Directed By: F. Gary Gray Written By: Chris Morgan Starring: Vin Diesel, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Michelle Rodriguez, Charlize Theron It’s a good thing that The Fate of the Furious is so loud viewers can’t… More
Directed By: Daniel Espinosa
Written By: Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick
Starring: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson, Ryan Reynolds, Hiroyuki Sanada, Ariyon Bakare
Life follows the horrors that befall six astronauts who are confined to the most isolated place not in the world, the International Space Station. They are there to examine soil samples taken from Mars, the retrieval of which unfolds with a mesmerising long take, lensed by Seamus McGarvey as he channels his inner Emmanuel Lubezki and captures the most arresting piece of interstellar photography since Gravity. A blithe maverick by the name of Roy Adams (Ryan Reynolds) is in charge of the retrieval, and he snaffles the out of control probe with an apparent self-assurance.
Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) is the next crew member to have their talents called upon, a British biologist who is tasked with picking through the Martian samples which may finally offer proof of life beyond Earth. The centre of attention is a single-celled organism, one which swiftly evolves into a flattened, gelatinous starfish figure following some strategic poking, prodding and atmospheric toying. The ever-growing creature is named Calvin by some school students back on Earth, and Calvin reveals itself to be something of the perfect being; “all muscle, all brain, and all eye” Quarantine Officer Miranda North notes, (played by Rebecca Ferguson). She senses she may have her work cut out for her.
Much to Hugh’s chagrin, and a tempered relief from the rest of the crew, Calvin grows dormant over time. More poking, more prodding, but nothing, that is until Hugh decides to shock Calvin into reanimation. I suppose Hugh’s plan works. Calvin certainly awakens, but to severe hostility, crinkling the biologist’s hand like a piece of rubbish destined for the bin, before evading some frenzied attacks by the panicked crew and slipping out of containment completely. One can likely tell how things go from there, particularly as it is from this point that director Daniel Espinosa formally retrieves Ridley Scott’s sci-fi monster-movie roadmap and follows it religiously in his successful quest to provide recycled but pulsating thrills.
The film is minimal but efficient in its characterisations. Ryan Reynolds is cool and quick with a joke; Rebecca Ferguson is the leader having her morality challenged by her quarantine duties; Olga Dihovichnaya plays a noble Russian commander; Bakare’s British biologist is passionate and finds a physical reprieve in space, (on Earth he is a paraplegic, in space the keel is evened); Hiroyuki Sanada plays a Japanese engineer who has just become a father; whilst Jake Gyllenhaal, the most central of the characters, has become dependant on his home away from home. At one time a military doctor but now a senior medical officer on the cusp of spending more days in space than any other, Gyllenhaal’s David Jordan has grown disheartened with the world and its never-ending violence. It is just enough of a backdrop offered by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick’s screenplay to provide an emotional stirrup for the viewer, a slight base to help us into the story, with the writers’ B-movie thrills never requiring them to take more than a cursory look beyond the surface.
With characters as simplistic as the story is derivative, one might assume that in lieu of fresh narratological concepts director Daniel Espinosa might pave his own path via fresh ideological concepts. Not quite. Life is a film which is as thematically weightless as its setting. The screenplay gestures towards significant notions regarding the nature of “life”, namely the sentient instinct for survival at all costs; “Calvin doesn’t hate us” one character states. “He has to kill us to survive.” But as soon as anything resembling insights are raised, Espinosa swiftly drops them in favour of exhilarating tension and zero gravity viscera, like a child throwing down a toy that fails to hold their interest.
There is no denying Life’s conventionality: it is Alien, it is Andromeda Strain, it is Event Horizon, it is a little bit of Gravity and a whole lot of every haunted house movie ever made, with flashes of The Planet of the Apes’ sucker-punching temerity thrown in for good measure. But one also cannot deny how efficient Espinosa is in riling up excitement. The challenge for the director is not how he can put a new spin on an old yarn, but how entertaining he can be in adhering to formula. Life is knowingly scant, and the filmmakers have the good sense to never reach beyond their grasp, the director crafting a thriller that is ruthlessly taut whilst being wise enough to deeply bury the screenplay’s deficiencies and augment its strengths; those strengths being authenticity in setting (Life commits itself to the weightlessness of space like few others), grizzly violence, and a continuance of high stakes, cat and mouse action. There was never enough heft to the material for Espinosa to pass it off as something profound; to pretend otherwise would have been condescending.
All the content in Life is reusable, it has been reused here and it’ll be reused again as soon as May when Alien: Covenant hits screens. But a familiar story told well is still a story worth telling. Daniel Espinosa and his cast are so disciplined, so understanding of their text’s limitations, that they are able to piece together a thriller that is at once totally innocuous and utterly absorbing. It’s an A grade B movie, one as enthralling as it is hackneyed. It has a ceiling, but Espinosa gets himself as close to the ceiling as one can get without smudging the glass.
Directed By: Bill Condon
Written By: Stephen Chbosky and Evan Spiliotopoulos (based on the 1991 Disney film Beauty and the Beast and the story Beauty and the Beast by Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont)
Starring: Emma Watson, Dan Stevens, Luke Evans, Kevin Kline, Josh Gad
We now know it’s inevitable that Disney plough through their seminal animations and give each a live-action update. Less inevitable is any enhancement these live-action remakes may actually offer their sources.
