“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
“You Messed With The Wrong Family…”
With Angelina Jolie and co. all the way back in 2001 showing how not to make a half decent video game adaptation with Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, a movie perhaps best remembered for featuring a pre-martini’d Daniel Craig in his youthful glory and the most annoying supporting character ever in the form of Noah Taylor’s I.T addicted Brit, here we are seventeen years later bearing witness to yet another cinematic franchise reboot with Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina) taking over the reigns as the titular wall climbing heroine. Based upon the similarly titled 2013 video game from developers Square Enix, a game of which I can confess to playing from beginning to end and thoroughly enjoying, Tomb Raider, directed by Roar Uthaug (The Wave) follows the more robust and hunter-gatherer motif of the rebooted game series, utilising a much younger and innocent Croft as she develops her skills and understanding of the mystical forces of nature in a Casino Royale styled coming-of-age fashion, and whilst the movie does remain loyal to its’ foundations with some interesting ideas and a dedicated leading lady, Uthaug’s movie is still slightly under par of something which should have been much more entertaining.
With Vikander adding a staggering amount of muscle in preparation for the role, her physical demeanour and willingness to at least look the part lands kudos points on her as an individual, and whilst the Swede is an undeniably likeable leading star, her approach to the role of Lara Croft is somewhat undermined by a screenplay which tends to verge on the edge of slumbering dullness, particularly in its’ first half when we move from the urban wasteland of contemporary London through to the mysterious island of Yamatai via a stop-off in a thieve-ridden Hong Kong. Where the movie does eventually pick up the pace is in Croft’s discovery of the island she so dearly seeks in order to answer questions regarding her father’s disappearance, an area which formed the basis of the 2013 video game, and a location which introduces both Walton Goggins (The Hateful Eight) as the underwritten primary antagonist and Dominic West’s (The Wire) hermit-esque and poorly wigged father figure whose narrative arc does seem relatively cliched. Concluding with a poorly managed “twist” which comes across as the definition of shark jumping, Tomb Raider is a somewhat mediocre blockbuster adventure and one which suffers primarily from a tendency for action over substance, but with Vikander an enjoyable leading presence with a kick-ass sensibility, the latest video game adaptation just about crosses the line.
Overall Score: 5/10
“It’s Not Destroying. It’s Making Something New…”
Wowing audiences and critics alike in the past with screenplays for works of brilliance including 28 Days Later, Dredd, albeit unaccredited, and of course his masterful directorial debut in the form of 2015’s Ex Machina, the breath of fresh air which is Britain’s own, Alex Garland, returns this week with Annihilation, yet another hotly anticipated release which uses Netflix as its’ chosen distributor in the UK after somehow failing to secure a deal for a nationwide cinematic release. Whilst Ex Machina was essentially a low-key, claustrophobic comment on the notion of artificial intelligence which always settled for brains over brass idiocy, going against the ilk and financial safety net of many contemporary sci-fi blockbusters, Garland’s latest expands the film-making horizons of which genuinely interesting science fiction can be explored, a movie which although at times seems to not entirely piece together as smoothly as one would ultimately like, powerfully blends thought provoking notions of unidentified alien contact with nightmarish surrealist terror which both takes cues and evolves on from classic genre pieces of which the movie undeniably takes reference from.
Based upon Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel of the same name, the first entry within the well received “Southern Reach Trilogy”, Garland’s movie focuses on Natalie Portman’s, Lena, a former soldier turned biologist who after the mysterious year long absence of Oscar Isaac’s (Star Wars: The Last Jedi) husband figure and current serving member of the U.S Army, Kane, embarks on a high risk expedition into the unknown phenomenon known as only as the “Shimmer” in order to find both an explanation behind its’ origins and answers regarding Kane’s sudden disappearance. Teaming up with Jennifer Jason Leigh’s (The Hateful Eight) Dr. Ventress, a straight-faced terminally ill psychologist who takes lead of the group, and Tessa Thompson’s (Thor: Ragnarok) somewhat timid and “damaged” physicist, Josie, among others, Annihilation explores a mode of discovery as we venture into the ambiguous “Shimmer” with Portman’s Lena taking point as the audiences access into the surrealist undertakings our heroine witnesses through her journey into the unknown. With an opening thirty minutes which leans heavy on background details regarding Kane and Lena’s unfaithful relationship and the apocalyptic nature of the “Shimmer” itself, the remaining runtime hands forth a narrative which keeps the audience on edge, forever guessing the threat which ultimately will be discovered as the cards reveal themselves come a Under the Skin inspired final act.
