04 Mar Fantana’s Film Roundup – February 2018
Valentine’s Day came and went and there wasn’t a rom-com in sight. Instead the romance was more sweeping and intense and the comedy offbeat and black as midnight. Just the way I like it. Elsewhere I’ve tried to up my foreign cinema intake, a theme I hope to keep up in the coming months, off the back of a few of the better gems I’ve caught in recent months coming from lands afar.
A teenage girl, tied to her ex-addict mother’s welfare, and a young man, tied to his ill father’s bedside, find each other and embark on a soul searching tour of the eponymous city in a series of immaculately-framed locations. The dialogue and dynamic echoes Hawke and Delpy in Before Sunrise and although the moments are still and contemplative, there is something remarkably engaging about John Cho and Haley Lu Richardson’s many will-they-won’t-they encounters. With an emotive score by Hammock adding layers to the gorgeous imagery, and very likeable leads as the focal point, this is the best kind of static cinema to enjoy on a horrible, grey day.
Kiri – Miniseries (2018)
Having admired all her good work in Happy Valley, I was keen to see Sarah Lancashire in this new crime drama from Channel 4, however my excitement was misplaced in the end. Kiri starts well and ends well but the middle is a hum-drum pot of bleak whodunit archetypes that are in danger of becoming synonymous with Channel 4, ITV and BBC. With a small cast such as this it isn’t overly difficult to make an educated guess as to who is at fault. Once that’s out the way there is little on offer to keep you gripped unfortunately.
Den of Thieves (2018)
You know what? I turned up, I switched my brain off, I sat back, and I enjoyed. Director Christian Gudegast has a great eye (or a great DP!) and creates a fantastic, sweeping version of LA. Yes, it’s derivative, most notably of Heat, Sicario and last year’s Triple 9, but what it borrows it repackages and puts out in a stylish and attractive interpretation. Even enduring Gerard Butler didn’t feel like enduring Gerard Butler, nigh on unrecognisable here until he opens his mouth and starts to act, but that last point might be because of the likes of O’Shea Jackson Jr. and an uber-intense Pablo Schreiber counterbalancing the quality in co-lead duties. If there are gripes they would be that there isn’t a single substantial female role involved that contributes to the narrative in a meaningful way, and also the script is nowhere near as slick as the films it tries to imitate, so the runtime seems a bit unnecessarily inflated. But this bad boy starts with an awesome action set piece, it plonks a tense and creative heist in the middle, and bows out with a kick-ass gunfight. What’s not to like?!
The Lives of Others (2006)
Not sure if this is a tad overhyped or I just wasn’t feeling it at the time of watching. The story is certainly gripping, following Stasi captain Wieler as he encroaches on the private lives of a squeaky clean couple he suspects aren’t as law abiding as they seem, whom he is ultimately charmed by. As a window into this period in German history it is quite fascinating and saddening. As a drama it has many fine qualities, however the characters never feel greatly defined and even Wieler’s transformation doesn’t completely convince (albeit the scene in the bar between he and Christa-Maria is superb). As a thriller it perhaps doesn’t come at me with the pace I’d prefer.
That’s where I’m at with this one…
No Escape (2015)
I’ve always been aware of No Escape but I’ve always dodged it without knowing too much about it, largely because the basic logline and the fact it had Owen Wilson in a central, serious role, weren’t attractive factors. But having stumbled upon this on TV one Sunday evening I’m pleased to say it ain’t all that bad. The tension is high throughout and, besides some obviously over-the-top moments and an overly ubiquitous riot leader (hey, they had to give the audience an antagonist to fear/hate, right?…… right??), the family in peril carried a real air of helplessness along with them. I really couldn’t see where this would go or how they would get out of their predicament and these types of film are most effective when you can put yourself in the shoes of the protagonists and not have a clue what you would do! I didn’t catch any racism along the way – it’s just a bit of fiction and any country or region could have been used – just a nervy 90 minutes with a satisfying resolution that plays to the rules of the scenario it creates.
Den of Thieves
The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)
The big surprise from the Superbowl’s annual spate of movie news was that this third instalment into the Cloverfield mythos was to drop on Netflix the following day. Previously not expected until April, this was to be joyous news for fans of the series and sci-fi alike.
And then I watched it.
