“The Cold War Did Not End, It Merely Shattered Into A Thousand Pieces…”
Based upon the similarly titled 2013 novel by former Central Intelligence Agency agent, Jason Matthews, director Francis Lawrence reunites with long-term collaborator, Jennifer Lawrence (mother!), after their work together on the final three entries within Hunger Games film series with Red Sparrow, a sadistic spy thriller which attempts to blend the nihilistic approach of cold war paranoia with a Robert Ludlum-esque secret agent mystery narrative featuring Lawrence in the leading role as the Russian ballerina turned operative who is tasked with discovering a native mole who has been supplying the US with state secrets. With a lifeless, cold tone and a jaw-dropping exploitation sensibility which airs more on the side of advantageous leering regarding its’ lead star than that of actual substance, Red Sparrow is a staggeringly misjudged and overly dull affair, one which although can be somewhat praised for attempting to present a more bolder and brutal by the numbers spy story, hashes it’s early promise and comes across more as an overly disappointing affair with a, hold your breath, completely miscast leading lady.
After sustaining an ill-fated injury which prematurely ends her career as a prestigious ballerina, Jennifer Lawrence’s awfully accented Dominika Egorova turns to Matthias Schoenaerts’ (The Danish Girl) Ivan Dimitrevich Egorov, her slimy, power hungry uncle who recruits her into the “Red Sparrow” programme and under the wing of Charlotte Rampling’s (45 Years) Matron who attempts to teach her the ways of psychological, sexual and overly humiliating manipulation. With Lawrence being confined to direction which forces her to maintain a complete look of utter boredom and attempting to preserve a straight face during set pieces which give Fifty Shades of Grey a run for its’ money, Red Sparrow suffers primarily from a key weakness regarding Lawrence’s implausibility as a hard-edged Russian spy, and whilst her dodgy accent isn’t the only one in the movie to induce sniggering fits of laughter, the film is made worse by being a key example of an obsession between director and leading star reaching astronomical levels, with the camera woozily ogling at the sight of its’ leading star whenever she is forced to take off her clothes or engage in one of many terribly misjudged sexuality torture scenes. Whilst I am all for nudity and stylised violence when absolutely necessary, Lawrence’s latest is one the most unnecessary gory examples of mainstream exploitation cinema I’ve seen in recent history, and when you through into the mix a yawn inducing underlying narrative about double-crossing agents and a resolution which is the definition of cop-out, Red Sparrow is indeed quite poor, even with a semi-decent Joel Edgerton attempting to save the day.
Overall Score: 4/10
“We’re Gonna Put The Ass Back In Christmas..!”
Although American based comedies tend more than most to fall on the side of face-palm induced awfulness, with the likes of The House, CHiPs and the horror of Table 19 from this year alone proving such a genre is rife with utter, utter trash, last year’s Bad Moms was a release of which I personally was pleasantly surprised by, a movie which although suffered from a dwindling lack of originality, featured enough charming characters and sharp one-liners to pass off as one of the better comedies to come from the US of A, particularly in the past few years or so. Whilst the success of the original by no means meant that a sequel was warranted, as per the norm of every single reasonably well received movie in Hollywood nowadays, here we are with A Bad Moms Christmas, a movie which takes the formula of its’ predecessor and mixes in the saccharin filled notion of everyone’s favourite holiday, a seasonal delight which either leads to cinematic classics such as It’s A Wonderful Life or vomit-inducing crap such as Jack Frost. Eugh. Whilst it is no surprise that A Bad Moms Christmas is nowhere near the passable fun of its’ predecessor, with the guilty pleasure appeal of the first movie somewhat absent a second time around, there is still enough smart gags and overripe new characters to allow the sequel to warrant its’ existence. Sort of.
