“Cities Are Gonna Keep Burning. Kids Are Gonna Keep Getting Shot. And Cops Are Gonna Keep Getting Off…”
With the Academy Award nominations now released into the steely glances of the general public, the success and critical admiration of Spike Lee’s excellent BlackKklansman seems to have resulted in succession of interesting, ideas based political dramas with a key central narrative regarding the impact of race relations across contemporary American society. Joined together at the hip by rising star, John David Washington, Monsters and Men, the big screen debut from American filmmaker, Reinaldo Marcus Green, follows a very familiar path to Lee’s 2018 drama by focusing on a increasingly topical discussion and confronting it upon the big screen. With a core central narrative which immediately brings to mind last year’s The Hate U Give, Green’s movie follows three different perspectives following the shooting of an unarmed black male on the streets of downtown New York. Loosely inspired by the death of Eric Garner back in 2014, a cigarette seller who resisted arrest and subsequently died within a police officer’s chokehold, all of which was filmed by an onlooker on his mobile phone, Monsters and Men is an interesting, very well made and thought-provoking drama with a trio of excellent and thoroughly convincing central performances.
Following a very similar narrative pathway to to Barry Jenkins’ outstanding 2017 drama, Moonlight, Monsters and Men follows three very different male characters who are each bound together by a crippling desire for change in a society which makes such drastic decisions either increasingly difficult or incredibly dangerous. Beginning with Anthony Ramos’ (A Star is Born) street savvy, Manny, the film benefits from taking the time to develop each leading character whilst the background noise of the underlying central message boils from underneath, and with an opening thirty minutes which ends with Manny’s role in the film’s key set piece, the transition from Ramos to Washington (BlackKklansman) is expertly done and exhibits a craft of filmmaking not many big screen debutants would be able to pull off. With the introduction of Washington as Dennis, a observant and dedicated local Police Officer, it is undoubtedly his portion of the film which manages to emit the highest degree of drama, with his conflicted nature as an officer of the law binding him to a make a final decision regarding his position as a black man in a predominantly white geographical area which is both difficult and understandable from the point of view of the audience. With two standout scenes from Washington’s own act including an emotional and iconic basketball scene and a dinner discussion regarding the politics of policing, it does comes as a slight shame that the final act involving Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s (It Comes at Night) Zee is rather quite plodding and at times, particularly dull, but with a dedication to the screenplay from each of the three leading actors and a well handled sense of preachiness which failed to annoy or disturb the drama, Monsters and Men is a ideas ridden cinematic debut from a filmmaker with obvious raw and exciting talent.
Overall Score: 7/10
“People Like Me, We Live In The Past. You Got People That Need You Now. You Got Everything To Lose, This Guy Has Got Nothing To Lose…”
Boosting the career of Ryan Coogler into the international stratosphere, 2016’s Creed remains arguably the most entertaining and thrilling entry into the Rocky franchise since the Oscar winning original, one which brought the leading boxing film series back into the eyes of critical admiration and most crucially, managed to place Everton’s beautifully old fashioned Goodison Park onto the big screen. With Coogler too busy to return to directorial duties, American filmmaker Steven Caple Jr. takes the reigns for a sequel which sees Michael B. Jordan’s (Black Panther) Adonis Creed be crowned as the new heavyweight champion of the world after a successful win against former foe, Danny “Stuntman” Wheeler, a title which is soon challenged from across the East when Creed is called out to partake in a high profile grudge match against the son of Dolph Lundgren’s (The Expendables 3) Ivan Drago, the Soviet Union muscle machine responsible for the death of Creed’s father in Rocky IV. With stakes higher than ever before, Creed II follows a very familiar and welcome filmic sensibility to Coogler’s re-shuffling of the tried and trusted boxing genre back in 2016, with Caple Jr. using the most cinematic of sports as a secondary measure to a story which centres on notions of grief, regret and ultimately redemption within a movie which wonderfully offers once again a much deeper and thematically complex narrative backbone than one would expect from what is essentially a big budget Hollywood sporting blockbuster.
