“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
“When I Was A Kid, There Was A Place, A Dark Place. They Closed It Down, And Let It Rot. But The Things That Live There, They Come Back…”
With Hollywood at a particular period in cinematic history where every single word written by the steady hand of Stephen King is set for some form of live action adaptation, with the release of Pet Sematary and It: Chapter Two alone this year resulting in very successful box office returns, the release of Doctor Sleep this week reminds that the best King adaptation in the form of Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece, The Shining, has yet to be truly tested even after nearly forty years. With King’s original novel undoubtedly one of his most iconic and well regarded by literary readers, the fear of any sequel to the tale of the Torrance’s and the Overlook Hotel were first raised when Doctor Sleep was published in 2013, and whilst King’s novel passed the time nicely during my university years with some interesting ideas and charming call backs to its’ predecessor, the narrative never held the same sense of supernatural wonder that the 1977 original novel had in spades. Cue the big screen adaptation therefore, one directed by the overly impressive skills of horror aficionado, Mike Flanagan, the mind behind both Netflix’s The Haunting of Hill House series and of course, Stephen King’s own, Gerald’s Game, and what we have is a movie which succeeds in paying both homage to Kubrick’s classic horror and staying as faithful to the novel of Doctor Sleep as humanly practicable, a decision which ultimately simultaneously both hinders and supports Flanagan’s latest big screen project.
With Kubrick’s adaptation of The Shining only carrying a slight sense of faithfulness to the source material in the first place, Flanagan’s movie directly follows events which take place in the 1980 horror classic after a decision was made that most people heading into Doctor Sleep would have probably seen Kubrick’s portrayal of events rather than read the original text, and with a central narrative which follows a now alcoholic and middle-aged Danny Torrance (Ewan McGregor) and his discovery of both others who “shine” and Rebecca Ferguson’s (Mission Impossible: Fallout) band of vampire-esque killers who feed off the “steam” of those inflicted with the power of the shining, Flanagan’s movie for those who would not have read the novel is a substantial diversion from the confines of the Overlook Hotel. Blending mystery, scenes of downright horrific violence and a really beautiful genre aesthetic, Doctor Sleep does have elements of real intrigue, even for someone who has read the source material, but at a staggering two and a half hours, the movie doesn’t half drag at times, particularly when we are exposed to utterly blasphemic reconstructions of scenes from Kubrick’s original movie and a tendency to focus on particular characters who suffer from a unhealthy balance of being both uninteresting and underwritten. The Shining it is not, but as a direct adaptation of a middling King novel, Flanagan’s movie is good enough but fails to ignite the sense of haunting wonder its’ predecessor continues to evoke even after nearly forty years.
Overall Score: 6/10
“August 29th, 1997, Was Supposed To Be Judgement Day. But I Changed The Future, Saved Three Billion Lives…”
Added into the foray of high profile film franchises in the world of Hollywood which have been dissected, disgraced and destroyed thanks to sub-par release after sub-par release, the Terminator series returns once again to cinemas this week in the form of Dark Fate, an effects ridden sequel which attempts to put the series back on track after the jaw-droppingly awful filmic abortion which was 2015’s Terminator Genisys, a film so poor that there seemed to be no turning back or sign of redemption for a story which should have ended after the events of the masterful, Judgement Day, the last decent film to be released under the Terminator banner all the way back in 1991. Completely retconning the events of the films and the spin-off television series which followed James Cameron’s original sequel, Dark Fate picks up twenty seven years after the events of the series’ second chapter, a movie which follows an incredibly familiar and well-worn narrative as it attempts to both pay homage to Cameron’s original films whilst offering a potential way forward for the franchise, and whilst the latest Terminator offering isn’t as dreadful as previous entries in the series, Dark Fate is pretty much as generic as it can get in terms of a loud, bloated Hollywood blockbuster.
Directed by Tim Miller of Deadpool fame, Dark Fate begins with a snippet of film from Judgement Day, with the famous interrogation scene of Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Connor within the confines of the mental institution utilised to remind audiences of her character’s existence as well as confirming once again just how well directed Cameron’s sequel really is, and whilst it’s rather heartwarming to see that Hamilton still exists as an actor as she once again rips up the big screen with her sarcastic, heartless demeanour, Miller’s movie might as well be a retread of the a-typical Terminator narrative. With the “John Connor” hero subtype now being re-focused onto Natalia Reyes’ Daniela Ramos, the plot sees Mackenzie Davis (Blade Runner 2049) take up the mantle of the primary protagonist as she continuously battles against Gabriel Luna’s (Rogue One) Rev-9, an awfully designed rehash of Robert Patrick’s infamous T-100 and a villain whose primary scare factor is the jarring CGI which follows him as he leaps around in attempt to make his character carry some form of relevance. When Arnie eventually and inevitably turns up, the film does begin to pick up slightly but when a two hour film is essentially just a twenty first century rip-off of two science fiction classics, it’s fair to say that maybe it is time to put the Terminator franchise on hold indefinitely.
