“If You Don’t Conform To What She Wants Then Suddenly You’re The Enemy…”
Debuting at this year’s Sundance Film Festival to an overwhelmingly positive critical reception, Luce is the latest from Nigerian-born filmmaker, Julius Onah, whose previous high profile release in the form of Netflix’s, The Cloverfield Paradox, immediately branded him as a cinematic fish out of water, with the big budget sequel undoubtedly one of the silliest and most misjudged so-called science fiction movies in recent memory. Moving away from nonsensical space stories for the time being and into the realm of Hitchcockian-esque drama, Onah’s latest is a deliciously directed and incredibly well crafted step in the right direction, an absorbing and beautifully looking low-key mystery which finely balances cutting familial tensions, a contemporary social commentary and a Twin Peaks style small-town uncertainty revolving around the film’s titular character, one brought to life thanks to a gripping central performance from Kelvin Harrison Jr. who continues to impress after his work on the underrated 2017 horror, It Comes at Night.
With it being difficult to explain the central plot of the film without moving into spoiler territory, Luce primarily follows Harrison Jr.’s model all-star student, years after he was adopted away from his war-torn homeland of Eritrea and into the white-picket fenced household of Amy and Peter Edgar, portrayed superbly by Naomi Watts and Tim Roth respectively who reunite after their work together on Michael Haneke’s English language shot-for-shot remake of Funny Games. After concerns regarding Luce’s beliefs are raised by Octavia Spencer’s (The Shape of Water) overbearing teacher, a battle of wills and words soon begins between both professor and student as certain mysteries surrounding Luce’s personal life and agenda soon materialise, much to the dismay of Watts’ Amy who begins to wonder whether her beloved adopted son is actually who she thinks he is. With the the film managing to expertly handle that fine line between exposition and intelligent storytelling, Luce works thanks to a narrative approach which begs the audience to make up its’ mind regarding what they are observing on screen, and in an era in which cinema annoyingly finds the need to spoon feed the plot to cater for everyone in the audience, Onah’s second high profile release is an absorbing redemptive piece which will make you contemplate events long after the closing credits.
Overall Score: 8/10
“This City, This Whole Country, Is A Strip Club. You’ve Got People Tossing The Money, And People Doing The Dance…”
Based on the 2015 New York magazine article, “The Hustlers at Scores”, by American journalist, Jessica Pressler, Hustlers is the latest from the superbly named New Jersey filmmaker, Lorene Scafaria, who returns to cinemas in a directorial sense after the successful one-two of the 2012 Steve Carell staring, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and the 2015 comedy drama, The Meddler. Featuring a particularly starry, female-led ensemble cast, Scafaria’s latest primarily follows Constance Wu’s (Crazy Rich Asians) Dorothy over the course of nearly a decade as her career as a stripper leads her into the path of Jennifer Lopez’s (Out of Sight) Ramona, a powerful and streetwise matriarch who soon teams up with her fellow strippers in order to rip off high profile clients in response to the economical effect of the 2008 Financial Crisis. Less The Big Short and more a spicy blend of Showgirls meets Ocean’s Eleven, just without the R-rated extremism of the former, Hustlers is a thoroughly engaging and brilliantly acted original crime drama, one which benefits from a tight, well-judged runtime and an element of spicy exoticism which most mainstream pictures would be too afraid to touch let alone actually produce.
With a central narrative which feels comfortable remaining within the confines of reality and seemingly sticks close to the real life events, such a decision both benefits and hinders Scafaria’s movie, one which shifts along an elongated, year jumping time frame with relative sharpness and ease, due in part to some Scorsese-esque storytelling, cut-throat editing techniques and key characters which manage to be both well-rounded, charismatic and engaging. Central to the film’s success is undoubtedly Lopez who in her career best performance manages to evoke a wide range of characteristics, traits which develop her character from the savvy, sexy titan of the stripping industry to a relentless, greed-inflicted criminal, one who is determined to return the pain of the financial crisis on those who she believes is responsible. With Constance Wu continuing her excellent leading form after her success with Crazy Rich Asians and the movie having a fundamentally likeable sensibility, the only real downfall of the picture is how forgettable the central plot device actually is, with the inevitable outcome predictable and therefore lacking any sort of gut-punching memorability, but where the movie lacks in any sense of grandiose it more than makes up for in terms of style and for a movie which clocks in at just under two hours, Hustlers is well worth your time.