By immediately accepting its’ role and responsibility of the Hollywood sequel with welcome arms from the offset, Creed II utilises a two hour plus runtime to balance expanded characterisation with gorgeous sporting spectacle, and with a central key narrative arc regarding the pressures of living up to individual legacy running parallel within both the tightly wound Creed party and the fiendish Drago camp, Caple Jr.’s movie impressively manages to focus enough on both protagonist and antagonist to allow an empathetic view into the trials and tribulations of their individual lives, ones separated not only by country but by lifestyle too. Offering bolder and bigger orchestrated set pieces, including not one, but two superb fights involving Creed and Drago, the narrative at times does sway into cliche, particularly to audiences already well versed in the ways and means of the Rocky franchise, but with beautiful dialogue and complex character development which carries on from the groundwork already put in by Coogler and co in the film’s predecessor, emotional involvement is achieved with astounding ease, resulting in you peering through your fingers as you witness the young Creed battle through broken ribs and busted eyes against the intimidating and physically mountainous presence of Florian Munteanu’s similarly youthful Drago. With the choreography of the central fights executed to an excellent degree and the long awaited ringside reunion between Stallone and Lundgren as gleefully exciting as the diner scene between Pacino and De Niro in the masterful Heat, Creed II is everything I expected from a follow-up to one of my favourite films of 2016 and even without the presence of Ryan Coogler, the latest Rocky picture is superb sporting cinema.
Overall Score: 8/10
“Almost Every Single Person Has Told Me They Like The Way I Sounded But Not The Way I Look…”
Synchronising spectacularly with the transformation of cinema across both the twentieth and twenty first century, A Star Is Born, the fourth adaptation of the well versed tale first brought to the screen by William A. Wellman in 1937, sees Bradley Cooper both star and take the director’s seat for the very first time for a contemporary adaptation of the source material which follows Cooper’s (Silver Linings Playbook) alcohol and drug dependant rock and roll star, Jackson Maine, and his discovery of Lady Gaga’s (American Horror Story) equally talented Ally, a live-at-home dreamer whose musical career consists of drag bar shows and refusals from music executives who see her solely from the surface without understanding her true potential. Whilst one familial generation may fondly remember the 1976 version of A Star Is Born starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, another generation may go even further and recall the 1954 remake starring the one and only Judy Garland, and whilst it can be easy to dismiss remakes of classic Hollywood pictures before they even arrive onto the big screen, the fact remains that when done right, contemporary adaptations can explore fresh new ideas and offer the chance for younger audiences to experience a tale that they may have never witnessed before.
In the case of Cooper’s vision of A Star Is Born, the American’s directorial debut is a modern musical masterpiece, a deeply emotional and thoroughly engaging piece of cinema which revels in the passion of the film’s central relationship between a desperate, troubled musical star and the doe-eyed freshness of another who swiftly begins her journey into fame and fortune under the watchful eye of her mentor and lover who soon realises she may just outpace his own success with relative ease. With the first quarter of the movie primarily focusing on Cooper’s Jackson, his constant alcohol abuse and apparent mental health issues caused by a fractured family upbringing results in laboured live performances and the constant need and support from his older brother and father figure, Bobby Maine, as played by the ever magnanimous Sam Elliott (The Big Lebowski). As soon as Jackson drunkenly stumbles across the enviable talents of Gaga’s Ally however, the narrative becomes obsessed with portraying the most believable and stunningly acted on-screen romance since Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling in La La Land, and with Cooper managing to brilliantly balance directing with acting duties, A Star Is Born is the American’s finest on-screen role to date, a performance riddled with inner turmoil and self-loathing which is perfectly balanced by the equally stellar Gaga, who although is not exactly new to the world of acting, with credits most famously on the likes of American Horror Story, gives it her absolute all to a character in which she obviously relates to on a human level, resulting in a performance which is expressed on-screen in, let’s face it, award winning pedigree.