Overall Score: 5/10
“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
“Life Is About More Than Just Survival. We Were A Family. Dysfunctional, Sure, But What Family Isn’t…”
How a lot can change in the world of cinema in just one decade. Since the release of the first Zombieland back in 2009, Emma Stone has picked up a much deserved Academy Award, Woody Harrelson stunned audiences with a career-best performance in the first season of True Detective and Jesse Eisenberg has become more and more of a sanctimonious asshole after winning plaudits for his central role in the outstanding, The Social Network and then bombing any chances of redemption after delivering one of the worst villainous performances in the history of cinema in the awfully misguided, Batman Vs. Superman. Forever placing itself in the hearts of cult movie fanatics since its’ initial release, the world of Zombieland returns with Double Tap, a movie which finally hits the big screen after years of development hell and one helmed once again by returning director, Ruben Fleischer, whose exploits since the original movie have included the vacuous and noisy double bill of Gangster Squad and Venom. With jokes aplenty, some juicy comic violence and an erratic, lightning-fast pacing, Fleischer’s movie is exactly the movie you think it is, and an enjoyable one at that.
Whilst there is some degree of a central narrative at the heart of the movie, one involving our four horsemen (and ladies) of the apocalypse splitting off from each other in search of individual life decisions, Double Tap is without doubt more interested in set pieces, set pieces involving smart, sarcastic and well timed comedic gags during the heat of the battle against the hordes of the undead who make their way into the storyline when absolutely needed. With particular gags from the original being repeated, including the well-versed “zombie rules” utilised as a recurring flashpoint and the mighty Metallica returning to boost the soundtrack’s awesomeness, Double Tap is far from original, and whereas the original was essentially America’s answer to Edgar Wright’s superior zombie classic, Shaun of the Dead, Double Tap concludes with the most Americanised and overly ridiculous climax ever seen in a zombie flick. With the cast being supported by excellent supporting cameos including the scene stealing, Zoey Deutch (Everybody Wants Some!!) and a weird post-credits sequence involving Bill Murray (Groundhog Day), Double Tap is perfect Friday night nonsense, with emphasis on the nonsense.
Overall Score: 6/10
“When I Saw Him, It Was Like I Was Seeing A Ghost. Like Every Trigger I’ve Ever Pulled…”
When it comes to my own personal opinion of Ang Lee, a director who still seems to be riding off of the critical success of the multi award winning and completely overrated, Life of Pi, the Chinese born filmmaker never really settles on a steady production line of impressive body of cinematic works, with his best work, such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain, sandwiched between the disastrous, Hulk, highlighting that whilst Lee isn’t afraid to push new boundaries in the world of film, not every decision seems to be one which works to a successful degree. With no one on the planet managing to catch up with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Lee returns to the world of mainstream blockbusters in the form of Gemini Man, a ridiculously preposterous science fiction action flick which sees Will Smith (Suicide Squad) as Henry Brogan, a highly skilled government assassin who upon hitting the ripe age of his early fifties, decides that retirement is the best way forward after a life full of murder finally takes its toll.
As per the spoiler-heavy nature of trailers nowadays, the main crux of the narrative then focuses on a very out-there government conspiracy to eradicate Brogan after he is determined to be a threat to natural security, resulting in the discovery of Brogan’s clone, a younger, more agile and apparently less emotional version of himself who is sent to hunt his elder counterpart down by the slick-haired figure of Clive Owen (The Informer). Part Looper, The Matrix and every other science fiction classic known to man, Lee’s movie is inherently messy, stupid and unengaging, one which features a screenplay from Game of Thrones creator, David Benioff, and the type of straight-to-DVD B-movie which makes you wonder how on earth films like this manage to get widespread release when films like Dragged Across Concrete and Burning are harder to find than the Bermuda Triangle. Want an answer? Will Smith, and whilst the Fresh Prince tries his hardest to put some meat on the bones of a very stagnant plot, the truth is that Lee’s baffling love of all things technical means that Gemini Man looks absolutely terrible, with the de-aging effect used on Smith creating a very disturbing uncanny valley vortex which makes half the movie look like a third-rate video game, and whilst Lee’s latest isn’t the worst film I’ve ever seen, it is clearly his weakest film to date and proves that some filmmakers only have one or two good films in them for the entirety of their careers.