Beauty and the Beast is the latest in a long line of cherished properties to be shocked into reality, preceded by the likes of Kenneth Branagh’s Cinderella, Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book and David Lowery’s Pete’s Dragon, and tailed by what seems to be the complete Disney catalogue, Mulan, Aladdin, The Lion King and Dumbo among the films tinkering down the pipeline. Beauty and the Beast seems to be a more delicate creature however, one whose tweaking seems a riskier, less justifiable venture than Disney’s previous efforts. It’s not a story as susceptible to cinematic retellings as Cinderella is, nor is it a text in dire need of refurbishment ala Pete’s Dragon. Its politics need no refinement (I don’t buy this Stockholm syndrome thesis, Belle has always been a woman of her own volition), and as Emma Watson’s sunny opening number demonstrates, director Bill Condon has no intention of drawing on live-action’s physicality to better flesh out the beastliness suggested in the title (unlike Jon Favreau who employed live-action to dredge the darkness of Rudyard Kipling’s beloved story to the surface). In fact, 2017’s Beast is decidedly tepid by comparison to 1991’s, and harbors an apparent handsomeness from the get-go. So what is there to be gained by Bill Condon’s redub of Beauty and the Beast? The answer: decidedly little; “there may be something there that wasn’t there before” Mrs. Potts at one stage chimes to unintended irony. But there may be a more paramount question. Does 2017’s Beauty and the Beast fight for purpose get in the way of the tale’s magic? The answer: once again, no.
There is a definite majesty to Bill Condon’s vision, evident as we first lay eyes on Emma Watson’s Belle as she saunters through her bustling village, past its judgmental residents and onto the lush, nearby hillsides. She is the beauty of the story, a peaceful nonconformist who would rather indulge literature than muse over the town’s narcissistic, macho centrepiece Gaston (Luke Evans), the capturer of every heart in Villeneuve except that which he covets.
Dan Stevens plays the second of the film’s title characters, at one time a selfish prince but who now lives isolated in his castle as a deformed creature, cursed by an enchantress for his self-absorbed ways. Reciprocated love is the only cure, and Belle finds herself the only viable candidate after volunteering as a prisoner in the Beast’s castle, substituting for her father who has been taken captive for stealing a rose.
Condon has proven himself to be a competent hand in fusing effects into live-action drama previously, having helmed the final two episodes of the Twilight saga. It disappoints then that Condon fails to follow Jon Favreau’s lead and translate live-action’s physicality into a sense of real-world heft. Disney’s team have put down their pencils and logged into their computers to results that are no greater in tactility than they were in sketch form a quarter century earlier, stunning though Condon’s vistas and lovingly created sets and costumes prove to be.
2017’s Beauty and the Beast has minimal impact as an update then; it exists, one senses, because modern technology says it can. The film is better understood as a pastiche for its own revered source, as a tribute to 1991’s animation, rather than an amendment of it. Through this prism, one can see how much affection Condon has for his Oscar nominated predecessor, an affection that grows infectious as it plays out.
The film is steeped in nostalgia for musicals, both source materials and otherwise. Images of a hill-bound Belle being circled by Tobias Schliessler forever swooning camera harken to Julie Andrews upon those lively hills in The Sound of Music, whilst Ewan McGregor’s frenzied “Be Our Guest” dance routine as Lumiere, a servant to the prince cursed to live as an animated candelabra, tapping his way across a water-soaked table, calls to mind Gene Kelly’s famed eponymous number in Singin’ in the Rain. It’s a glee and vitality that ensures 2017’s Beauty and the Beast is much more than a mere dutiful recitation of a familiar fable. So easily could the film have been an lazy cash grab and cheap tug at the heart strings, but there’s a soulfulness here that’s impossible to resist.
To this end, the cast is terrific, each performer throwing themselves into their role with a joyous abandon. Luke Evans chews the scenery for all it’s worth as Gaston, embracing the character’s arrogance with delight. The interplay of the castle’s cursed servants (along with Lumiere there is Ian McKellen’s gruff mantel clock Cogsworth, Emma Thompson’s motherly teapot Mrs. Potts, and Stanley Tucci as a composer turned harpsicord, to name a few), is also radiant, glowing with light-hearted familial banter. Despite their lack of physical presence onscreen, CGI mostly caters for each, one can sense the performers are having the time of their life. Emma Watson in the leading role can’t quite keep pace with her fellow cast members vocally, however she too serves the film well—a fitting model of the grace and dignity demanded by such a strong female protagonist as Belle.
And then there is that indelible, benevolent charm that Disney have mastered over the past ninety years, embodied here by luminous musical numbers, genuine romance, and a central message regarding true beauty being found within that’s as well-worn as it is worthwhile.
It’s undeniable that 2017’s Beauty and the Beast is entirely superfluous, but it finds merit on its own terms. Necessity needn’t be the mother of every invention. Sometimes a strong story and impressive effects will do.
Directed By: Jeff Nichols
Written By: Jeff Nichols (based on the book The Loving Story by Nancy Buirski)
Starring: Joel Edgerton, Ruth Negga, Nick Kroll, Martin Csokas, Michael Shannon
With Loving, Jeff Nichols has now made five films, five films which at a glance bear a less than scarce semblance; a Western inflected tale of family and violence (Shotgun Stories), a perturbing psychological thriller (Take Shelter), a coming-of-age crime drama (Mud), an intense science-fiction mystery (Midnight Special), and now a racially charged, historical biopic. But if one can look past the discrepancy in genre and the threat of violence which lurks within Nichols’ films, they’ll notice that each work shares the same core, the emotion of love. It’s no folly that Nichols cuts away before each revenge induced moment of bloodshed in Shotgun Stories, and that the actual likelihood of a storm in Take Shelter is seldom discussed, because these ostensible subjects are rather vehicles for exploring the ways in which the central character wears their affection for others, as opposed to being the salient sources of drama.
It’s for this reason that Nichols is the necessary custodian to the Loving’s real life story. For all of its legal significance and historical profile, Richard and Mildred’s tale is deep-down about a husband and wife devoted to one another, a human tale to which the young Arkansan craftsman promises to never overwhelm with politics, just as he has never let violence or disaster veil his human subjects previously. Nichols has always used cinema as a conduit for exploring the extremes to which individuals will go in the name of love, it’s a primal, humanist conceit that benefits Loving to no end.
