What If (2013) – Film Review

Based on the novel and later stage play; Toothpaste & Cigars by T.J. Dawe and Michael Rinaldi, 2013’s What If (alternatively titled: The F Word), is a light-hearted romantic-comedy that largely overcomes its familiar framework and few derivative elements. Continuously mindful of the many clichés associated with rom-coms, What If employs an abundance of witty dialogue, subversive story decisions and the effervescent chemistry of its leads: Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan, to deliver a charming, self-aware romantic-comedy that will appeal to those well-acquainted with the genre (and its typical shortcomings), as well as those who prefer the ‘com’ to the ‘rom’ portions of a rom-com.

Plot Summary: After being repeatedly burned by bad relationships, medical school dropout, Wallace, decides to put his love life on hold while everyone around him seems to be finding the perfect partner. But, when Wallace meets Chantry at a house party, an endearing animator who lives with her long-time boyfriend, Ben. The pair form an instant connection, striking up a close friendship and leaving Wallace to contemplate whether his newly-found friend could also be the love of his life…

Directed by Michael Dowse (It’s All Gone Pete TongGoonStuber) and written by Elan Mastai. In many ways, the screenplay for What If feels as if it was conceived as an unabashed tribute to the exemplary romantic-comedy; When Harry Met Sally from 1989. Primarily due to its underlining theme/question of whether a man and a woman can truly just be friends. However, unlike that renowned rom-com, What If places a heavy emphasis on its characters and their relationships, alongside its hilarious gags. As a result, many of the cringe-inducing comedic moments feel very natural and in-character, as opposed to feeling like embarrassing scenarios the screenwriter conjured up on the spot. As previously mentioned, What If is also continually conscious of the numerous painful clichés that plague the rom-com genre, attempting to avoid them at every turn. As such, the film crafts many of its amusing yet romantically uncomfortable situations in unpredictable ways, rather than what the audience would typically expect, which works remarkably well. 

Portrayed by Daniel Radcliffe, the story’s polite and self-effacing protagonist, Wallace, is close enough to Radcliffe’s actual personality that the actor rarely feels as if he is portraying a fictional character, yet he is immensely entertaining to watch, nonetheless. And, when paired with the charismatic and equally likeable Zoe Kazan, whose character, Chantry, is luminously quirky, the pair’s excellent chemistry quickly bubbles to the surface. In addition to the leading duo, Wallace’s outlandish best friend, Allan, portrayed by Adam Driver, provides a considerable amount of the film’s most amusing moments, as his wild personality is a fantastic foil to Wallace’s often pessimistic view of the world. Then there is Rafe Spall as Chantry’s long-lasting boyfriend, Rob, who, thankfully isn’t written as a simplistic, cheating miscreant designed to simply push his girlfriend into the arms of the protagonist. If truth be told, the only character the film squanders is Wallace’s sister, Ellie, portrayed by Jemima Rooper, as she is incredibly under-utilised, only appearing in two (inconsequential) scenes. 

When it comes to visuals, the cinematography by Rogier Stoffers maintains a light touch throughout the runtime, allowing the photogenic city of Toronto to function as a vibrant setting without ever seeming overly romanticised, which is a satisfying contrast to many other city-set romantic-comedies. Additionally, to correspond with Chantry working at an animation studio, What If seizes the opportunity to add some flair to its visuals by having many of its characters sporadically daydream. These mental fabrications are represented by Chantry’s cartoonish sketches coming to life and appearing alongside the characters, usually in a projection-like form via their surroundings.  

Despite What If presenting its song choices as the focal point of its audio instead of its acoustic-led original score, many of the tracks by composer; A.C. Newman, including Beach Bummer and Packing with Dalia, are cordial and possess a delightful little motif. Still, the licensed songs are naturally the most memorable part of the soundtrack, with upbeat tunes like Best of FriendsBig Bird in a Small Cage and Let’s Get High sufficiently supporting the story and its central underlining theme.

Sticking with the notion of avoiding romantic-comedy tropes, the ending of What If is a rather restrained piece of storytelling that merely gets across what details it needs to before cutting to black. The ending is a terrific throwback to a line of dialogue from earlier in the film, bringing the story to completion. That is essentially why I prefer that original ending to the extended ending that was shot eighteen months later, as where the original climax is drawn-back and concise, the extended ending feels unnecessarily long and even falls into a couple of the stale plot points What If was trying to sidestep throughout its narrative.

In summary, What If is a feel-good flick that frequently flirts with rom-com clichés yet skillfully evades the worst of them, all while traversing into unexpected territory, both comedically and dramatically. Whilst I’d argue the film has widespread appeal, those who enjoyed Michael Dowse’s previous outings are especially likely to appreciate What If, as it similarly blends a warm, earnest attitude with shocking, irreverent jokes. Repeatedly pointing out how much better romantic-comedies can be when you have fully-formed characters and exceptional performances, in addition to side-splitting wisecracks. Rating: low 8/10.

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Thoroughbreds (2017) – Film Review

Originally written for the stage, 2017’s Thoroughbreds juggles many conflicting tones, but does so with such panache and charm that it’s rare to find deficiencies within its tonal shifts. With a straightforward yet deeply engrossing plot, elegant visuals and a pair of top-notch performances from Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy, Thoroughbreds delivers a sharply written and refreshingly unpredictable entry into the black comedy genre. Placing far more emphasis on its characters and their internal issues than anything other black comedy in recent memory. 