Blending raw, hotly charged emotion with brilliant realism, Cooper’s movie isn’t just happy with portraying the central couple alone, with deep thematic contemplations on the effect of mental health and substance abuse threatening to suffocate both Jackson and Ally as the latter attempts to build her own career out of Jackson’s spotlight, and with a superb level of pacing which lets the characterisation flow and expand freely, Cooper’s understanding of when and where to guide the narrative’s path is truly remarkable for a debutante director. Add into the mix a simply wondrous and immediately catchy soundtrack, with each track seemingly performed fully from the depths of our stars’ heart and soul, the music is enhanced by the insistence from the cast that the tracks be performed live, and with the added brilliance of cinematography from frequent Darren Aronofsky collaborator, Matthew Libatique, the audience becomes transfixed on both the audio and visual splendour as we follow our leading duo travel across the world, from America to the immediately recognisable flag-filled horizon of the Glastonbury crowd, with each performance bearing the same riveting energy which made Straight Outta Compton so gloriously entertaining. With a sombre, heartbreaking conclusion which will result in even the toughest audience member reaching for the nearest pile of tissues, A Star Is Born is everything a remake should be, fresh, invigorating and contemporary, and whilst award buzz is inevitable for everyone involved, Oscar’s are only the start to appreciating how good A Star Is Born really is. Cooper, you’ve done good.
Overall Score: 10/10
“You Can’t Blend In When You Were Born To Stand Out…”
Based upon R.J. Palacio’s 2012 novel of the same name, Wonder tells the tale of Jacob Tremblay’s August “Auggie” Pullman and his battle with Treacher Collins syndrome as he attempts to manage his way through school and a coming of age lifestyle after years of homeschooling designed to prevent him from facing the potential fear of inevitable youth misunderstanding when it comes to his condition. Supported by the beach burnt Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts as Auggie’s father and mother tag team, and directed by Stephen Chbosky, whose previous credits include The Perks of Being a Wallflower and the lead writer’s gig for this year’s adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, Wonder is a solid by-the-numbers tale of acceptance and individual strength which although features an important fundamental message regarding acceptance and the impact of schoolground bullying, does become increasingly tiresome and overly manipulative in its’ emotional bulldozing as it passively lingers on to a conclusion which does manage to seal the deal to some extent and leave its’ audience with an undeniable smile.
Where Lenny Abrahamson’s Room introduced the world to the enviable talents of young Jacob Tremblay, Wonder solidifies once again that a huge future awaits for an actor who although throughout the film is covered in prosthetics akin to John Hurt in David Lynch’s heartbreaker, The Elephant Man, manages to encompass Auggie’s spectral of emotions to such an extent that the audience can’t help from getting on board and totally support the film’s leading character as he makes his journey through the trials and tribulations of a diverse and sometimes ignorant collection of fellow schoolmates. Whilst Wonder does attempt to balance the heavy dose of Auggie’s characterisation with his fellow family and friends, with the movie sometimes wandering off on tangents to do such via Tarantino-esque title cards, such diversions do come across as somewhat pointless, particularly when regarding the film’s overplayed two hour runtime, and with overly saccharin scenes of animal deaths and endless crying montages, the sentimental value of the narrative does become pretty irksome at times, but with Tremblay stealing the show and even Wilson and Roberts having a fair share of effective quick comedic quips as the relatable parents, Wonder is sometimes preachy but undeniably good hearted.