With Christmas around the corner and the unexpected arrival of their respective parents on the cards, the leading trio of the original return once again to “take back Christmas” in a manner which begins by bearing huge similarities to its’ predecessor with excess drinking, low-level criminality and drunk dancing with Santa, one which subsequently flows into a Meet the Parents type comedy which focuses on each of our leading ladies’ troublesome mother figures. With Mila Kunis once again having enough charming eloquence to take control of the main bulk of the film and Kathryn Hahn’s Carla always guaranteed to make the most cynical of audiences giggle in places, A Bad Moms Christmas undeniably belongs to the domineering presence of Christine Baranski as Ruth Mitchell, a maternal devil figure who is both bitchy and comedic in equal measure with Baranski’s performance being one of the main reasons why the sequel does indeed work on some level. With the gross factor turned up however and the annoying overuse of obscenity rife from beginning to end, A Bad Moms Christmas is not exactly the sequel to carry on the successes of the first but for ninety odd minutes, it passes the time rather harmlessly.
Overall Score: 5/10
“I’ve Already Lived Through This Day. Someone Is Going To Kill Me Tonight…”
For a film which even come the concluding act references Groundhog Day, Happy Death Day, the latest from the indie-horror sensation filmmakers at Blumhouse Productions, at least doesn’t attempt to shy away from the fundamental similarities between it’s own narrative and the Bill Murray comedy classic, and whilst this time the titular groundhog is replaced with an ice cold, rampaging murderer with a penchant for baby-faced, plastic masks in the ilk of famous slashers of the past, Happy Death Day is still a highly entertaining black comedy which although undeniably lacks completely in originality, makes up for in pristine execution. Helmed by the rather unknown low-key figure of Jessica Rothe as the stuck-up, air-headed student, Theresa, Happy Death Day follows a narrative in which although is overly predictable in a paint-by-numbers kind of fashion, mixes together well a blackly comic violent streak with a life-affirming redemption tale without seeping too far into overkill or saccharin silliness, and with the chance to witness again and again the death of the movie’s leading character, director Christopher B. Landon plays around with the comical elements almost too much at times that if it weren’t for moments of shock-inducing violence, Happy Death Day could pass itself as a late-turn edition of Scooby-Doo, and whilst such a notion sounds fundamentally ridiculous, the turnaround of the film’s leading character results in the movie ultimately coming across too charming to dismiss as just overly ripe silliness.
With moments which include nicely orchestrated jump scares and a brilliant supporting performance from Israel Broussard as the non stereotypical stereotypical fresher student and exposition handler, Carter, Happy Death Day understands the joyous nature of films which on the one hand balance traditional horror tropes and on the other, light hearted comedy, and whilst a few scenes throughout the course of the film’s 90 minutes don’t entirely work, including a compilation of our heroine’s attempts to locate her own killer and a final twist which is the definition of obviousness, Landon’s movie works on a level of popcorn-fuelled escapism of which I went into the screening particularly yearning for. Whilst Blumhouse Productions have undoubtedly crafted much more impressive and long-lasting horror releases, Happy Death Day passess the time effectively enough to warrant its’ existence, even when half way through I couldn’t get the image of Bill Murray out of my mind.
Overall Score: 7/10
“You Have More Talent And Imagination Than The Rest Of This Town Combined…”
Directed and written by newcomer on the block Geremy Jasper, Patti Cake$ follows in the footsteps of The Big Sick this year by being yet another independant cinematic venture which has journeyed through the avenues of film festival after film festival in order to secure the dream of a wide release in order to lay its’ claim for existence upon a much wider audience. Whereas Amazon Studios managed to secure the rights to Showalter’s endearing rom-com earlier this year, a deal which ultimately ended up resulting in rapturous praise from all across the critical board, the distribution of Patti Cake$ has landed in the laps of Fox Searchlight, and whilst Jasper’s movie was a cinematic pleasure that I managed to catch at a sneak preview this week, the releasing platform as a whole for the movie has been pretty poor, considering the closest cinema to be showing it around me is near enough forty miles away. If you are a lucky soul in close proximity of a showing however, Patti Cake$ is that rare case of a movie which yes, is ultimately predictable and overly cliched in places, but still manages to ride the lightening of it’s weaknesses and come out on top, resulting in one of the most effective feel-good, nihilistic music dramas in recent history.