Aided by an uncertain, uncomfortable sensibility, a tonal cornerstone which is completely rife from beginning to end, Annihilation is at times genuinely unnerving in nature, with minimal use of jump-scare tactics and a tendency for a complete lack of resolution regarding particular plot threads resulting in a Blair Witch style behaviour pattern in which the audience builds up tension ready to be alleviated but is instead left stranding and unsure of what to expect next. With the movie at times resorting to handheld footage in order to explore the outcome of previous expeditions within the “Shimmer”, the Blair Witch similarities are abundantly clear, whilst it comes not much of a stretch to see the likes of the monster effects of The Thing, the surreal science fiction beauty of Arrival and the nihilistic low-key apocalyptic themes of the little seen mind bending Coherence within the DNA of the piece too, and whilst at times dialogue does seem a tad on the nose and the special effects not exactly pitch perfect, a surprising weakness considering the Oscar winning work of Ex Machina, Garland’s latest is a wonderful work of science fiction cinema, one which will please genre fans from the outset and one which too leaves a lasting impression like all the best experimental works of art do so well.
Overall Score: 8/10
“Why Do I Always Get Screwed For Doing My Job…?”
Itching with a sense of Hollywood styled nepotism, director Nash Edgerton brings brother Joel (Red Sparrow), Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road) and Oxford’s own, David Oyelowo (Selma) aboard for his directorial debut, Gringo, a kooky, wildly inconsistent crime caper based on a screenplay by both Anthony Tambakis and Matthew Stone which sees Oyelowo’s white-collared Harold Soyinka caught between his sickeningly narcissistic bosses and the murderous ventures of the Mexican cartel as attempts to reconstruct his life based around cheating partners and financial ills by conning his way into a paycheck suitable enough to begin a new life. With the trailers somewhat misleading the movie’s true intentions by presenting it as a full bodied comedy, Gringo instead is the type of movie which can’t seem to make up its’ mind as it grinds solemnly through a runtime which edges just under two hours, and whilst each of the cast members give it their all in attempting to breathe some sort of life into proceedings, Edgerton’s movie just doesn’t seem to leave any sort of meaningful impression and simply comes in via one ear and departs swiftly out of the other.
Beginning by laying the foundations for the misfortunes which await Oyelowo’s titular “Gringo” as he follows Theron and Edgerton’s success craved business partners across the Mexican border in order to talk business regarding the sale of a marijuana-infused pill, Edgerton’s movie takes time to really set sail, with a first half unsure of its’ ultimate direction resulting in losing audience interest rather swiftly, and even as the action unfolds once we hit the the sunny sights of a gangland infested Mexico, Gringo doesn’t at any time hit a steady stride in regards to what we as the audience are meant to be taking in and dissecting. A few chuckles aside, Gringo doesn’t ultimately work as a comedy either and is a film better served being admired as a Guy Ritchie-esque double crossing caper, just without the freshness of a Lock, Stock… or the zesty absurdity of a Snatch, and with a thrown in penchant for unnecessary violence and crude stereotypes regarding one-dimensional Mexican citizens, Edgerton’s movie is a strangely dull mixed bag of a movie. With the trio of front and centre stars all managing to come across somewhat watchable however, with Oyelowo’s likeable luckless lead the obvious standout, Gringo isn’t exactly poor, it’s just badly managed, and for a cast this talented at the heart of it, Edgerton’s debut could, and should have, been much, much sharper.
Overall Score: 5/10
“You Are Not Yakuza. You Are A Gaijin. An Outsider…”
With Bright, Mute and The Cloverfield Paradox a trio of big budget movies which have used Netflix as the chosen platform for their respective release over the course of the past six months or so, it’s fair to say that so far, critical consensus has been, let’s just say, less than positive for anything with the Netflix branding tainted on it, aside from the likes of Okja and Annihilation which have seemingly broken the bog awful standard set so thus far. Another week, another small screen offering however, with Netflix turning to Jared Leto this time in The Outsider, a generic, yet overly functional, crime thriller which utilises the much commentated approach of placing the American in the heart of post-war Japan as he rises up the ranks of the Yakuza after saving the life of Tadanobu Asano’s (Silence) long-serving crime boss, Kiyoshi, in prison. With a nihilistic, unnerving tone and both underwritten characters and subplots, director Martin Zandvliet’s approach to handling the inclusion of Leto’s wandering military ghost figure, Nick Lowell, is not exactly justified, with the narrative more focused on handling a whistle stop tour of violent deeds and double crossing than ever coming up with a valid reason for his inclusion in a primarily Japanese cast, but with enough style to at least hold your attention whilst it works its’ way from A to B, The Outsider is just about good enough to warrant two hours of your in-home small screen.