Plot Summary: In suburban Connecticut, a pair of childhood friends reconnect after many years when the sharply-witted sociopath, Amanda, arrives at the residence of the wealthy and academically inclined, Lily, for a private tutoring session. After rekindling their friendship, however, Lily soon learns of Amanda’s peculiar philosophy, prompting the pair to hatch a plan to solve both their problems, a plan that begins with the murder of Lily’s detestable stepfather…

Stuck in limbo for almost two years, the production of Thoroughbreds technically ceased in mid-2016, yet the film wasn’t released into cinemas until March 9th, 2018. This was due to several factors, but most notably, this was a result of the film’s lengthy and extensive festival circuit in 2017. During this festival run, Thoroughbreds received many positive reactions, which in a way, surprises me, as even though the plot of Thoroughbreds may sound like a set-up for a compelling thriller, the plot twists and suspenseful moments are never the main attributes of the film. Instead, Thoroughbreds is far more focused on having its characters use their words to eke the darkness out of one another, which ultimately leads to an outcome that, in its theatricality, may feel anticlimactic to some. But, for others, will feel like a unique take on what could’ve been a poorly executed sequence for a lower-budget crime-thriller. 

The two central characters of Amanda and Lily, expertly portrayed by Olivia Cooke and Anya Taylor-Joy, are unquestionably the primary focus of Thoroughbreds, with much of the runtime being spent developing the pair and depicting many of the similarities and differences between their respective personalities. For instance, since their early days of horseback riding, Lily has turned into a polished, upper-class teenager with outstanding grades and a coveted internship on her resume. Meanwhile, Amanda has developed a strong sense of perception and a stern attitude, all in the process of becoming a social outcast and unregistered sociopath, which is flawlessly depicted through Cooke’s impassive performance. Sadly, Thoroughbreds was also the final project to feature a terrific performance from actor, Anton Yelchin, as the small-time drug dealer, Tim, before his tragic death on June 19th, 2016, at the age of twenty-seven. As such, the film is dedicated to him.

Despite writer-director Cory Finley (Bad Education) bearing a more extensive background in theatre than filmmaking, Finley displays a natural cinematic instinct right from the opening scene. Depicting the baroque, marble-lined mansion where Lily, her mother and her stepfather reside as more of a prison than a utopia, as the cinematography by Lyle Vincent stalks through the location in lengthy, restless takes. Lingering on specific elements, such as an SUV driving up the gravel driveway or two characters staring at each other from adjacent rooms. Furthermore, the visuals retain a surprisingly vibrant colour palette when considering the grim nature of the story, utilising luminous whites, greens and greys for the majority of the runtime.

For the original score, composer, Erik Friedlander, manipulated various instruments to achieve a number of atonal sounds like boinks and sproings, which all serve as disconcerting counterpoints to the refined visuals. And while there are many excellent tracks throughout the seemingly unstructured score as a result of these unusual sounds, the final track; Win Win, is undoubtedly the best track of the original score, concluding the black comedy on a bittersweet note thanks in part to the optimistic piece.

Bleak yet direct in its underlining commentary on the turmoil of being a teenager in the modern world, Thoroughbreds takes the problems of the young and privileged and explores them through the narrative. With many teenagers (particularly teenage girls) often being told to act or react in specific ways, this story of two girls who are both removed yet acutely aware of their emotions is something to be appreciated in modern character studies. Still, as a consequence of this gradual exploration of the two central characters, I believe many audience members will be turned off by the film on account of its slow pacing and total lack of on-screen violence. However, that’s not to say that I agree with these conceivable criticisms, as even with Thoroughbreds‘ slow pacing, I actually feel that the runtime could’ve been slightly extended, providing more time for characterisation in the first act before the girls reunite.

In summary, Thoroughbreds is a quirky, darkly comedic and entertaining crime-thriller anchored by some exceptional performances and praiseworthy filmmaking. Although the film may not be for everyone given its harsh perspective on teenage life, shortage of blood/gore and frequently slow pacing, Thoroughbreds lavish presentation and snappy dialogue are immensely effective. To the point that the screenplay even manages to make the audience empathise with a character that is completely incapable of empathy, which is a rather impressive feat. Rating: 8/10.

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The Iron Giant (1999) – Film Review

Partially based on the novel; The Iron Man by Ted Hughes, 1999’s The Iron Giant is an incredible achievement in both storytelling and animation. Tackling ambitious themes and complex animation techniques for the time through its near-seamless blend of hand-drawn and CG animation, The Iron Giant is a captivating and uplifting animated sci-fi adventure with plenty of humour and heart entrenched in its story. And while perhaps not the peak of director Brad Bird’s filmography, with The IncrediblesRatatouille and Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol all serving as stiff competition. As far as directorial debuts go, The Iron Giant was undoubtedly a curtain-raiser for Bird and his team.

Plot Summary: When a massive metal automaton, sent from somewhere in the black void of outer space, crash-lands on Earth just outside the small town of Rockwell, Maine. Eleven-year-old, Hogarth Hughes, stumbles across the android and quickly strikes up a friendship with the giant. But, unbeknownst to Hogarth, U.S. government agent, Kent Mansley, has his sights set on finding the extraterrestrial visitor and will stop at nothing to ensure its destruction…

Whilst The Iron Giant bears little resemblance to the novel it’s based upon, the stories behind both the novel and the film’s creation are tragic yet fascinating. As originally, the author of the novel, Ted Hughes, wrote the story as a way of comforting his children after the suicide of their mother, Sylvia Plath. Similarly, Brad Bird was in part inspired to adapt the novel as a memorial to his sister, Susan Bird, emphasising the anti-gun message of the story as she was shot by her estranged husband in a murder-suicide in 1989. His initial pitch was this; “What if a Gun Had a Soul and Didn’t Want to be a Gun?” And even if the title of the adaptation (and subsequently the titular character’s name), was later changed to The Iron Giant to avoid confusion with the renowned comic book character, Iron Man. This underlining theme has always been associated with the character and is weaved into the narrative exceptionally.

