“I Got No Family, No Money, Just Give Me This One Chance, I Wanna Fight…”
Based on “A Prayer Before Dawn: My Nightmare in Thailand’s Prisons” by ex-con and former drug addict, Billy Moore, Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s debut, high profile release elbows its’ way into cinemas this week, dragging along with it a bruising sense of harsh realism and the full-blooded nightmare of Moore’s journey as he is incarcerated within the confines of a Thailand prison for drug dealing and is forced to fight for his survival in a sense both literal and dangerous. Shot on location at Nakhon Pathom Prison, a staggeringly un-hygienic mosh pit of overpopulated prisoners, both dead and alive, where violence is mandatory for staying alive and gang rape is part and parcel of being proclaimed as the weakest in the populous, Sauvaire’s movie is a grueling, non-stop and overly horrific portrayal of survival which incorporates a menacing backdrop to iron over the cliches of the plot, even when the fundamental story is that of reality and not fiction, and with a standout central performance and an editing pace which works particularly well considering a complete lack of meaningful dialogue, A Prayer Before Dawn is a successful and daring directorial debut from a filmmaker unafraid to tackle the darkest tales of man and the instinct to survive, no matter the cost.
With Joe Cole of Peaky Blinders and Green Room fame playing the younger incarnation of Moore, his journey from angst-ridden junkie to dedicated fighter brings with it a frighteningly authentic physical performance, one which rivals Tom Hardy’s Bronson in Winding-Refn’s spectacular movie of the same name for levels of incarcerated danger, aside from the pantomime sensibility of the latter which is strikingly absent, and in its place, a much more humane and regretful character arc which develops as Moore becomes used to the ways and means of his newly found incarceration. With Cole’s powerful performance resulting in every jab, bruise and serious injury being well and truly felt, it’s a crying shame that the screenplay for the movie doesn’t entirely hold up to similarly spectacular levels, with the path of the narrative funneling through from a run-of-the-mill prison drama in the vein of Animal Factory or David Mackenzie’s equally gritty Starred Up, to a bog-standard boxing conclusion, all wrapped up within a thematic sensibility which reeks of a combination between The Raid 2: Berandal and Warrior, and as amazing as that ultimately sounds, Sauvaire’s debut doesn’t stamp its’ foot on the equal quality of its’ predeceasing familiars and is ultimately a movie saved by his stellar direction of a leading performance which demands to be visualized and lauded.
Overall Score: 7/10
“I Sailed Halfway Around The World To Find You…”
With Icelandic filmmaker, Baltasar Kormákur, having a recent cinematic back catalogue which can arguably be regarded as somewhat patchy, the 2 Guns and Everest director returns this week with Adrift, a romantic survival drama based on the true story of reckless adventurers, Tami Oldham and Richard Sharp, as they venture into the Pacific Ocean in order to sail a luxury sail boat from Tahiti to San Diego and end up coming face to face with a destructive and dangerous hurricane. Based on Tami Oldham’s own memoir “Red Sky in Mourning”, co-written with Susea McGearhart and published in 1998, Kormákur’s latest follows a familiar “lost-at-sea” narrative as it attempts to juggle the central relationship between Oldham and Sharp, played on-screen by Shailene Woodley (Snowden) and Sam Claflin (My Cousin Rachel) respectively, with a hard-edged tale of survival, and whilst the performances of the central duo are pleasantly believable and committed, particularly Woodley who gives her best on-screen performance since Snowden, Adrift is annoyingly a middling, overly mediocre affair which features zero sense of peril and an overriding sense that we have been here many, many times before.
With a time-jumping narrative which continually switches between the past and the present, the historical scenes sees the core relationship between Sharp and Oldham begin to blossom in the most cringey, overly saccharin way possible, with even Oldham’s character in one scene apologising for being too “cheesy”, but even with a screenplay which feels very much the typeface template for approaching on-screen Hollywood depictions of love, it’s to the leading duo’s credit that you still successfully believe in the pair as a genuine couple hunger for exploration and excitement on the rough seas. Cue the scenes of the present and it is here where Adrift ultimately and strangely becomes ever-so cliched, with the movie somewhat sitting between the all-out physicality of All is Lost and the ripe sentimentality of Titanic, but all-the-while feeling incredibly boring and wholly un-engaging even when Woodley gives it her all, peanut butter covered fingers and all. With a concluding twist which not only feels convoluted, cheap and utterly ridiculous, such a black hole of jarring inconsistency raises questions about whether the majority of the film was ultimately needed, but with a resounding sense that both Claflin and Woodley somewhat save the day, Adrift sort of gets past the finish line, albeit struggling and hanging on for dear life.
