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Film Review: Luce

“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

Film Review: Official Secrets

“Someone In This Building Has Betrayed Their Government And Their Country…”

Released during a particular time in the political stratosphere when whistleblowers are more over the news than your daily page three girl, Official Secrets is the latest from South African filmmaker, Gavin Hood, whose journey into the realm of mainstream blockbusters in the ilk of X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Enders Game ended a couple of years back with the impressively taut and overwhelmingly relevant independent drama, Eye in the Sky, featuring a career best performance from Helen Mirren. Following on from the discussion-heavy notions at the heart of his previous film, Hood’s latest in the form of Official Secrets is equally politically centered, an engaging, if somewhat televisual big screen re-telling of actual events set into motion by Katharine Gun, a former British intelligence agent who during her time working for GCHQ within the era of the Bush/Blair administration at the turn of the twenty first century, leaked a top secret memo detailing America’s attempts to eavesdrop on United Nations diplomats in order to blackmail them into agreeing a resolution into the much discussed invasion of Iraq.

With Adam McKay already touching familiar political territory at the start of the year in the form of the thoroughly entertaining and cinematically manic, Vice, Hood’s movie is essentially Britain’s answer to the controversies which were happening on the other side of the pond at exactly the same time, with particular oodles of television based exposition directly mirroring similar set pieces seen in McKay’s movie. Where Official Secrets differs however is in its’ fundamentally frank storytelling, a cold-war esque spy thriller which takes more from the writings of John le Carré than say Oliver Stone, director of Snowden, as we follow Keira Knightley’s (Collette) portrayal of Gun from quiet desk merchant to hotly publicised traitor after her leak is published by Matt Smith’s (Doctor Who) wavy haired journalist and the stress of an official inquest forces her to admit to being the one responsible for such a breach of law. With the narrative engaging, the acting predominantly successful, aside from Rhys Ifans’ incredibly shouty mouthpiece of justice, and the topic more than relevant, Official Secrets is a confidently executed piece of drama which suffers massively from one major downside; it shouldn’t really be in cinemas, and with that in mind, expect Hood’s movie to be on BBC Two in the eight thirty evening slot as soon as possible.

Overall Score: 6/10

Film Review: The Goldfinch

“When I Lost Her, I Lost Sight Of Any Landmark That Might Have Led Me Someplace Happier…”

Around twenty minutes into The Goldfinch, Jeffrey Wright’s overly mawkish and completely unbelievable side character says something along the lines of “it’s a reconstruction, and not a very good one,” and if ever there was a key segment of dialogue to accurately summarise a movie as whole, that one is pretty much bang on the money in the case of The Goldfinch. Directed by John Crowley, whose previous work in the form of the absolutely superb Brooklyn confirms he is a filmmaker who understands when a film is undoubtedly working or not, The Goldfinch is a bloated, overlong and thoroughly unengaging adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize winning 2013 novel of the same name by American author, Donna Tartt, a two and a half hour marathon of a movie which sacrifices an interesting narrative for dull, hateful characters and a sanctimonious, chin-wagging sensibility which assumes all audience members are the type of people who could spend all day finding interest in the texture of a painted wall instead of having, you know, a bit of fun.

Told in a narrative structure akin to that of an over-exuberant art spinner, Crowley’s movie predominantly focuses on the life of Theodore “Theo” Decker, whose witnessing of a museum bombing and the subsequent death of his angelic-esque mother results in him stealing the titular famous painting from within the rubble of the attack and then spending the majority of his young life moaning about past life choices and feeling up furniture in order to impress the love of his life. With the younger form of Decker being portrayed by Oakes Fegley of Pete’s Dragon fame, the first eighty minutes or so sees Decker move from family to family and location to location without any real sense of dramatic point, with the plot strangely content with introducing boring character after boring character, each of whom feel the need to talk about some of the most face-palming waffle I have ever had the displeasure of hearing within the confines of a cinema without any purpose whatsoever. With the elder side of Decker being handled by Ansel Elgort (Baby Driver), the movie then concludes with a pondering, self-absorbed level of crass melodrama which makes Hollyoaks look like a masterpiece in understatement, and even with the likes of Radiohead on the soundtrack not once, but twice, The Goldfinch is the type of holier than thou cinematic garbage which made me want to leave five minutes in, but like the good old fashioned cinephile I am, I withstood the wave and took comfort in the safe knowledge that nothing this year can be as skull-crushingly dull as Crowley’s latest.