The main voice cast of Eli Marienthal, Jennifer Aniston, Harry Connick Jr., and Christopher McDonald all do a fantastic job as the central clump of well-defined characters, portraying them as surprisingly grounded personalities for an animated flick. However, the most significant member of the cast has to be Vin Diesel as the Iron Giant himself. Sharing similarities with his later role as Groot/Baby Groot in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Diesel only speaks a total of fifty-three words throughout the entire runtime, excluding yells and groans. Yet, even with these limited lines, Diesel provides the enormous android with a suitably weighty voice and plenty of amusing/endearing moments.

On account of The Iron Giant being the first traditionally animated film to feature a principal character that is entirely computer-generated, there are a few scenes where cracks have begun to form in the animation and the animated cinematography. However, for the most part, the visuals on display throughout The Iron Giant are magnificent as the film contains an extensive amount of vibrant and alluring shots that meld both animation techniques. Many of these shots also make superb use of the remote, coastal setting of Rockwell, as well as the 1950s time period.

The original score by the late Michael Kamen is largely superior to a number of other orchestral scores for animated family flicks, with the acclaimed track; No Following, standing as a beautiful yet heart-rending composition that considerably enriches the final act. Further tracks, such as The Eye of the Storm and Souls Don’t Die, are pleasant to listen to and serve their purpose within the story, despite not being particularly memorable.

Another noteworthy aspect of The Iron Giant is how the film takes inspiration from classic sci-fi films of the 1950s. Intentionally playing into many of the staples of the science fiction genre around that time, including the widespread fears of nuclear war and Earth being invaded by creatures from another world. This ’50s inspiration even extends to the character designs with the appearance of the Iron Giant himself, who is instantly recognisable as a result of his atomic-age headpiece. Furthermore, the tentacles that emerge from the Iron Giant’s back during the final act are an unmistakable visual homage to one of the most well-known extraterrestrial films in cinematic history; The War of the Worlds, released in 1953.

In summary, whilst it still saddens me that The Iron Giant was such a box office failure upon its initial release, only grossing around £19 million on an estimated budget of £58 million. I am delighted that the film has gone on to become such a cult classic, predominately through positive word-of-mouth, no less. Releasing on August 6th 1999, the same day as The Sixth SenseThe Iron Giant was commercially overshadowed immediately out of the gate. Moreover, following the success of Toy Story in 1995, The Iron Giant was released at a time when hand-drawn animation was being superseded by CGI. So much so, that Warner Bros. Pictures was in the process of shutting down its traditional animation division during the film’s production. And yet, The Iron Giant still flourished in spite of all these obstacles, which, in my opinion, is a testament to the efforts of Brad Bird and his masterful team of animators and creatives. Rating: low 8/10.

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The Martian (2015) – Film Review

Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Andy Weir, which was originally self-published on Weir’s personal blog in a serialised format. The Martian, released in 2015, is a sci-fi drama that combines witty dialogue, stunning cosmic visuals and real-world science to craft a captivating story of survival and innovation. Anchored by a tremendous performance from Matt Damon, The Martian is a cinematic triumph of the science fiction genre, ticking every box that needs to be ticked in this modern era of sci-fi flicks.

Plot Summary: When a fierce storm causes an exploratory mission on Mars to be aborted, astronaut and botanist, Mark Watney, is presumed dead and left behind by his crew. Awakening hours later, injured and alone, Mark is forced to draw upon his wit and scientific ingenuity to endure the hostile surface of the red planet. Meanwhile, back on Earth, employees of NASA, alongside a team of international scientists, work around the clock to develop a plan to bring their missing astronaut home…

Just as much a survival thriller as it is a grandiose sci-fi drama, The Martian is directed by Ridley Scott (Blade RunnerThelma & LouiseGladiator), who, of course, is no stranger to the science fiction genre, with two of the most notable releases of his filmography being Alien in 1979, and Blade Runner in 1982, both renowned as some of the most iconic sci-fi films of all time. And although The Martian likely won’t reach the same level of recognition in ten years, I would say the film has about the same level of directional skill as those well-known flicks. The unsung hero of the film, however, is the screenwriter/executive producer, Drew Goddard, who laces the story with humour and energy, in addition to approaching much of the scientific exposition in a comprehensible yet never overly simplistic fashion.

The incredible all-star cast of Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Sean Bean, Michael Peña, Kate Mara, Sebastian Stan, Aksel Hennie, Benedict Wong and Donald Glover (among others), are all phenomenal in their various roles. And whilst there are a lot of characters, the story juggles them rather efficiently, never taking too much attention away from Mark Watney’s fight for survival, and subsequently, Damon’s terrific performance, which manages to be both humorous and heartfelt. As far as adaptions go, The Martian also solves one of the novel’s biggest issues, that being Mark’s constant internal monologues to provide the reader with commentary on his situation. The film gets around this by having Mark record video logs, in which he explains the science behind what he needs to do to survive, which again, is never dull thanks to Damon’s ceaseless charisma and dry wit.

Primarily filmed in the Middle Eastern desert of Wadi Rum, Jordan. The gorgeous cinematography by Dariusz Wolski emphasises the solitariness of Mars throughout the film, illustrating just how alone Mark truly is and making his line; “I Am the First Man to Be Alone on an Entire Planet,” seem all the more impactful. Furthermore, the colour palette of The Martian is surprisingly diverse considering the story takes place on the red planet. While most of the film retains a burnt orange look, many of the shots on Earth or in outer space form a remarkable contrast to the Mars sequences through their use of whites, greys, greens and blues. Much of the set design is also beautifully crafted, riding a careful line between sci-fi futurism and modern comfort. Interestingly, one of the panoramic shots on Mars displays Olympus Mons, the largest volcano discovered in our solar system. Olympus Mons is almost three times larger than Mount Everest and covers an area roughly the size of the U.S. state of Missouri.

