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Reviews

Review: Late Night [Spoiler Free]

June 22, 2019
Late Night Movie Poster

My wife and I took a spin to our local cinema recently for a showing of the new Mindy Kaling film Late Night. I’ll admit straight off the bat that I wouldn’t normally be in a rush to see something in this genre (even if it’s written by the hilarious and talented Kaling) but the vibes around the film were all very positive, so off we went.

Why now?

Late Night was released in theatres on June 7, 2019.

In a nutshell

The host of a late-night talk show hires a new writer (Kaling) to help turn things around after several years of dwindling popularity and viewership, with both amusing and life-affirming consequences (naturally).

Who’s it for?

The movie’s rated 15 but there really isn’t much in it to worry about, bar some bad language and sexual references. Fans of clever, thoughtful humour (as opposed to the trashy, gross-out humour that so often pervades comedy movies these days) will appreciate this one.

Emma Thompson appears in Late Night by Nisha Ganatra, an official selection of the Premieres program at the 2019 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Emily Aragones.

Who’s in it?

Mindy Kaling! The Office star wrote and produced this one herself, and it’s easy to tell – her signature brand of quick-witted comedy is all over Late Night, and Kaling puts in a typically-assured performance throughout. Emma Thompson stars as Katherine Newbury, pioneering talk show host and ice-queen of the small screen (in parts, anyway). John Lithgow, Hugh Dancy and a host of other folks you’ll quickly recognise provide support to Kaling and Thompson.

The good stuff

In a nutshell (I don’t care, I’m using it again), the premise, writing, acting and direction in Late Night are all superb. It’s not an entirely original concept, but it joins a host of other behind-the-scenes style movies and TV shows that lay bare the gruelling hard work and obstacles that those in television have to endure on a weekly basis, while managing to make it all very funny and endearing (think 30 Rock, but a touch more serious). I thought the film struck a good balance between humour and social commentary, particularly in terms of why Kaling’s character Molly was hired in the first place and the unfair pressures inflicted on women (especially older women) in the entertainment industry. It’s a movie that will make you think as much as laugh, which is a sure sign of worthwhile writing.

The not so good stuff

As I said before, Late Night isn’t totally original, and you’ll definitely feel like you’ve seen parts of it before. Thompson’s character occasionally strays into the realm of pantomime villain, but the strength of her performance ensures the audience can remain sympathetic throughout and, well, it’s Emma Thompson, isn’t it? I would have liked to have seen slightly more character development for Molly, who sort of hits a wall late on and slips into a predictable arc, but those are minor gripes and easily outweighed by the good stuff.

The bottom line

Late Night is funny, satisfying and thought-provoking, a rare treble in my book. It’s not going to set the world alight, but it does affirm something we already knew about Mindy Kaling – she’s one of the best comedy writers in Hollywood.

Verdict: 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

Late Night Trailer

Also Read: Review: Booksmart

Reviews

Retro Review: It Follows

June 8, 2019
It Follows poster

Over the past several years horror fans and critics have tended to pick an independent horror film and lavish huge amounts of praise and attention on them. Often declaring them as instant classics of the genre. But these films often prove very divisive. With other audiences claiming the films are overrated, not true horror films or simply not good. Examples include Hereditary (2018), The Witch (2015), The Babadook (2014) and the subject of today’s review, David Robert Mitchell’s It Follows (2014). Does it deserve its divisive reputation? Let’s find out.

Synopsis

Jay (Maika Monroe) is a teenager enjoying all the foibles of growing into adulthood. One-night Jay decides to sleep with her new boyfriend for the first time. Afterwards, she is knocked out and taken to an abandoned building. There her boyfriend reveals he has passed a curse on to her. A shapeshifting creature which can take the form of anyone has begun following her and it wants her dead.

Her boyfriend then disappears leaving Jay to deal with the threat on her own. The one positive is that the creature only follows her at a walking pace, so Jay decides to use this to her advantage.

Along with her friends, she tracks down her boyfriend to get an explanation out of him and they learn that the only way the creature can be stopped is to transfer the curse to someone else. But can Jay bring herself to put another person in harm’s way or will she try something different?

What did I like?

The hyperbolic claims that It Follows is simply not a good film is baffling. Purely from a technical point of view, the film is great. As a horror film, It Follows has a firm grasp of how to create tension through its presentation. Using long takes, interesting camera movement and good actor direction to build anxiety about where the monster is and when it will strike. The score also builds a tense atmosphere through creating both a confrontational and quietly eerie soundscape.

The acting is also superb. With the story centred around teenagers, the film could easily become laughable if the cast weren’t believable. But all the main actors feel like real teenagers. Maika Monroe particularly stands out as an incredibly likeable, sympathetic and genuine lead. Her monologue about remembering her youth near the film’s beginning carries great weight because of her delivery. And the way all the friends talk about their childhoods and the antics they get up to gives a feeling of true friendship, allowing us to easily invest in their situation.

The film also pays tribute to older horror films in effective ways. With a synthesizer-heavy score, a stalking camera and an unknowable slow moving, shapeshifting monster, evoking the feeling of John Carpenters older horror films. But the film also has a very modern outlook.

Instead of simply killing characters for having sex or exploiting them for pointless nudity, It Follows is more a tale about teenagers coming to terms with the vulnerability of their bodies. Many scenes have Jay looking over her body and showing how she feels different now because of the danger brought on by the monster. But she never shies away from sex. Her challenge is choosing what to do with the burden she’s been given. As an extension, the women are not solely victims, like in many other horror movies. They take an active role in dealing with the threat, and they call the shots when it comes to sex. While most of the men are cowardly or self-centred. A far cry from the puritanical traditions of many older horror films.

This amalgam of traditions makes the film almost timeless. Ensuring most generations will be able to get something from watching it.

What did I not like?

But there are a few things that let the film down. There are a few weird editing choices throughout the film where the focus will instantly shift to another point of focus instead of giving a payoff to what came before. This is particularly noticeable in the finale which, although it gets a point across, does feel somewhat out of place.

