Wildlife (2018)

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‘Wildlife’ marks the directorial debut for actor Paul Dano and what an assured, quality debut it is. Dano and his partner; fellow actor and screenwriter Zoe Kazan, have joined as a force of talent to script this film, which delves into a family through beautiful crisis.

In Montana of 1960, Jerry (Jake Gyllenhaal) has to find a new job and gets one working away from home, to control the fires in some mountains. Jeannette (Carey Mulligan) finds work of her own and it’s during this time when their son Joe (Ed Oxenbould) has to become the man of the house and witness a shift in his parent’s relationship.

Paul Dano had stated that he always knew he wanted to make films about families and this is a look at one that disintegrates whilst you helplessly watch. Based on a 1990 novel of the same name, his screenplay was looked over by ‘Ruby Sparks’ writer and playwright Zoe Kazan who then helped as joint screenwriter and, together the pair have really nailed down on the personal, unflinching state of separation, explored through the 14 year old eyes of Joe, yet blisteringly sold by Mulligan’s performance.

It isn’t long until the strains of Jerry and Jeannette’s marriage take hold and once this happens the cracks can do little but get larger and larger. Through this slow-motion descent, Carey Mulligan trembles, spills tears and explodes with her affecting portrayal of a mother always asking what her son thinks and slowly taking her own route at whatever cost. She provides a fantastically haunting, mesmerising performance.

The cinematography from Diego Garcia is similarly mesmerising in a haunted, stunning way. Just from the opening shot, which sets the scene for it being a movie about house and home and the dysfunction that can happen within. Then you see the lovely bliss of this town and its peaked background reflecting the story of their apparently blissful marriage clouding over like the fire and smoke which is raging close by.

Dano and Kazan have ensured there’s a quiet burning which runs through the narrative, carrying a simmer of unease. You never truly know if something will boil over and on the occasion it might, the atmosphere slams with such a ferocity of family heartbreak, none more powerful than the silent and final image of this film. Paul Dano himself has seamlessly carried his remarkable magnetic talent from in front of the camera and neatly placed that skill behind it, ensuring there’s no need for showy tension to make a weighty drama and that’s what makes this film all the more important and brilliant.

‘Wildlife‘ is a carefully written work of art with its power buried from the inside out. As it slowly leaks out, the audience are in for a film that feels like theatre, this scenario of a family breakdown gorgeously acted by Mulligan and Gyllenhaal and wonderfully sold from Oxenbould’s Joe, as he and we too, can’t help but face this happen.

8/10

 

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Juliet, Naked (2018)

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‘Juliet, Naked’ premiered in January this year at the Sundance Film Festival and it couldn’t be more of a Sundance flick; the charming aspects and the unlikely romance are right in the wheelhouse of indie darlings and on the most part, this Jesse Peretz feature works thanks to the effortless matching of its lead actors.

Annie Platt (Rose Byrne) is stuck in a seaside town thanks to boyfriend Duncan Thomson (Chris O’Dowd), some of her resentment is due to her job but some boils down to Duncan’s love of a rock star named Tucker Crowe (Ethan Hawke), whose music Annie finds intolerable. One day she receives an email from the mysterious musician himself and they begin a 100/1 relationship.

Throughout this darling song of a movie there are a rare couple of comedic moments and though it’s not as outright funny as certain scenes had room to be, what works much better are the dramatic notes that are lyrically added to the appealing narrative. This is a film, almost like a melodic tale of love and regrets, parenting and loneliness and these themes are handled in a great heart-felt manner.

When you have source material from Nick Hornby; novelist of High Fidelity and About a Boy and screenwriter of ‘Brooklyn’ then you know to expect a romantic tale with plenty to say and thematic weight to keep the characters going to their end goals. This adaptation from the 2009 book of the same name works in the sense that you feel a faint smile on your face appear as you watch the relationship of Tucker and Annie grow. The warming sensation of a feel-good film can’t be beaten.

Here is perhaps where I am being critically unfair but the similarly driven ‘Hearts Beat Loud’, also premiering at the same Sundance, managed to capture a great mix of light comedy, fantastic songs, romance and family emotion whereas this more recent release doesn’t quite. There’s something not entirely perfect about this film which I felt the Nick Offerman and Kiersey Clemons music based movie reached closer to.