Stylistically, the original score for The Martian is an assortment of soothing synth and the orchestral arrangements composer, Harry Gregson-Williams, is best known for. The most notable tracks are Mars, a stark, oppressive track comprised of synth chords and impressionistic processed effects, depicting the planet as a cold, inhospitable place. Making Water, which feels slightly more playful through its use of harps and optimistic strings. And Crossing Mars, the most triumphant-sounding track of the entire score, ultimately comes across as a little generic as it ditches much of the atmospheric synth in exchange for an orchestral motif.

Amidst its many other qualities, The Martian is also a testament to science being employed rather accurately in a science fiction flick, as despite not every line of the screenplay being scientifically exact due to the story taking place in the near future of 2035, The Martian comes pretty close. In fact, NASA was actually consulted on many aspects of the story, specifically regarding Mars, with the film even being supported in its science by the famed astrophysicist, Neil deGrasse Tyson.

In summary, The Martian isn’t quite a flawless film as the supporting cast sometimes feels under-served, and at one-hundred and forty-one minutes, the runtime is admittedly rather excessive. But, with the exception of these few (and frankly, minor) flaws, The Martian is a rousing story and an expertly crafted film in which the protagonist recognises he is going to die, and then willfully refuses to accept it. It’s an ennobling and uplifting story delivered with sass, allure and intelligence, essentially being everything a story from the science fiction genre should be. Rating: high 8/10.

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Knives Out (2019) – Film Review

A brilliant spin on the well-worn formula of kindred murder mysteries, 2019’s Knives Out is a charming, captivating and hilarious film from beginning to end. Functioning as both a subversive whodunit as well as a modernised homage to the prominent works of crime-fiction author, Agatha Christie, Knives Out offers the kind of classy entertainment we could use more of on the silver screen as the film, through its all-around marvellous cast, excellent direction and witty dialogue, quickly overcomes the one or two minor flaws it has to thoroughly immerse its audience in a delectable delicacy of a mystery and its affiliated suspects.

Plot Summary: When renowned crime novelist, Harlan Thrombey, is found dead in his study on the night of his eighty-fifth birthday, the inquisitive and debonair, Detective Benoit Blanc, is enlisted to investigate his passing. Now, in a mansion full of potential suspects, from Harlan’s dysfunctional family to his devoted staff, Detective Blanc must sift through a tangled web of red herrings and self-serving lies to uncover the truth behind Harlan’s untimely death…

Written and directed by Rian Johnson (BrickLooperStar Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi), the plot of Knives Out follows one of the most timeworn formats in the whodunit playbook; as family members and associates gather after a rich patriarch dies under mysterious circumstances. And although many of them may act like they want to uncover who’s responsible for the premature death of their loved one, in reality, they’re far more interested in knowing how much they stand to gain monetarily from said loved one’s death. However, at many points, Knives Out actually acknowledges its audience’s familiarity with this formula, battling against it by integrating a series of compelling twists and turns into its story. So, even if you’ve already guessed who isn’t responsible, it won’t be easy to deduce who is. Furthermore, it soon becomes clear that Rian Johnson has more than just murder and mysteries on his mind, as Knives Out quietly threads political commentary into its narrative through the family’s conversations concerning immigration and the many shades of venality, exposing an entirely different side to the ignorance and pride of the Thrombey family.

With an enormous ensemble cast featuring Daniel Craig, Ana de Armas, Chris Evans, Jamie Lee Curtis, Don Johnson, Michael Shannon, Toni Collette, Katherine Langford, LaKeith Stanfield, Riki Lindhome and Christopher Plummer, it’s understandable that a few of the actors and/or characters would be misspent. And this is most apparent with the character, Jacob Thrombey, portrayed by Jaeden Martell as beyond serving a single plot point and a handful of jokes, Jacob, and by default, Martell, has little screen-time, very few lines and the least development of any member of the family, making his inclusion seem rather pointless. Detective Blanc also brings two police underlings with him to solve the case, neither of whom make much of an impression. Still, every member of the cast somehow manages to make their character feel distinguishable when placed alongside the others, from the bohemian Instagram influencer, Joni Thrombey, to the foul-mouthed freeloader, Ransom Drysdale, Harlan’s entire family is relentlessly amusing as they continuously squabble with each other despite pretending they are on the same side.

The gothic abode in which Detective Blanc’s suspects are confined is an interesting location for a murder mystery, to say the least, as Harlan Thrombey’s gigantic mansion is not only unique exterior-wise, but inside, is decorated with antique furniture and an assortment of ghoulish accoutrements, including crystal skulls, oil paintings, artwork that resembles giant eyeballs and, of course, a large metal ring of knives and other sharp implements. All of this elegant set design greatly adds to the already pleasing visuals of Steve Yedlin’s cinematography, but there’s no denying that characters and humour are certainly the biggest draws of Knives Out as a whole.

By that same token, the original score by Nathan Johnson (Rian Johnson’s cousin) never overshadows the comedy or drama unfolding on-screen, but instead enhances it. Matching the highbrow, old-fashioned style of Harlan’s grand mansion, the symphonic score plays more like a concerto for strings than a traditional film soundtrack. With tracks like Knives Out! (String Quartet in G Minor), Like Father, Like Son and The Thrombey Family Theme, all being wonderful pieces of classical pastiche dripping with a rich gothic atmosphere.

Interestingly, Nathan was not the only member of Rian Johnson’s extended family to assist in the production of Knives Out, as Rian also brought on board two further cousins of his; Mark Johnson, who created the film’s opening titles and designed a font based on a series of Agatha Christie paperbacks, and Zack Johnson, who painted the cast portraits seen in the end credits. Further adding to the film’s high-class stylings and inadvertently tieing into the story’s focus on familial relations.