Overall Score: 5/10
“You Wanna See This Thing Through? I’m Gonna Have To Get, Dirty…”
With Denis Villeneuve showing a wider audience what was to come of his expert film-making prowess back in 2015 with Sicario, a expertly crafted, white-knuckle thriller which laid the basis for the similarly masterful Arrival and Blade Runner 2049 in terms of what the French-Canadian could achieve with the right backing, arguably the more impressive element of the feature was Taylor Sheridan, an American most famous at the time for his stint on Sons of Anarchy but whose screenplay for Sicario was both smart and compelling, one swiftly followed by equally impressive screenplays for both Hell or High Water and Wind River, capping off a trio of superbly written movies. each with a dedicated lust for heavy doses of substance and style in equal measure. Returning to writing duties again for the eagerly anticipated Sicario sequel, subtitled Soldado, the absence of Villeneuve means Italian director Stefano Sollima (Suburra) takes charge of a movie which continues the oppressive, ominous tone of the original whilst working through a genuinely thrilling narrative, one which sees the return of Josh Brolin (Avengers: Infinity War) and Benicio del Toro (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) as Matt Graver and Alejandro Gillick as they attempt to orchestrate a war between the Mexican cartels after they are seen to be aiding agents of ISIS cross the border in order to carry out their destructive message, and whilst Soldado doesn’t entirely hit the heavy heights of its’ near-perfect predecessor come the end credits, Sollima’s movie is still an unnerving, powerful work of war at its’ most darkest and lawless.
Beginning with a catalogue of terrorist related events, including a jaw-dropping and horrific supermarket explosion in which the camera lingers closely from outside through every familiar step of contemporary terror, Soldado quickly re-introduces the reunion of Graver and Gillick as they are handed the freedom to do as they please in order to combat the ever-increasing Mexican cartel presence on the US-border which has now taken extra precedence due their involvement in potential terror activities. With a central narrative which sees the kidnapping of the young, spoiled daughter of a renowned Mexican cartel boss, one which ultimately results in in-house allegiances being put to the test, Sheridan’s screenplay also follows closely the exploits of newcomer Elijah Rodriguez’s Miguel as he crawls up the ranks of the cartel’s people smuggling operation, and whilst the sequel doesn’t entirely hit the brooding, ambiguity which drove through the entirety of its’ predecessor up until the very end, the tight-knit, unbearable tension does manage to completely follow over, rearing its’ head throughout a high proportion of a movie which aside from one sarcastic aside, primarily holds its’ tone as completely and utterly serious. With a Michael Mann-esque, militaristic sensibility which sees countless shots of rampaging army vehicles cruising across the vacant, perilous landscapes of the US/Mexican border, Soldado is wickedly spectacular in its’ approach to action set pieces, with the piercing sound of bullets echoing the overripe mixing of Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk merging spectacularly with endless cinematic screenshots of whirring helicopters, over-head drones and enough firepower to start and end a small coup.
With the inclusion of much more lusciously orchestrated action scenes second time around, the question remains whether the overall screenplay deserves such luxuries, and even as an overall body of work Soldado doesn’t piece together as tightly or rigidly as Sicario, with particular crucial plot threads concluding rather suddenly without any real sense of full-blooded purpose, the avenues which Sheridan’s writing takes us undoubtedly suits the bleak mould of the series, particularly in the movies’ penchant for gut-wrenching murder sequences and a concluding near-death experience which undeniably ranks up there with one of the more brutal character arcs in recent history. With Brolin and del Toro on superb, angst-ridden, macho-growling form, with the latter having much more space for a deeper layer of examination this time around as his character’s uncertain, ambiguous nature is slowly scraped at and given light, young Isabela Moner (Transformers: The Last Knight) as the similarly tough Isabela Reyes gives an equally impressive performance as the daughter of the cartel boss responsible for the death of Alejandro’s wife and daughter. With a bruising, battling, war torn sensibility which is as tough at times as it is riotously engaging and enjoyable, Soldado is a sequel success story which both pays homage to its’ predecessor with utmost respect whilst developing its’ characters in fascinating ways, and with the possibility of a third film coming to nicely round the series off as a trilogy, one can only query how much further Sheridan can continue his winning scripture streak.