Overall Score: 2/10

Film Review: The Kitchen

“Times Change. You Do What You Got To Do. Some Hits. For Money, You Survive…”

Based on the comic book series of the same name published by Vertigo Comics, an offshoot of DC Comics which was intended to promote graphic comics suitable for a more “adult” audience, The Kitchen is both the big screen adaptation of the original series created by both Ollie Masters and Ming Doyle, and the directorial debut of Andrea Berloff, an American filmmaker best known so far for writing credits on the excellent, Straight Outta Compton, and the not-so excellent, Jamie Foxx starring, Sleepless. Coined by the film’s production company as being an “edgy and subversive” addition into the crime genre, Berloff’s movie follows a very Widows inflicted central narrative, one which sees our three central female characters attempt to pick up the crime-inflicted mantle of their now incarcerated husbands in order to stay afloat in the late 1970’s society in which the notion of the male breadwinner was very much still at the forefront of the nuclear family. Whilst I am all for a gender-bendered approach to a genre which is still reeling in the shadow of The Godfather and Goodfellas, Berloff’s movie is the type of big screen turkey which almost falls into the category of so bad it’s good, an awfully mis-handled raspberry of a movie which fails on every single fundamental level of how to actually make a working movie, a high profile example of a director who seems to have been given a big-budget project slightly too soon and has ultimately crippled under the pressure with dire and laughably bad results.

Pushed as a serious crime drama, The Kitchen attempts to sell the idea of three women with little to no experience of the criminal underworld suddenly strong-arming the entire Irish crime syndicate within the heart of Hell’s Kitchen, New York, in order to keep afloat their own individual lives after relying on their male counterparts for so long. Whilst the whole notion of fiction is to imagine a world away from our own, one of the primary issues of Berloff’s movie is undoubtedly the cast choices, with both Melissa McCarthy (Spy) and Tiffany Haddish (Night School), actors both primarily known for cutting their acting chops in comedy, whose move into a picture which requires a certain level of dramatic expressionism not exactly paying off, with McCarthy once again failing to provide me with evidence that she can actually play anyone other then herself and Haddish laughably terrible as she attempts to evoke some sense of believability to her paper thin character. Whilst the usually reliable presence of Elizabeth Moss (Us) is also woefully mishandled, with her wildly inconsistent character mute for half of the movie and then seemingly drunk for the other half, the whole sensibility of The Kitchen feels like a half-baked Saturday Night Live sketch, one written by a first year university undergraduate with a pure hatred for the male sex and one directed by someone who simply cannot get to grips with the subject matter whatsoever, and whilst Berloff’s movie did make me laugh out loud on occasion due to how simply awful the whole thing is, The Kitchen is an absolute stinker of a movie and a high profile example of how not to make a comic book adaptation.

Overall Score: 3/10

Film Review: Hustlers

“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

Film Review: The Farewell

“Chinese People Have A Saying; When People Get Cancer, They Die…”

First released to the public at this year’s Sundance Film Festival to overly positive critical and audience reviews, The Farewell comes to British cinemas this week with an impressively widespread general release, particularly for a movie which predominantly relies on the use of subtitles, an art of which the lay cinema fan still seems to strangely shy away from. Directed and written by Beijing born filmmaker, Lulu Wang, The Farewell is a comedic drama based in-part on her own experience involving her elderly grandmother who was hidden from the truth of her terminal cancer diagnosis by her own family, a decision of which in Chinese culture is apparently relatively common and surprisingly lawful. Portrayed as a sort of indie inspired, heartfelt comedy from its’ supporting trailer, Wang’s movie is indeed an interesting, minimal and contemplative piece, one which takes much pleasure in exploring a particular culture completely alien to that of most Westerners including myself, but with a strangely flat pacing and a onenote idea which runs out of steam come the hour mark, The Farewell is clearly a project made with an abundance of passion, but as a film, failed to completely draw me in on an emotional level and thus come the final hurdle, becomes slightly benign and immediately forgettable.

