Lady Bird (2018)

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Landing in cinemas finally with its UK wide release, is a stunning and heartwarming coming of age tale, expertly realised by both its cast and debut director Greta Gerwig, who captures and pens meaningful insight into the trials of growing up.

Sporting a red hair style and a pink cast on her arm, American student Christine ‘Lady Bird’ McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is at a Sacramento Catholic high school trying to find her way and hopefully fly the nest to the East Coast and culture of New York. Her teenage way of thinking causes frictions with her mum Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who sees Lady Bird as being ungrateful. As the teenager tries to find her way, she may indeed find out how important her family is too.

For a debut writing and directing venture, this is almost solid gold from Greta Gerwig. She weaves in great moments of humour between sudden hits of emotion and poignancy, these ups and downs are reflective of the central mother-daughter dynamic and though it isn’t aimed at me, I still definitely connected to the story thanks to seeing how my sister and mum were and are. It’s this fantastic resonance that Gerwig ensures is consistent and truly believable.

Her directing is practically perfect, the choice to numerously have the camera tracking right to left on shots of places within the city help explore the setting nicely and by the end of it all we’re affected by this wonder, boredom and ultimately grounded connection to home. Gerwig gives this film a spirited exploration of adolescent angst with many fantastic confidently static scenes at home and school to illustrate the relatable turmoil of parent-child turbulence.

This is a film that made me and others laugh multiple times. The comedy of difficult teens and the setting of apparently boring Sacramento in 2002/3 is mined startlingly well. Nostalgia through visual fashion, prop decoration and music gifts this a palpable sense of reality and fits in with the same greatly moulded Richard Linklater world of ‘Boyhood’. As someone with a theatre degree I loved the scenes with drama games and warm ups, they’re on point and very funny indeed, especially a sports coach tackling show staging. The whole aspect of Lady Bird and her trouble to find a place in the strife of school social circles is fantastically scripted.

Fundamentally this is a narrative revolving around the often strained mother-daughter bond. They enjoy open houses, shopping and in-car cassette tapes but of course they have their sticky moments of arguments and troubled face-offs. Come the final frame of the movie, the emotional core of family and knowing where your roots are rings loud, though there are plenty of laughs, this is a film that made me tear up from time to time I must say.

Saoirse Ronan is splendid and her talent shines through in the titular role of a teenage girl living the highs and lows of joy, first loves, best friends, craving popularity and wanting nothing more than being out of her mums influence. It’s Lady Bird’s name, bold hair statement and arm cast that are worn like symbols of individuality as she hopes to understand her place in the world. Laurie Metcalf excellently plays the caring yet put upon mother and is convincing with pent up frustrations and maternal tensions that boil over at times. One scene with her near the end is so simply shot but she acts so well I don’t think there was a dry eye in the house. Tracy Letts provides gentle humour as the calm dad with a kind heart and his character is nicely fleshed out. Lucas Hedges I must commend on creating an impressive blossoming romance before his path is developed and a scene between him and Ronan outside a coffee shop almost rips your heart in two.

I’d say that nearly the entirety of this coming of age comedy/drama had me feeling warmly fuzzy and beaming widely as I watched. Family and home is important and this film comically and charmingly holds a mirror on that central theme.

8/10

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I, Tonya (2018)

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Hitting the ice rink like a jacked up Torvill and Dean, is an award contending biographical yarn like hardly any other. It’s at once frenzied and focused and almost consistently splitting to burst with on point black comedy.

In the 1970’s, talented 4 year old ice skater Tonya Harding is pressured to keep training by her abusive and chain-smoking mother LaVona (Allison Janney). By the time Tonya (Margot Robbie) reaches 15 she can be just as abrasive but falls for rink-side spectator Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan). Through years of abuse, practice and unfair judgement, Harding gets caught up in an Olympic scandal come 1994.

Pacing wise, this film shuttles along like a bobsleigh at breakneck speeds, it’s a fully riveting story from start to finish and I must say I was on board throughout. The characters, based on real people are fully realised and interact wonderfully, Craig Gillespie directs with an eye to tell this story like the funny yet darkly tragic events were and the rags to semi-riches and back again narrative is as finessed as 1984’s Bolero routine.