Overall Score: 8/10
“I’d Like Very Much To Write About You. Your Society…”
Winning the award for most convoluted title of the year so far, Four Weddings and a Funeral director, Mike Newell, returns with The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a big screen adaptation of Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’ 2008 novel of the same name which sees Lily James’ (Cinderella) awfully well-spoken but deliriously likeable Julie Ashton, a well-to-do and moderately successful English writer, venture over to post-war Guernsey in order to embed herself into the titular organisation as research for her next literary project. With a cinematic sensibility which reeks of similarity when it comes to moderately successful contemporary Second World War dramas including Their Finest and Churchill, Newell’s latest is a ridiculously twee and wickedly harmless romantic drama which revels in its’ overt Britishness and an unbelievably predictable and paint-by-numbers screenplay, one which seems to be primarily designed to please audiences admiring the film with a slice of cake and cup of Earl Grey on a light and breezy Sunday afternoon.
With an opening twenty minutes which introduces James’ Ashton, the audience is made privy to her recent literary successes and close separate relationships of professional and personal boundaries with both the attentive, publisher figure of Matthew Goode’s (Stoker) Sidney and the charming American soldier, Mark Reynolds, as played by Everybody Wants Some!! highlight, Glen Powell. After receiving a letter from Michiel Huisman’s (Game of Thrones) farmer type, Dawsey Adams, under the umbrella of the titular gang of Guernsey residents however, Ashton swaps war torn central London to the rural heart of post occupied Guernsey where she attempts to unravel the mystery of Jessica Brown Findlay’s (Black Mirror) missing society founder, Elizabeth McKenna whilst slowly falling for the rough and rugged winner of most attractive cinematic farmer ever in the form of Huisman’s Adams. With a supporting band of merry well versed actors including Penelope Wilton (Doctor Who) and Tom Courtenay (45 Years), Newell’s movie never alleviates from being anything other than perfectly fine, and whilst at times the predictability weakens the film’s final product, the film forever linked with one of the worst titles ever just about ticks over.
Overall Score: 6/10
“Are We So Different From Men You Must Teach Us Different Things…”
With 2016’s Lion a solid and warm-hearted Oscar nominated directorial debut for Australian filmmaker, Garth Davis, expectations remained high for a cinematic second coming, no pun intended, and with the Easter holiday’s swiftly approaching, a time in which kids devour chocolate coated eggs with less and less of an understanding each year regarding its’ figurative meaning, the release of Mary Magdalene seems naturally apt. Featuring Rooney Mara (A Ghost Story) as the titular follower of Jesus Christ, whose religious and historical actions tend to primarily focus on her bearing witness to the resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion by the hands of the Roman Empire, Davis’ movie unfortunately conforms to the curse of the follow-up album by being a body of work much weaker than its’ predecessor, a staggeringly dull and uninspiring let-down which works much more effectively as a medicinal cure for insomniacs rather than a religious spiritual mediation, and whilst I am all for movies which opt for a slow and ponderous sensibility over choppily edited spectacle in the ilk of Blade Runner 2049 and Mara’s own strangely hypnotically strange, A Ghost Story, a film famous for a ten minute continuous shot of a character eating pie, Mary Magdalene is unfortunately an example of a film which uses the strategy and fails miserably.
With an underwritten screenplay which seems to have been typefaced onto the back of a postage stamp, the lack of real adventure or push results in the on-screen transfer from paper to film one which is tortuously painful to endure, with the film lacking both a simple element of life and a substantial capacity for the audience to not only believe that any of the characters are believable but more importantly, interesting enough to care for. With Joaquin Phoenix (Her) cast as the prophetic figure of Jesus, his whispering tone and shaggy-dog hair demeanour results in a performance which manages to come across as the lovechild of Eddie Redmayne in Jupiter Ascending and Phoenix himself in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Inherent Vice, and whilst Phoenix normally manages to pull off decent performances regardless of the overall quality of the movie, his performance is poorly directed and staggeringly dull. With two hours of film to burn through, Davis’ movie just doesn’t offer up a sizeable reason for why it exists in the first place, and even with a slightly interesting concluding contemplation, Mary Magdalene is the cinematic equivalent of a Tesco saver Easter egg; unequivocally bland.
Overall Score: 3/10
“For The Next Hour You’re Not Going To Know What’s Real Or What’s Fake…”
Part of the ensemble of writers behind the screenplay for Marvel’s Spider-Man: Homecoming, film-making duo, John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein return to directing with Game Night, a blackly comic mystery popcorn delight based on a script by the relatively unknown figure of Mark Perez, featuring Jason Bateman (The Gift) and Rachel McAdams (Spotlight) as the competitive married couple who are sucked into a night of outrageous antics with their weekly “game night” comrades by Kyle Chandler’s (Manchester By The Sea) returning overzealous and annoyingly successful brother figure who promises the players a night of gaming unlike any before it. With laugh out loud gags from beginning to end and a joyous first time viewing in which the audience is pulled left, right and centre in regards to the many twists which come before them, Game Night is an American comedy which ultimately works much more effectively than your average US-based comic farce thanks to a tightly wound script and an ensemble cast who undeniably seem to be having as much fun as the fee paying customers come to observe, and even if the movie may not work as well on repeat viewings after its’ concluding payoff, Daley and Goldstein’s latest is still a resounding full house.