The Cloverfield Paradox isn’t a bad film. The acting talent on show is dotted with real talent, the effects are frequently most impressive, and the pace doesn’t meander. The problem is that they appear to have taken a bog-standard science fiction thriller script and shoe-horned in a handful of Cloverfield references in order to make it fit into the existing chronology. It feels so loosely put together that you can actually see where the scenes that serve the overarching story have been dropped in. The propaganda machine also promised that this movie would explain how and why the events of the first movie take place… it doesn’t do this. Simply put this is all a bit of a mess and the myriad evidence to support the above argument cannot be enumerated here without substantial spoilers for all three films.
If this was just your run of the mill sci-fi thriller I would still compare this to last year’s Life and say it is greatly inferior, but alas it does itself no favours by adding itself to the Cloverfield name. Let’s hope the next one is less secretive and a bit more straightforward; I feel the secretism is probably to blame for the ramshackle finished product here.
Following Paradox, it felt prudent to revisit the original and see if anything is truly clarified. The short answer is absolutely not. Shorter: no. The interesting thing about Cloverfield and Cloverfield Lane is that individually they feel self-contained and stand up to scrutiny. Paradox should be renamed Pandora’s Box for tacking on links the way it has, but that’s by the by.
This original entry is still good fun. Effects have been cheapened by technical advances since, and I defy anyone to name a found-footage movie that doesn’t feel tired upon repeat viewing a few years later, but the sporadic use of the monster is a wise decision and the pacing is such that the dull downtime doesn’t bore you into hitting the ‘back’ button. In criticism the beast seems to sneak around far too easily, suddenly ambushing our refugees on more than one occasion – once in an open field… how the f**k did that happen!? – and the dialogue is horribly, horribly clichéd now (please God, make T. J. Miller shut up!) but if you can get past these, the creature design is genuinely terrifying and the skyscraper roof and Brooklyn Bridge scenes quite gripping. Not one for the travel sick crowd but quick thrill for anyone who hasn’t seen it.
Cold Skin (2017)
Certainly have to give this one points for originality, it’s not often you see a movie set in the post-WWI era and involving a pair of men stuck in a fortified lighthouse on a remote island fending off an army of fish people night after night. That said this strikes more as a drama and it is in that where it is less interesting, as there is little to discuss when one is stuck in a fortified lighthouse on a remote island fending off an army of fish people, other than being stuck in a fortified lighthouse on a remote island fending off an army of fish people….! Some great sequences scattered throughout make for mainly watchable viewing, the leads are capable and the direction is solid, keeping effects practical as often as possible, but there isn’t enough exploration or development of the island or of the two main characters’ psyches to make this engrossing viewing.
Much in the same way the Fault in Our Stars was able to trigger a flurry of tears on a whim, so too comes Wonder, the story of a disfigured boy who, having been home-schooled for most his life, is now thrust into a grade school environment to help his social development and higher learning. This is a cracking little story, which subverts expectation by coming at the subject matter from several different characters viewpoints; the big sister who has always played second fiddle to her brother who required more parental care; the best friend stuck between the rock and the hard place known as eleven year-old peer pressure. Those and a couple of others add context and objectivity where you wouldn’t expect and the result is a highly watchable drama with bags of heart and character.
The Phantom Thread (2017)
I don’t know why but whenever faced with a Paul Thomas Anderson movie, I shy away. In each of the four previous cases this has been my reaction (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, and the Master) and in each case I have regretted procrastinating. So too is the case with Phantom Thread, another tour de force from Anderson and also his lead, Daniel Day-Lewis, in his final bow before the camera as Reynolds Jeremiah Woodcock, designer at the heart of post-war London fashion and quite a cantankerous and spoiled brat. The writing of this character, and every character, is of the highest grade and Day-Lewis is mesmerising as the sun of his own universe, around which everything and everyone must revolve but only to the beat of his drum. When Alma (Vicky Krieps) comes into his life, the studious and quiet control of Woodcock’s world meticulously begins to unravel – the spectacle and the outcome are a most fascinating thing to witness indeed. Day-Lewis and Krieps form a central trio with Lesley Manfield, who plays Reynolds’ sister, and the layers explored in all three of them is so engrossing, to the point their motivations, their intentions, their morality is never simply black or white. Magnetic.