The story details the marriage of Richard Loving, a white man and labourer, and Mildred Loving, a black woman and Richard’s wife, who together find themselves as inadvertent trailblazers against Virginia’s anti-miscegenation laws in the late fifties. After the two are given the ultimatum, either serve twelve months in prison or be exiled for 25 years from the state and abandon their dreams of raising a family in Virginia’s lush countryside, Richard and Mildred’s marriage and its legal forbiddance is taken to the Supreme Court by the American Civil Liberties Union (represented here by Nick Kroll) and parlayed into legal precedent against similar laws nationwide.
Dealing with race as the film does, it’s difficult to repress thoughts of the string of racial dramas that owned auditoriums during awards season, most comparable to Loving being Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom (a British film, but also a historical drama detailing interracial marriage and the political backlash it incurred), and Hidden Figures (like Loving, a biographical piece detailing racism in 1950s/60s Virginia.) There is a clear distinction however: where those two previous dramas were hugely populist and used broad strokes to achieve crowd pleasing affect (Hidden Figures is particularly powerful in this regard), Loving offers a much more subdued, nuanced account of triumph against suppression. It’s possible that for some viewers Jeff Nichols’ strict understatedness will prove emotionally alienating, but it’s this same understated quality which allows Nichols to access a sense of truth and earthiness that few Hollywood productions of this nature strive for. A United Kingdom and Hidden Figures are the more ovation worthy films. Loving is the more intimate.
In a sense, it’s that which Loving refuses to be that defines it. It’s not a film about the impact the Lovings had on racist law, as much as it’s about the impact racist law had on the Lovings, where the politics are never allowed to outweigh the people at their centre and the pathos is contained to quiet moments of privacy; a subtle holding of the hands in a car, Richard telling his wife he can “care” for her as they sit on their bed. This is no courtroom drama; one senses watching the film that for Nichol’s the courtroom is a setting conducive to monologues emotional outbursts. This cannot be that film as the Lovings are not those people. These are reserved, low key people who happened upon national recognition by virtue of loving each other, and Nichols is far too empathetic a filmmaker, far too honest and understanding to manufacture any emotional tensions or milk any such drama. This is not to say that there aren’t vast amounts of affect tucked away in Loving, just that the affect creeps up on you and takes shape slowly, with little more than David Wingo’s downbeat yet powerfully melancholic and hopeful score to provide our emotional cues.
Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga play Richard and Mildred, and both are tremendous in their ability to communicate without direct articulation, as demanded by Nichols’ laconic style. Edgerton is tight lipped and near stoic, yet takes us inside Richard’s mind with his physicality, conveying great fragility in his posture- forever hunched over with his hands buried in his pockets and his eyes narrowed, as though he’s retreating into himself. When Nichol’s and Edgerton do permit the character the chance to put his pain into words, it’s all the more stirring for it. Ruth Negga in turn is luminous as Mildred. She harbours a warmth and dignity that characterises each frame she’s in.
Nichol’s does have a tendency to be restrained to the point of confinment; he could have made it easier for his performers to delve into their relationship with one another by offering more room for Richard and Mildred to breathe outside of the politics. Whilst it’s true the director never skims on the personal in favour of the political, for so long is Richard and Mildred’s relationship contextualised within their legal troubles that one misses just seeing them be them, despite the intuitive sense of affection Edgerton and Negga are able to evoke.
Yet even the director’s chief shortcoming comes from a place of sincerity; it’s an absence in development arising from the director’s always commendable insistence that the viewer find their own way into the film’s emotions. There is a great integrity to Nichol’s storytelling, cautious to so much as encroach upon the line of “Hollywood” drama. It’s an integrity and respectfulness befitting of Nichol’s central characters. Yes they are gallant, but more than anything, they are people.
Directed By: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Written By: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly (based on the film King Kong, story by Merian C. Cooper and Edgar Wallace
Starring: Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson, John Goodman, John C. Reilly
There’s a moment in Kong: Skull Island in which Sam Jackson warns his fellow men and sole lady to “hang onto their butts” as they fly through a Fury Road-esque electrical storm en route to the titular setting. It’s the exact line Jackson used 24 years prior in Jurassic Park as he rebooted the park’s security system. It’s a non-too subtle evocation of Skull Island’s Spielbergian, monster movie compatriot—a word of advice for director Jordan Vogt-Roberts however: don’t invite comparison to a movie like Jurassic Park, it’s a comparison that few films can withstand and even fewer earn; Skull Island isn’t one.
But does a film need to be on par with a Steven Spielberg blockbuster master class in chaotic thrills to be worth its salt as a glorified B-movie smash-up? Evidently, it does not. Kong: Skull Island is a checklist of a movie, but one which goes about its business with an upmost efficiency and breezy energy, achieving its modest goals with relative ease. It won’t stand any test of time, indeed one’s memory will be strained from the moment they reach the auditorium door, but the film is what it is, and on that middling level, it works.
Vogt-Roberts’ rejigging of Merian Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s 84 year old classic foregoes any of the intimacy or tragedy that has fuelled Kong editions previously; 2017’s Kong would make the Empire State Building look like a baton if he were to hold it, and he swats aircrafts like pesky flies when lesser incarnations of the character have succumbed to such opposition. Instead, Vogt-Roberts champions a Vietnam War inflected concoction of gunplay and overgrown creatures brutalising each other; Skull Island is closer to a cross-reference of Apocalypse Now and Spielberg’s previously mentioned prehistoric classic than anything made by Cooper or Peter Jackson.
The film opens with a prologue set during the height of the Second World War—two opposing dogfighters tumble from the sky and crash land on Skull Island. They chase each other through the jungle and brawl until their tussle is interrupted by Kong rearing his head from below a cliff’s edge, like a nosy neighbour peeking over the fence, before the primate erupts into a roar.