Another problem is that despite the film using its narrative in an interesting way, the beats of the plot are still very familiar to anyone who has seen a passing-on-the-curse movie. And there are very few surprises to freshen up the formula. Which may put off some audiences.

Finally, while the film provides positive female representation with its characters, the film does occasionally feel very leery. With long shots of the female characters in their underwear, swimwear and revealing clothes. While both a staple of the genre and somewhat justified by the theme of body image, it is telling that we never get similar shots for the male characters. And this can leave a bad taste in the audience’s mouth, especially with everything the film does to paint its women positively.

Verdict

Despite a few hiccups in editing, a familiar story and tending to slightly leer at its female characters, It Follows remains a great example of how to do modern horror right.

It gives us time to get to know the leads, who are all relatable and down to earth. While focusing on building tension rather than using jump scares, which the film does through interesting uses of music, camera movement and actor direction; It Follows celebrates the horrors of the past while updating some tropes to tell a modern story.

It Follows follows in the tradition of Carpenter and gives us a modern retro gem, that I can see audiences enjoying for years to come. Check it out and judge for yourselves.

Verdict: 4 out of 5 stars (4 / 5)

It Follows is available for free on BBC Iplayer for the next 2 months

It Follows (Trailer)

Also Read: How The Blair Witch Project Changed Horror.

Reviews

Review: Aladdin

June 7, 2019
Rachael RNR Reviews Aladdin

Directed by Guy Ritchie (Revolver, The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) & starring Will Smith, YouTuber & Presenter, Rachel RNR reviews the Disney live-action remake of Aladdin.

What’s It About?

Aladdin, our beloved pickpocket orphan who falls for Princess Jasmine, the beautiful daughter of the sultan of Agrabah. To win the princess, Aladdin must do what it takes. Causing him to get tangled with the evil sorcerer Jafa!

Rachael RNR Reviews Aladdin

Also Read: Movie Marketing: Films That Thought Outside The Box

Reviews

Review: Booksmart

June 6, 2019

Two hyper-successful students decide the night before high school graduation needs to be given over to the fun times they’ve always denied themselves.

What’s Going On?

Molly and Amy are best friends and are also intelligent and studious high school students; probably destined for great things. Their view of the world is rocked upon learning that far less intelligent and studious people have still got into great colleges and they worry that they’ve missed their chance to have fun in high school. They decide to crash the party of one of the “popular” students and get the experiences they have missed out on.

Behind The Scenes

This is the first full-length feature directorial debut of well-known actor Olivia Wilde and to be honest that description would not have inspired much confidence in me but this is a lesson for me in making assumptions about people – as it’s a great film and for their debut, it is absolutely amazing. Wilde is clearly a very talented filmmaker and I’ll be eager to see whatever she makes next.

In Front Of The Camera

The casting of this film is sensational. The film stars Kaitlyn Dever and Beanie Feldstein as Amy and Molly, the almost-workaholic students who finally want to have some fun. They are both completely believable in these roles as well as utterly charming and instantly likeable. Most of the rest of the student cast were unknown to me, but all were similarly wonderful with the only potential misstep being the casting of Skyler Gisonda as rich-but-unpopular Jared. The problem with him is his role in The Santa Clarita Diet has racked up such goodwill I can’t take against him. The film also has Lisa Kudrow and Will Forte as Amy’s parents (surely one of the most prestigious sets of parents in all of comedy), Daily Show alumnus Jessica Williams as a cool teacher and Jason Sudeikis as a slightly troubling principal.

Does It Work?

I loved this film. First and foremost this is a comedy and I laughed throughout the film – from the nerdy interests of the main duo, their earnest goodness, the trying far too hard Jared who is only one step from actually bribing people to be his friend. But not only is this film funny, but it’s also clever, poignant and emotional. As someone who always tried very hard in school, I could identify with the main characters and probably held some of Molly’s views about the other students. Molly and Amy are also eager to show they are not just one thing – they are not just smart and want other people to realise that.

The friendship between Molly and Amy is incredibly endearing, even if, like with all friendships, there are problems and issues between them. Most of the other teenagers think the pair aren’t fun, they are, but usually just when they’re hanging out with each other. There is a recurring joke about when they get ready in front of each other and the increasingly over-the-top compliments they give each other which always made me smile.

Early on in the film, we learn that Amy is gay and this is not a secret, she is out with everyone. Much has been said recently about how for years if a film featured a young gay character it would be about the ordeal of being bullied, unloved by those who should love you, but we’ve reached a point where there can be stories about young gay people that are essentially your typical rom-com or teen movie stories and this is one of those films. Amy may face unrequited love (or maybe just unrequited crush), rejection, loneliness etc but that is just the standard teenage experience. This is not to say this would be true of every story of a gay teen growing up nowadays but fortunately, it was for Amy.

This is a high school film unlike any I have seen before and it makes some brilliant unusual moves. First of all, there aren’t really any bad guys in this film amongst the main characters and all the people who you think may have been positioned to be bad people actually turn out to be quite nice which is such a refreshing change. The jocks don’t stuff people into lockers. The popular girls don’t constantly undermine girls, not in their clique – in fact, it could be said this is something Molly is more guilty of. When actually given the chance to hang out with these people they all get along with many characters sincerely saying how happy they are to see these two girls having fun.

The more we get to know some of the more peripheral characters their worries, ambitions an insecurities are also unveiled meaning we start to like them more, none of the characters feel like they are slapdash stereotypes. Again the idea of not being put into a box, of not being defined by one aspect of who you are plays out with many of these characters. So many films, and I don’t just mean teen movies, have characters that are little more than two-word descriptions of their most obvious trait and that this film has tried so hard to make well-rounded characters is wonderful.

Overall this is a really enjoyable film that I would highly recommend for anyone to watch – you don’t have to be schoolwork-obsessed nerds like the main characters are (and I was) to appreciate this film. The film uses “booksmart” angle to be a bit different but it’s not just about overachieving and will be relatable for many people.