Overall Score: 7/10
“It’s Quite The Fairytale You Got Going On Here. From Top Flight Model In Moscow To Rubbing Shoulders With The Elite…”
After successfully managing to hit the grand old age of sixty, French filmmaker, Luc Besson, seems to have become slightly nostalgic in his old age as he returns to the type of feminine-led action flick which made him renowned across the world at the beginning of his career during the early 1990’s. With Besson sort of losing the plot in recent years with the simply awful, Lucy, and the woefully titled, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, a film which begins equally as bad but then grew into some sort of guilty pleasure come the final credits, the Frenchman returns to the subject matter he knows best in the form of Anna, a clear modern-day incarnation of Besson’s own 1990 action piece, Nikita, and a movie which sees the relatively unknown Sasha Luss as the titular beauty who shifts from street-living junkie to globe-trotting deadly assassin within the confines of a screenplay which is as aggravating as it is enjoyably ludicrous.
With a narrative structure which jumps back and forth through different time zones more often than Back to the Future, Besson’s movie does begin in interesting fashion, with the opening hour utilising a particularly glossy sheen of smoke and mirrors as it introduces Luss’ titular leading heroine, a top KGB assassin working under the wing of Helen Mirren’s creaky, nicotine loving Olga, as she works her way through a number of high profile assassinations. As the movie soldiers on in a semi-effective, genre-literate fashion, the introduction of both the dodgy accented Luke Evans and cheekbone enthusiast, Cillian Murphy, as opposing geographical ends of a conflicted love triangle is where the film ultimately shows its’ rather annoying hand, utilising flashback after flashback in order to highlight just how clever Besson thinks he is. On the contrary, such diversions from what should be a generic, B-movie storyline ultimately makes it more aggravating the more it goes on, and even with an abundance of decent, John Wick inspired action set pieces, Anna is at least better than similar movies of recent years including Red Sparrow and Atomic Blonde, but too a movie which lacks that sense of cult-heavy wackiness which the early Besson movies stored in abundance.
Overall Score: 6/10
“At Kaslan We Believe That Happiness Is About More Than Entertainment. It’s About Being Known, Understood, Loved…”
Whilst sniffy critics in the past have balked at the idea of “classic” horror movies being brought back to the big screen in either a spin-off or complete remake capacity, with the most pointless and offensively bad cases come the turn of the century undoubtedly being the likes of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and A Nightmare on Elm Street, it’s fair to say that 1988’s Child’s Play is a movie which isn’t exactly held in the same esteem as classic works from the likes of Wes Craven or Tobe Hooper, hence an almost absence of complaint following this week’s release of the similar titled remake/reboot. Directed by Norwegian director, Lars Klevberg, in his big screen directorial debut, Child’s Play couldn’t come at a more ironic time, arriving side-by-side with Disney’s Toy Story 4, yet obviously not the type of film to take your small children, and with a particularly impressive cast including Aubrey Plaza (Ingrid Goes West, Legion) and Tyree Henry (Widows), the latest reincarnation of the kill-crazy toy is actually a rather highly enjoyable, dare I say it, guilty pleasure.
With central idea of Child’s Play essentially being a Goosebumps style, late-night nightmare with R-rated violence, the many sequels which followed the 1988 original didn’t exactly manage to set the world on fire, with the series sort of matching the Puppet Master franchise for baffling levels of endurance, but with a improved financial backing and the likes of Plaza, Henry and of course Mark Hamill (Star Wars) as the voice of Chucky himself added into proceedings, there is no doubting the ambition of the movie to try and break into the mainstream sector once again after falling by the wayside and on straight-to-video. With juicy moments of exploitation violence, a justifiably naff script and enough tonal irregularities to make your head pop, Klevberg’s movie follows on from the likes of Brightburn only recently by being a movie which knows both its’ limitations and weaknesses and plays heavily to both, resulting in having just enough quality to appease hardcore horror fans and lay audience members alike, particularly thanks to the new design of Chucky which manages to tap into contemporary concerns about the growing rate of technology. Hereditary it most definitely is not, but if you’re after cheap, Friday night horror violence, then Child’s Play circa 2019 is indeed the movie for you.