Honestly, ice dancing has never looked and felt more intense, engaging and visceral as it does here. These quite spectacular and captivating sequences of figure skating dances are wonderfully incorporated into a script by Steven Rogers that sizzles with humour and ultimately real heartbreak. The final stages of the film, led by Margot Robbie are written and performed masterfully and make the fun time, plus often brutal moments fade away as we see just how important the world of skating is to the titular figure. It’s a narrative of prominence and buffoonery, domestic violence and doggedness shown in such a clever and engrossing way that exceeded my expectations.

The Oscar nomination for Best Editing is deserved, ‘Baby Driver’ may excel with it’s editing in terms of car chases and sound styling cuts but ‘I, Tonya’ is edited greatly by Tatiana S. Riegel, who slices through the film like a skate blade would. It all helps keep up the exciting speed, blend the routines in seamlessly and showcase the second half madness of the incident as something you may expect to see in a slick gangster movie, if the gangsters were inept.

Seeing characters account their views of the matter in an interview style is a perfect method of storytelling that bolsters the unreliable narrative from pretty much everyone. You never really know who could be lying, exaggerating or speaking truths and that’s what makes this such a ride to watch. The breaking of the fourth wall is utilised also and sometimes it is a cliche but it’s used to sparingly good effect to heighten the idiot humour or further the character driven explanation to us.

Robbie may not win the gold medal of an Academy Award but if she did, it definitely would be warranted. It’s evident Tonya craves adoration at first from her mum and then from the public and the Australian actor sells that aspect well. This is her finest performance in ever as she brings the Oregon born Tonya Harding to explosive life. There’s crazy eye, comic delivery, heartfelt softness and broken vulnerability all in the mix of her committed turn as the less than picturesque all American figure skater. Janney swears like a sailor and steals lots of the scenes as the overbearing strict maternal type but there’s times you can see kindness behind the cigarette smoke before she comes out with a cracker once again. Sebastian Stan is alright in his role as Harding’s husband but isn’t anything special, in fact his friend Shawn played by Paul Walter Hauser is a bonafide boob of epic proportions, providing ample amount of humour as a moronic slob thinking himself some clever agent type.

I haven’t even mentioned how brilliant the soundtrack and score are either, suffice to say I really really liked this film. I thought it’d be good but it’s soared past that into greatness, thanks to Margot, Allison, sublime directing and editing and a story device that bounces around with the notion of Tonya Harding as a heroine or not.

8.5/10

 

 

Call Me By Your Name (2017)

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After missing out upon it’s initial release, awards hopeful ‘Call Me by Your Name’ returned to a cinema near me and though I liked the sun-drenched aesthetic, music and performances, I didn’t find myself captivated by the plot in any way.

In 1983, an American grad student called Oliver (Armie Hammer), spends 6 weeks of his summer at the Perlman residence to help with his paperwork. Seventeen year old Elio (Timothee Chalamet) begins seeing this outside figure as a nuisance but it moves forward to secretive hang outs and a blossoming first love for him to ride the highs and lows of.

Luca Guadagnino’s directive stamp on this is pretty stunning, The Great Beauty of an undisclosed Italian location is as ripe as a peach for beautiful moments. Sayombhu Mudkeeprom works with the director to create shots that are filled with yellow rays and highlight the glory of both Italy and this summer love. Closing Guadagnino’s ‘Desire’ trilogy, this is definitely a glorious and interesting melancholic yarn being spun; it’s without a doubt a much more engaging movie than ‘A Bigger Splash’, but again it’s a release that suffers with length.

I must admit I did in fact get quite bored during the late stages of the second half. In the first part, the setting, characters and music all get introduced very well but as the private romance begins, the film started waning and stretched almost into boredom for me, where I was just waiting for the obvious moment when the two would go their separate ways.

The main reason I feel like the later scenes distanced me, is because I never ever bought into their relationship. It’s meant to be this beautiful spark of mutual attraction but I didn’t once believe they loved each other. It felt like Elio was a kid infatuated and Oliver was taking on a summer fling; which makes the consequent second half and their sad parting…well not very sad at all. The story didn’t resonate with me in the way I expected it would, considering all the astounding reviews it’s been collecting recently. I in no way disliked the film, I just started tiring by the end and wouldn’t recommend it outright.