Verdict: [4 usr]

Also Read: Cinema Therapy: How Movies Can Heal

Reviews

Review: The Last Tree [Spoiler Free] – Sundance London

June 3, 2019
The Last Tree

The Last Tree is a coming of age indie-drama from British-Nigerian writer/director, Shola Amoo. The film had its European debut at the Sundance London Film Festival.

What’s It About?

The Last Tree tells the story of Femi, a British boy of Nigerian heritage. After having a happy childhood with his foster carer in rural Lincolnshire, his biological mother moves him to London to be with her. Upon moving to London, Femi struggles with his own sense of identity and developing a relationship with his mother. Writer/director, Shola Amoo described the film as a semi-autobiographical account of his own life.

Break It Down

The film is ambitious in the story it aims to tell. It is broken down in three distinct stages: part one, primarily taking place in Lincolnshire, details the life of Femi as a child; part two, takes place in London, with Femi as a 16-year-old as a teenager. This makes up the bulk of the film, the final part of the film takes place in Lagos. Despite the film being structured this way, the pacing of the film feels just right, guiding the audience along in a way that makes sense, but allows the viewer to appreciate the true weight of Femi’s journey.

The core narrative running through the film is Femi’s relationship with his mother (Gbemi Ikumelo) and how that shapes his sense of self. As a young boy, Femi (Tai Golding), enjoys relative stability with his foster carer, Mary (Denise Black). The reintroduction of his mother and the interaction between all three characters brilliantly sets up the emotional and cultural barriers between mother and son. By the middle of the film, Femi (now played by Sam Adewunmi) is hardened from his own childhood experiences, thus the relationship between him and his mother becomes much more adversarial. This makes for some of the film’s most gripping moments. Both actors who play Femi prove themselves to be great casting choices, with both delivering impressive performances and are supported by a great cast.

The Last Tree - Cast and Director - Sundance London - Big Picture Film Club
Writer / director, Shola Amoo alongside the cast of “The Last Tree” at Sundance London (Big Picture Film Club)

In aiming to tell such a complex culturally-specific story, director & screenwriter, Shola Amoo has used his own lived experience to draw upon, this brings with it a level of authenticity and nuance which turns what would be a ‘good’ film into a brilliant film. It’s very believable, therefore relatable. The Last Tree never feels over-dramatised either, which in this instance only serves to bolster the film’s authenticity. The film saves its most dramatic moments only when it is warranted and actually serves the purpose of the film. Additionally, the film raises and tackles some very important questions around culpability, family legacy and healing. Much of this pay off comes in the final 20 minutes of the film, which takes place in Lagos.

An Extra Touch

A key highlight of the film is the film’s cinematography, which was handled by Stil Williams (Kubrick by Candlelight, Gone Too Far). From the golden ethereal lighting of his childhood scenes in Lincolnshire to the striking red lighting and close-up shots in the some of The Last Tree’s grittier scenes in London, the cinematography perfectly compliments the narrative of the film. With the addition of some great use of sound design, handled by Segun Akinola, The Last Tree truly has a style of its own.

The film is one of the best portrayals to date of the British-Nigerian experience and in many respects breaks new ground in the depiction of being black in Britain. Many within the diaspora will have first and second-hand points of references to throughout the film. Nonetheless, The Last Tree is a must-watch for all audiences who appreciate a great coming of age story.

Verdict: 5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

The Last Tree – Big Picture Film Club Interview at Sundance London

Also Read: The Rise of Nigerian-British Filmmakers

Reviews

Review: The Silence

May 27, 2019

New Netflix film The Silence tells the story of a family trying to survive in a country ravaged by monsters that hunt by sound and to have any hope of survival you must be silent.

The Elephant In The Cinema (or Netflix in this case)

The plot outline of The Silence sounds very similar to recent horror hit A Quiet Place and the word “mockbuster” has been thrown around describing The Silence. A mockbuster is a film that has a plot and title similar to a very successful film and is not a coincidence but a very cynical attempt to leech off the success of the blockbuster. It should be pointed out The Silence is based on a book that predates A Quiet Place. Personally, I would say the quality of the film and its origins means it isn’t a mockbuster but it’s still impossible not to directly compare it to the other film.

What’s Going On?

The film follows a single family and how they deal with a nationwide catastrophe; strange winged creatures are spreading across the country and killing countless people. After watching news reports it becomes clear that the creatures hunt by what they can hear – meaning if you can be quiet you’re safe. As the family has a deaf daughter they are used to communicating non-verbally. After a tense few hours of deliberation, the family decides to drive out into the quieter and presumably safer countryside. To their horror, they find that the monsters are not far behind and not only that but there are other things dangers to be wary of.

Behind The Scenes

The film is directed by John R. Leonetti a cinematographer and director with a history in horror, his biggest directing credit being for 2014’s Annabelle. The writers are Shane Van Dyke and Carey Van Dyke whose involvement in Transmorphers: Fall of Man and The Day The Earth Stopped (films that, surely coincidentally, are reminiscent of Transformers franchise and The Day The Earth Stood Still) has somewhat added to the perception problem as a mockbuster.

In Front Of The Camera

I’ll admit that it was the cast that made me interested in this film – namely Stanley Tucci, who plays Hugh, the Dad, and Kieran Shipka, who plays Ally, the daughter. Stanley Tucci is a great actor, that’s just a fact, his monologue in Margin Call about building a bridge is one of my favourite scenes of all time. Whereas Kieran Shipka is best known for her phenomenal performance as Sally Draper in Mad Men and more recently as the eponymous character in The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. Unsurprisingly Tucci gives a great performance as an ordinary Dad in extraordinary circumstances, a calm, gentle man, who while retaining his decency shows he is tougher than people might think. Shipka’s performance was good, as was most of the cast to be honest, but not quite what I was hoping for.

Does It Work?