With obvious narrative comparisons to David Fincher’s 1997 mystery drama The Game, albeit with with a much more comical tone, Game Night manages to succeed in intertwining both the whodunit elements of its’ narrative with the sickly black tone of its’ sharp humour, with set pieces featuring amateur bullet hole surgery and the attempted deep clean of a blood soaked dog resulting in hysterical fits of giggles as you soak up the sheer absurdity which unfolds throughout a tightly packed 100 minutes runtime. With Bateman and McAdams leading the line of couples entrapped in the film’s leading mystery, the chemistry between them is undeniably well measured, and even with my own personal reservations regarding the former’s on-screen talents when it comes to comedy, their central relationship is crucial to the more out-there comedy elements which in lesser hands may have indeed folded under the silliness of it all. With Jesse Plemons (Hostiles) stealing the show as the woefully awkward next door neighbour and a fantastically designed post-movie credit sequence, Game Night is if anything, outstanding popcorn fun, and for an American comedy to hold my attention for its’ entire runtime, that is a miracle within itself.
Overall Score: 7/10
“I Want You To Be The Very Best Version Of Yourself That You Can Be…”
Arriving as the final Best Picture nomination from the upcoming Academy Awards to be released in the UK before the ceremony takes place on the first weekend of March, Greta Gerwig (Jackie) halts her acting career for her directorial debut, Lady Bird, a coming of age comedy drama formed around a screenplay written by Gerwig herself and starring Saoirse Ronan as the titular troublesome teen from Sacramento, California who in her transference from school to college faces difficulties within both her home-life and her widening taste of the adolescent outside world. Supported by the likes of Laurie Metcalf (Toy Story 3), Tracy Letts (The Post) and Beanie Feldstein (Neighbours 2), Gerwig’s movie manages to break free from the cliches and pressures of coming-of-age dramas in which the film undeniably takes inspiration from, with the likes of particularly Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and 2016’s little seen The Edge of Seventeen obvious reference points in terms of storyline, thanks to a tightly wound script which manages to balance each of the film’s leading characters with their own personal strengths, weaknesses and flaws, resulting in performances which not only feel perfectly rounded and entirely believable, but are so fundamentally humane and empathetic that the movie spins you around and grips you tightly from the opening scene in which we discover the roller-coaster nature of the relationship which is progressively examined between mother and daughter.
After shining in a wide array of roles including The Grand Budapest Hotel and particularly John Crowley’s magnificent 2015 romantic drama, Brooklyn, Ronan’s portrayal of Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson is an absorbing and entirely empathetic performance, an awards courting triumph which perfectly captures the wildly inconsistent emotion of teenage angst, acne faced and all, one which is aided profusely by the magnificently resonant aura which the Irish star brings to a leading role bursting with flavourful personality and charisma, a character who although is proven to be riddled with human error and socially shocking flaws, manages to be much more interesting than the standardised Hollywood image of a cinematic on-screen teenager. Although the flashy editing and electrifying pace of the movie interweaves Lady Bird’s in-school debacles and the choppy relationships with both the female and male sex, with Manchester By The Sea’s Lucas Hedges and Call Me By Your Name’s Timothée Chalamet the cameo love interests whose personal narrative endpoints both end in extravagant fashion, the cornerstone of the movie is entirely focused on the exhausting battle between the child and parent, with Laurie Metcalf’s mother figure, Marion, a resoundingly commonplace thorn in the side of youthful curiosity of which many 21st century teenagers are more than accustomed to, with the performance of Metcalf equally as impressive as her younger counterpart, resulting in the many on-screen discussions between the two strong willed characters entirely captivating. With a deep level of care for the characters and precise direction from Gerwig who in her obvious admiration and pride for her screenplay manages to get the best out of even the most bit-part players of the piece, Lady Bird is flawless, a movie full with outstanding performances and a movie which manages to blend laugh out loud and perfectly pitched comic timing with elements of lachrymose inducing tenderness so effectively, you’ll think you would have known each of the film’s characters for years, and for a movie with a runtime with just over ninety minutes, it’s suffice to say, I would have happily stayed for much, much longer.