We get the title card and then we fast forward to America’s next cataclysmic conflict. The year is 1973, and John Goodman’s Bill Randa (and stand-in of sorts for Carl Denham) watches Richard Nixon declare a peaceful end to the Vietnam War before Randa pleads his case for a government funded expedition to Kong’s home turf in order to investigate the mysterious island. Randa gets the funding and assembles an escort team comprised of Vietnam vets (headed by Samuel L. Jackson’s hawkish Colonel Packard, embittered by the loss in the war), a tough-guy British mercenary (Tom Hiddleston), a benevolent antiwar photojournalist (Brie Larson) and a cavalcade of expendable bit-players.
The team flies over Skull Island blaring Black Sabbath and dropping bombs in order to dredge up whatever may be stirring beneath the ground, helicopters transformed into silhouettes as they fly staggered in front of the sun. These sequences serve as one example of many visual throw backs to famed Vietnam War films of the past; it’s Coppola’s shadow that looms the largest. Vogt-Roberts’ efforts to infuse the Kong story with a different thematic background, such as Vietnam, allows the director to inject his own flavour into a well-worn narrative. It’s an appreciable effort, and one that’s made with a degree of sincerity that suggests the director is employing much more than a cursory effort to appear thoughtful; Skull Island’s discussion regarding the demonization of peoples, upon which war is built, is entrenched in Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly’s script, rather than tacked on. Larry Fong’s photography also closely traces Vietnam War cinema, delving into Skull Island’s dense jungle terrains with a sun-scorched, hazy palette, as if the air forever carries the smoky residue of combat.
The other significant departure from previous Kong films is the decision to never leave Skull Island once we get there. This is an emotionally toned down rendition of Kong which eschews relationships in order to deliver the largest possible dose of goliath on goliath action, whilst also serving as an appetiser for Warner Bros. inevitable Kong/Godzilla MonsterVerse showdown. As such, Vogt-Roberts has little need to leave his swampy battlefield for the likes of Manhattan.
Unsurprising then is the buckets of action; more surprising is just how bruising Skull Island’s brand of action is. Images like a soldier’s body impaled upon a giant spider’s leg illustrates just how tough and grim Vogt-Roberts is willing to get in order to bolster the intensity of his film. Aside from a few cheesy shots (Sam Jackson shooting an evil glare as fires rage behind him, Brie Larson posing with a flare gun like she’s James Bond), and some equally cheesy song selections (there aren’t many bigger musical clichés in film than playing CCR during anything Vietnam related), the director is adept at bringing these hard-hitting sequences to life. Vogt-Roberts swirls his camera to visceral effect and edits his film cleanly, allowing his action to play out with a certain unflinching frankness.
Skull Island’s inability to leave an impression then doesn’t stem from any technical fault, but rather from lazy characterisations. For such an established cast, too few are able to leave an imprint on the narrative, with each character slipping into papery archetypes, doomed to a fate of no growth. For all of his inherent charm, one struggles to recall a leading character that has as little bearing on the plot as Tom Hiddleston does here, and similarly dispensable prove Larson and Goodman. The human relationships were never going to be the selling point of this big studio, bigger budget punch-up, but given how inconsequential each character appears, all of the filmmaker’s directorial ferocity is ultimately hollow when we realise there’s little at stake.
The only character that truly registers is John C. Reilly as the marooned dogfighter who smells home when he is reunited with his fellow Western man. There’s an interesting story to be told with Reilly’s character and his relationship with his former WW2 foe; the two, we are told, became friends once they lost their uniforms and started seeing each other as regular people. One senses that Vogt-Roberts has a niggling desire to hone in on this angle, to instil a human element into his popcorn flick. But alas, he must compromise in order to fulfil his blockbuster mandate, and we must settle for a film that wows on the surface, but has little besides a blanketed Vietnam War subtext beneath it. Skull Island does its job; no more, no less.
Directed By: James Mangold
Written By: Scott Frank, James Mangold and Michael Green
Starring: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Stephen Merchant, Richard E. Grant
There is a moment in Logan in which the title character informs a young girl that whatever she may have heard about him from the comic books is total “bullshit.” He says this to her as she watches George Steven’s 1950s’ classic Shane sitting alongside Charles Xavier, the old man making his affection for Stevens’ film clear. The message too is clear, with Logan, director James Mangold is ushering in a new aesthetic for the X-Men saga; out with the comic books and in with the Western. Mangold is no stranger to Westerns, having helmed 3:10 to Yuma in 2007; his latest operates very much under the ghost of the genre’s great entries.
Logan is set in the near-future, a bordering dystopic future which has seen mutants all but eradicated. The eponymous character (Hugh Jackman), has retreated from his old life; he’s haggard now, he limps, is perpetually hunched, his face is scarred, his hair has greyed, a sickly scent of whiskey oozes through his pores. Even his retractable claws are ailing, Logan having to pry them out to full length by hand. He works as a chauffeur and has buried himself somewhere deep in Mexico’s desert where he watches over a deteriorating Charles (Patrick Stewart), at one time a beacon of paternity, but now a man who has grown volatile in his depletion; the most dangerous mind in the world is breaking down, the episodes of which cause the world as a whole to slip into paralysis.
Despite being set a decade in the future, Logan is an old-fashioned story, one which borrows significantly from Western templates. The titular character slips neatly into the mould of Clint Eastwood’s Will Munny and a host of cinematic frontiersmen; the weary outlaw reluctantly roped once more into drawing his guns, succumbing to the violence that has been a cancer in his life for so long; “there’s no living with a killing” Shane said 64 years ago, it’s a line recited in Logan.
This is a film of substantial violence, a significant departure from the X-Men norm, but it’s not subversion for subversion’s sake. Rather, for as thrilling and absorbing as it is, the nature of the violence speaks to the anguish which inhabits Logan. Mangold’s action sequences are as revealing as they are nasty; caked in blood and infected with the sting of real-world pain; Logan’s violence incurs suffering, and so it should for a film centred on a man whose life is so steeped in the feeling.