The film is moderately enjoyable, especially if you are a fan of this post-apocalyptic, or in this case during-apocalyptic movie. This is, in fact, the main difference between The Silence and A Quiet Place, the latter is set some time after the problems started and the complete collapse of civilisation, whereas The Silence only gives us the first moments of what is happening. After all, throughout most of the film Ally talks via Skype with a schoolfriend discussing what is happening and surely if Skype is still working things haven’t got that bad yet.

The film is quite predictable and offers little in the way of surprises. The monsters are CGI created and are not always terrible fearsome, the film making the mistake of many monster movie in that they show the monster far too often. The most terrifying monsters are only glimpsed by the viewer. Overall I wasn’t convinced that the monsters posed an existential threat to humans, they did not seem that fearsome or dangerous, yes they could kill a person but they were described in the film as unstoppable nightmare creatures.

The film takes an odd turn away from the danger of the monsters to the danger of other people. Now, this is a fairly common trope of disaster/apocalyptic films that humans can be as bad as the monsters. What is absolutely bizarre in this film is that the normal, civilised people got completely batshit crazy in literally two days. While scavenging Hugh and Ally encounter a creepy man and it turns out he has a bunch of creepy friends who have already started mutilating themselves and talking about women in terms of “fertility”. This has to be the most rapid descent into apocalyptic madness I have ever seen and it is simply too much to accept that people would turn so bad so quickly. I’m not even sure the old adage that a civilised man is only three meals away from barbarity as I don’t think they had missed that many meals.

So, the big question, how does it do compare to A Quiet Place? Not well is the quick answer. A Quiet Place was hugely enjoyable and genuinely tense and The Silence just doesn’t match up in any way. But even without this comparison The Silence barely feels like a film and more like a long episode of a moderately successful tv show. At best it will only appeal to fans of this genre and will not be remembered as a particularly worthy addition but still too good to be a mockbuster.

Verdict: 2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5)

The Silence (Official Trailer)

Also Read: How The Blair Witch Project Changed Horror

Reviews

Retro Review: 2001: A Space Odyssey

May 24, 2019

And so we return once again to Stanley Kubrick. As I stated in my Eyes Wide Shut review Kubrick was one of the most highly regarded film directors of the 20th Century and much of his work displayed the real potential of what can be done with cinema. And nothing epitomizes the qualities of his work better than 2001: A Space Odyssey.   

Released in 1968, 2001 initially polarised critics and moviegoers alike. But in the years since it has been reassessed. And is now heralded as one of the greatest and most influential science fiction movies ever made. But does it really deserve that title? Well, today I head on the ultimate trip as I dive into 2001 and see what all the fuss is about.

Synopsis

2001 begins at “the dawn of man”. We see tribes of apes that will become humans fighting over resources in the wilds of the earth. Suddenly a large black monolith appears. Inspiring one of the tribes to use the bones of a tapir as tools to kill their fellow apes. We then jump to a time when we have used tools to make space travel possible and have conquered the moon. Another monolith is soon discovered, emitting a signal originating from Jupiter. So a team of astronauts go to investigate. Accompanying the team is the worlds most advanced computer system, HAL 9000. But does the artificial intelligence have other motives? What is the purpose of these monoliths? And what lies in wait beyond Jupiter?

What did I like?

As I said earlier there is no movie that gives a better introduction to Stanley Kubrick as a director than 2001. Because it demonstrates what his films do best.

Firstly, this film pushed the envelope in terms of what was possible with visual effects. The amount of sheer effort that went into creating the visuals in this film is unbelievable. Despite being over 50 years old the space sequences in this film still manage to blow modern productions out of the water. Everything looks and feels real, because of the lack of digital enhancement. The spaceships look authentic and the zero gravity sequences have weight to them because of the lingering shots and expert behind the scenes craftsmanship on display. Many newcomers and even old fans can still marvel for hours at how the filmmakers managed to achieve these feats without CGI. But importantly they also feel like part of the narrative, never intruding on the story.  

His films also asked complex questions, such as are we really the masters of our domain or is something else guiding us? Will technology eventually grow beyond us? Is conflict part of our very nature? Kubrick was not afraid to tackle big subjects. But the great thing about 2001 is that it invites different interpretations because of the little details packed into every frame of production, which some may notice and others won’t. Thus it provides a rewarding experience for multiple watches and everyone who sees it will come out with something different.

And, most importantly, Kubrick’s films were uniquely cinematic in their storytelling. The cinematography looks stunning and is packed with unique stylistic choices that make the film more engaging. The dialogue is also used carefully. The first and last 20 minutes of the film has no dialogue. But the audience is never confused because the information is always clearly conveyed through visuals. But even with less dialogue focus, the actors all shine. Whether fighting to get inside a spaceship or pretending to be apes, all the performances feel natural and well-integrated. The highlight being Douglas Rain as the voice of HAL. Who despite his monotone delivery evokes genuine menace and sympathy for his character. Lastly the films classical score is beautiful. When juxtaposed against savageness of the past and the wonders of the future, it gives the feeling of a true epic, spanning all of human existence and is very emotionally engaging.

So if the film is this good, what could possibly drag it down?

What did I not like?

First and foremost, if you are looking for an easy movie, that explains everything, with a simple plot structure and well-developed characters this is not the movie for you. The movie is more about themes and the bigger picture than it is about a character’s journey. It can, therefore, be frustrating to some viewers when the plot keeps jumping forward in time. With only thematic links and minimal dialogue to explain it; and no character to anchor the experience for the audience.

But it’s not just the lack of clear exposition and traditional presentation that may turn people off. The film has a slow and deliberate pace to it. Often lingering on the mechanics of how things work in this world. And while that does link in with the theme of technology getting ever grander and was very impressive for 1968, it does sometimes feel that the movie is stalling for time. And with a runtime of nearly 2 and a half hours that can be incredibly frustrating.

Finally, just like Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick employs a colder directing style that will keep some viewers from engaging with the film. Because he is more fascinated with the mechanics of technology than on the human story much of the characters seem, unengaging. Not that the actors do a bad job. The characters just seem more focused on business and basic survival, which can be emotionally uninvolving for a film audience. Not helped by Kubrick again focusing more on wider shots and a cold colour pallet. Keeping us as viewers at a distance and can keep us from becoming involved with the action.