In summary, Knives Out is a sly, wry and stylish throwback to the murder mysteries of yesteryear, with a splashing of self-aware humour to boot. Updating the genre for modern audiences whilst simultaneously satisfying fans of the classic whodunits, Knives Out demonstrates (in a similar sense to many contemporary westerns), that some of the genres we may perceive as defunct are, in actuality, still far from gone, and that we could potentially see more from these less prevalent, but immensely enjoyable genres, in the future. Rating: 8/10.

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The Lobster (2015) – Film Review

Bleak, eccentric and ambitious, The Lobster, released in 2015, is undoubtedly an acquired taste, but for those with the fortitude to crack through the film’s offbeat sensibilities, it should prove a cinematic treat as co-writer and director Yorgos Lanthimos (DogtoothThe Killing of a Sacred DeerThe Favourite) continuously demonstrates his peculiar style throughout this anomalous black comedy. And although the film does admittedly fall short in its final act as the story loses interest in its animal-transformation premise and abandons its fascinating hotel setting in favour of a less interesting location with equally less interesting characters, this does little to diminish the intrigue of The Lobster‘s unique outlook on human relationships.

Plot Summary: In a dystopian future where, by law, all citizens must have a life companion, single people are taken to The Hotel, where they are obliged to find a romantic partner within forty-five days. Should they fail, they will be transformed into an animal of their choosing and released into the wild where they will hopefully find love with a different species. Inevitably, as the newly divorced architect David enters the luxurious rehabilitation facility, he too must find a suitable partner, or an uncertain future in the wilderness awaits…

Since its initial release, The Lobster has become an intense hub of speculation regarding its true meaning, but the most common theory is that the film is an absurdist look at modern-day coupling, which, if truthful, is similar to the rest of Lanthimos’ filmography which frequently picks apart damaged characters, attempting to expose the raw and volatile relationship between humans and their fragile sensibilities. Immediately from its opening scene, The Lobster also presents an extraordinarily unusual world, a dystopian future that is simultaneously striking, disquieting and darkly comedic without ever appearing overly futuristic. Needless to say, with a world as irregular as this one is, there are still a few lines of dialogue that feel fairly on-the-nose concerning its world-building.

The film’s large cast of Colin Farrel, Rachel Weisz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Jessica Barden, Angeliki Papoulia, Ariane Labed, Olivia Colman and John C. Reilly are all superb throughout the film, intentionally delivering their lines with a complete lack of emotion. Instead, many of the characters present much of what they are feeling on their faces whilst seemingly concealing everything else. This approach works flawlessly when it comes to the film’s comedy, with the numerous quirky characters David interacts with giving matter-of-fact line readings that are extremely difficult not to find amusing. Yet these constant stabs at dry humour never feel at odds with the story’s more dramatic/romantic moments either as The Lobster tries to gain emotional investment from its audience by making the characters feel distinctly human through the recognisable neuroses that label them despite their emotionless tones.

Visually, The Lobster is rather impressive as the cinematography by Thimios Bakatakis allows nearly every shot to have something poignant to it, with the symmetrical staircases and hallways of The Hotel presenting a world of order in a simplistic yet elegant manner. One hunting scene, in particular, stands out as gorgeous composition, slow-motion and lighting are all used to great effect. This is made even more impressive when considering that the production crew worked without makeup and exclusively utilised natural light. With large-scale lighting set-ups only being employed for a handful of evening scenes.

When it comes to the film’s music, even though The Lobster lacks a traditional original score, the film does feature a tremendous assortment of brittle classical compositions such as String Quartet No. 1 in F Major, Op. 18 and Strauss, R: Don Quixote, Op. 35: Variation: II, both of which give the film a feeling of serenity yet also push much of the story’s tension to the forefront. Quietly damping down the comedic tone that gradually bubbles up through the carefully placed laugh-out-loud one-liners.

Returning to the visuals briefly, The Lobster was primarily filmed in and around the Parknasilla Hotel in Ireland, an ostentatious hotel that is decorated almost entirely with Dutch flower still life from the 1600s. This ageing pattern along with the film’s exceptional use of colour; primarily blues, greens and a few alternate shades of red, including beige-pink, give The Lobster a distinct visual appeal even more so than its cinematography, as these colours can even be seen in many of the costumes or mentioned in lines of dialogue, such as the scene where the Short-Sighted Woman says she should wear blue and green clothes or when David mentions that lobsters are “Blue Blooded,” (lobster’s shells also being red, of course).

In summary, while The Lobster is a droll piece of storytelling lashed with grim humour, it also offers a rich, surreal take on modern relationships that you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else. As for every moment that makes you laugh, there may be another that leaves you with your mouth wide open. In many ways, The Lobster is as much a black comedy as it is a slice of existential horror, glimpsing into an outrageous yet disturbing future, one that is truly a testament to Lanthimos’ brand of filmmaking and storytelling as he’s able to trump even the most outlandish premise and turn it into an accessible and engrossing narrative. Rating: low 8/10.

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Molly’s Game (2017) – Film Review

Following his many triumphs as an Oscar-nominated screenwriter, in 2017 Aaron Sorkin took a seat in the director’s chair for the first time in his career. And just like many of his previous writing efforts, his impressive directorial debut; Molly’s Game, was based on the exploits of a real-life figure. Adapting the memoir of the same name by Molly Bloom, the self-proclaimed; “Poker Princess,” who became the subject of tabloid infamy in 2007 when she was outed as the brains behind a prestigious underground poker tournament frequented by celebrities, CEOs and mobsters alike.