Following up from interesting supporting performances in the likes of Ocean’s 8 and the vastly superior cultural comedy, Crazy Rich Asians, Awkwafina this time takes the lead role as Billi, the supposed fictional stand-in for Wang who upon hearing about her family’s decision to hide the traumatic news from her grandmother, Nai Nai, played in a rather excellent form by Zhao Shuzhen, takes the long trip over to China in order to engage in a makeshift family wedding, a particular event used as an excuse for the family to reunite in order to see their beloved matriarch for potentially the final time. With the comedic quips minimal in favour of long, drawn-out shots of contemplative nothingness, the pace of the movie does feel bafflingly lifeless, and even when at the heart of the story is a plot device which should naturally woo the hearts of even the sturnest audience member, the truth is that at no time did I really care about anyone on-screen throughout the course of a hundred minutes which in all honesty, felt closer to the two hour mark, a negative aspect if ever there was one. With my mind not fully engaged therefore, the excellent performances do sort of become taken for granted, whilst the interesting cultural examinations don’t really make any real difference, and with a concluding act which doesn’t make any narrative sense and sort of makes the entire point of the movie completely pointless, Wang’s movie is clearly made with a lot of heart, but it still lacked that key ingredient you need from a drama; drama.

Overall Score: 6/10

Film Review: Good Boys

 “Tonight Is Our First Middle School Party. There’s Going To Be Girls There. You Know What That Means..?”

With 2019 undoubtedly the year where the coming of age movie has become the weekly norm, this week sees the release of Good Boys, an American teen comedy brought to the big screen by both Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg through their production company, Point Grey Pictures, a film studio responsible most recently for the rather excellent, The Disaster Artist, and the mildly entertaining, Long Shot, from earlier on this year. Directed by Ukrainian-born filmmaker, Gene Stupnitsky, in his big-screen debut, Good Boys sees Stupnitsky team up with long-term writing collaborator, Lee Eisenberg, after their extensive work together on the American, and much much better, version of The Office, for a movie which takes the very well-worn and cliched tale of youth and young manhood and spices it up with a impressively hilarious comedic script which results in one of the most surprising and rewarding American comedies in recent history.

Wholly focusing on the trials and tribulations of the self-proclaimed “bean bag boys”, Good Boys sees Brady Noon, Keith L. Williams and the ever improving, Jacob Tremblay (Room, Wonder) as Thor, Lucas and Max respectively, three awkward inbetweeners who upon taking the big step from fifth to sixth grade, are invited to a house party ran by their school’s most popular kid, one who promises the chance for our leading lads to partake in the horrifying encounter they all aren’t prepared for; kissing a girl. As per the difficulty when it comes to this type of story, the tale of teens angst and rife anti-social behaviour isn’t exactly anything original, with the likes of Booksmart this year alone offering a very similar plot, if being a tad more adult and certainly better made on an aesthetic level, but where Good Boys falls down on a basis of freshness and a slight cheap sensibility, it more than makes up for in terms of comedic output, with the razor sharp script offering numerous hilarious set piece, one of which actually made me giggle so much, tears began streaming from my eyes, an effect of which I haven’t experienced from an American comedy in donkeys, and when a comedy works its’ magic to the extent that bodily fluids extract themselves from your body, it’s fair to say that such a movie does its’ job pretty damn well.

Overall Score: 7/10

Film Review: Pain and Glory

“If You Don’t Write Or Film, What Will You Do..?”