I did thoroughly enjoy the score, almost wrapping me up into the lush scenery of the film. A piano heavy backdrop of music works well in both providing a nice lullaby tone and mirroring the pianist skills of Elio himself. Sufjan Stevens gifts the movie three songs and Mystery of Love; which is in contention for an Academy Award, is like some calm water gently soaking over you as you listen. The song perfectly compliments the look and tone of the film.

Chalamet is a wonderful presence, at times presenting himself wrapped round Oliver, like the curved statues spoken of as displaying desire. He brings this quiet teen intellect to the character but you can see there’s a nervous unknowing to how his narrative plays out, which is quite fascinating to watch. Hammer possesses this goofy charm throughout the picture, a serene confidence to his character and the eventual relationship. It’s definitely one of his finer turns and I’m sold on his dance moves which are care free and delightful. Michael Stuhlbarg is in this and it’s a wonder, no, a crying shame that he hasn’t been up for a major award yet, because he most often is the best quality in a production, and in this he provides good touches of humour, believable dad advice and a calming aspect to run with the general calmness of the story.

‘Call Me by Your Name’ is an assured sweet film about the ride of first love and it’s summer tinged backdrop is a wonderful look to bolster the vivid exploration of Elio’s crush. I just wasn’t as taken by the story itself that’s all.

7/10

The Shape of Water (2018)

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The masterful and visionary Guillermo del Toro is back; with one of this seasons huge awards contenders, and frankly it isn’t too difficult to see why people have fallen for it. There’s a beautiful twisted charm throughout what can only be described as an odd Hollywood fairy-tale.

A mute janitor by the name of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), ends up cleaning a secretive room in a government facility. In here she discovers and learns more about this amphibian asset (Doug Jones) who she quickly connects to and falls for. It’s soon clear that this water-dwelling creature is in the midst of Cold War tactics and Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) is laser-focused on doing no good to this being.

I never expected to see a film featuring an upright fish man and a non-speaking lead to incorporate elements of such love, engaging humour and aspects of classy glitz a la ‘The Artist’ and ‘La La Land’. Director del Toro has very nearly struck a fascinating gold mine with this film, one that certainly feels like his greatest storytelling achievement since ‘Pans Labyrinth’. I say very nearly because perhaps down to my own over-hyping of this feature, I found the movie to not always keep me immersed and the obscure romance/will they, won’t they element isn’t anything majorly refreshing, even if the romantic partner is green and scaly.

Aside from those points, I found myself enjoying almost the entire run. The cast of characters are believably written and wonderfully acted. There is a healthy mix of fairly absurd comedy to be found considering the subject of this film and what people say is cleverly scripted to elicit humour. The swelling score helps this film feel like a piece of stunning movie-making from a bygone era of classic Hollywood, this can further be realised with the production design of Elisa’s neighbours’ apartment and the numerous visuals of black and white reels on screens. As you might expect with a del Toro picture, there are moments of wincing gore that definitely do their part to make you squeam.

What I think is the best quality in this Cold War set romantic fantasy, is the enchanting rapture of the world we’re presented with; the people within it, the places and the central heart shaped pairing, all mesh together to create inspiring choreography of adoration for movie monsters and Hollywood of old. I don’t know about everyone because this film has been picking up some negative jabs , but for me at least, without any real doubt I can say I was won over by the stylish spin on a love story…and by the glorious amount of key lime pie!

Hawkins gives such a lovely presence throughout, practically saying nothing she manages to tell the story through a spellbinding emotive performance. There’s almost something other-worldly about her and I think she’s the perfect fit for this role. Richard Jenkins is a gem of an actor and character within this movie; he brings great levity, kindness and a loneliness too. Shannon is always someone I enjoy watching and here he has perfect menace in his eyes and a hell bent drive to his narrative, that pretty much only Shannon could muster. Jones is del Toro’s go to guy for making beasts come to life and though it may be no epic Pale Man creation, this amphibian figure splashes with an enamouring touch. Michael Stuhlbarg and Octavia Spencer are incredible supporting players who have their own moments to shine; in both aiding Elisa’s plot and within their own great scenes.
It may not be the winningly dazzling film I hoped it would be, but it’s certainly a film with visual flair, a film I’d re-watch and a film with classical romance flipped upside down and submerged in the wondrous waters of Guillermo del Toro’s mind.
7.5/10

Black Panther (2018)

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We’re into the second half of MCU’s Phase Three and what a way to enter it. The King of Wakanda doesn’t just step onto the big screen but pounces. This is a film rife with character and importantly; culture.