Overall Score: 6/10
“Amy, We Only Have One Night Left To Have Studied And Partied In High School. Otherwise, We’re Just Going To Be The Girls That Missed Out…”
Acting as the hundred and eighty first coming of age movie this year alone, give or take a couple of exaggerated additions, Booksmart acts as the directorial debut of the wonderfully talented Olivia Wilde, who follows in the footsteps of the equally brilliant Greta Gerwig (Lady Bird) by making the tricky transition from in front of the camera to behind it with enormous success. With Gerwig basing the screenplay for her own coming of age story on her personal experiences growing up in 1990’s Sacramento, the template for Booksmart from writing duo, Emily Halpern and Sarah Haskins, appeared on the infamous “Black List” of unproduced screenplays for a number of years before being picked up by Wilde and her production company, and in the transition from paper to screen, Wilde’s debut sees Kaitlyn Dever (Beautiful Boy) and Beanie Feldstein (Lady Bird) play best of friends, Amy and Molly, as they hit the eve of their high school graduation and become ready for their next step into adult life. With both believing their hard work and grades have been the result of a complete absence of any form of debauchery during their school life, they soon find out that even the hardest of party animals have likewise secured an impressive future, resulting in both utilising the last night of high school to engage in as much carnage and outrageousness as humanly possible.
With the set up rather familiar, taking nods from the classic coming of age tales of old, particularly George Lucas’ American Graffiti and Richard Linklater’s stoner comedy, Dazed and Confused, Wilde’s movie moves like a steam train as it skips from the inner workings of American school life to the party-centric madness of primarily the wealthiest one percent, with gigantic yachts and mansion sized family homes acting as the basis for debaucherous set piece after debaucherous set piece. With the central characters more likeable then one would have thought after the film’s rather irritating trailer, Booksmart doesn’t solely aim for the outrageous, with a generous amount of characterisation and interesting narrative arcs allowing the final payoff to be more than rewarding, one which comes together with a familiar sentiment that all good coming of age movies do, whether it be the riotous declaration of friendship from The Breakfast Club or the beginning of a new chapter in Everybody Wants Some!!, Wilde’s movie nicely fits the mould of what should be expected from such a genre movie. With a few scenes which do unfortunately test the patience, particularly an animated, drug-fuelled nightmare come the halfway mark which doesn’t work at all, Booksmart is still an engaging, ludicrous and highly enjoyable cinematic debut from yet another filmmaker whose switch to behind the camera has paid off in spades.
Overall Score: 7/10
“You Ever Notice Anything About This Painting? If You Look At It Long Enough, It Moves…”
Ever since Jake Gyllenhaal (Nocturnal Animals) and Dan Gilroy combined back in 2014 to create one of the most compelling and cinematic contemporary thrillers in the form of Nightcrawler, the knowledge that both would reunite once again upon the Netflix format seemed apt considering the streaming company’s pedigree for allowing particular directors to drop their hands into an endless pot of money and do pretty much whatever they want in return for complete release rights. Moving away from the world of drama for the time being after the middling success of last year’s Roman J. Israel, Esq., Gilroy’s latest in the form of Velvet Buzzsaw sees the American go full on B-Movie silliness which just happens to have a top of the line A-star cast. Led once again by the enviable talents of Gyllenhaal, Gilroy’s latest sees the American as a dedicated, if slightly exaggerated, art critic, who after the discovery of a never before seen body of work by a deceased, isolated hermit by the name of Ventril Dease, soon becomes obsessed with the idea that his paintings are somehow responsible for a strange series of accident related deaths and sudden unexplained disappearances.
With the likes of Nightcrawler managing to balance just right the tonal balance between jet black comedy and full on dramatic seriousness, Velvet Buzzsaw suffers primarily from never really managing to settle on such a healthy synchronisation, with Gilroy’s latest not ripe enough to to be placed in the realm of full on, exploitation greatness, with an element of horror which never at all comes across as either faintly scary or tense, and likewise, never really manages to grasp a serious approach either, resulting in a strange blend of the stylish perfection of something like Nocturnal Animals and the goofiness of Ghostbusters, just without managing to secure the sheer brilliance of either. With an underlying notion riding through the screenplay regarding a seemingly personal led attack stemmed from the mind of Gilroy and his personal feelings regarding either the shallowness of the art world or the uptight nature of criticism in any shape or form, Velvet Buzzsaw almost seems too shy to fully explore its’ genre conventions, with the camera always peering away from death scenes and victims of murder, resulting in an underlying feeling that maybe the editor just felt a bit too twitchy showing the likes of Gyllenhaal come face to face with his inevitable fate. Whilst it is always entertaining to witness top level actors completely take to the silliness of a screenplay like Gilroy’s with open arms and complete dedication, it comes as a slight shame that pretty much every single leading character within the drama is ultimately an absolute stinking moron with ponciness to burn, and whilst Velvet Buzzsaw doesn’t even scratch the surface of the best that Gilroy can offer, Netflix’s latest big name capture is silly, messy fun but not in any way memorable.