Plot Summary: When a catastrophic injury robs her of a promising sports career and a long-coveted Olympic medal, former competitive skier, Molly Bloom, moves to Los Angeles to take a year out and avoid attending law school. But shortly after arriving, Molly discovers that the quickest way to achieve success is through the world of high-stakes poker, building herself up through the ranks of deep-pocketed celebrities and the corporate elite as she hosts weekly poker nights, soon drawing the attention of the Russian mob and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Now, facing a variety of federal charges, Molly’s only hope rests in the capable hands of the criminal defence lawyer, Charlie Jaffey, who learns there is more to Molly Bloom than meets the eye…

Premiering at the Toronto Film Festival in 2017. Molly’s Game was the first film to be both written and directed by Aaron Sorkin, as previously mentioned. And although the screenplay itself isn’t as unique as some of Sorkin’s other work, with A Few Good Men, The Social Network, Moneyball and Steve Jobs being just some of the immensely well-received and Oscar-nominated/winning biopics Sorkin has written in the past. The screenplay for Molly’s Game still crackles and excites at many points as the writing is quick-witted and frequently goes into extreme detail whenever Molly recounts parts of her story, subsequently earning Sorkin another Oscar nomination in 2018 for Best Adapted Screenplay.

Real-world entrepreneur and author, Molly Bloom, actually told Aaron Sorkin that she wanted actress Jessica Chastain to portray her should a film adaptation of her story ever be made. And it seems that this was certainly the right call in retrospect as Chastain perfectly expresses resolve and vulnerability in her role as Molly, portraying a woman who uses her intellect as a weapon. Carving her own path as she leans into her former career as a competitive skier to fuel her drive to succeed as high achieving doesn’t even come close to the grand ambitions she harbours. Nevertheless, years later, after leaving the world of poker behind, Molly is still far from free as she is arrested by The Federal Bureau of Investigation on tentative crimes, which is where Charlie Jaffey comes into the story, excellently portrayed by Idris Elba. Additionally, Kevin Costner and Michael Cera give superb performances as Molly’s father and Player X, respectively. The latter being a professional actor and adept poker player who, despite having his real name disclosed, is widely believed to be based on Tobey Maguire.

While the cinematography by Charlotte Bruus Christensen does tend to over-rely on mid-shots and close-ups now and then, Molly’s Game still contains some admirable shots whenever the film decides to fully indulge in its visuals. Specifically, whenever the story brings us back to the poker table as there the film utilises many on-screen graphics to visually display the fundamentals of poker, in the event that some audience members (such as myself) aren’t familiar with the game’s regulations, sidestepping the need for lengthy scenes of poker-related specification. Furthermore, the editing frequently attempts to keep pace with the dialogue, occasionally even employing archive footage when Molly goes into certain topics, giving the film a terrific sense of style.

On a similar note, the original score by Daniel Pemberton is a fast-paced soundtrack that varies between light synthetic rock and electronic dance. This means tracks like Staring Down a Mountain, Molly’s Journey, House of Cards and Therapy Session make for a dazzling mixture of electronic and more classical compositions. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t slow tracks, as both Molly’s Dream and Scars are far slower and more melodic, with Molly’s Dream, in particular, explicitly featuring a piano, a marked contrast from the bulk of the score.

Interestingly, due to Aaron Sorkin’s constant focus on realism, right down to the way players handled their cards during games, all of the extras seen during the poker games are actually professional poker players. According to Sorkin, the cast could often be seen playing poker between takes with the professional players. This meant that the extras (who are usually paid around £65 for a twelve-hour workday) were usually some of the highest-paid individuals on set.

In summary, Molly’s Game is a film that in the grand scheme of well-acted biopics, won’t demolish the competition, but is a well-crafted and entertaining film, nonetheless. Especially for fans of Sorkin, its one-hundred and forty-minute runtime will fly by as this delve into a world of glamour, privilege and gambling is just as compelling as Sorkin’s other screenplays, perhaps even more so in some aspects. If you’re a little exasperated with Sorkin’s self-satisfied writing, however, then Molly’s Game isn’t likely to change your mind. Rating: low 8/10.

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Paddington (2014) – Film Review

Inspired by a lone teddy bear author, Michael Bond, noticed on a store shelf near Paddington Station on Christmas Eve 1956. The literature debut of the loveable little bear known as Paddington came in the children’s book: A Bear Called Paddington in 1958. And has since been featured in more than twenty books written by Bond and illustrated by Peggy Fortnum, among other artists. In 2014, writer and director Paul King (Under One RoofBunny and the BullPaddington 2) brought the darling bear to the silver screen in a film that affectionately honours its source material while simultaneously delivering a family-friendly fable that is just as heart-warming and amusing as its marmalade-munching protagonist.

Plot Summary: After a devastating earthquake destroys his home in the Peruvian rainforest, a young bear with an affection for all things British travels to London in search of a new home. Finding himself lost and alone at Paddington Station, he begins to realise that city life is not all he had imagined it to be until he encounters the Brown family, who after reading the label around his neck, offer him a temporary haven. But just as things seem to be looking up for the Peruvian bear, he soon catches the eye of a fiendish museum taxidermist…

As it happens, the story of Paddington actually shares many similarities to the creation of the character; as the idea of a lonely bear sitting in Paddington Station can be linked back to old newsreels depicting child evacuees leaving London during World War II with labels around their necks and their possessions packed in small suitcases. Indicating that King understands the importance of this character in British pop culture, yet the film can’t be criticised for playing things too safe with this narrative as it does update the Peruvian bear where it can to stay relevant within modern times. Additionally, as a family comedy, Paddington hits all the right notes as the film’s gags range from laugh-out-loud observations regarding the transformative effects of fatherhood to slapstick bathroom antics, satisfying any audience member regardless of their age.

The voice of Paddington is provided by Ben Whishaw, who it turns out is the perfect voice for the beloved bear as his line delivery is naive yet charming, portraying Paddington as an innocent character who always sees the positive in any given situation. Moreover, the supporting cast of Hugh Bonneville, Sally Hawkins and Nicole Kidman are all delightful and are given an unexpected amount of characterisation, with Henry Brown being an uptight, risk analyst who is reluctant to take Paddington in, whilst his kind, artistic wife, Mary Brown, treats Paddington almost as if he is their own child. But it’s Kidman who truly steals the show as the film’s antagonist, Millicent, riding the line between sinister and playfully over-the-top in her portrayal of a museum taxidermist who catches and stuffs exotic animals in her spare time.