After ‘Civil War’ saw the death of T’Chaka, his son returns to his hugely advanced home of Wakanda, where he takes the path to become the new king and rightful Black Panther. T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) has the support of most around him but returning baddie Klaue (Andy Serkis) and some stolen vibranium doesn’t help. Moreover his crimes introduce T’Challa to Erik Stevens (Michael B. Jordan), a soldier hell-bent on taking over Wakanda.

Marvel and its cinematic world have done spectacularly well thus far in creating hype and fun escapism, but admittedly they quite often miss the mark with their characters and villains, gladly both work very well in this movie. The community of Wakandans feel real and a lot of the forefront officials are fleshed out with enough dialogue and/or screen-time to ensure that it isn’t solely the titular hero that nabs the focus. In regards to the villain; this film gives us two big ones, the first is the resurgence of OTT but deliciously snarly Klaue, the second is Stevens who works brilliantly because, as an audience member you can feel for him and buy into his cause, at least when he’s not taking these notions too far.

Ryan Coogler; in what is just his third film, directs a powerful film that feels right within the comic book world but also throws in such interesting dynamics of globe shattering consequences, self beliefs and the bigger picture of black people and personal struggles which of course is undeniably vital within this day and age and state of the world. There’s a gleeful fun within tie-ins and action sequences but better than this, director Coogler with Joe Robert Cole, as a fellow writer manage to gift this feature a drive and political motivated subtext.

Seeing it on the glorious IMAX screen of course makes the entire film a thing of beauty and massive spectacle but I just know that it would still have the same impact however it is seen. There is an unmistakable rich quality to the production value; the colours, fabrics and fashions, the settings, the music all come together and culminate with a force of life and soul. It’s a film that had my skin buzzing with excitement and the eye is taken by almost every scene and frame.

There’s a slight DC and yes, Marvel weakness of the CGI overload these films can so often swerve towards, which is what worries me about the sprawl of generated figures and Thanos in the ‘Infinity War’ trailer. No more can this be seen in a battle on some grassy fields and some CG rhinos that appear, which slightly lost me from the film, but that’s pretty much the only negative I had.

Boseman is an amazing hero and plays the demanding role of king and leader with gravitas. There’s great emotion behind his eyes that shows he can also see the problems with his place and people, which makes a superhero, human. Lupita Nyong’o plays the ex of T’Challa but she isn’t as one dimensional as that. The actor packs a punch and effortless spy magnitude to her role. Letitia Wright is Shuri; Black Panther’s sister. She scatters the movie with great humour and tech know-how that makes her like a more capable Q persona. Jordan almost rivals Boseman and Wright by stealing the majority of the show with a charismatic and deeply engaging turn as the hopeful throne taker. He too ensures to not just be panto villainy and adds remarkable layers to his character. I would be writing for a long time more if I commented on all the other terrific actors in this film, who all unite with a crackling sense of energy and seriousness that helps make this more than just a comic book movie.

Long live the King…and Coogler, let us hope he returns because he has masterfully given the MCU a breath of fresh air and stunning culture.

8.5/10

 

Journey’s End (2018)

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Never shying away from the mud and blood of World War I, this British feature is moving and tense and like the soldiers, is committed to the last in showing this.

Set over a period of four days in March 1918, we follow young lieutenant Raleigh (Asa Butterfield) into the front trenches. He wants to be here because he knows the captain from back in Blighty, though Stanhope (Sam Claflin) is a different man thanks to the war. There’s been a long stalemate and as Stanhope’s men are tasked with holding the line, any day now seems likely for German soldiers to make their advance.

Based on a play from 1928 by R.C. Sheriff, this drama is incredibly effective and at times almost emotional as we see the horrors and futility of war take hold. There are a lot of different characters and Simon Reade; who wrote the screenplay for this adaptation has ensured that they don’t become overblown stereotypes. Throughout this film there is a definite sense of crushing hopelessness, this works so well in highlighting how pointless actions of these men are and just how grim their situation is.