The cancerous, outlaw lifestyle beckons Logan once again when he is enlisted to protect a young girl named Laura, a near feral child bearing a great many affinities to Logan himself. She has been genetically crafted in his mould, primed to be a dispensable killing machine, a fate she not so readily consigns herself to. The X-Men concept has long had its feet in pertinent sociology, the outcast mutants offering a stand-in for any number of marginalised groups, however that reoccurring subtext seems more pointed now than ever. Under the guide of the faltering Charles, Logan reluctantly determines to guide Laura into Canada where she will be liberated, free from the genetic engineers and corporate mercenaries looking to exploit her.
Undoubtedly, it is in rendering Logan’s world of violence, in instilling the character’s existence with such pain, that Mangold is it at his strongest, parlaying exhilarating violence into empathy. Less secure is the director’s handle on pathos. The film, whilst certainly never resorting to sentimentality or exploitation, plays for big emotion in its final act, drawing on the relationship between Logan and Laura (Laura is played by newcomer Dafne Keen with an impressive, steely ferocity) to stumbling results. Mangold doesn’t quite earn his payoffs. Indeed, it is Logan’s relationship with Charles that proves to be the truly touching of the two. Jackman and Stewart have wonderful chemistry together, a veiled undercurrent of unconditional love charging through their confrontations; how often does a film feature a superhero assisting a decrepit old man go to the toilet? Their relationship is communicated with great humanism.
This is to be Jackman’s last foray into the X-Men universe, retiring, after 17 years, his incarnation of the Wolverine character. He does so with a terrific performance, one that, for all of its fierceness, is decidedly nuanced in its subtle evocations of agony. It had to be this brand of film, a tough-as-nails, Western inflected, intimate portrait of a beaten man, to get to the larger truths of the Logan character. The X-Men films have been reliably fun, but there is a pressing melancholia to the Logan character that has never been accessed to its fullest. Mangold and Jackman have found a way to access it here, narrowing their scope to enlarge their affect, a fitting payoff for Jackman, a man who has been such a loyal servant to the series.
Directed By: Maren Ade
Written By: Maren Ade
Starring: Sandra Huller, Peter Simonischek, Ingrid Bisu, Michael Wittenborn
One would assume that the title Toni Erdmann is taken from the name of the film’s protagonist. It isn’t. In fact, Toni Erdmann isn’t even a real person. The real person is a 60-something, bohemian, school music teacher named Winfried Conradi. Winfried’s only companion is his dog; he is divorced and his only child is a workaholic business consultant whose lack of fulfillment grows in proportion to her schedule.
Toni Erdmann is an alter ego Winfried conjures upon re-entering his daughter’s life, spontaneously tagging along for her business ventures in Bucharest whilst donning a thick blag wig which never for a second rests naturally on the eye, and a set of prosthetic teeth that are as protruding as they are perturbing. Toni is himself a business consultant, and a life coach, and all manner of other things. Why is Winfried adopting an alter ego? He dismisses his affinity for disguises as just his way of making jokes, as though “Toni” is just every father’s instinct to embarrass their child taken to a method actor’s extreme. There is something far more melancholic going on evidently. Perhaps he feels this is the only way to get his daughter’s attention, as she would never give him the time of day as regular old Winfried. Perhaps he finds his default setting is too banal. His daughter, Ines, should hardly fault him for such. As contrary as her pristine appearance is to her father’s, beneath the skin she too is retreating from herself. The film is teeming with instances in which a character’s inability to emotionally bear themselves is translated into a struggle for physical bearing; so often are characters veiled behind makeup and costumes, so often are they caught wrestling with their outfits.
In synopsis form, Toni Erdmann sounds fairly run of the mill; estranged parent and child rediscover their love for each other as they take to the road. Such an outline could never do justice to just how wonderfully odd and unique this film. How exciting to see a movie that makes sense, that has heart, and yet is totally unpredictable, ready to wrongfoot its viewer effortlessly at every turn.
Maren Ade’s script and direction are the most assured forays into comedy since Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Lobster. As a director, Ade is enormously understated, never straining for affect or laughs, but garnering them imperceptibly. As a writer, she is masterful in her ability to infuse pain and humour; Toni Erdmann is a true tragicomedy, where the film is watched through narrow openings between the fingers and where the tragedy and the comedy are played out as one. It is the film’s funniest moments that are also its most revealing, like Ines and Winfried’s impromptu musical duet of Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All”, a masterclass in cringe comedy that is as emotionally charged as it is ludicrous, and a nude party sequence which descends into uncharted levels of lunacy ten times over but which culminates in the film’s greatest emotional payoff. Full credit to the performances of Ines and Winfried (played by Sandra Huller and Peter Simonischek respectively); the film would have fallen flat on its face if it weren’t for how believable and grounded they are at the film’s heart, even as they flirt with the surreal in ways seldom seen in such a story.
If the film has a failing it’s that it’s never quite able to distil its craziness into the pathos it strives for. It’s most admirable qualities are also what hinder its emotional reach; so understated and so thickly veiled in absurdity is Toni Erdmann’s drama that it never quite registers with the truth of the most the humanist dramas. But it feels wrong to criticise Ade for her approach when it’s her approach that defines Toni Erdmann as one of the most unique of all comedies. So courageous is Ade, so confident is she in her unwillingness to conform to genre convention, that her somewhat falling on her own sword is more a necessary evil than a shortcoming. It’s a fascinating film.
Directed By: Denzel Washington
Written By: August Wilson (based on his play Fences)
Starring: Denzel Washington, Viola Davis, Stephen Henderson, Jovan Adepo, Russell Hornsby
Fences is a film claustrophobic in ways both good and bad. It is an exercise in accumulated tension, suffocating the viewer and allowing for only flickers of respite from the racked minds of its characters who, smiles or not, are evidently harbouring great pain. It restricts us to only a handful of settings, as though the walls of Pittsburgh have closed in like animals trapping their prey, tapping viscerally into the film’s ideas of isolation and emotional imprisonment. But Fences also posits a piece of storytelling which is itself frustratingly confined, one which struggles in guiding its source from one medium to another.