With attention obviously centred around the fundamental plot hole regarding whether a titular “outsider”, or in the words of the Japanese themselves, a “gaijin”, would ever be allowed into the strict ruling of the Yakuza traditions, the idea itself is one of interesting possibilities, but with a narrative starved of substance and an overripe, unnecessary violent streak, The Outsider is strangely unimaginative, utilising generic tropes of in-house familial power struggles to carve out a strangely tacked-on ending after we witness Leto’s Nick progress from messy haired prisoner to sharply dressed gangster with added cheekbones. Whilst the performance of Leto himself is similar to attempting Ryan Gosling’s performance in Drive without half the acting ability or talent, his fundamental dullness is entirely down to the writing, where although the primary focus of the movie is seemingly meant to infiltrate the ways of the Yakuza through the eyes of a Westernised psychopath, the audience is instead left with an empty vessel which violently acts out whenever he feels the audience may be starting to lose patience. Whilst The Outsider is undeniably messy therefore and full of ludicrous implausibilities, Martin Zandvliet’s latest still managed to keep me interested however, and for a film which manages to have so many weaknesses and still hold me until the end, something somewhere ultimately worked.
Overall Score: 6/10
“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
“The Cold War Did Not End, It Merely Shattered Into A Thousand Pieces…”
Based upon the similarly titled 2013 novel by former Central Intelligence Agency agent, Jason Matthews, director Francis Lawrence reunites with long-term collaborator, Jennifer Lawrence (mother!), after their work together on the final three entries within Hunger Games film series with Red Sparrow, a sadistic spy thriller which attempts to blend the nihilistic approach of cold war paranoia with a Robert Ludlum-esque secret agent mystery narrative featuring Lawrence in the leading role as the Russian ballerina turned operative who is tasked with discovering a native mole who has been supplying the US with state secrets. With a lifeless, cold tone and a jaw-dropping exploitation sensibility which airs more on the side of advantageous leering regarding its’ lead star than that of actual substance, Red Sparrow is a staggeringly misjudged and overly dull affair, one which although can be somewhat praised for attempting to present a more bolder and brutal by the numbers spy story, hashes it’s early promise and comes across more as an overly disappointing affair with a, hold your breath, completely miscast leading lady.
After sustaining an ill-fated injury which prematurely ends her career as a prestigious ballerina, Jennifer Lawrence’s awfully accented Dominika Egorova turns to Matthias Schoenaerts’ (The Danish Girl) Ivan Dimitrevich Egorov, her slimy, power hungry uncle who recruits her into the “Red Sparrow” programme and under the wing of Charlotte Rampling’s (45 Years) Matron who attempts to teach her the ways of psychological, sexual and overly humiliating manipulation. With Lawrence being confined to direction which forces her to maintain a complete look of utter boredom and attempting to preserve a straight face during set pieces which give Fifty Shades of Grey a run for its’ money, Red Sparrow suffers primarily from a key weakness regarding Lawrence’s implausibility as a hard-edged Russian spy, and whilst her dodgy accent isn’t the only one in the movie to induce sniggering fits of laughter, the film is made worse by being a key example of an obsession between director and leading star reaching astronomical levels, with the camera woozily ogling at the sight of its’ leading star whenever she is forced to take off her clothes or engage in one of many terribly misjudged sexuality torture scenes. Whilst I am all for nudity and stylised violence when absolutely necessary, Lawrence’s latest is one the most unnecessary gory examples of mainstream exploitation cinema I’ve seen in recent history, and when you through into the mix a yawn inducing underlying narrative about double-crossing agents and a resolution which is the definition of cop-out, Red Sparrow is indeed quite poor, even with a semi-decent Joel Edgerton attempting to save the day.