Written and directed by critically acclaimed Spanish filmmaker, Pedro Almodóvar, a director responsible for the likes of Julietta and The Skin I Live In most recently, films which although may have made waves in Festival and critics circles, failed to ignite any sense of worldwide recognition, particularly to a lay audience who still seem baffled and alarmed at the thought of sitting through a film with subtitles, Pain and Glory comes to cinemas this week with a particularly enthusiastic expanded release across the U.K after making its’ debut at this year’s Cannes festival where the movie was selected for the Palme d’Or, albeit eventually losing out to Bong Joon-ho’s comedic thriller, Parasite. Reuniting once again with long-term collaborators, Antonio Banderas (The Mask of Zorro and Penélope Cruz (Murder on the Orient Express), Almodóvar’s latest is a bittersweet, expertly acted tale of regret and redemption with a staggeringly good central performance from Banderas, and whilst there is indeed much to admire about Almodóvar latest, and arguably most personal, work to date, Pain and Glory does undoubtedly suffer heavily from an annoyingly jumbled narrative and a baffling, almost cheap looking aesthetic which makes the film on a visual level seem amateurishly televisual.

With a narrative structure which comes fairly close to exhibiting the storyline traits of a portmanteau movie, Pain and Glory focuses primarily on Banderas’ Salvador Mallo, a retired, hermit-esque filmmaker who upon discovering that one of his early critically acclaimed movies has become the subject of a hotly anticipated restoration, begins to contemplate the years which have preceded him, leading up to the present day where numerous medical issues are preventing him from making the most of his talent and gifts. With Mallo’s story jumping from time period to time period, the flashbacks focusing on his childhood allow the movie to introduce Penélope Cruz as his overbearing and incredibly Spanish mother figure, one who sees the brightness at the heart of her son’s abilities but is reluctant to allow him to discover his own path as a young Mallo soon becomes obsessed with the escapist pastime of art, cinema and before he is ready for it, the notion of true love. Whilst the editing of this narrative journey fails to be as elegant and streamlined as I would have wanted, the power of the primary performers at the heart of the tale does push aside such issues for a time, but with clear pacing issues and not enough comedic quips to fully engage my brain for the entire runtime, Pain and Glory is a moderately successful vehicle for a absolutely stupendous central performance form Banderas and a movie with such a brilliant final shot that I almost felt the need to stand up and clap.

Overall Score: 6/10

Film Review: Once Upon a Time in Hollywood

“In This Town, It Can All Change, Like That…”

After a summer of truly awful summer blockbusters, with only the likes of Midsommar and reissues of Jaws, The Matrix and Apocalypse Now the very few cinematic releases to keep my sanity intact and preventing me from ending my relationship with film forevermore, thank the baby jesus for the return of Quentin Tarantino, one of the select few of talented filmmakers currently working in the world of film who is always guaranteed to expel greatness upon the big screen, with the critically acclaimed American returning to cinemas for the first time since 2016’s excellent, The Hateful Eight, with the hotly anticipated and star-studded, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. Hyped with a typically tantalising word of mouth after its’ debut at this year’s Cannes Festival, Hollywood sees Tarantino once again at the top of his filmmaking craft, with his so-called “ninth” picture (with the big man himself seeing both chapters of Kill Bill as a single entity) his most mature work since Jackie Brown all the way back in 1997, and whilst Hollywood by no means manages to surpass Pulp Fictiona film which remains to this day Tarantino’s undisputed magnum opus, Tarantino’s latest is the closest the American has come in ages to creating a full-blown masterpiece.

As per the norm when it comes to the back catalogue of Tarantino, Hollywood sees the American have complete and utter control over a release which is seen as his most “personal” to date, a two hour, forty minute drama which essentially follows three separate plot threads for the majority of the runtime, all of which then convene for a final, and highly memorable, concluding act which for those with prior knowledge of the historical basis in which the film is based, is incredibly satisfying in its’ revisionist way of distorting true events. Of the three threads, all of which set in the peace-loving, hippie ear of 1969, the primary basis of the plot follows Leonardo DiCaprio (The Revenant) and Brad Pitt (The Big Short) as Rick Dalton, a fading and emotionally crippled actor whose success on the small screen hasn’t exactly paid dividends upon the big screen, and Cliff Booth, a war-hero turned stuntman with a particularly ambiguous past, two long-standing partners in the titular land of Hollywood whose careers seem to be dwindling into non-existence. Second to the primary narrative is Margot Robbie’s (The Wolf of Wall Street) depiction of Sharon Tate, the beautifully angelic figure of tragedy whose involvement with the Manson Family, the subject of the film’s third and final plot thread, supposedly sparked such a dramatic shift in the air of tinseltown that the landscape was changed forevermore, and with Tarantino expertly managing to mould each segment together with a surprisingly low-lew approach at times, the more you take into Hollywood in terms of knowledge about Manson and the events at Cielo Drive on that eventful night, the more you will undoubtedly take from it, particularly on an emotional level, something of which Tarantino’s movies more than most tend to lack.