Verdict

It is easy to see that 2001 will not be to everyone’s liking. The non-traditional narrative, lack of exposition for key plot points, the tendency to linger on minor details for a long time and cold, uninviting presentation may understandably turn a lot of people off.

But if you are looking for a unique cinematic experience that encourages debate and analysis with some of the best special effects ever put on screen and has such a polished level of craftsmanship in terms of cinematography, acting, soundtrack and editing, that even those who hate it can not help but admire it in some way, then do yourself a favour and go on the space odyssey. It’s a journey you won’t soon forget.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

2001: A Space Odyssey is available for free on BBC iPlayer until Monday 27th May 2019.

2001: A Space Odyssey (Official Trailer)

Also Read: Retro Review: Eyes Wide Shut

Reviews

Review: John Wick Chapter 3: Parabellum

May 21, 2019

Keanu Reeves’ action franchise returns for its third instalment and this time it has Latin in the title.

What’s Going On?

Super-assassin John Wick has a $14,000,000 bounty placed on his head after breaking one of the cardinal rules of the Continental Hotel – no business is conducted on hotel grounds. As this is a hotel for assassins, “business” means killing people. In the world of this film, assassins lurk around every corner and John is set upon by an endless array of killers. Eager to get out from under this death sentence, John delves deeper into the mysterious world of assassins to find a solution to his problem.

Behind The Scenes

John Wick was directed by Chad Stahelski who, famously, before that film had been a stunt co-ordinator and as such was incredibly focused on the fight scenes. Stahelski stayed on to direct Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 and the fight scenes are still amazing, at times truly dazzling and clearly directed by a world-class expert. I am something of a connoisseur of good fight scenes and I still winced at how real some of the blows felt while marvelling at the technical capabilities of all involved.

In Front Of The Camera

Keanu Reeves obviously dominates the film as he plays John Wick and continues to bring an almost stoic sensibility to non-stop life and death fights. Alongside Reeves’ acting talent is sheer ability to be in this film, I am unaware exactly how much of Reeves’ fighting is done by a double but he certainly seems to be taking on a lot. Ian McShane reprises his role as Winston, manager of the Continental Hotel (the assassin hotel that has placed the bounty on Wick for breaking their rules) and with him also returns Lance Riddick as the ever helpful concierge, Charon. Lawrence Fishburne is also back as the unnamed Bowery King – the ruler of another mysterious group of criminals who pose as homeless New Yorkers. There are newcomers – the primary antagonist is the Adjuciator, a representative of the High Table, the rulers of this world of assassins played by Asia Kate Dillon, who not only wants Wick dead also wants New York shaken up a bit. Perhaps more important is the addition of Mark Dacascos, an assassin and sushi chef billed as someone actually capable of taking on John Wick. Real star power is brought by Oscar winner Halle Berry, who operates a similar hotel as that managed by Winston but in Casablanca. Angelica Houston pops up playing The Director, who doubles as ballet director and crimelord whose help John Wick seeks and provides a little more backstory to the character of John Wick.

Does It Work?

I consider John Wick a great action film, a twist on a simple revenge story, driven by Keanu Reeves’ performance and some of the best fight choreography ever. John Wick 2 was entertaining, and again, had amazing fight scenes, but it wasn’t quite the same and I feel much the same with John Wick 3. It’s certainly an enjoyable film and I was never bored but the more it’s delved into this world the less I get out of it. It somehow lacked the magic of the original and this might be as simple as I knew what to expect, whereas Chapter 1 was a surprise. I do think that there is a problem with John Wick’s motivation, in the first film it was revenge but in the other two there is something more complicated going on – debts owed, rules broken and the schemes of powerful people.

The more that is revealed about the Continental, the High Table, the Bowery and so on the more convoluted and less satisfying it becomes. The sheer number of assassins that exists not just in New York but seemingly any spot on the globe is astounding and stretches credulity. The thing that seems most unbelievable is that surely there aren’t this many assassinations to support such a huge number of assassins.

Whereas the first chapter was based entirely in New York, Chapter 2 took us to Rome and Chapter 3 continues with this international perspective. John Wick [Chapter 1] felt very contained, everything happened in a couple of days in a couple of locations but increasingly the franchise is eager to spread its wings. Doing this does allow for a bit of variety but personally, I would have preferred a more claustrophobic setting.

There was a cool touch in John Wick where after one fight scene early in the movie the police turn up. They know John who is, simply ask if he’s working again and then stay out of his way but you can’t help but think the level of carnage caused in this film would warrant some kind of police response. There are even suggestions of supernatural powers or mystical techniques possessed by some of the assassins, that to me, make John Wick’s phenomenal killing abilities less impressive.

Of course, John Wick was never supposed to be set in the real world, this hyper-violent world of secret assassins and globe-spanning criminal syndicates was supposed to be escapist fun but I think after the first film the balance between reality and fantasy has moved too far to the latter.

But really most of these complaints and minor gripes and is just what separates a good film from being a great film. If you enjoyed the previous John Wick films you will almost certainly love this. The fight scenes continue to offer something new, whether it’s drafting in Boban Marjanovic, a seven foot three inches tall basketball star, to serve as an early opponent or adding horses and dogs to the weapons John Wick utilises. While I feel the story has become a little bogged down with secret organisations the core of the film remains the same- John Wick having to fight a seemingly impossible number of people.

The biggest plus in the film is certainly Mark Dacascos. In the two previous chapters, there was no one who, individually, was thought to be John Wick’s equal when it came to killing people. There wasn’t one bad guy for him to fight there would be a couple of dozen. Of course, John Wick still has to fight through dozens of opponents but it all leads to a showdown with Dacascos.

Overall this is a very enjoyable action film that doesn’t quite capture the magic of the first instalment but compared to other franchises on their second sequel this is amazing stuff.