Rose Byrne is utterly sensational as Annie; the emotive range is great and she really makes us like her character. She lovingly handles every beat of the journey Annie goes on and the way she performs the disappointments of her life and love for 15 years are really believable. Ethan Hawke as this apparently seminal music star, gives grit and reflective thought to a man clearly unused to the extended family he has and the role as a father he’s meant to live up to. The moments between him and Byrne, whether through email voice-over or in person are touching and yes that word again, charming.

So whilst ‘Juliet, Naked’ might not be as endearing as other rom-coms, there’s a strong character duo to watch and the bittersweet indie aspect of their connection more than make up for the likelihood of its forgettable nature.

6.5/10

The Hate U Give (2018)

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Based on a 2017 novel sharing the same name, this drama release certainly releases a perfectly pent up rage to the system and following the solid talents of its lead, ‘The Hate U Give’ becomes a film that well and truly took me by surprise.

Starr Carter (Amandla Stenberg), her brother and half brother attend a popular school away from the predominantly black neighbourhood where they grew up and live. On a drive home from a party in this part of town, Starr and childhood friend Khalil (Algee Smith) are pulled over by a white cop and she witnesses Khalil getting shot. In the tornado of anger that follows, Starr must decide whether she can stand up and find her voice to speak out about what she saw.

George Tillman Jr. is a director who’s been behind the camera for comedies on the most part, so this is a fair departure from his previous work. He’s taken from the source material of Angie Thomas’ book and with Audrey Wells’ screenplay, this becomes a powerful recipe for a motivational, provoking piece of drama. Tillman Jr. ensures the film has more than a couple uses of commanding imagery; ones that evoke clear parallels to the saddening events frequently seen from America and their police against black people.

It’s a film which had me almost on the verge of tears not just once but a few times. This emotion stems from an enraged kind of sadness which surges up and out as the narrative progresses to some brave places and the injustice keeps on going. The whole issue of black lives mattering is a constant thread and this front which Starr places on herself away from her home of Garden Heights, an embodiment of nonthreatening, perfectly proper schoolgirl to cater to the white students is thematically strong throughout.

‘The Hate U Give’ does have some necessary sprinkles of charming dialogue too, moments that save the movie from being too melodramatic. Chats about Harry Potter or what dish mac n cheese is really make the characters feel real. There isn’t just frustration to the police brutality to be had, there are humourous aspects which tie in nicely amongst the more emotional, drama driven beats. There are a couple of cases where dialogue feels fairly on the nose and that stale YA adaptation aura threatens to wash in but it often escapes those clutches and is an extremely relevant film with a chorus of mighty performances.

None more so than Amandla Stenberg who is a sensation as Starr. She truly lights up the film, as her character name suggests she really is a dazzling star in this, her smile is infectious and the neutral sitting back approach of her almost double life is perfectly performed leading her to act with great explosions of emotion when the drama boils over.

‘The Hate U Give’ is a movie that must be seen, it’s got a lot to say and there’s an unmistakable quiet buzzing of anger which rises and rises to dramatically outstanding effect.

8/10

 

The Little Stranger (2018)

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British gentry and inflections of Gothic horror are to be found in Lenny Abrahamson’s recent feature. ‘The Little Stranger’ is adapted from a 2009 novel by Sarah Waters, a book that plays around with the themes of finance and evil, which the film attempts to do but doesn’t altogether get a handle of.

Doctor Faraday (Domhnall Gleeson) pays numerous visits to an estate out in the country to help with the physical pains felt by RAF veteran Roddy Ayres (Will Poulter). As his trips to the house become more frequent he starts feeling an unshakeable presence through the house which he pins down with rational answers but Roddy’s sister Caroline (Ruth Wilson) is sure something else is going on as is her their mother Angela (Charlotte Rampling).

Abrahamson; the man behind a musician in a papier-mache mask and a kidnapped mother and child, shows he can switch genres well, but there is a connection. The director always seems prone to keep focus on the story’s characters, his latest feature is no different. The characters create a large proportion of the odd mysteries but unlike with Frank or Ma and Jack, the figures roaming through ‘The Little Stranger’ lack a special something and in the end, that’s the main weakness for this film.