Overall Score: 4/10
“I Love You So Much Leo, But You Don’t Know Me…”
Engaging with and including myself within the small minority who can actually stand up proudly and state that 2016’s Warcraft was actually better than most critics gave the movie credit for, Duncan Jones’ career has drifted from contemplative low-budget success story (Moon) to big budget science fiction spectacular (Source Code) in a reasonably swift amount of time, and with the release of Mute this week as the latest Netflix original after years of development hell, Jones’ long-term project, one deemed as the “spiritual sequel” to 2009’s Moon, is finally brought to life, if only on the small screen. Following Alexander Skarsgård’s (The Legend of Tarzan) Leo, the titular mute barkeep who attempts to solve the mystery of Seyneb Saleh’s Naadirah’s sudden disapearance within the heart of a future-world Berlin, Jones’ latest is unfortunately a cliched and utterly soulless Blade Runner rip-off, one which attempts to sew together a noir-esque primary plot thread amidst stereotypical Russian gangsters, The Fifth Element style campness and eerily ill-judged set pieces which are as ridiculous as they are jaw-droppingly stupid, resulting in Mute conforming to the fate of The Cloverfield Paradox by being yet another Netflix funded let down.
With Sally Hawkins managing to convey both rigorous emotion and heartwarming depth to a character of similar ilk in Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, the inclusion of Skarsgård’s Leo, the speech-free central character of the piece, is somewhat gimmicky and undeniably underwritten, with Hawkins’ character necessary in furthering the audience’s understanding of the relationship between herself and Doug Jones’ aquatic monster, a level of narrative depth which is completely absent from the entirety of Jones’ screenplay, resulting in Skarsgård’s performance coming off as nothing more than a growling, angst-ridden puppet which is used to facilitate the furthering of plot when necessary. Whilst the opening forty five minutes of the piece is somewhat interesting, even with a heavy handed dose of exposition which explains absolutely everything in a excruciatingly painful paint-by-numbers fashion, the film really turns after a showdown between Leo and Dominic Monaghan’s sex facilitator on a bed next to a staggeringly imaginative pleasure doll which resulted in one of the biggest unintentional laughs I will have this year, and with the emergence of the similarly awful Paul Rudd (Ant Man) as the least threatening villain of the year so far and Justin Theroux’s (Mulholland Drive) overly misjudged paedophilic sidekick, Mute turns overly wacky and staggeringly dull rather quickly and with a conclusion which doesn’t entirely make up for the wait, Jones’ latest is annoyingly his weakest work to date, and for a project which took more than a decade to bring to the screen, one could have argued it should have stayed on the cutting room floor.
Overall Score: 4/10
“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
“The Universe Has A Tendency To Point Us In The Right Direction…”
Renowned for his work as an accomplished cinematographer on an array of American comedies including War Dogs, The Hangover Trilogy as well as the upcoming blockbuster franchise sequel, Godzilla: King of the Monsters, New Jersey citizen, Lawrence Sher, turns to a debut in directing for Father Figures, a messy, overlong and staggeringly sickening road trip comedy featuring Owen Wilson (Wonder) and Ed Helms (Captain Underpants) as alienated siblings, Kyle and Peter Reynolds who embark on a self proclaimed journey known as “Operation Whose Your Daddy” after being informed by Glenn Close’s (The Girl With All The Gifts) mother figure, Helen Baxter, that she is unaware of her children’s true parentage. With a narrative which twists and turns through redemptive family drama to lad-cultured sex ventures and finally settling for saccharin fuelled cop-out nonsense, Sher’s movie is fundamentally unsure of what it entirely aspires to be, and with a two hour runtime attempting to hold it all together, Father Figures is unsurprisingly dour, a film which not only comes across as your run of the mill Owen Wilson centred comedy, but an Owen Wilson centred comedy without any meaningful laughs.
Settling on air of overripe repetition as our leading duo move from state to state in order to locate their true titular father figure, the screenplay attempts to shoehorn in as many jarring cameos as humanly possible for some form of comedic effect, with the likes of Ving Rhames, Terry Bradshaw and the Oscar winning J. K. Simmons, yes, that J. K. Simmons, each conforming to a soap opera type scenario in which each character has around ten minutes to show off their goods and force some form of sketch show-esque comedic set piece before being entirely forgotten about as we head onto the next underwritten character who swiftly follows such a mould. With Wilson hitting snooze mode and regressing into normality after winning back some form of merits after his performance in Wonder, the star revels in handing the director a stereotypical Owen Wilson performance, one which clashes with Ed Helms’ pretentious, all-moaning flannel of a character who not only couldn’t look farther from being an on-screen sibling of Wilson if he tried but is the type of American character who believes their life is an utter shambles even with staggering levels of wealth and a high class occupation which of course only acts as a continuous, narrative weaving joke. The jokes are joyless, the script soulless and ponderous, and whilst at times the chemistry between the two stars evoke a sense of enjoyment that the film may be heading somewhere, the concluding act is shameful and for two hours of your life you may never get back, Father Figures really isn’t worth the risk.