Ghost Stories (2018)

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You are welcome to Grizzly Tales for Gruesome Adults, a series of cautionary tales for lovers of squeam. I call this tale a brilliant and effectively clever spin on the horror genre.

Psychic debunker Professor Phillip Goodman (Andy Nyman) is called to investigate three unsolved ghastly cases. Each story becomes stranger and perhaps, scarier than the one before and soon Goodman realises there may be reason to drop his disbelief in the supernatural.

Having the film told via one main narrative and three side-quest cases makes for an intriguing story. Horrors are great when they play around with the formula and/or provide a sense of genuine unease, for example ‘Scream’, ‘It Follows’ and ‘A Quiet Place’, this film fits nicely into that way of film-making too because it draws you in with this strange mystery divulged to the professor, that we too feel a part of. The narrative certainly distorts in front of your very eyes and happily subverts tropes of horror, to present this effective trail in unanswerable visions of the other side.

Starting out like ‘Lights Out’, the first section based in an abandoned asylum uses generic back and forth annoyances to amp up the unnerving atmosphere and becomes vaguely unsettling. The second part smoothly sails into the Satanic realm and becomes a late night tinged fear factory in the middle of the woods. Then all things get crazier as what seems like a rich and well-mannered businessman story, descends into ghostly occurrences and a shocking real life action that takes place whilst Goodman questions Mike Priddle (Martin Freeman).

If like me and you haven’t seen the 2010 stage play this film is adapted from, then all bets are off as this film, pardon my language, turns into a brain fizzling mind fuck leaving me open mouthed and loving the sheer cleverness and fooling around with which the writers revel. The plot and the engrossing dark method of each case is akin to ‘Inside No. 9’, a BBC show that is marvellously unique. I admit that one of the twists revealed in ‘Ghost Stories’ I guessed from the offset but it never distracted from a terrifying trek into the possible realm of evil spirits. I could see why some people wouldn’t be satisfied with the late stage twists and turns, but I found the ending to be unexpected, chilling and smart making me restore hope in horrors that can be good and not solely rely on villains with masks for merchandising and jump scares.

I also want to comment on the lighting used throughout, espicially within the trio of cases, where they look exceptional. The production team and art directors have created vivid worlds in each of the tales and as light and dark are toyed around with, I found myself as lost and maddened as Goodman, as I began seeing figures in off-screen spaces and being gripped by the great use of shadows and light movement. It’s definitely done in a way that I imagine alludes to the theatrical background the story comes from.

Nyman is great as he begins losing his hold on reality and the cases take hold on him but he’s never a hugely interesting protagonist to follow. Paul Whitehouse is superb as the begrudging and unfriendly night watchman Tony. He plays the mixture of comic timing and worried lonely guard well. Alex Lawther is just a brilliantly odd actor, I mean that in the best way possible. The stutters, his emotive looks and panicked fear are played so well that I felt every ounce of his situation. Freeman as Priddle is someone you never fully grasp and an extra dose of underlying terror comes from his shocking case and subsequent actions in the film prove what a talented performer he really is.

This is a nifty horror that messes you about in such a delightful and skin crawling way. The more it goes on, the more dark and yet interestingly fun it becomes.

8.5/10

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Ready Player One (2018)

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Screeching into cinemas this weekend at 88 mph, is the latest feature from Steven Spielberg. It’s fast, fun and enjoyable but that doesn’t completely override the shortcomings of the plot.

Set in 2045, the population are avid fans and players within the OASIS; a virtual reality world where they can be who they want and try to find an Easter egg, only obtained by finding 3 keys placed by creator James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Trying to lead the pack is Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) who soon learns from fellow gamer Art3mis (Olivia Cooke) that there’s more at stake, than just a sprawling game.

I’ll kick off by saying, this is an energetic and pacy film that certainly, for the first two thirds at least, manages to speedily put across a massive virtual landscape of endless possibilities. The immersive quality isn’t fully felt but it comes and goes nicely, as if we’re window shoppers to this electrically charged Easter egg hunt. It’s only within the last third that this movie begins to trail and slightly feel like a slog, as the story it’s thinly been telling, takes over from the nostalgia trip and descends into a predictable and less than exciting mode.