Overall Score: 6/10
“My Suspicions Were Correct. You’re Clinically Dumb…”
Directed by American filmmaker, Malcolm D. Lee, director of the surprisingly well received Girls Trip from 2017, Night School sees Lee team up with Kevin Hart, the high pitched, knowingly “pint-sized” comedian whose venture from the stage into cinema has been somewhat, how can I put this, exhausting, with the likes of Jumanji and Get Hard not exactly prime examples of a performer putting his talent to best use thus far. Based on a screenplay seemingly dissected by a committee of writers, including Hart himself, Night School sees Hart in the lead role as Teddy Walker, a high school dropout who constantly feels the need to impress his fiancee amidst wallowing under the pressure of proving other people wrong by driving fancy cars and renting flash apartments in order to disguise his career as a low-level BBQ salesman. After the complete and utter destruction of said BBQ sales space however, Walker is given the opportunity to work alongside Ben Schwartz’s (The Walk) financial analyst in a bid to recover his own career, but after discovering the only obstacle preventing him from doing so is his complete lack of GED’s (Sort of a GCSE hybrid qualification), Walker heads to night school under the watchful eye of Tiffany Haddish’s (Girls Trip) enthusiastic teacher, Miss Carrie.
Whilst the overall tone of the movie is surprisingly buoyant and pleasant, offering surface scratching comments on the notions of learning disabilities and the effect it can have on one person’s foray into the real world, and performances all around are undeniably dedicated, particularly from Haddish, whose cocky, streetwise power-house levels of sass allows her character to be both the most believable and relatable, Night School primarily suffers from the age-old problem of American comedies by not managing to balance its’ wildly inconsistent tone, with rather silly and embarrassing slapstick comedy being intercut with awfully designed set pieces which just make certain parts of the movie a real nightmare to sit through. However, where the film does manage to succeed is in the contained elements of the piece, particularly in our leading character’s relationships with each other, ranging from within the confines of the classroom in a The Breakfast Club inspired set-up to congratulating each other at results day in a way which did manage to slightly win me over, and whilst the film’s runtime seemed to miss the hand of a strong-willed editor willing to shed at least half an hour, Night School is mind-numbing, fluffy fun which doesn’t injure, maim or last long in the memory either.
Overall Score: 5/10
“I’ve Always Wondered What It’s Like To Be Undeniably Pretty…”
Following on from the mediocrity of Trainwreck and the sheer awfulness of Snatched, the latest face of American comedy in the form of Amy Schumer returns this week with I Feel Pretty, an attempted idealistic comedy written and directed by the film-making duo of Abby Kohn and Mark Silverstein, whose previous work together includes Valentines Day and How To Be Single, which sees Schumer as Renee Bennett, an inspiring low-level worker for cosmetic giant, Lily LeClaire whose concerns regarding low self-esteem and sweeping generalisations regarding society’s reaction to those not considered “perfect” are suddenly vanquished after an accident which results in her seeing her own body image in a completely different light. With the film’s trailers pretty much giving away the entirety of the narrative from beginning to end, Schumer’s latest is a movie which relies too much on the supposed talent of Schumer and the underlying message of the film, but with a severe lack of comedic elements whatsoever and a convoluted, confused and mistreated discussion regarding beauty being on the internal rather than the external, I Feel Pretty is somewhat majorly out of fashion.