Verdict 3.5 out of 5 stars (3.5 / 5)

John Wick 3 (Official Trailer)

Also Read: Ten Movies Turning 20 in 2019!

Reviews

Review: Chasing Shadows [Spoiler Free]

May 20, 2019
Chasing Shadows Poster

I was recently asked to take a look at a micro-budget British Crime Thriller called Chasing Shadows, written and directed by Aoun Khan. The movie’s currently in the final stages of post-production, so the version I saw is still some way off the finished article, but a few small tweaks aside and it was essentially all there. So I pulled up a chair and hunkered down for 84 minutes of gritty crime noir.

Here are my first impressions of Chasing Shadows.

Why now?

Chasing Shadows is set for a limited theatrical release in North America this summer, followed by a DVD and VOD release later in 2019.

In a nutshell

An inexperienced and already washed-up detective battles with a suppressed painkiller addiction while trying to track down a serial killer.

Who’s it for?

The movie is rated 15 and justifiably so as some scenes are fairly gruesome. Not one for the kids, anyway.

Kevin Golding in Chasing Shadows

Who’s in it?

Cengiz Dervis plays Henry, the aforementioned gloomy detective. Julie Rose Smith plays his wife Lyla, while the role of Max (why does nobody have a surname here) is taken on by Lloyd Sparsi. Faye Sewell, Kevin Golding and Alex Reece comprise the rest of the main cast.

The good stuff

For a “micro-budget” crime thriller, I think this film actually punches above its weight on plenty of occasions. Khan’s direction is largely quite accomplished, with effective use of light and camera work throughout. The film’s score is also strong and lends itself to the dark and brooding tone Khan was clearly shooting for.

Any more action-oriented sequences in the movie are executed well, with a foot-chase between two of the principal characters a particular technical highlight (though it very nearly goes on too long). Some shots were quite haunting, too, especially those centred on the serial-killer moments in the film – lots of deep red, shadows and unsettling angles.

In terms of acting, I found Sparsi’s portrayal of Max intriguing. I liked the idea of a serial killer who was devilishly handsome and charming (nothing new there, really) who lapses into moments of homicidal mania without ever really letting his mask slip. The film ends up poised for a potential sequel, which I’d be interested in seeing if Max remains the lead antagonist.

The not so good stuff

While I found Khan’s direction admirable, I was less enamoured with his writing ability. The story, firstly, is a pretty by-the-books serial killer narrative – if you haven’t figured out the entire plot within the first 15 minutes, you’re just not really trying. Nothing really jumped out at me as surprising, and each character fit far too comfortably into their respective stereotypes: Detective With Personal Demons, Nagging Wife, Charming Killer, Angry Cop Boss, etc. With the exception of Sergeant Emily Banks (who was just weird enough to be memorable) and Max in fits and bursts, the characterisation of the remaining players was fairly two-dimensional. I’d definitely seen that leading character detective before – I didn’t need to see him again, especially when he looked as though he’d just woken up in every scene. I also wasn’t sure if Max’s dual accounts of how he received his facial scar were a homage to The Dark Knight or just a casual rip-off.

The poor writing extended to (and was perhaps most glaringly obvious in) the dialogue. Some of the exchanges between characters were so painful I felt as though George Lucas had written them, and it was clear the actors were at times struggling to deliver their lines with any real conviction. On the flip side of that negative, however, was the positive that any scenes with little or no dialogue further amplified Khan’s good directorial skills.

I’ll aim a final criticism at some of the sound in the film, though I expect this will be improved before the final product is unveiled. Some of the off-screen characters sounded very muffled during conversations, and the final voiceover sequence was nearly incomprehensible at times. Again, though, I assume this will be rectified in post-production.

The bottom line

Chasing Shadows is an admirable first-time effort from Aoun Khan and certainly worth a watch, if you enjoy this genre. Any inadequacies in writing are largely balanced out with good direction and score, though as a writer myself, I struggle to look beyond the improper execution of words. I’d be interested to see what a film directed by Khan and written by someone else would turn out like, though – definitely one to watch in future.

Verdict: 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Chasing Shadows (Trailer)
Reviews

Avengers: Endgame [Spoiler Free]

April 26, 2019

Another Avengers movie release, another midnight showing, another day as a work zombie…all totally worth it.

Avengers: Endgame finally hit the big screen on 25 April, and I was one of the hundreds of ecstatic movie-goers packing out one of several booked-out screens at our local cinema. I’ve been to a few midnight showings, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many super-enthusiastic fans gathered in one place. The atmosphere was electric – it’s the perfect way to enjoy a much-anticipated film, because everyone who’s there really has to want to be there at that time.

Anyway, on to the review. This one is SPOILER-FREE, but I’ll probably do a follow-up piece soon discussing the film in more depth.

For now, here are my initial impressions of the final Avengers movie.

Why now?

Endgame was released on 25 April and is in cinemas in the UK right now.

In a nutshell

With half of all life in the universe ‘snapped’ out of existence by the titan Thanos, the remaining handful of Earth’s Mightiest Heroes set about trying to find a way to reverse what their arch nemesis achieved at the end of Infinity War. I can’t say any more than that without dropping a spoiler, but from the trailers, you’ll know that Ant-Man and Captain Marvel play a part in it all.

Who’s it for?

The movie is rated 12a, so some children may need an adult along. It’s just Marvel-level violence for the most part though, so don’t worry too much about it.

Thanos armour

Who’s in it?

I’m not even going to touch this one because the cast of this film is freakin’ huge. If you’ve seen Captain America Civil War, Infinity War, Ant-Man and Captain Marvel, however, you’ll already be acquainted with the entire cast.

Really struggling to contain myself here…

The good stuff

Man, I wish I hadn’t set that no-spoilers rule at the start of this review!

If you’re a Marvel fan (and of course you are), this film is everything you’ll have wanted it to be. It is at least as good as Infinity War, if not a few shades better, and if you’ve read my review on it you’ll know that’s high praise indeed.