The film was directed by Denzel Washington who, like Martin Scorsese with his recent passion project Silence, evidently bears affection for his acclaimed source material to the point where it becomes a hurdle. Where Scorsese’s passion led to the director lingering on his story to the point of lethargy, Washington appears tentative to translate August Wilson’s Pulitzer prize winning stage play of the same name into something truly cinematic. Washington himself performed Wilson’s play on stage to great acclaim in 2010, which is perhaps why the two-time Oscar winner can’t seem to liberate his film from the inherent staginess of theatre. Instead, Fences bounces tirelessly from emotionally charged, protracted monologue to emotionally charged, protracted monologue, majority of which taking place in the same setting, a process which eventually gives way to an air of contrivance.
But, then again, who could blame Washington for his tentative approach towards this material? With drama this stirring, with dialogue this rich, and mouthpieces (of which Denzel is one) this transfixing, it’s difficult to begrudge the sophomore director for consigning his vision strictly to the words of August Wilson.
The story centres on Troy Maxson (Washington), at one time a pro ball prodigy but now a garbage man living in 1950s’ Pittsburgh. Troy is a slave to his bitterness, his life forever marred by his being overlooked by the major leagues for what he believes is his race. The film’s key locale is Troy’s backyard, where he spends a great many hours telling tales, drinking, confronting his family and erecting a fence. It’s this fence which serves as the film’s key underlying metaphor, a rich metaphor that both organises the complexities of Troy, and the central themes of Wilson’s story.
“Some people build fences to keep people out, others build fences to keep people in” Troy’s co-worker tells him. In Troy’s case, the fence is protection, a means of shielding him from the death and discrimination that have cursed his life. The notion of a barrier around his home is placating for Troy, and yet the same fence denotes the sense of containment his family suffers living alongside him. Both of his sons he scrutinises for their life choices. His eldest is a musician, a pipedream profession. His youngest is devoting too much time to football; a life of sport, to which Troy attests, has all too low a ceiling for someone of their colour.
It is Troy’s wife Rose (Viola Davis) who is most confined by her husband. For her, the fence reveals how deeply entrenched her existence is in Troy’s, her husband a fruitless soil in which she chose to rest, any notion of nourishment misguided.
It is the interplay of Troy and those he inadvertently antagonises, particularly with Rose, that is the film’s driving force. The density of the man’s psychological canvas, the sheer number of layers that exist to be peeled away, is as much a triumph of Wilson’s self-adapted screenplay as it is of Washington’s performance. Troy is a symphony of contradictions, parental yet calloused, humorous yet cold, proud yet ashamed—“it’s not easy for me to admit that I’ve been standing in the same place for 18 years” he chokes out at one point. It’s a role that Washington is evidently enveloped in, a challenging, often difficult to redeem man, yet a man to whom Washington is able to bring great empathy, the performer’s negotiation of Troy’s complexities always gripping.
Davis may eclipse her leading man. She won the Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her work, but she is every bit the lead of her counterpart. If you’ve seen the trailer you’ve seen Davis’s explosive confrontation with Washington, but her performance too is much too complex to be grounded in mere fiery drama. What impresses most is how tepid and intuitively affectionate Davis is between her more volatile moments; her incontrovertible goodness wrestling with her vulnerability every bit the hook as Troy’s inner grappling.
It’s a shame that the illusion of cinema never quite takes effect in Fences, that we never stop seeing a construct and start seeing life as the best films allow us to do. The contrivance of constant monologues serves as a reminder that the words we hear existed on a page first. But it can’t be overstated, what words they are, and what a way they are said.
The Academy Awards are very much upon us, mere hours away in fact, so I figured it’s time I join everybody else with a movie related blog and make some predictions as well as share some thoughts regarding what is allegedly Hollywood’s night of nights.
Firstly, it must be said that the Oscars should always be taken with a grain of salt. Movies are not sports, there is no objective measuring system to determine which is the best. As much as I myself enjoy telling people what the best film of the year is or how unequivocally awful another may be, all I have, and all I can ever have, is my lone opinion. When it comes to the Oscars, there are no points to be accumulated, no finish lines to be crossed, no goals to be scored, merely just the thoughts of a few thousand guys and gals who happen to be members of some elite club. But what’s more is that the contestants in the Oscar race aren’t even playing the same sport. How can we objectively compare Emma Stone in La La Land to Natalie Portman in Jackie? They are two performances from two movies that have absolutely nothing in common; two different genres, telling two different stories, set 50 years apart, made by different people, with different objectives, aimed at a different audience. If the goals of the performances are so totally different, and demand different skills from said performer, how can we be sure which is truly better? They each stand alone, each performance relative only to its own conditions. Perhaps if one assembled a group of actors to each play the exact same role in the exact same circumstances, one could gauge the effectiveness of each performance, and even then, isn’t it really just a matter of taste? Perhaps it’s this sort of illogical basis for a competition that led to George C. Scott labelling the Oscars ceremony “a two hour meat parade, a public display with contrived suspense for economic reasons.” And he won an Oscar.
And if that’s not enough, does the Academy’s verdict really hold all that much stock? History has certainly seen a few Oscar ceremonies be completely rewritten; I think it’s safe to say that Citizen Kane, Oscar or not, has been more than solidified as the best film of 1941, NOT How Green Was My Valley as the Academy would have it. I think Raging Bull persists more in history than the 1981 Best Picture winner Ordinary People, so too does Goodfellas over Dances With Wolves, Saving Private Ryan over Shakespeare in Love and Brokeback Mountain over Crash. I’ve devoted a healthy portion of this blog to this very idea in the Oscar Rewrites, where I, once again armed with nothing but my lone opinion, endeavour to correct the Oscar record books.
And another thing, if we are going to hand out awards for movies, why is it that there’s no Oscar for stunt work?