Continuously imaginative and vibrant, the cinematography by Erik Wilson is ceaselessly innovative, assembling many visually pleasing shots with equally pleasant bursts of colour, especially when snow begins to fall over London during the final act. It also becomes apparent when examining the camerawork that Paddington is just as much a love letter to the city of London as it is an adaptation of a classic child-friendly character. So, of course, there’s the usual display of postcard locations, from the London Eye to Buckingham Palace, along with a stream of light-hearted wisecracks surrounding taxis, the underground and the mundanity of modern life in the British capital.

On a separate note, the original score for the film is by no means a work of art, but composer, Nick Urata, does manage to craft a score that remains both diverse and playful through tracks like Arrival in LondonThis Will Do Nicely, Millicent’s Lab and Theif Chase. While the more tender tracks such as Journey from Peru and The Letter Home, blend austere piano melodies with subtle strings, making for an altogether cheerful if slightly prosaic score.

When it comes to Paddington himself, the film brings the character to life via the use of CGI. And whilst this information may worry a few fans of the character, the CG effects used throughout the film are almost faultless, as Paddington expresses a range of emotions and seamlessly interacts with the environments/objects around him. Furthermore, Paddington’s outfit is an exact replica of what he wears in the book series, including his iconic blue duffel coat and red Peruvian hat. However, producer David Heyman dismissed his well-known red Wellington boots as they weren’t actually part of the character’s original design, but were added over the years by toy manufacturers to ensure that the real-life Paddington bears were able to stand on their feet.

In summary, even though Paddington follows a formula seen in numerous other family flicks, the film is understandably more concerned with making its audience laugh and cry than it is reinventing the genre (something it achieves with aplomb). And with a heart as big as its protagonist’s appetite for marmalade, I feel Paddington deserved the successful franchise it later received, with its superb humour, pitch-perfect performances and incidental details proudly cementing the film as an adaption that could go hand-to-hand with some of the finest adaptions of children’s literature. Rating: 8/10.

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Gone Girl (2014) – Film Review

An intricate and satisfying adaptation of the novel of the same name by Gillian Flynn, which went on to be a New York Times bestseller following its release in 2012, being hailed by many publications as a literary masterpiece. Gone Girl, released in 2014, flawlessly combines its maze-like plot with the distinct style of director David Fincher (SevenFight ClubThe Social Network) and a duet of astonishing performances from Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. Promptly resulting in an unmissable mystery-thriller that represents an exceptional pairing of filmmaker and source material, fully expressing Fincher’s cynicism regarding the current age of televised media and the darkness lurking just beneath the surface of contemporary life.

Plot Summary: On the occasion of his 5th wedding anniversary, former New York-based writer, Nick Dunne, returns home to find that his wife, Amy, has vanished. After reporting her disappearance to the authorities, the couples’ public portrait of a blissful marriage soon begins to crumble as the cases’ ever-growing media attention places Nick as the prime suspect, ultimately leading everyone to ask the same question… did Nick Dunne murder his wife?

Making her screenwriting debut, Gillian Flynn does an extraordinarily efficient job of streamlining her four hundred and thirty-two-page novel, retaining its bifurcated structure and elaborate twists without significantly altering the story as a whole. Certainly not an easy task as the very nature of Gone Girl‘s story requires the film to be constantly jumping through time, depicting the entire timeline of Nick and Amy’s marriage from their first encounter through to the total collapse of their love life, giving the audience a clear understanding of their individual personalities and relationship. And through it all, Amy remains a consistent screen presence, continually popping up in flashbacks to her earlier, happier days living in New York City, where she led a life of luxury as a thriving children’s author. That is, until her relationship with Nick, a working-class Midwesterner, comes into focus, gradually draining Amy of her individuality, which is only worsened by the pairs’ eventual layoffs and relocation to Nick’s hometown. Quickly spawning whispers of spousal neglect, infidelity and domestic violence, all of which are condensed for the sake of the film’s runtime, yet never feel rushed.

Both Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike are phenomenal throughout the film with not a single weak moment between them as Affleck, who has never been more ideally cast, delivers a captivating balancing act of a performance, fostering sympathy and the suspicion that his true self lies somewhere between shallow husband and heartless murderer. While Pike, who has actually had very few lead roles despite her extensive filmography, is continuously emphatic and commanding. What’s more, is that Gone Girl is a film that doesn’t aim to paint either of these two characters in a purely positive or negative light. Instead, Flynn frequently leaves it to the audience to decide which character (if any) they should be rooting for as the couple copes with the rapid decline of their marriage in dissimilar ways. The outstanding leads aside, Gone Girl also features a terrific supporting cast of Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Tyler Perry and Neil Patrick Harris, all of whom serve crucial roles within the story.

As ever, Fincher’s regular collaborators turn in work of an exceedingly high standard with Jeff Cronenweth’s cinematography being unerringly well-placed in nearly every scene, bringing a drab, underlit look to Nick and Amy’s home, the police station and other North Carthage locations. And although Gone Girl does admittedly have quite the over-reliance on mid-shots, Cronenweth’s intentionally controlled approach does lend itself well to creating many memorable shots, speaking less to visual flair and more to Fincher’s adroit style.

Along these same lines, the original score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross is a gloomy composition, invoking feelings of anxiety in the audience with subtle electronic pulses. Allegedly, Fincher’s musical brief to Reznor and Ross was based on a visit he took to a spa in which the accompanying melody was supposed to be relaxing, yet Fincher perceived it as unsettling. And this undoubtedly comes across in Gone Girl‘s score, with tracks like What Have We Done to Each Other?With Suspicion and Technically, Missing perfectly capturing this idea of a supposedly comforting soundtrack which, in actuality, instils a sense of dread.