On every level – writing, direction, acting, special effects, etc – Endgame exceeds expectations. I went in having no real clue what was going to happen, as I think most fans did, but even if I’d formulated my own carefully-concocted version of the plot, it would never have come close to what actually happens in the film. Right from the start, the plot spins off in directions I could never have predicted. Characters die who I expected to live (that’s not a spoiler, you knew some of them would die), others survive who I assumed would be killed off at some stage; certain heroes play key roles while others sit a little further back, but every member of the cast gets their time to shine. How the Russo brothers managed to achieve that in such an effortless way, I’ll never know.

And that’s another awesome thing about this movie – the great moments you hoped would happen do happen, just not necessarily in the ways you anticipate. There are fantastic twists, set pieces, stunts and phenomenal cinematography throughout, and the final battle sequence tops anything ever played out in the history of action movies, let alone those in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Pretty sure that isn’t an exaggeration, either.

Finally, on an emotional level, Endgame trumps everything that’s come before it. There were plenty of tears in our screening towards the end, explosions of laughter all the way through, and spontaneous applause when the final credits rolled. Be warned – this is an emotional experience, and you will leave the cinema feeling very sad and very happy in equal measure.

The not so good stuff

There really isn’t much to say here. My only complaint, and it’s extremely minor, would be with some of the early sections of the film that seem a bit slow, but there’s a lot of character development going on here and numerous story arcs being concluded simultaneously, so I suppose that’s to be expected. I would have liked to have seen a few of the characters get slightly more screen time as well, but again, it’s a tall order getting everyone into a film that acts as the culmination of ten years’ worth of storytelling.

The bottom line

Avengers: Endgame is all that you hope it’ll be and a bag of chips. The Russo brothers hit all the right notes from start to finish, and the ending in particular is thoroughly satisfying.

Like I said, I’ll write a second review TEEMING with spoilers in the near future, but for now, just take my word for it that this film is incredible – see it as soon as possible on the biggest screen you can.

Verdict: 5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Reviews

Retro Review: Eyes Wide Shut

April 17, 2019

Stanley Kubrick is one of the most revered film directors of all time. His films were championed as art which displayed the power of cinema. And many are held as some of the greatest movies ever. However, his final film Eyes Wide Shut has often slipped through the cracks.

Many critics were left disappointed when the film came out. Which is understandable. When the film was released Kubrick hadn’t made a film in 12 years. And with his great track record, many were probably expecting a masterpiece. With such high expectations, it’s understandable why the film didn’t fare well upon initial viewing. But with the film celebrating it’s 20th Anniversary this year, today we will be looking back to see if Eyes Wide Shut deserves its reputation as Stanley Kubrick’s worst film.

The Story

Bill (Tom Cruise) and Alice Harford (Nicole Kidman) are a well-regarded New York City couple. Bill has a good job as a doctor, the couple has a child together and is very active in high society. But after a series of intimate flirtations with other people at a Christmas party, they begin to have doubts about how secure their relationship is.

After Alice admits to having sexual fantasies about another man, Bill embarks on an odyssey around New York to find out more about himself. His curiosity leads him to several encounters that will test his commitment to his relationship. Eventually causing him to cross paths with a secret society who don’t take kindly to strangers.

What did I like?

If you are a fan of cinema Eyes Wide Shut delivers something truly unique. It uses its basis as an erotic thriller to ask some interesting questions about relationships. What does marriage mean to people? Is it possible to truly know someone? And does true love really exist? And these interesting thematic points are accompanied and conveyed through great performances and a confident script.

Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman’s performances are some of both actor’s best work. They have fantastic chemistry, which makes the films questions about relationships more impactful because theirs feels so genuine. They were of course dating at the time. Tom Cruise being Hollywood’s go to charming leads makes Bill easy to like. But he’s equally effective when the film shifts and shows him in more vulnerable or compromising positions. And he makes each character shift work by wholly committing to the emotion required from the role. And Kidman shows her strong dramatic capabilities and how committed she can be. She’s willing to commit to nudity and brings dramatic weight to her simplest actions. The scene where she and Cruise discuss their relationship is incredibly powerful, because of her performance. And all the supporting performers although given limited screen time, manage to make their characters feel like fully rounded people.

The script is also one of Kubrick’s best. It creates a seamless world that blends both the real and surreal perfectly. The dialogue between the characters all feels natural. It doesn’t seem pretentious or forced. It feels like these are characters voicing their opinions, and aren’t just actors reciting dialogue. Even the exposition, although there can sometimes be a lot, fits what the characters are going through. And it allows room for interpretation, with so much being left unexplained for the audience to interpret. While also being a complete narrative. With all of the major characters arcs completed in a natural way.

And the cinematography is some of the best of Kubrick’s career. Cinematographer Larry Smith makes every scene look like a painting come to life. The colourful lighting and smooth tracking shots make the film a joy to look at. And he creates a palpable atmosphere through adding a haziness to many of the shots. Making the film feel like a dream. Which makes the more surreal frightening parts of the film all the more plausible.

But there are still elements that may bother viewers especially those unfamiliar with Kubrick’s work.

What did I not like?

Firstly, the slow pace that favours character interaction, mood and visual metaphors over an efficient, traditional narrative can make the film a chore for people simply wanting to watch a story unfold rather than trying to decode what the movie means. Many will also be dissatisfied with the directions the story takes. The payoffs to many of the story’s arcs happen off-screen and are explained away in dialogue or favour intimate images over big spectacle, which can make some audience members feel cheated.

The direction doesn’t help. Kubrick’s films often lack intimacy. Favouring wider shots over close-ups and cold/washed out colours, which keeps the audience at a distance and inspires a depressing feeling. Coupled with the actors slower, more methodical delivery, this can make the film seem stagey and un-real. Which may keep you from becoming engaged with the drama.

Alternately there are times when some might feel that the movie is patronizing them. Some scenes literally vomit dialogue about what has occurred. Which is necessary for the characters but not for the audience. The pool scene being the worst offender.