But in spite of all this, far be it for me to boycott the Oscars. Yes, they’re ultimately arbitrary, but when the time comes around I’ll be watching, and I’ll have a great time doing it too, tearing my hair out when my favourite doesn’t win, saying “I told you so” if my pick pulls through. There is something oddly irresistible about the Oscars; it’s fun, and whilst it’s somewhat sticky trying to make winners and losers out of movies, celebrating the movies as a collective is never bad idea. Plus it’s always fun to see where one’s opinion stands in relation to the crowd.
So with all that in mind, here are my predictions for 2017’s Oscar winners.
Directed By: Martin Scorsese
Written By: Martin Scorsese and Jay Cocks (based on the novel Silence by Shusaku Endo)
Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Yosuke Kubozuka, Issey Ogata
The opening shots of Martin Scorsese’s Silence offer elegant, natural terrains enraptured in an ethereal like mist and fog, transforming the inherently alluring into something grave and ghostly. Scorsese, cinema’s ultimate talisman, with immediacy establishes his setting not as something to be observed with the eye, but with the stomach, undermining Taiwan’s stunning vistas with a sense of dread and quiet despair that suggests these grounds are more akin to a cemetery than a landscape. The film was shot by Rodrigo Prieto, a familiar hand in Scorsese land after lensing The Wolf of Wall Street in 2013, and his photography wows with its ability to identify an air of the apocalyptic within something beautiful.
These opening images, which also depict a crestfallen Liam Neeson lowered to his knees as he observes fellow Christians undergo torture, set the tone for perhaps the most gruelling, protracted, joyless (all deliberately so) outing in the catalogue of America’s greatest living filmmaker.
Liam Neeson plays a man who was at one time Father Ferreira, a Portuguese Jesuit assumed to have denounced his faith under the pain of torture and the prospect of death. He is believed to be lost in Japan in the 17th century, Taiwan doubles for the Land of the Rising Sun, a time in the country’s history in which Christianity was being violently eradicated like a mildew; the roots of Christianity, we are told, shall never take hold in the “swamp” like Japanese soils. Unlike many other Scorsese films, Silence isn’t a film of gruesome imagery, of blood addled violence, but it is a film in which the weight of violence is constant, perpetually driving down on the viewer’s shoulders with no respite. The Japanese seek to kill Christianity through a range of tortures- pouring the waters of a hot spring onto to bare Christian chests through punctured ladles, the punctures allowing the water to drop slowly, each splash becoming its own individual coal; stringing believers upside down by their feet, a small incision made on their necks ensuring their blood doesn’t merely rush to their heads and render them unconscious; men tied to crucifixes and left on the beaches where the tides will rise and the waves will batter them to death.
Perhaps the greatest torture practiced by the Japanese, however, is psychological. Killing Christians in protest of their religious faiths will only turn them into martyrs, make them stronger. Instead they must be turned, proselytised through symbolic gestures of apostasy; stepping on a plate bearing the image of Christ; spitting on a Cross; cursing Mary as a whore.
Father Ferreira is presumed to have succumbed to these tortures and denounced his religion, but his apparent renunciation is not readily accepted by his two protégés, Jesuits Rodrigues and Garupe (Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver respectively), who endeavour to journey into Japan and recover Ferreira, whilst re-instilling the Christian faith in the few Japanese locals who remain receptive to it.
In many a sense, Silence isn’t recognisable as a Scorsese picture. One may be inclined to think of whip crack pacing, bustling cityscapes, big band/rock and roll inflected soundtracks and criminal underworlds as Scorsesian staples. Silence is not one of these Scorsese films; certainly, if this film were to be placed side-by-side with The Wolf of Wall Street, there would seldom be a hint the two were made by people from the same planet, let alone the same man. But it is beneath the skin of Silence where it finds affinities with so many other Scorsese works. Scorsese is compelled by the examination of men who fight to reconcile their inner beliefs with their outward actions. Consider Billy Costigan in The Departed, a police officer who in his desire to serve his city must go undercover and become one with the very criminal world he is trying to bring to justice. Consider Travis Bickle who grows so obsessed with cleansing New York’s seedy streets that in his efforts he resorts to the exact violence and criminality he is warring against; or Howard Hughes and Henry Hill, two men propelled by creating images of pristineness and power for themselves, but who descend more and more into paranoia and dirty desperation in their attempts to maintain said image; or how about Jesus Christ himself, who in The Last Temptation of Christ must negotiate his very human capacity to be tempted with his duties as the all good Son of God.
Now Andrew Garfield’s Rodrigues finds himself longing to be a beacon of faith, a man who fancies himself to be something of a 17th century Jesus (his appearance certainly becomes more and more Christ like as the film wears on), but whose faith is inwardly wavering under the weight Japan’s extreme Christian persecution.
He and Garupe enter Japan under the guide of a drunken, tramp like fisherman Kichijiro, well played by Yosuke Kubozuka, a Christian at heart but a man who too has succumbed to the trials of his country. A fleeting source of wry humour in the film can be seen in Kichijiro’s shameless, reoccurring apostasy as soon as he senses pressure. Rodrigues finds initial encouragement in Japan’s underground Christian community, whom he satiates by taking confession, but as he and Garupe begin to sense their own imminent capture and torture, Rodrigues grows disenchanted by the silence suggested in the film’s title that meets his prayers. Rodrigues is eventually captured and subjected to the rhetoric of “the inquisitor”, played by Issey Ogata with a wonderfully mannered performance, one that too has a slight comic inflection detectable in the odd cadence of the character’s speech and the exaggerated nature of his movements.