Overall Score: 10/10
“I Think I’ve Made A Terrible Mistake…”
Chosen as Russia’s entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the upcoming Academy Awards ceremony, director Andrey Zvyagintsev’s (Leviathon) stark and overly moody latest, Loveless, may be a particularly difficult picture to try and seek out thanks to an incredibly limited release, and whilst icy cold Russian mysteries aren’t exactly the type of movies audiences tend to rush and out and catch as quickly as humanly possible, Zvyagintsev’s latest is an interesting tale of extreme familial breakdowns and a depressing vista of Russia society, one which is helmed together by a central narrative regarding the disappearance of a young, seemingly unloved child and a movie that definitely deserves to be sought out. With a staggering plot pace and a claustrophobic overarching sensibility which not only takes its’ time setting the pieces of the narrative chess board in place but may seem too tough to handle for wandering minds, Loveless is an uncompromisingly depressive tragedy which fails to enforce even the smallest amount of redemption, but for those who can withstand the harshness of its’ winds, Zvyagintsev’s latest is an impressive, overly mysterious achievement.
With the first hour detailing in harsh detail the toxic relationship between Maryana Spivak’s Zhenya and Aleksey Rozin’s Boris as they both attempt to conclude an ongoing divorce and build fresh lives away from one another with new partners, Matvey Novikov’s Alexey is the isolated child in the middle, whose decision to abandon both mother and father sets up a second hour in which the picture switches from an uncompromising domesticated drama to a Scandi-esque thriller of ambiguous and uncertain temperament, bringing to mind in more ways than one the brilliance of The Killing (The Swedish one, not the American re-hash) and the ice-cold atmosphere of Let The Right One In. Portraying a society in which the birth of a child is met with disdain in favour of flavoursome trips of winding romance with new lovers and uninterested public services in which authorities are forced to act through procedure rather than through willingness, Zvyagintsev’s portrayal of modern Russia is unflinchingly negative, and with a conclusion which only serves as a reminder of the stark reality of consequence, Loveless is a sucker punch of a movie, one which leaves you gasping for the cheery horizons and one that even with obvious pacing flaws, keeps you thinking about it for days afterwards.
Overall Score: 7/10
“Downsizing Is About Saving Yourself. We Live Like Kings…”
Although, rather ashamedly, awareness of Alexander Payne’s previous work is limited to absolute zilch, resulting in a complete bypass of the likes of Nebraska, Sideways and The Descendants, the Academy Award winning American’s latest, Downsizing, is ironically somewhat unavoidable thanks to an early hurricane of hype regarding its’ quality and the decision for distributors to plaster its’ trailer on every release for at least the past three months. Starring Matt Damon as Paul Safranek, a downbeat, struggling occupational therapist, who along with wife, Audrey, played by Kristen Wiig, decides to agree to the titular, groundbreaking operation in order to reap the individual and world wide rewards which are offered, Payne’s latest is a particularly wild oddity, one which revels in a concoction of varying ideas and yet fails to clutch at a single straw and stay strictly on course. Sold as a comedic social satire, Downsizing begins in entertaining fashion, focusing primarily on Damon’s Safranek and his decision to undergo the procedure which reduces his mass to a fraction of his normal size, and with particular attention to detail and a number of cute, size related chuckles, the movie’s first hour is a real triumph, with the pace and script effectively managing to hold the balance between hypothetical science fiction and rib-tickling comedy.
Unfortunately for Payne however, once the movie moves into territory which can only be regarded as mindless, sanctimonious preaching, the film begins to test your patience, and with a final act which discusses notions of apocalyptic foreboding and the survival of the entire human race, Downsizing almost becomes two completely different movies, with the second so wrapped up in a narrative so conflicting with its’ first, the size of our leading characters is somewhat normalised and loses its’ the sense of purpose it ultimately and successfully began with. With Damon on solid form and the likes of Christoph Waltz and Brawl In Cell Block 99′s, Udo Kier, doing the best they can with the little time they have on screen, Payne’s wild card in the form of Hong Chau’s Vietnamese political freedom fighter, Ngoc Lan Tran is also a troublesome element within the film, a broken English speaking Asian with a prosthetic leg whose appearance in the narrative seems only to be there in attempt to widen the comic relief. Whilst not exactly ever resorting to the level of Mickey Rooney’s overtly troubled portrayal of I. Y. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Tran is indeed a misjudged caricature, who although is portrayed as somewhat brazen and overwhelmingly commanding, is still a completely off-kilter inclusion within a movie which rightly can be lauded for its’ ideas but too can be criticised for its’ execution, and whilst Payne’s latest may seem impressive on the surface, underneath it bears a more than a few staggering issues at the heart of it.