Darkest Hour (2017)
A fantastic performance by Gary Oldman, every bit deserving of the awards attention he has received, and the film is an interesting chronicle of some of our most trying times as a nation, but this is a watch-it-once type-thing that boasts no bells or whistles, no money shots, we are barely given colour, everything steeped in an over-lit, coffee-like hue. This is very much Oldman’s vehicle, everyone else a seeming passenger to his powerhouse performance. You know how it’s going to go but it’s all about how he takes us there. An enthralling performance but not necessarily an enthralling film.
Long Way North (2015)
A French film about a Russian girl who travels to the Antarctic to find her missing grandfather. From Sacrebleu Productions, a little known studio in the mainstream based in Paris, this animated tale is a captivating and grounded story of one girl’s quest to find the missing ascendant who has brought shame to her family. The story is a fine fable, worthy of any larger studio, from Dreamworks to Pixar, Ghibli to Laika. The only issue is the style of animation utilised, competent and certainly different, but the flat blocks of colour leave little to scope to elevate the narratively impressive moments, such as an expedition ship’s first arrival upon the ice-dappled waters of the Antarctic, or watching a sheet of ice break from a glacier and crash into the sea. Still it’s certainly impressive to see the filmmakers use more traditional techniques to convey the various plot devices; thick fog, ships bobbing on rocky oceans and the said same glacial fissures are all executed with the utmost class the style affords them. The story itself is filled with little surprises and moments both bitter and sweet – a grown up animation but not one that wouldn’t leave a child filled with a newfound sense of adventure. Just get rid of the subtitles before you set them down in front of the telly…!
The Square (2017)
I’m no fan of satire so this two-and-a-half-hour social commentary on class division and the media in all its forms can’t help but pass me by, particularly when there are so many plot threads to follow, all relating to one central character, yet so few of them resolved, it all leaves an unsatisfied taste in the mouth. Other than one scene involving a piece of man/beast performance art, which is utterly gripping yet entirely out of place in the movie, the rest is meandering, self-explanatory and unrepentant; moments of brilliance lost in a spaghetti of wordy overlong exchanges. Not a complete mess but a film with many messages so perhaps trips under the weight of it all.
The Post (2017)
Coming from Spielberg it isn’t surprising to see an ensemble ‘old man’ cast delivering a cross section of solid performances, capturing one of the most influential storylines in US political history, however, the Post strikes more of a Catch Me if You Can vibe, than it does Bridge of Spies. The subject matter is interesting but it’s also dry, the writing solid but never slick. It certainly feels relevant but the only thing it leaves me pondering is how easily these conspiracies become out-of-sight-out-of-mind so easily over time, destined to be repeated but never learned from, even when Hollywood shines a light on it all over again. Moreover, given the relatively reasonable runtime compared to the rest of the Oscar bait, there seems to be an awful lot of time dedicated to whether to publish or not, rather than coverage of the conspiracy itself. As a result I found myself willing the plot forward more often than I would have cared to.
Boasting a level of animated detail the Resident Evil CG movies can only dream of, Gantz:O is not a brand I am familiar with, but certainly one I will look out for going forward. As with many anime the translation is dreadful… and if it is faithful then I blame the script, utterly horrific in pretty much any moment that doesn’t involve outstanding action, but the concept design on hand here is of the highest order and will have any sci-fi geek salivating. Inventive premise, individual characters, original creatures, dynamic action and creative deaths. The weapons design could be a bit more effective (there’s nothing efficient about waiting five seconds for an energy blast to explode), but this is a ride from start to finish, capably fitting in the explanations and plot as it goes. If only all CG animated movies were of this level of quality… Metal Gear Solid please??
King of New York (1990)
Classic of the Month A gangster take on Robin Hood, Christopher Walken’s Frank White is released from jail to return to his criminal empire with re-calibrated moral compass that wants to give back to the destitute streets of New York’s slums by taking from the mobsters that rule over them. In his quest he must negotiate rival gangs and the NYPD, who want him straight back behind bars, but he is backed by a loyal crew including Lawrence Fishburne and Steve Buscemi. Very fun to see so many great thespians in early roles, even Wesley Snipes and David Caruso as the detectives seeking Frank’s head. Walken and Fishburne are particularly mesmerising but the story seems a little over-simple with no great depth. Still it is a decently gritty and swift watch, if you can get past the dodgy eighties…. everything!