Attempting to use her natural skills as a talented rapper to some form of effect within the confines of the beaten down, lifeless townland of New Jersey, Danielle Macdonald’s titular leading character is the archetypal dreamer, one who is constantly battling the abusive nature of her fellow peers and unsupportive mother in her attempts to get herself on the track of recording, selling and releasing her music to a wider audience who might just accept her for her musical talent, rather than her personal image. With a standout leading performance from Macdonald, one which mixes beautifully the portrayal of joy and clear happiness regarding her love of music and the conflicted hatred for her abusers and disbelieving acquaintances, Patti Cake$ works by concentrating heavily on the believable whilst attempting to tell a story that is well versed in the cinematic format but with a twisted edge of nihilism and introduction of oddball characters which break the mould and keep you entranced within a world which is all too familiar for many within the similar working class areas of deprivation across the world. With obvious comparisons to 8-Mile, Patti Cake$ follows in the footsteps of Eminem’s finest cinematic hour by being an effectively played, fist-punching musical drama and solidifies the notion that if given the right chance, independant movies are more than capable of keeping ground with their big-budget cousins, if not more so.
Overall Score: 8/10
“Can You Imagine A World In Which We End Up Together…?”
Of the many cinematic releases within the Judd Apatow staple, there really isn’t many which I could regard as down and out, truly effective comedies, due in part to my tin-eared response to most examples of American-laden comedies, including the likes of Anchorman and Trainwreck, films which may have garnered an array of positive responses from many on release, but to me, just didn’t work on any level from which I can regard as comedic gold. With the release of The Big Sick however, a loose adaptation of the true-life events of leading star Kumail Nanjiani and co-writer Emily V. Gordon, such a film delightfully breaks the mould of mediocrity, taking a humane and totally believable leading narrative and having the extra boost of a perfectly formed cast to reinforce it and create a consistently funny drama which ranks up there with the best comedy films to be released in recent memory, whilst simultaneously proving that with a decent script and filmmakers who understand the effect of comedic timing, not all American comedies can be utter trash.
Although The Big Sick adheres to the boy-meets-girl formula of practically every romantic comedy since the dawn of time, the added depths given to the relationship between leading couple Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan, with the former’s religious traditions and the latter’s narrative hanging medical issues the stand-out elements of the story, forms a charming bond between the two in which the audience only wants to see flourish and prosper come the end of the drama, and with added support from the likes of Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, the movie manages to succeed on all fronts as both a romantic drama and a rib-tingling comedy. At the core of the real reason on why the movie really works, is the dedication to the believability of the players involved and each of their separate trials and tribulations, and whilst recent supposed comedies such as Snatched and The House believe comedy is warranted through vulgarity and petulant, adolescent nonsense, thank the baby Jesus for a movie like The Big Sick, a overtly impressive comedy which undoubtedly belongs up there with the best comedies to travel overseas in flippin’ years.
Overall Score: 8/10
“You Can’t Trust Anyone But Family…”
Learning his cinematic craft on the set of not one, nor two but three Terrence Malick productions including the staggeringly beautiful The Tree of Life, American filmmaker Trey Edward Shults follows on from his critically acclaimed debut, Krisha, this week with It Comes at Night, a psychological horror movie which features The Gift’s Joel Edgerton in the leading role and a movie which seems to have somewhat drifted under the propaganda radar, resulting in the first time in a while in which I head into a movie having no idea or preconceptions about what I am about to witness on-screen. Whether this is an element which ultimately damages or aids a particular release, there is a sense of thrilling ambiguity being unaware of a film’s direction, particularly in regards to a horror movie, and what we have with It Comes at Night is a staggeringly bleak, yet wholly effective white-knuckle thriller, one which uses its’ minimalist surroundings to outstanding use and a movie which perfectly showcases the acting talents of one Joel Edgerton, an actor who seems to have found his perfect hunting ground in order to grind out the best he has to offer upon the big screen.