With Schumer attempting to juggle a wide range of narrative strands which range from her fortunate psychological switch, a relationship with Rory Scovel’s (The House) Ethan and her blossoming career path, one aided by the ever radiant Michelle Williams (Manchester By The Sea) as the highly pitched Avery LeClaire, a similarly confused fashion mogul whose freakishly kooky performance is undeniably the best element in the film, I Feel Pretty primarily fails to warrant its’ nearly two hour runtime and unsurprisingly outstays its’ welcome come just before the eighty minute mark. With the middle section of the movie in which Schumer manages to embrace her sudden boost in confidence actually managing to develop her leading character into someone resembling more of a walking punch bag than a redemption punching martyr for societal freedoms, the underlying themes regarding the expression of our individual beauty just becomes totally tedious, concluding in a cringe-laden final speech in which female liberation is expressed whilst conducting a pitch for high-end beauty products which attempt to make the lay person much more attractive. With no laughs, a lack of diligent editing techniques and Schumer yet again failing to impress, I Feel Pretty should have just focused on Michelle Williams’ character, something of which I would happily have enjoyed much much more.
Overall Score: 4/10
“Who Are We If We Can’t Protect Them? We Must Protect Them…”
Utilising arguably the most basic and fundamental element of horror cinema since the inception of the genre at the turn of the twentieth century, John Krasinski (Detroit) stars, writes and directs A Quiet Place, a thrilling and genuinely unnerving apocalyptic creature feature which mixes survivalist adventure with threatening terror and one which is held together by a key and tightly held plot point regarding the use of silence and the deadly consequences that arise whenever the rules of such an element are broken. Transferring their relationship in the real world into the landscape of the film, Krasinski is joined by Emily Blunt (Sicario) as two grief stricken parents, Lee and Evelyn Abbott, who attempt to survive in the treacherous, ambiguous world that now homes vicious, unrelenting and seemingly indestructible alien creatures who hunt primarily by responding to sound, no matter how small the disturbance may be. Beginning with a gripping opening act which sees the Abbott family scour the dredges of a The Walking Dead inspired future wasteland for resources and goods, the ground-rules for the drama is delicately set, with silence the overarching soundtrack and communication limited to close-quartered whispers and sign language whilst movement too limited to bare foot expeditions and a handy stock of sound reducing sand.
Whilst Krasinski himself has declared a complete rejection at horror movies in the past, the co-written screenplay from himself, Bryan Woods and Scott Beck is undeniably inspired by classic examples of not only the genre of horror but classic monster thrillers too, and with an opening act concluding in a manner which bears similarities to Stephen King’s famous opening tragedy in his magnum opus It, the thrills and spills throughout A Quiet Place are indeed recognisable but still highly effective in to an alarming degree. With post apocalyptic landscapes a common theme in contemporary cinema with the likes of Mad Max: Fury Road and The Road two very different movies at either end of the spectrum in terms of what the genre can offer, the survivalist tendencies shown in A Quiet Place are never lingered upon in attempt to shove the notion of desolation completely in your face, with the narrative instead brilliantly glossing over such in a blasé fashion which makes the audience accept the surroundings in which our heroic family are based without getting solid answers on the cause or what the murderous monsters at the centre of the peril really are. With Noah Jupe (Wonder) and Millicent Simmonds (Wonderstruck) as the Abbott children, the former’s deafness (something of which Simmonds has in real life) offers in itself a brooding sense of peril, with the soundtrack switching from the background noise of the wild to complete and utter silence whenever Simmonds is on-screen, something of which works particularly well later in the action when her character is somewhat unaware of the power of her unfortunate infliction.
With Blunt undeniably the standout performer of the piece, her own attempts to balance the preservation of her family with the upcoming arrival of a new life results in a standout set piece involving a wince-inducing injury and the worst period of child labour in the history of cinema. With Blunt originally suggesting to partner Krasinski that someone else should take the part, her decision to be involved continues her ability to convey superb performances in a wide range of differing genres ranging from comedy (The Devil Wears Prada) to action thrillers (Edge of Tomorrow, Sicario) and now creature feature horror. Clocking in at a healthy ninety minutes, the pacing of the movie is brilliantly measured, with a hearty, white-knuckle build-up leading to a concluding act which mixes Jurassic Park style set pieces with 28 Days Later inspired terror all happening at a lighting fast paced that come the final credits, you can’t help but feel an extra course would be lapped up more than generously. For a movie which relies on the element of silence and resorts to having dialogue reduced to an absolute minimum, A Quiet Place could be praised on its’ own for just being a superbly brave mainstream exercise, but with top-notch performances all around, a wondrously creepy premise and come the end, a strangely heartwarming familial tale, Krasinski’s movie is a resounding and genuinely unnerving success.
Overall Score: 9/10
“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.