Rodrigues torture isn’t physical though, as to avoid the previously mentioned possibility of martyring the priest. Instead, Rodrigues is tasked with the pain of others. Other practicing Christians will be freed from their torment if Rodrigues apostatizes, and yet he won’t. Ironically, one begins to sense that Rodrigues wishes to be tortured, even killed, as this would draw an affinity between himself and Christ. “Arrogant”, the priest is labelled due to his positioning himself as a sacrificial figurehead for his religion. Wouldn’t common sense dictate that a verbal submission from Rodrigues in exchange for the physical relief of others is an obvious trade? Perhaps the priest’s devotion to Christ is born more out of egotism than true faith; perhaps Rodrigues’ faith is selfish; perhaps the notion of Jesuit priests infiltrating a nation that openly denounces them to instil their faith in said nation is imperialist. The fact that Scorsese, a man who identifies as a lapsed Catholic but whose personality is so shaped by his religious upbringing, is willing to pose such questions, to challenge his protagonist when the character so easily could’ve been a hub for sympathy, is Silence’s great triumph. The director’s own religious compass is imperceptible, there are, after all, more intriguing matters at hand, and Scorsese translates these matters into a film that is as ideologically dense as it is dense with physicality. He may not have the answers to these questions, Silence is more an exploration rather than an explanation, but to pose such fascinating questions is enough to envelop the mind.
Silence is Scorsese’s Everest, a passion project it has taken the director over 25 years to summit and finally commit to film after first crossing Shusaku Endo’s source material in 1988, and it is here it must be noted that that the director’s passion does have a tendency to work against him. In the case of Silence, so hellbent is Scorsese on wringing every ounce of visceral heft, every ounce of morbid beauty, and every ounce of affect from every frame, that the director tends to linger on the imagery to an excess. Silence is near three hours, and feels longer. It’s possible that if the director weren’t so transfixed by his own material he may have identified a more efficient means of relaying his story, one more accessible and less exhausting. It is then, very much a film that requires the viewer to take their own leap of faith; Silence is a cinematic battle of attrition, a movie which demands one endure a great deal before they are rewarded. It’s a leap of faith I personally was willing to make.
Directed By: Theodore Melfi
Written By: Theodore Melfi and Allison Schroeder (based on the book Hidden Figures by Margot Lee Shetterly)
Starring: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons
It’s hard to tell a story in a way that is totally free of cynicism, totally geared towards sunniness and triumph, whilst also remaining earnest and true. Hidden Figures is an unapologetically optimistic movie, one which wears its “message film” status like a badge on a scout’s uniform, and perhaps more damningly, it’s a film which never has the urge to push the envelope or stray from safeguarded formula. But it works, rather brilliantly so. The film’s abundant simplicities are not only masked, but are, eventually, completely transcended, as director Theodore Melfi puts into practise a cavalcade of electric yet downplayed performances, a surplus of vitality, and enough ovation worthy payoffs for ten crowd pleasers just like it.
Melfi and Allison Schroeder’s affectionate screenplay relays the story of three “coloured” women working as “computers” at NASA in the early 1960s. The trailblazing trio is composed of a no-nonsense, pragmatically skilled mother figure in Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy Vaughan (Dorothy serves as the supervisor of NASA’s segregated West Area Computers division, a title left unreflected in her pay and official title); a sassy, undeterrable Mary Jackson, played by Janelle Monae; and, most centrally, Taraji P. Henson’s mild-mannered mathematical prodigy Katherine Goble Johnson.
The three are dear friends, confined under the same roof with a small army of similarly segregated computers. But as the space race picks up speed the three find their talents pulling them each in a new direction, each course with its own glass ceiling to be shattered. Katherine’s unparalleled prowess with numbers lands her an unprecedented position in the Space Task Group, charged with manufacturing maths that will guide NASA’s rockets, one of which is to be manned by John Glenn (Glen Powell), into space and back to Earth without a hitch. She’s the sole African American in the group and as such is swiftly dismissed by her colleagues. She’s forced to run seemingly miles on end in order to find a “coloured” toilet, crunching numbers on the move, and when she first arrives she is assumed to be the janitor, handed a bin and put down for her failure to empty it overnight.
Katherine’s chief antagonist is head engineer Paul Stafford (Jim Parsons), who can hardly contain his dismay when he’s told Katherine must backcheck his numbers. But the racism seen in Hidden Figures is more tempered than one might expect of a Hollywood movie. The discrimination Katherine faces isn’t vicious or vitriolic, Melfi never rubs his viewer’s nose in the hardships that befall his central characters. Rather, the racism in Hidden Figures is contained largely to suspicious glares and small gestures, such as Kathrine being delegated her own “coloured” coffee pot (near tepid compared to the violence often seen in films dealing with race, but so sensitive and fastidious is Melfi that the sight of this coffee pot alone left the auditorium inconsolable). Late in the piece, Spencer’s Dorothy is told by supervisor Vivian Mitchell (Kirsten Dunst), that despite what she may think, he latter takes no issue with the former. “I’m sure you honestly believe that” Dorothy calmly retorts; it’s an insightful approach from Melfi, NASA’s white contingency are unconscious of their prejudices, racism is instead woven innocuously into the fabric of day to day Virginian life.
It’s this sort of measured restraint which ensures Hidden Figures never seems slips into sanctimony or exploit the tensions at its heart, a notion which Kevin Costner as the progressive head of Space Task Group, Al Harrison, emblematises with his powerfully understated performance, assessing his staff on nothing but performance; Hidden Figures may be simple, but it never takes the cheap emotional route.
Dorothy has her own improbable ascension, taking it upon herself to master the IBM computers which threaten to render human mathematicians obsolete and gain her due supervisor title, whilst Mary aspires to obtain an unlikely engineering degree, fighting in court for a chance to even attend her required segregated university.
The central trio of performances are each luminous and distinct (Henson is subdued and polite, Spencer stern and feisty, Monae boisterous and self-assured), however the three find an even greater vibrancy in their triangular interplays and chemistry. It would be impossible to feel glum watching any of the three defy the expectations heaped on their respective characters. They, like the film itself, are defined by an indomitable spirit, an infectious good-will that spurs one of the most satisfying movie going experiences of the season, distilling hefty, confronting moments in human history into something is as eye opening as it is imminently watchable.