Saul Dibb directs in a manner that truly throws the audience in amongst the ticking tension. There are plenty of tight frames and close ups of characters that give nearly the entire movie a claustrophobic wash of unease. Seeing these group of soldiers facing a horrifying possibility of death never really lets up, like some slower patriotic movies may have done. It hits home how devastating their plight is and the bitingly cold scenery of their sunken home for that time can be felt through the screen, as if the director is immersing us alongside these men. A camera movement following them through the sodden mud is a great example of how bleak and involving the film can be.

I would say that its only weakness lays in a raid scene, that builds up fantastically but once it hits the editing becomes too frenzied. I know in one way this works to show how maddening and scarily chaotic this would have been but trying to focus and keep up with what was happening on screen became difficult and you lose what happens to the characters.

Asa Butterfield is great in a role that guides us through the outskirts right into the very heart and disheartening midst of trench warfare. He plays the naive and excitable young soul well which makes certain changes in what he sees and eventually understands much more painfully real. Sam Claflin excels here, in what is the best performance I’ve seen him in. Clinging to whiskey and straining to retain calm is evidently felt and in one scene opposite Butterfield, he barks and foams at the mouth with an intensity that isn’t violent but one of increased frustration of how much he can bear. Paul Bettany gifts the film some good ol’ British spirit and stiff upper lip playing Osborne, and ensures to show that behind the eyes he’s just as scared as everyone. Stephen Graham and Toby Jones are other notable mentions who have moments of levity but ultimately are lost men drawn into the front.

This is a film that certainly makes you think. It’s a well made movie with an affecting tone which hangs over your head after the credits scroll. There’s an intensity and undeniable foreboding quality from start to finish.

7.5/10

The Cloverfield Paradox (2018)

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Dropped like something out of the sky; here comes a game-changer in terms of movie marketing and distribution, but that aside is this a good ‘Cloverfield’ movie?

Set in our future and aboard the Cloverfield Station are a crew from various countries who are hoping to perfect a particle accelerator; which could solve the energy crisis on Earth. As their mission finally catches a break, it seems not everything is good. The team become stranded, meanwhile life back on Earth isn’t looking safe and sound either.

So, after a few months of whisperings and internet talk about a new feature in the ‘Cloverfield’ series, we’re finally greeted with this big surprise release. It was due last year and then apparently again for an April 2018 cinematic date under the name ‘God Particle’ from Paramount Pictures, but as the sporting spectacle of the Super Bowl reached it’s halftime parade of expensive ads and new trailers, a teaser for this very movie was shown. Not long after the game itself the film was up on Netflix for all (subscribers) to see.

This I must admit is a bold move to make and pretty special to keep something under wraps. Having a $45 million movie on your hands and to maintain its secrecy and avoid the usual over hype of many trailers and TV spots is a fantastic achievement, if not one that disappoints me slightly because it’s final destination means it can’t be seen on the big screen. It’s a great film visually and the sci-fi element is explored quite well through the vacuum of space and a sleek revolving spaceship but Paramount mustn’t have had high expectations to forgo a cinema roll-out and leave Netflix to pick up the rights. This can be felt in a film that seems to have grown out of control to fit within the ‘Cloverfield’ universe.

It’s a mildly slow-burner of a science fiction to watch, there’s neat moments of burrowing unease as things start to go wrong; as they always do in these kinds of films. The back and forth between space and Earth feels like the parts where they re-wrote to segue in the movie monster tie-in and general spots do feel like a scrambled mess to keep that storytelling building.

Saying this, the dynamic of the crew is good and the moments of error, confusion and danger aboard the spacecraft are entertaining. I wouldn’t say exciting or wholly dramatic but they work well and keep the film going along nicely too. The main interest for me was in the construct of the shifting paradox and the problems arising from there, which is explored with both thrills and humour but not as deep as perhaps it may have delved. I feel one reason the film isn’t as successful as it could be is down to the distracting technique of its release and expecting the ‘Cloverfield’ monster/arc to keep rearing up.

’10 Cloverfield Lane’ was one of my favourite films from 2016 because it tied in the monster series nicely and felt like a creepily separate thriller at the same time. This is still a good film but nowhere near as great. It’s a film that perhaps, thanks to its many delays and streaming resting place, feels more like a somewhat enjoyable online flick but not a dazzling or suspenseful one.

5.5/10