Similar to the novel, Gone Girl‘s story is also teeming with compelling themes and social commentary covering a range of topics. On a broader level, however, the story is really about public perception and how televised media builds fabulations that quickly get subsumed as truth, as the American populace is willing to swallow whatever narrative is sold to them without question, a thought-provoking theme that the film never forgets to explore and build upon.

In summary, Gone Girl is a shining example of an adaptation that stays faithful to the source material whilst simultaneously injecting the narrative with its own style, not once letting the story drag nor the suspense settle in its goal of transferring an acclaimed novel to the silver screen. Still, with a plethora of attractive visuals and tremendous performances, along with a handful of darkly comedic moments, I feel Gone Girl would’ve been a memorising film even in the absence of its engrossing central mystery. Rating: high 8/10.

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Upgrade (2018) – Film Review

Recently gaining a large amount of traction through his reinterpretation of the horror classic: The Invisible Man in 2020, writer and director Lee Whannell first proved himself a talented filmmaker with Upgrade in 2018. A riveting sci-fi-thriller that combines elements of Black MirrorMinority Report and 1990s action flicks to construct a gripping yet dreary tale of revenge, morality and technology through detailed world-building and stimulating action sequences, promptly overcoming its handful of minor glitches.

Plot Summary: In the near future, technology controls almost every aspect of day-to-day life as the world relies on artificial intelligence to complete even the most basic of tasks. As a result, the old-school, tech-shy mechanic, Grey Trace, feels like a fish out of water in an ever-changing world. But after a brutal assault leaves Grey paralysed and his beloved wife dead, he’s approached by the reclusive tech mogul, Eron Keen, who offers him a solution; a powerful microchip named; STEM, that will bridge the gap between his mind and unresponsive limbs. Now, able to walk once again, Grey decides to seek revenge against the thugs who destroyed his life…

Originally titled: STEMUpgrade was Whannell’s first project outside of the horror genre, being best known beforehand for his collaborations with writer-director James Wan, co-writing and starring in both the Saw and Insidious series. And for being the first time Whannell has truly stepped out of Wan’s shadow, Upgrade immediately proves Whannell to be a more than capable director with a distinct style, a style that certainly wasn’t displayed in his directorial debut; Insidious: Chapter 3, three years prior. Upgrade also exhibits Whannell’s almost tongue-in-cheek approach to writing, with some scenes feeling as if they’ve been ripped straight from an ’80s buddy-cop comedy as Grey humorously argues with the artificial intelligence residing inside his body. This isn’t to say that the film is light-hearted, however, as Upgrade is, in reality, quite the opposite, never shying away from bloody, squirm-inducing violence even with its surprisingly modest budget.

With regard to the cast, Logan Marshall-Green gives a very ranged performance as protagonist, Grey Trace. Quickly being established as a technophobe whose main devotions in life are mechanical tinkering and his beautiful wife, Asha Grey. That is before the seemingly unprompted assault leaves him crippled, alone and infuriated by his situation to the point of attempted suicide. Then, once receiving STEM, Grey begins to express far more concern regarding how much bodily control he’s handed over, with Marshall-Green’s performance becoming far more physically demanding as he slowly loses control of his own body. Harrison Gilbertson and Simon Maiden as Eron Keen and the voice of STEM, respectively, also portrayal their roles well, with Maiden doing a particularly great job at giving STEM a soothing yet simultaneously menacing voice.

But one of the greatest parts of Upgrade is by far its zestful cinematography by Stefan Duscio as after obtaining STEM, the camera itself visually mirrors Grey’s newly acquired agility/coordination by wildly tilting with every movement Grey makes, keeping him in the centre of the frame at all times to provide the audience with a unique perspective without sacrificing visibility as a result. Furthermore, despite the story being set in America, Upgrade was actually filmed in Melbourne, Australia, this location was chosen in order to take advantage of the city’s gothic architecture, giving the film an expansive backdrop not too dissimilar to that of Minority Report and The Matrix sequels. However, unlike those films, Upgrade does occasionally run into the issue of its sci-fi world feeling slightly inconsistent between shots as the city’s slick, looming skyscrapers almost seem out-of-place when compared to the graffitied and dilapidated warehouses on street level.

Managing to be moody, suspenseful and tranquil, occasionally even all at the same time. Jed Palmer’s original score is more than fitting for a film like Upgrade as the electronic score echoes films like Blade Runner during its quieter moments through tracks such as Aftermath and A Better Place before the more action-orientated cues kick in, that is, with tracks like We Can’t Let Them Win and Control. The sound design throughout the film is equally excellent, with every thrust and slash hitting hard during the various action sequences.

On that note, Upgrade‘s absurdly well-executed action set pieces are possibly some of the finest the sci-fi genre has seen in a long time. As not only does the camera ceaselessly track Grey, as previously mentioned, but the fight choreography is almost faultless. It’s also during these scenes that the cutting-edge technology of Upgrade‘s criminal underworld first appears, from bio-mechanically-implanted firearms to memory-retaining contact lenses and even a weaponised nanotech sneeze, The Upgraded (as they are nicknamed) are essentially seen as the next stage of human evolution, blatantly showing the audience the true extent to which humanity now relies on technology.

In summary, even though Upgrade is guilty of playing into some overly familiar ideas with its story being based around the well-trodden concept of artificial intelligence outmatching humanity. There are enough twists and turns within its narrative to ensure that the film will hold up upon multiple viewings, serving as an exciting and stylish sci-fi-thriller in addition to providing undeniable evidence that exchanging one genre for another is a risky yet rewarding road when it comes to certain filmmakers. Rating: 8/10.

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