This drama does feel too long as well, it snails through the narrative and though it’s not a bore to sit through, the gentile pace is prone to uninteresting spells. A lot of the film comes across like a theatrical play, a drawing room scene especially feels that way and I’m sure this tone stems from scriptwriter Lucinda Coxon who has many plays under her belt. This quality is by no means a negative, in fact it does show off the great acting but it stifles the stride and the times when the film could be more scarily cinematic.

Perhaps if the film stayed in the confines of the home then the run-time would have some minutes shaved off but ultimately it would have kept up an unsettling atmosphere and curious character, of which the house most certainly is one. It almost breathes with a strange desire for trouble. What the film explores well is the air of something not being fully right, through creaking halls and scratched walls, Abrahamson ensures the ghoulish moments are all the more striking by utilising a calm approach to the tension, this is echoed by the slow-moving camerawork which floats in and around the rooms of the dilapidating country house.

You can’t quite put a finger on Dr. Faraday, this is thanks to the fascinating performance from Gleeson who is charming in an irregular way but also quietly threatening. The more he appears, frequently stopping by the big house, the more he feels like an unwelcome stranger. Wilson plays a nice balance of hope against meekness, a smart soul trapped by an event in the past.

This film reminded me of ‘I Am the Pretty Thing That Lives in the House’, not because Wilson also appears in it but because both have great yet rare moments of spooky atmosphere stitched together in fairly quaint, hushed hushed settings and both carry intrigue which speedily vanishes to unwanted disappointment.

5.5/10

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)

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So, normally I’m not a fan of rom-coms; the calculable nature of them and how cheesy the dialogue can often be, puts me off them. Surprisingly this film won me over, sure there are cheesier moments but there’s smart writing and spectacular production quality which made it a more satisfying example to come out of the genre.

Economics professor and New York resident Rachel (Constance Wu) is invited to her boyfriend’s best friends wedding. Nick (Henry Golding), the best man, hopes that his large family will love Rachel as much as he does. As the celebrations get under way in Singapore, Rachel faces difficulties living up to the high hopes of Nick’s mother Eleanor (Michelle Yeoh).

‘Crazy Rich Asians’ brings together a massive cast of talented actors who offer comedy and emotion to a rich story adapted from Kevin Kwan’s 2013 novel. This tale of romance and acceptance may have slight touches of being over-sentimental but that in no way jolts us from the dazzling charm, which the stars and story convey. The screenplay also ends down familiar territory but there’s so much to cheer on in this picture, that the predictability becomes a muted backseat passenger in a joyful experience.

This is an extremely extravagant and beautiful movie. A wedding sequence is torn straight out of a jungle and is perhaps one of the most ridiculously over the top ceremonies but it fills the heart and it’ll likely fill some eyes with tears. The many lush settings and cinematography are crackling with a luxury that will do wonders for the tourism board of Singapore.

On the flip side of the romantic coin is the comedy sparkle, which does work well throughout. It is not solely ‘Community’ alumni Ken Jeong that gifts some funny to the movie; but a gay fashionista, a snap-happy single lad and Awkwafina’s Goh Peik Lin all bring a delicious amount of humour to the table. The latter is bursting with a comic energy that lifts the film even higher than it already is.

Constance Wu is the bridge to the audience; she grounds us to the glittering, affluent world we’re stepping into. She makes her fish out of water character a heart-warming and believable figure to follow. Wu isn’t just stunning and likable but she’s headstrong and smart too which make her moments facing adversity a strong example of women standing strong and proud. Henry Golding is the handsome and charming boyfriend but isn’t the lead usual movies would stumble to. The actor is confident in playing this caring man but doesn’t ever overshadow the brilliance of his leading lady. This movie features the incredible Gemma Chan and unlike her synth days from ‘Humans’, she demonstrates a wealth of touching emotion as Astrid.

Like the dumplings that a family make within the plot, this film is a sweet and often loving romantic filling wrapped up with fluffy comedy and pinched together with a stroke of drama and judgement. ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ has blown the box office apart and with it’s affable cast and elegant, delightful storytelling it’s not hard to see why.

