie - that it still somehow ends up being a quite entertaining (and at times genuinely shocking) piece of blockbuster entertainment is frankly nothing short of a modern miracle.

You know the story, or at least how it starts. Thanos, the big purple guy in the chair who was first teased in the post-credits scene of Avengers Assemble some 6 years ago, has finally gotten off his ass in order to unite the Chaos Emeralds and become the most powerful being that the universe has ever known, and the only people standing in his way are... well, almost everyone that we've ever met over the last ten years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. That's Avengers: Infinity War's main selling point - it is also quite obviously the source of all its biggest flaws.

26 April 2018

Ghost Stories review

It's hard to look back over the last half a decade or so and not come to the conclusion that horror is having one hell of a comeback. I mean, in the last 2 years alone we've seen the release of a virtual glut of genuinely great and massively varied horror films - you've got Jeremy Saulnier's Green Room, a grounded, violent and incredibly tense siege thriller; Andy Muschietti's It, which garnered the kind of mainstream attention most films would kill for; Jordan Peele's Get Out, a razor sharp social satire that should've won Best Picture; Robert Eggers' The Witch, which is like nothing else I've ever seen; and even more recently John Krasinski's A Quiet Place, which has been released to both rave reviews and unexpected box office success. Horror seems to be host to a lot of interesting voices at the moment, and they're all doing an incredible amount of work towards helping the genre shed the trashy slasher image that the 80's/90's left it burdened with. But until now, they've almost all been American voices - what happens when the British speak up?

The result is Ghost Stories, a supernatural horror anthology that's both radically different to any of the aforementioned films and, unfortunately, not quite as successful at doing what it sets out to do. Written and directed by Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson, it started life as a stage play in 2010, and follows paranormal investigator/skeptic Professor Phillip Goodman as he is given three cases by ex-skeptic Charles Cameron that supposedly prove the existence of the supernatural. The first of these follows a nightwatchman as he works a graveyard shift in an abandoned asylum for women; the second follows a young man who has been left deeply shaken after his car broke down in the middle of nowhere; the third follows a wealthy businessman forced to spend the night alone in his enormous, isolated house while his pregnant wife is in hospital.

23 April 2018

A Quiet Place review

Cinema may be an audiovisual medium, but silence is one of the most effective tools a film-maker has at their disposal. When used well, the absence of any and all noise can draw an audience into a moment like nothing else, instantly ramping up the tension as they tentatively wait to see what might be behind the sudden need for quiet. It's a very primal reaction that films, TV and even video games have been taking advantage of for decades now, and it's one that A Quiet Place uses to great effect, making well-established techniques feel incredibly fresh in the process.

I mean, it's kind of genius really. By setting a horror movie in a world where making any kind of noise is likely to get you killed by a lightning fast and virtually invulnerable alien predator, A Quiet Place finds an in-universe excuse to never allow its audience the release of tension that something as simple as a conversation or the hustle and bustle of normal life often provides. Most of the time, a dead silence in a horror film indicates that something is about to jump out and scare you - here, it's indicative of nothing in particular, offering no clues about if the characters we follow throughout (the Abbotts, a fairly typical American family of 5) are in immediate danger or not, and that can't help but imbue every single scene with a staggering amount of suspense that the film itself doesn't even need to work that hard to maintain. Even the most ordinary of day-to-day tasks to take on extra significance when you know that the smallest of slip ups will have deadly consequences, and that's something that A Quiet Place takes great pleasure in playing with.