Overall Score: 4/10
“I Used To Think My Life Was A Tragedy, But Now I Realise, It’s A Comedy…”
Suitably utilising the effects of the famous saying, “there is no such thing as bad publicity”, War Dogs and The Hangover director, Todd Phillips, returns to cinemas this week with Joker, a movie which brings with it an a-typical example of contemporary social media carnage involving a movie which manages to have the official double stamp of both early critical plaudits and volcanic audience expectation. Benefitting from early calls of being given “masterpiece” status after its’ debut at this year’s Venice International Film Festival back in late August, Phillips’ movie famously has been through sensational, La La Land-esque levels of backlash from many across the globe even before any form of general release, with particular avenues of spectators arguing the negative impact the film may have on the wider populous due to its’ oppressive and disturbing themes, a particularly nonsensical argument which harks back to the age-old sociological theory that violent media turns the lay person into sadistic, sociopathic serial killers. Putting such nonsense aside, Joker as a film is a surprisingly nihilistic and hauntingly effective character study, a movie which is designed with such freedom and disregard for the opinions of the masses that for it to be classed as just another “comic book movie” would be a disservice of the highest order, and in an era where the Marvel Cinematic Universe is clearly the holy bible of what audiences have come to expect from superhero movies, Joker is a satanic, incendiary work of madness which is by far the most original and boldly constructed so called “mainstream” movie in many a good year.
With the influences on Phillips’ movie wide ranging to say the least, the movie of course predominantly relies on its’ central character’s source material, particularly the grittier end of the comic book world including Alan Moore’s critically lauded graphic novel, The Killing Joke, which also served as a basis for Christopher Nolan’s and Heath Ledger’s depiction of the character within The Dark Knight, and whilst Ledger’s approach to the infamous villain was the darkest and most complex incarnation cinema audiences had seen at the time, the masterstroke casting of the brilliant Joaquin Phoenix (The Master) means that in the form of Arthur Fleck, the world bears witness to a Joker who takes the term, “sociopath”, to an entire new level. With many already comparing Phillips’ movie to the sheer isolation and hopelessness of Scorsese’s Taxi Driver, the smokey, industrial wasteland of an early 1980’s era Gotham means that tonally, Joker does owe Scorsese’s classic a huge amount of debt, with the central narrative of Phillips’ movie closely mirroring Paul Schrader’s original script as we see Phoenix’s Fleck slowly embrace the hatefulness and disillusioned hatred he has for his own world by being constantly subjected to violence, abuse and high profile ridicule at the hand of Robert De Niro’s (Goodfellas) Murray Franklin, a popular talk-show host who in the eyes of Fleck, embodies everything that is wrong with a society which is determined to keep the rich intact and the poor struggling to survive.
Whilst the movie does of course have an overarching social commentary regarding issues of capitalism and societal breakdown, albeit in a way which could have done with a slightly more subtle approach, Phillips rightly is more interested in using his chance to utilise the breathtaking acting skills of Phoenix as much as possible, an actor who in return offers up the most dedicated and physical performance to be seen this year as he beefs up his character with a skeletal physicality and an interesting condition which sees him laugh hysterically for extended periods without the ability to prevent himself from doing so. With another influence being Lynne Ramsay’s You Were Never Really Here, an equally stark and stylish work of brilliance with Phoenix on top form, the similarities involving each film’s leading character’s relationship with their mother, their relationship with the outside world and their relationship with their own personal mental health issues does offer up an interesting double feature, and whilst Joker is of course the more mainstream of the two movies, the darkness and violent nature at the heart of it never gives away for the sake of appeasing happily paying audiences, resulting in jaw-dropping explosions of violence which reminded me of Drive and the infamous curb-stomp scene from American History X, and as the movie progresses into its’ final act in which the narrative plays into a crescendo of Fight Club meets V for Vendetta, all the subplots in the two hours previous come to a mightily radical end, one which physically made me jolt at the bravery of a film which stuck to its’ guns completely and became the better for it. Comedic and heartwarming Joker is not, and in an era when filmmakers need to break ground in the comic book genre to truly stand out among the money making behemoth’s, Phillips has created the best DC movie since The Dark Knight and the most radical interpretation of any comic book character I can remember, and if you can stomach the violence and handle the sheer darkness at the heart of it, Joker is mightily impressive and rewarding in equal measure.