In Bruges (2008)
Even after ten years the black wit and bittersweet nature of Martin McDonagh’s hitman comedy rings as effectively. Colin Farrell must have thanked his lucky stars when this script fell into his lap, his career was on a downward slope of bad studio choices and unknown indie mediocrity at the time and it was as if he realised at the same time as the rest of us that he had a knack for comedic timing – the material is gold, littered with offensive behaviour but delivered in a way that almost pokes fun at itself and counterweighted by moments of genuine emotion and sombreness. The dynamic between Farrell and Brendan Gleason is one of the most evenly weighted put to film and the late addition of an OCD-lite Ralph Fiennes only serves to add to the quality already on display. Highlights include date night, the cocaine and amphetamine party, and any one of the breakfasting scenes. Of all the post-millennium must-see movies, this is in the top ten comfortably.
The Scent of Rain and Lightning (2017)
An okay grit noir that sorely underuses its lead, Maika Munro, and doesn’t quite provide satisfaction. That said there is a decently watchable whodunit to follow here as Munro goes on the hunt to find out the truth behind her parents murders when the man responsible is released from prison.
The Keeper of Lost Causes (2013)
An okay crime procedural in the vein of The Bridge, in fact it is shot, paced and characterised almost entirely the same way. There’s a little more grit and gore on offer given the format, but in general being made for the big screen actually works against it, as this detective thriller doesn’t get the time it needs to breathe and explore its characters. It’s as if the BBC took a 6-part TV series and condensed it into an hour and a half. Looks good but never great, sounds good but never great. I’ll still check out the second and third films but, after being oversold this one many months ago, I’ll be going into them with lowered expectations and eyes wide open.
The kind of mystery that probably rewards repeat viewings… if only it was interesting enough. The period, cast and framework are all on point, with some very well-played scenes of quiet horror, but the script is a tad bland to really invest in and the dull moments outnumber the good.
NB. The twist was also spoiled for me, so if that hadn’t happened I might have rated it higher!
So number 4 on my Most Anticipated Movies of 2018 list was an epic disappointment; after a delay of over a year this hurts even more. Dropping onto Netflix at the same time as Altered Carbon really didn’t do it any favours as they share similar worlds and the 10-episode series has much better production values. Effects shift in and out of quality, the practical far outweighing that of the digital, which at times would look dated in the ‘90s; the layering takes some digesting at points. The plot is classic noir but executed most ineffectually, writing is unoriginal and in need of a few more drafts, casting (outside of the film’s unexpected anchor, Paul Rudd, and Justin Theroux) isn’t great, and atmosphere, most notably, is sorely lacking. For a film that openly (and arguably misguidedly) cites Blade Runner as a peer, director Duncan Jones doesn’t introduce a lick of smoke or steam, a drop of water, or any contrasting light and shadow whatsoever, leaving what there is on screen an over-exposed glorified television pilot. It all really surprises given Source Code and Moon are sitting pretty on Jones’ CV. This isn’t even a warning shot over the bow… it’s just a great big, fat miss. Shame really.
Black Panther (2018)
A surprisingly different MCU movie, albeit one that falls into the same third act formula and treats its antagonist the same way as 99% of all other MCU villains, so still work to be done, but this is a great crack at bucking their own trend whilst at the same time playing to the usual tropes. Like a combination of Batman Begins meets James Bond meets the Lion King, there is much to enthuse and I’ll be most surprised if this doesn’t get any awards recognition for the set design. The Black Panther was never a standout Marvel character, but Ryan Coogler and Chadwick Boseman have done their utmost to make him relevant in the cinematic universe, supported by an array of equally solid secondary figures such as Letitia Wright’s Shuri and Michael B. Jordan’s Erik Killmonger, but it is the unexpected turn of Winston Duke as M’Baku that impresses the most; looking forward to seeing more of him in Infinity War. Two thirds of this movie are great and the third is very familiar, the CG isn’t always consistent but the character work makes up for it. Certainly sits at the higher end of the MCU spectrum for doing something different… if a little derivative.