Finally, it is easy to see some take against the portrayal of women in the film. Many may feel the film paints all women as being obsessed with sex and are portrayed in an enticing way for the male viewer. Which is not an inaccurate conclusion. Though it is worth pointing out that the film does hold Bill’s character accountable for his chauvinist views. And many of the films male characters are controlling, manipulative and driven by self-interest (though they have significantly less nude scenes).

Verdict  

Twenty years after it’s release, it’s easy to see why some audiences took against Eyes Wide Shut. Because it favours atmosphere over tight narrative structure. Goes in directions that many may not expect. While also offering up a possibly unflattering view of women and to those unfamiliar with Kubrick’s style it can seem alienating and hard to read.

However to those looking for something different or are familiar with the directors work the film delivers a one of a kind experience. It asks big philosophical questions in a way that allows the audience to think and come up with their own conclusions while still functioning as complete narrative. The characters are memorable and interesting. All of the actors commit themselves in ways that are very admirable and play to and against their strengths. And the film is a feast for the eyes with a vibrant colour scheme that attracts and repels at the same time.

It’s a hard nut to crack. But once you have, it is a rewarding experience and a worthy swan song for one of cinemas greatest voices.

Verdict: 4.5 out of 5 stars (4.5 / 5)

Reviews

Review: Shazam!

April 4, 2019
Shazam Movie Screenshot

Comic book characters have been a staple of big Hollywood films for nearly twenty years now. But recently we have seen a growth in obscure and niche (by mainstream standards) comic book properties being used as inspirations for big box office hits. Guardians of the Galaxy, Aquaman and Captain Marvel have all scored big, using obscurer comic figures that many fans never thought would get their time to shine.

And now DC is trying their luck again, with the live-action feature debut of Shazam. But can the hero who was once considered more popular than Superman hit a home run with his first film outing?

The story

The wizard, Shazam (Djimon Hounsou) is growing old and is searching for an heir to his powers, to protect the world from the seven avatars of sin. After searching for years, he finally chooses young orphan Billy Batson (Asher Angel). Billy is then granted the ability to turn from a teenager into a superpowered adult (Zachary Levi) by saying the word, “Shazam”. But Billy has no interest in being a hero.

Having been abandoned by his mother as a child, Billy has spent most of his life moving from foster home to foster home while looking for her. So naturally, he has a cynical streak that makes him ill-suited for his powers. But when Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) a man rejected by the wizard years before, comes to claim Billy’s powers, Billy must prove he is worthy of them by fighting to protect the innocent and his foster family from Thaddeus’ wrath.

What did I like?

After several years of DC movies being unduly grim and gritty, it’s nice to see them becoming more fun. Although Shazam has dark moments, they feel appropriate. Because the story is about a troubled teenager coming to grips with the world around him. Ultimately though this movie is about family and childish power fantasy, and the script achieves that with gusto.

The empowerment side of the story works well. Billy, of course, begins using his powers to do childish things. Which is very entertaining. But slowly he realises that he must grow up and become responsible or he will become like Thaddeus. Turning the film into a coming of age tale where Billy learns that strength comes from those around you. Time is also dedicated to giving visibility to a spectrum of genders, sexualities and abilities. Before paying them off in an empowering way that many will find satisfying. Coupled with this the movie is incredibly funny, with Pop culture references and over the top childish wackiness ensuring a laugh from most audiences. Some may find the family side of the story clichéd, but it does add another level of emotional investment to the story.

I also really enjoyed the performances. Zachary Levi is of course the standout. Playing a child in an adult’s body can easily become creepy or aggravating. But when watching Levi his energy, enthusiasm, and sincerity capture your attention. He is a joy to watch as he channels his inner child and he easily carries the entire movie. Mark Strong also does good work as Thaddeus. Some may see Thaddeus as just another generic villain but the occasional moment where Strong lets the mask slip revealing something more childlike underneath really does work as a good foil for Levi. And many of the supporting cast also get their time to shine. Special mention goes to Cooper Andrews as Billy’s warm foster father. And Jack Grazer as Freddy whose comedic timing never fails to get a laugh.

What did I not like?

But while I like most of what the film is doing, it’s sometimes a rough ride getting there. On the technical side, the CG used to create the avatars of sin and the action scenes never looks convincing or original. It’s all designs and feats we’ve seen done elsewhere. Thankfully the film does not rely too much on these but when it does it becomes too unreal and generic to engage. Which does become a problem in the third act.

As well as this, the films occasional overreliance on humour undermines the attempt at eliciting emotion from the family storyline. With pathos sacrificed for a joke. And when so much of the film relies on humour there is the risk of alienating the audience if they are not engaged by the jokes. Which did happen a few times with the audience I saw the film with.

Lastly, the film does occasionally slip into the same pitfalls as many other DCEU movies. Some of the acting feels forced and unnatural, particularly Thaddeus’ family and the bully characters. There are also segments that could have been tweaked to make a better impression on the audience. For example, the fight between Billy and the bullies, which doesn’t happen simply because they are hurting Freddy, but because they insult him not having parents which Billy takes personally which makes him seem more selfish than he needs to be. And of course, DC can still think of no other way to end a film than by having a big fight with indiscriminate CGI bad guys. Which is especially disappointing here because the character focused conflict between Billy and Thaddeus is way more interesting than the generic avatars of sin.  

Verdict  

Shazam! is a mixed bag. It is brought down by unconvincing CG villains as well as an occasional overreliance on humour to the detriment of other parts of the narrative. The lack of attention to minor details in the story and occasionally bad acting also drags the film down. But it still feels like a breath of fresh air among modern superhero movies. It is an almost perfect example of what the genre is meant to be, wish fulfilment for little kids. Buoyed by fun performances, a fantastic sense of humour and a script that nicely treads the line between sincere and goofy.

It is impossible not to have a good time with Shazam!. It isn’t a genre redefining masterpiece nor is it an exceptional film, but it’s a damn good version of what it’s trying to be.

Verdict: 3 out of 5 stars (3 / 5)

Shazam! is in UK cinema on from Friday 5th April.

Shazam! (Official Trailer)