Overall Score: 9/10
“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
“I Want Revenge. I Want Them To Know That Death Is Coming, And There Is Nothing They Can Do To Stop It…”
Seemingly taking the most out of his latter career surge after impressive performances within the likes of Creed, Creed II and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Sylvester Stallone returns to his second most iconic cinematic role in the form of the rugged Vietnam veteran, John Rambo, for the aptly named, Rambo: Last Blood, an impressively ultra-violent revenge flick which takes the central plot of Taken and attempts to mix it with the rugged, nihilistic and contemplative nature of something like James Mangold’s thoroughly impressive and similarly gruesome, Logan. Co-written by Stallone but directed by Adrian Grunberg, famous so far for directing the Mel Gibson starring, Get the Gringo, alongside credits on the likes of the incredibly memorable, Apocalypto, Last Blood sees Stallone’s retired Rambo now content with seeing out the remainder of his peaceful days on a dusty ranch in the outskirts of Arizona, U.S, until his beloved niece is of course captured by sadistic Mexican human traffickers when she pops across the border in order to catch up with her long lost father, a decision of which her knife-loving Uncle tells her to disregard from the outset.
Whilst I can admit to not seeing every release in the Rambo franchise, let alone remember anything about them, Last Blood doesn’t really “feel” like the typical Rambo film, with the central revenge narrative conforming to every single cliche and stereotype ever created in the history of cinema, and whilst most audience members don’t exactly head into a Rambo movie ready for two hours of heavy contemplations and art-house stylisms, Last Blood does eventually get to the set pieces which action fans will either lap up with gleeful joy or turn their heads at in disgust at how simply sadistic Mr. Rambo’s latest human cull actually is. With more knife-welding murders than most slasher flicks and some overly disturbing kills which I think even John Wick would admit to going slightly too far, First Blood is the most violent big screen film I can remember since Overlord, but with an overly wacky and absurdist sensibility, Stallone’s latest is a good old fashioned carnival of carnage which passes the time nicely and shouldn’t be taken seriously at all in the ilk of the good old fashioned 80’s action flicks of which the character of John Rambo helped build in the first place.
Overall Score: 5/10
“Our Initiate Then Has The Privilege Of Drawing The Card, And Mr. Le Bail Will Tell Us Which Game To Play…”
Directed by the filmmaking duo of Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett, horror aficionado’s responsible so far for part of the rather underrated, V/H/S, and the critically massacred, Devil’s Due, Ready or Not is the second big-screen end-of-year horror after It: Chapter Two designed to pull audiences out of the rain and into the confines of a nicely heated cinema screen with the promise of B-movie horror tropes and bucket loads of exploitation violence. Brought to the big screen by Walt Disney of all studios, Ready or Not is most definitely not a film for the kids, an ultra-violent, overly knowing black comedy which conforms to the well worn tropes of exploitation B-movies as it follows a simple yet entertaining central idea to satisfy both genre fans and the lay cinema audience who pay good money to see cheap, blood ridden nonsense, and whilst the final project may not be anything particularly original or memorable, Ready or Not is a more than functional, thoroughly enjoyable big budget splatter horror with a great central performance from the film’s leading lady.
Whilst the movie’s supporting trailer pretty much gives away a huge majority of the central plot, Ready or Not follows Samara Weaving (Three Billboards), niece of Hugo Weaving of The Lord of the Rings and The Matrix fame, as Grace, whose marriage to Mark O’Brien’s (Bad Times at the El Royale) Alex Le Domas brings her closer to the ridiculously wealthy Le Domas empire, whose generations-long tradition of the new family member being forced to play a particular game at midnight leads her to engage in a fight for survival within the confines of their stately home. Cue stupendously silly levels of overripe violence and more forced comedic punch lines than you would might expect, Ready or Not is a strange blend of Escape Room, The Cabin in the Woods and Adam Wingard’s criminally underrated, You’re Next, and whilst sometimes the comedic elements do indeed topple the slasher inflicted side of the piece, Weaving’s dedicated performance as a newly crowned scream queen allows you to enjoy the crazy path her character walks, even if it is incredibly cliched and wholly unsurprising. For a thoroughly entertaining Friday night slice of horror nonsense, Ready or Not goes down nicely with a pizza and a pint but is undoubtedly quickly forgettable and not interesting enough to be placed in the same category as the sort of films it clearly evokes.