With such a contained yet sprawling narrative, Hollywood is clearly the closest Tarantino has come to recreating the storyline structure of Pulp Fiction since its’ release in 1994, and whilst I have seen some reviews which have criticised the movie’s storyline as excessive and over-indulgent, the entire point of the movie is to focus on a forgotten era in cinema of which Tarantino is absolutely fascinated with, and with a large majority of the runtime content with following our leading characters as they drive around the sunny, silky streets of a land filled with stars and dreamers, I for one was absolutely transfixed with the direction of the narrative from start to finish and bulked at how quick two hours just seemed to glide by without any issues whatsoever. Of course with such an eye-watering cast, the performances are all typically marvelous, with Pitt slightly outperforming his partner in crime and a standout cameo from Dakota Fanning (Ocean’s 8) topping a wholly memorable acting collaboration, but the real winner here is of course Tarantino himself as he directs some of his best set pieces to date, particularly one staggeringly tense extended sequence in which Pitt’s Booth is invited to the home of the Manson Family at Spahn’s Movie Ranch. As the movie reaches its’ climax, Tarantino carefully takes his time as he delicately pulls back the curtain on his perspective of events on the night of August 8th 1969, and as white-knuckle tension goes, the last twenty minutes of the movie are as gripping as anything I’ve ever seen, capping off what is clearly the best original movie of the year so far and a welcome return for Tarantino who provides his best work in years. Stupendous filmmaking.

Overall Score: 9/10

Film Review: Animals

“Sooner Or Later The Party Has To End…”

Less of a coming of age drama and more like a raging alcohol and drug fuelled stupor, South Australian director, Sophie Hyde, brings to life Emma Jane Unsworth’s 2014 novel of the same name in the form of Animals, an internationally produced “buddy” movie which sees Holliday Grainger (My Cousin Rachel) and Alia Shawkat (Green Room) as Laura and Tyler, two close friends hitting the tender age of their mid-30’s who spend their time frolicking, excessively drinking and partaking in hard drugs in the name of staying young, keeping fresh and shying away from the responsibilities of the “adult” world. Screened to the public at this year’s Sundance Film Festival and departing with a overly positive buzz, Hyde’s movie is a refreshingly low-key if wildly spirited take on the trials and tribulations of adulthood, one which embraces many of the plot devices and genre conventions evident in previous and better works of a similar ilk, but too a film which works off the strengths of its’ leading characters as we follow them through a particular path which audiences of similar age range will undoubtedly understand and sheepishly relate to.

With 2019 seemingly being the year where the coming of age movie has re-emerged into the cinematic spotlight, Animals follows most closely to the likes of Booksmart in some ways, a film which takes the American Graffiti route of exploring one last childhood hurrah before venturing into the world of growing up, and whilst of course the age ranges of our particular characters in each film differ by a decade or so, the central narrative of Hyde’s movie focuses on two friends seemingly reluctant to take that next step into becoming what they fear most; serious adults. With Grainger’s Laura then becoming the first to attempt to bridge the gap between child and adult as she falls in love with Fra Free’s (Les Misérables) mopey, piano loving straighthead, tensions soon build up between the pair, with each seemingly beginning to resent each other as they slowly drift apart as Laura falls more into the trap of modern-day normalisation involving marriage and family, whilst Tyler continues her life of unemployment, heavy drinking and endless partying. With the film relying on the central double act to basically hold the film together, the performances of both Grainger and Shawkat are good enough to keep you more than interested, aided nicely by some sharp comedic dialogue and snappy sarcastic quips, and whilst Hyde’s movie will come and go without leaving much of a lasting impression, Animals is an enjoyable, if slightly wandering, tale of friendship and the ability to drink many, many bottles of white wine.

Overall Score: 6/10