Set in the aftermath of an unknown, ambiguous, worldwide pandemic, It Comes at Night focuses primarily on Edgerton’s Paul, the husband and father figure of a survivalist family destined to keep safe in the midst of the darkened wilderness who are suddenly forced to surrender their safety for the greater good when they come across another trio of survivors who too are desperate for survival. With a narrative edge as bleak and nihilistic as films such as The Road and even at times, The Mist, It Comes at Night is a effective mix of psychological and body horror, one which echoes a wide range of previous films from 28 Days Later to last year’s The Girl With All the Gifts, particularly in regards to its’ underlying notion of disease and contagion, and with cinematography which makes the likes of Seven look like a Disney movie, the jet black colour pallet adds to the ghostly air of uncertainty which embraces the viewer and leaves the audience with a sense of never really knowing where the tension is directly heading. Whilst the violence and dastardly dark plot turns result in the movie not exactly being for all audiences, for someone who loved the likes of The Witch and The Neon Demon recently, It Comes at Night is independent horror at it’s most effective.
Overall Score: 8/10
“He’s A Good Person. He Wanted Me Before I Was Smart…”
Aside from making moves in the Marvel Cinematic Universe as Captain America, Chris Evans is very seldom seen in other visual ventures between the criss-crossing of fighting Tony Stark and aiding the woes of Bucky Barnes, and whilst this week’s release of Gifted is a far stretch away from CGI-fuelled mayhem and size-bending superheroes, the charismatic manner of the Hollywood star is indeed a welcome sight in a drama which allows Evans to convey his acting abilities and prove that muscle mass and tight rubber pants are not the only thing he feels comfortable doing. Directed by Marc Webb, a director renowned for the indie sensation which was (500) Days of Summer but probably best known in the geek world for the very good The Amazing Spider-Man and the not so good 2014 sequel, Gifted is a charmingly grounded family drama, one which includes a zippy and snappy narrative rife with effective comedic dialogue and tropes, and too a film which although could be classed as a good example of emotive manipulation, offers good enough reasons to bypass the saccharin sweetness at times and just enjoy the ride whilst it lasts. As the great Roger Ebert stated, “Some people like to be emotionally manipulated. I do, when it’s done well”.
Focusing on the one-two uncle and niece duo of Frank (Chris Evans) and Mary Adler (Mckenna Grace), Gifted begins primarily by setting the scene of the drama which is set to unfold, with seven year old Mary attending school for the first time and becoming increasingly noted for her outstanding mathematical abilities and street-wise nature which extends way past each and all of her similarly aged peers. At the heart of the narrative too is both the kind-hearted and softly spoken first-grade teacher Bonnie (Jenny Slate) and the Cruella de Vil-esque character of the piece, Evelyn Adler (Lindsay Duncan) who interrupts the peace and tranquillity of Frank’s quest for a normal life in order to fulfil her own petulant and wholly selfish commemorative wishes, using Mary as a pawn in a proceeding tale of family breakups and legal scaremongering, all in a quest for Evelyn’s view of the greater good. Whilst both Mckenna and Evans give both incredibly charming performances, using the great chemistry between them effectively within an array of heartwarming comedic scenes which focus on the innocence of youth and the hardship of fatherhood, Gifted does suffer from a rather overly ripe shiny-happy-people ending and the inclusion of Duncan’s steely-eyed antagonist does come across as slightly too boo-hiss at times to feel a natural fit for the overall feel of the movie. Webb knows how to do the mis-fit, slightly kooky comedy drama well, and whilst Gifted isn’t as flashy as (500) Days of Summer, it sure worked for the most part in which I was emotionally invested with its’ loving, leading characters.
Overall Score: 7/10
“Whatever It Cost My Cousin In Pain And Suffering Before He Died I Will Return With Full Measure…”
Although unaware of her particular line of writing beforehand, the release of My Cousin Rachel has not only expanded my understanding of English author Daphne du Maurier but more interestingly has highlighted the importance of her writing, particularly in regards to its’ impact on cinema, with the likes of full-on classics such as Don’t Look Now, Rebecca and The Birds all being based upon du Maurier’s talented scripture. Following in the footsteps of Nicolas Roeg and Alfred Hitchcock, arguably one of the most daunting double acts to take the mantle from, director Roger Michell brings to life du Maurier’s writings once more with My Cousin Rachel, a direct adaptation of the 1951 novel and a remake of the 1952 original movie which starred Olivia de Havilland and Richard Burton in the two leading roles, leading roles that this time are handed to Oscar winner Rachel Weisz and Their Finest star, Sam Claflin. With the infamy and reputation of previous successes of du Maurier’s works in the background, My Cousin Rachel understandably is nowhere near the calibre of anything from Hitchcock or Roeg, but with a stand out performance from Weisz and some gorgeous costume and set design, Michell’s movie is a solid enough attempt to transpose the ambiguous and paranoid writing of du Maurier onto the big screen.