Overall Score: 6/10
“You Gave It All To Her, Right In Front of Me…”
Tackling the ridiculously difficult genre of the erotic thriller for a debut picture, new kid on the block, Denise Di Novi, seems to have gone full flow with the notion that to get somewhere quickly, the hardest options are sometimes the best to get out of the way. In regards to recent depictions of such a genre, within this year even, the widespread level of excellence ranges from the utter shoddy in the form of the Fifty Shades franchise to the interesting and brilliantly executed, with Elle and Park Chan Wook’s The Handmaiden being top-end depictions of eroticism upon the big-screen, helped primarily from scripts which attempt to shake up the format and offer something original instead of simply falling into the pot of generic silliness. Unfortunately for Di Novi, Unforgettable is the type of movie which you question how it actually managed to make it onto the big screen with it clearly being the type of erotic thriller that is destined for the clearance DVD bin in your local supermarket sometime in the near future, yet with star power in the form of Rosario Dawson and Katherine Heigl holding down the fort, Unforgettable is passable, generic popcorn nonsense which ticks all the boxes in a manner which is both swift and unoffensive.
Whilst the trailer for the movie conforms to the common issue of giving away not just the main bulk of the movie but indeed the entire bleeding plot, Unforgettable comes across as representing itself as the 21st century model of Basic Instinct, yet without the shore footing of Elle director Paul Verhoeven in its’ corner and without the iconic image of Sharon Stone as the film’s leading bunny boiler. Replacing Stone in such a role is Katherine Heigl, the plain faced barbie doll who takes the character of the kooky and wholly obsessive ex-wife and completely runs with it. demonstrating the idea that girls with slicked back hair and a penchant for cleaning silver utensils are without question a grade A psychopath. On the other side of the court is Rosario Dawson’s leading heroine, a character who through a wide range of questionable decisions ends up battered, bruised and completely ostracised from her newly found fiancee throughout the course of the movie in a manner in which is meant to exert a sense of tension from the audience, an audience which are way too clever and knowing to see where the entire plot is heading straight from the outset. The Handmaiden it ain’t, Unforgettable is ironically, quite forgettable and is saved primarily due to its’ two leading stars which prevent the film from disappearing into nonexistence forever.
Overall Score: 4/10
“I Can’t Beat It. I Can’t Beat It, I’m Sorry…”
Arriving on a weekend packed to the rafters with a wide range of movie releases, the release of Manchester By The Sea carries with it the annoyingly unavoidable air of hype which has engulfed it over the past few months or so, resulting in an inevitable array of Golden Globe nominations as well as being tipped as one of the top contenders for the upcoming Academy Awards which takes place next month. Directed by Kenneth Lonergan, whose previous credits include screenplays for Gangs of New York and Analyze This, Manchester By The Sea follows in the footsteps of La La Land by being a film which lives up to its’ high expectations, a touching tale of loss, sorrow and the chance of redemption held together by a simply outstanding performance from Casey Affleck who undoubtedly will walk away with the Oscar for Best Actor next month, and a sharp, snappy screenplay which dissects the everyday notions of family and friendship upon an overarching melancholic plot thread which acts as the central cornerstone of a movie seeped in utterly believable human emotion.
Cowering throughout the movie in an unbearable understated embodiment of repressed emotion, Affleck’s Lee Chandler is a complex shadow of a character, one who is brought back to his titular homeland after the death of his brother and one whose societal absence verges on the edge of a complete dissociation with anyone around who shows him the slightest bit of attention. Add into the mix Lucas Hedge’s Patrick, the son of Lee’s lost brother, and the film begins to unravel a parallel between the past and the future, one which balances out loss with a chance of redemption for a character who could easily burst into a complete and utter meltdown at any moment throughout the film. Subsequently, the commanding performance of Affleck ironically leads to the film’s only real setback, with Michelle Williams strangely seeming rather absent and underused, alongside other characters which come and go rather too swiftly. Ultimately, Manchester By The Sea is Affleck’s movie entirely and the down-to-earth dramatic turns and realist decisions by his character result in a film which is up there with the most rewarding dramas to be released in recent memory and for a film which is just under two and a half hours, it seemed strange to be leaving the cinema by actually wanting more, the sign of a cracker if ever there was one.