7.5/10

 

To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018)

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Adapted from a bestselling novel; where it spent 40 weeks in the NY Times Best Seller list, comes this Netflix feature which is an adorable romance but looking past the teen loves and dramas, there is unsurprising predictability to be found.

16 year old Lara Jean (Lana Condor) daydreams about sweeping romance from the books she reads but has never had a boyfriend. Tucked away in Lara Jean’s bedroom is a box hiding letters she’s addressed to past crushes and unluckily for her they get sent out. Peter (Noah Centineo) is one of those recipients, he and L-J begin a false relationship to both make certain people jealous.

To start with, this film feels like a slight slog to get through. The acting is unbelievable and some of the dialogue feels extremely off. On top of this is the excruciating foreseeable nature of the plot, as soon as Lara Jean and Peter sign their makeshift contract it’s blindingly obvious where the narrative will end up. Fortunately, even though the story never goes somewhere unexpected, I found myself warming up to the film and characters.

Some further annoyances almost make the film something you’d regret, such as a scene in a high school bathroom that has such terrible audio laid over making the conversation sound like something from a Bad Lip Reading video on YouTube. Lara Jean’s sister Kitty is highly precocious and somewhat annoying in places but far less soul-crushing than Charles Wallace from ‘A Wrinkle in Time’. I only bring that brat up because Kitty has the same smarter sibling characteristics of CW and this streaming movie refuses to reference Lara Jean without saying the names every time…a personal gripe I know but it’s just vexing.

Other than the major issue of it being a romance that doesn’t really try to subvert expectations, the film isn’t a weak one. The central pair are a charming delight on screen and there’s some kind of comforting vibe to felt throughout this movie. The film isn’t solely about her quest to find someone but Peter becomes just as important in the way he shakes off jock imagery as he plays pretend dating with L-J.

‘To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before’ isn’t going to break the mould and I’ll likely forget I ever saw it by the end of 2018 but for the time being it’s a satisfying, if just alright teeny-bop romantic flick.

6/10

Yardie (2018)

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Idris Elba has proved to be a great presence on screen, but does his recognisable voice translate to be as effective behind the camera? ‘Yardie’ is his debut film as director and though, at times it feels like a frustrating muddle of scenes, there’s a powerful collection of actors and music tracks to keep the movie from failing.

Jamaica 1983 and 10 years after his brother was shot, Dennis Campbell aka ‘D’ (Aml Ameen) is told by King Fox (Sheldon Shepherd), to head to London with a cocaine package and deliver it to British gangster/club owner Rico (Stephen Graham). The drug deal becomes a bust and ‘D’ could end up starting a war between cultures in London which will have an impact on people back in Jamaica.

A large percentage of this film, majoritively in the earlier stages has a feel reminiscent of Brazil’s 2002 ‘City of God’. The style choices made in this recent release with freeze-frames on certain characters, the tropical setting lit by rays of sun and the story of a young kid growing up on a path of gangs and violence add to the Meirelles/Lund parallels. This is no bad comparison as the first parts of this film are strong, it’s just a shame that as the central character hits Hackney, the story doesn’t quite keep to its convictions and feels a bit tame.

It is clear that Elba directs with an eye or perhaps ear on creating heart in his first feature. He probably had a major influence over the music choices, what with his extra curricular DJ activities, he ensures the story pulsates with Caribbean reggae sounds. The soundtrack gives this film a great aural power, which isn’t mirrored by the plain plot. The main revenge arc is simple and could be effective but is lost amongst other plot points which flit in and out. The characters don’t help this narrative too much either, ‘D’ isn’t always that enthralling, King Fox is an interesting character but there’s never enough of him to keep the tension bubbling.

Ameen is good as Dennis, he does bestow this chap plenty of cheek and charisma in places, if not enough innocence to make his journey more charged with an engagement factor. Stephen Graham is the stand out, he is a captivating presence in this film. The shifting of accents, bearing of golden teeth and the nasty unpredictability are all expertly mastered by the actor and he stops the London-set scenes from being empty on erratic tension.

A fine debut from Idris Elba in the controlling chair, just not a riveting one that secures him as a director with a leading voice, yet. ‘Yardie’ becomes a film which feels long but there are sights and sounds of soul in this drama which help give it some needed liveliness.

6/10