The Lodgers (2017)
A very quick hit of a romantic horror drama that looks great and delivers something self-contained, simple and inoffensive. Siblings Rachel and Edward are bound to their isolated Ireland home by a family curse and the rules it sets them. When discharged soldier, Sean, returns from the war and entangles himself in Rachel’s affections, their tryst threatens to break the rules with violent consequences. Visually this looks great, graced with some awesome cinematography and supernatural imagery. The CG is cheap but this is a movie that has operated on a budget and succeeded regardless. Charlotte Vega is standout amongst the leads as the conflicted Rachel, desperate to relinquish her home’s grip upon her but hesitant to follow through. It doesn’t tread any new ground but it doesn’t borrow overly obviously either, so the result is something familiar yet intriguing nonetheless.
A terribly bleak glimpse into the hearts of two bad parents, who share no love for each other nor seemingly for their son, who has gone missing. An uncomfortable but affecting watch, this, as neither of the leads merit anything remotely sympathetic throughout the police investigation that follows, yet their lack of impetus or selflessness can’t help but evoke a response. I suppose in that sense Loveless does what it sets out to do but this often feels like there is a much deeper allegory going on, one which I am not overly aware of and so I find it difficult to make the connection and to tie my colours to a film like this’ mast.
The Untamed (2016)
And the gold medal for ‘What the F*ck!?’ movie of the month goes to this Mexican oddball. By no means bad, the filmmaking at hand is actually very good, but with a subject matter as bizarre as this, it’s difficult to say exactly how I feel about it. Anything positive I have would be towards the technical achievements, the cinematography, the special effects, the acting, all great. But this is a combination of Yorgos Lanthimos-level animosity, bleak familial drama… and anime tentacle porn! It really is an odd mix that might have swayed me the other way had it not been too heavily weighted in favour of the rather uninteresting family dynamic. I really needed more weird stuff or more horror to offset it.
Altered Carbon – Season 1 (2018)
Don’t really understand the lukewarm reception Altered Carbon has received since dropping on Netflix. Too many subplots? Not really, there is 10 episodes to fill after all. Bit all over the place? Aside from one obligatory flashback episode, I don’t think so. If I had gripes they would be that a couple of the female leads seem to have been written and cast based on how they would look in the nude rather than their acting chops, and that not all of the subplots seem to come to a clear and satisfactory resolution by the end. I’d also argue that our lead antihero’s arc is moved a little too quickly in a certain direction, however the positives far outweigh these gripes. This is a work of conceptual magnificence. The world created, and better yet the way it is brought to life, is visually stunning, from the central idea of “sleeving” and all its implications, to the cities that have expanded beyond the clouds, reflecting the god-like status of their penthouse-dwelling aristocrats, to the immortality afforded these people via their “stacks” and above all that the cultural weight that encompasses it all. It really makes you think, adding depth and substance to a world already visually impressive. Here’s looking forward to seeing what they achieve in Season 2.
Twin Town (1997)
Not nearly as charming as it might have once been. I can see where this would be a cult classic to those who caught it at the time of release, however this is a boat I unfortunately missed. As a result the eponymous brothers come across as nothing more than annoying, the comedy misses most marks and the serious stuff just feels like more bad comedy. Dougray Scott is the only saving grace but he is far too shorthanded to lift it on his own.
It does have a cracking soundtrack though…
Top of the Class
The Ritual (2017)
Having finally gotten around to seeing this lost-in-the-woods horror, I am utterly gutted I missed it on the big screen. Channelling the same sense of burning, quiet dread that made the Descent so great, and moving in the same way to deeper, darker, more visceral territory as the terrified backpackers venture deeper into their living nightmare, there is something very palpable and raw and rough to be experienced here. Characters don’t strike as stereotypes or caricatures, their relationships and reactions feel natural, a reflection of the writing and acting talent at play. The cast is a familiar band of British TV stalwarts, led by Rafe Spall yet no one stands out overtly. The chills are very affecting and the frights are visceral and burning rather than fleeting and cheap, director David Bruckner carefully pulling at the question of whether this threat is supernatural or elaborate staging/stalking. When we finally get our answer, the result will no doubt be divisive, but you have to commend a film that boasts the courage of its convictions and executes them effectively. This feels like one to be re-watched and studied and that certainly isn’t a bad thing.
On the Horizon: Coraline, City of God, In this Corner of the World, Allied, Mother, Blame!, Spoor, Supersonic, Red Rock West, Lucky, Cronos, Song of the Sea…