Whilst the film’s narrative effectively reeks of uncanny uncertainty, the movie is undoubtedly bolstered by the magnetic presence of Rachel Weisz in the titular leading role, giving a superbly maligned performance which edges on the side of both troubled innocent and femme fetale depending on where exactly you believe the underlying plot is being directed by the careful hand of Roger Michell. Whilst Weisz is the undeniable guiding light of the movie, the same unfortunately cannot be said for the likes of Sam Claflin as Phillip, the incredibly annoying and wholly idiotic man-child who immaturely decides to deconstruct his entire life slowly but surely over the course of the film’s two hour runtime all-the-while the audience responds not with an inch of sorrow or remorse but instead wondering how on earth such a devious tit managed to achieve such wealth to begin with. Whether it be petulantly screaming and barking orders at his much more humane serving staff or wondering whether he is at the epicentre of a epic murderous scandal, Claflin has successfully gone and created arguably the most annoying leading character of the year so far, and when put up against the strong centrality of Weisz’s character, Claflin’s Phillip ultimately is a complete fail. Whilst the film’s key mystery is arguably too anti-climactic and the plot sometimes downgrading into lulls of utter dreariness, My Cousin Rachel passed the time nicely in a way which will see it on the BBC Two afternoon schedule sometime in your near future.
Overall Score: 6/10
“You Asked Me How Far I Would Go To Protect My Country. Whatever It Takes…”
It comes across wholly ironic that in a week in which we see the big budget release of Alien: Covenant, the sequel to 2012’s Prometheus and a sequel in which does not include the wholly reliable face of Noomi Rapace who declined to participate, that the Swedish born actress turns up in Unlocked, an action-packed spy thriller directed by Michael Apted, perhaps most famous for the Pierce Brosnan led The World is Not Enough, and the type of movie which belongs entirely within the realms of straight-to-DVD mediocrity. Of course, the coincidental notion of these two films being released side by side might not mean anything whatsoever, but in terms of further advancing the career of Rapace, it doesn’t exactly compute why such an esteemed actress chose Apted’s laughably poor action raspberry of a movie rather than the Ridley Scott led sci-fi epic, a movie which although is nowhere near a masterpiece in its’ own right, when put up against Unlocked comes across as some kind of 21st century work of art. With a cast which indeed includes the likes of Rapace, John Malkovich, Toni Collette, Michael Douglas and Orlando Bloom, yes, Orlando Bloom, Unlocked does boast an incredibly strong payroll but with a narrative which is woeful as it is unintentionally hilarious, Apted’s latest is perhaps the least enjoyable time I’ve had with an action flick since, well, last week’s Sleepless. Not exactly a strong week for films.
After stumbling into a double crossing, trust bending, terrorism plot, Noomi Rapace’s shock-filled London based CIA agent is thrown violently back into the fold, shooting her way through building after building in order to establish the real play-makers behind a massive biological threat. Cue exposition galore, over-dramatic cameo performances and plot strands which edge of the side of cinematic malpractice, Apted’s real ace in the hole comes in the form of Orlando Bloom who appears half way through the action, conveying the tattooed, grungy, untrustworthy ex-jarhead who enters with a gold pass into the hall of worst cockney accents ever alongside Don Cheadle and Dick Van Dyke who are there to keep him company in the ways of mastering the voice of the East-End. Not only does Bloom win the award for worst cameo of the year so far, his character ultimately is entirely inconsequential to the extent that his existence is some form of contractual agreement to allow Bloom to garner a quick pay check after seemingly disappearing into thin air over the past few years. Unlocked is obviously awful, and although the narrative does threaten to entertain around the twenty minute mark, Apted fails to hold such attentive themes and constructs an action flick so poor that you pray for the likes of Gareth Evans to direct every action movie ever from now on.
Overall Score: 3/10
“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.