There may indeed be problems but I can’t review this Spielberg outing without spouting fanboy praise for a sequence at the Overlook. I wasn’t expecting that at all, it’s at once hilarious and effectively spooky to see the hexagon carpeted floors of Stanley Kubrick’s horror masterpiece, in a film that families will watch! The entire sequence was done brilliantly and I enjoyed it further, knowing what would happen in rooms etc.

Nostalgia is clearly what is selling this film and I have no issues with that, it’s a seat filler. People love being reminded of fun flashes to their past and this movie sees games and pop cultural figures storm the cinematic screen with giddy abandon. Marvin the Martian, The Iron Giant and Halo Spartans are just a few of the brilliant visual tie-ins Spielberg and the effects team have gifted us, but there should be more to it down to the main narrative, yet at points it does feel like this is a film solely riding on the cool delight of spotting characters from games, film and TV dotted around.

Music also forms a huge factor of the feel-good fuzzy feeling as Hall and Oates, The Bee Gees and Van Halen all riff on this film’s clear course to Nostalgia-ville. There’s a general fun vibe to had with this film and even though there are problems with the story being devoid of heart or much emotion, a side-lined female character who becomes not much more than a love interest and a show of characters that don’t really develop and therefore never grabbed my attention, it’s a movie of wonder and bright colour, zippy visual treats and a technological feat that should be admired.

Sheridan plays the guy out in the sticks aspiring to win and the lead with a lesson in love, in a way that’s alright enough but I’d never say he was someone I rooted for, he’s kind of just there amongst a world bursting with other avatars. Cooke sprinkles some cool chick moves to her turn as the helpful love sidekick and I found her more interesting to watch than Sheridan, as I did with the hench figure of Aech and their subsequent reveal. Ben Mendelsohn is always an effective presence but his role as the villainous Nolan Sorrento is hot and cold, there’s flickers of chilling menace and then it dissipates. Rylance comes and goes but is a fun addition, with a kind of Wayne’s World/Bill and Ted gamer geek, stoner attribute to his character.

The story isn’t as strong or as engaging as it deserves to be but I have to applaud Steven Spielberg and the visual effects crew, for creating a film that is a lively rush for the senses.

7/10

 

Unsane (2018)

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Completely shot on an iPhone 7, this psychological thriller from director Steven Soderbergh is an interesting tactic in terms of its execution, but is hugely let down by a narrative that is easy to pick apart and far from riveting.

After landing a new job in Pennsylvania, Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) can’t shake the feeling her stalker is still around. She visits an institution to speak about her fears and demons and inadvertently winds up admitted into this mental facility. Within these walls she continues to see her stalker, David Strine (Joshua Leonard), but is she to be believed or is she insane?

Well, I obviously won’t answer that because that will spoil the outcome but what I can say, is that the progress of the plot becomes more and more dumb. There are plot holes galore and how a certain character manages to gain freedom of movement without suspicion is insanity in itself. The writing pair of James Greer and Jonathan Bernstein have tried emulating some fraught, claustrophobic sense of horror akin to the wonder of ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest’ from what I can tell, but it’s miles away from that captivating and concerning plight of hospital entrapment. Understandably, it’s unfair to compare this film to that Jack Nicholson feature, because this 2018 release is meant to be a B-movie of intimate proportions, but there’s frequent moments that take you out of the picture as you question what is happening, due to the lack of sense it presents.

The technical achievement is worthy of some credit, to have shot the entire film on a mobile device is impressive and adds some kind of personal madness to the story. It also shows that just about anyone can make a movie whatever the constraints but on the other hand, a name like Soderbergh goes a long way to get a film of this nature green-lit for cinematic release. I imagine if a student with an iPhone had written and directed the same thing, it wouldn’t have got anywhere, the power of his name helps sell a film that is otherwise a gimmicky lukewarm feature.

Aside from the issues the story throws up, I found myself very distant from the film thanks to the way it was shot. It’s as if the filmmakers want you to be immersed in a gritty narrative and believe the craziness on show, which would be fine within a fantasy filled genre but the way that ‘Unsane’ looks and is created with the phone camera; adds a realistic close up touch which deletes the suspension of disbelief you’d usually retain for fantastical movies and truly makes the latter half of this film, far-fetched and coldly distancing.

Foy does excel and is by and large the best thing going for this movie. She commits and gets under the skin as someone your mind sways back and forth with, concerning the notion of her mental state. She manages to make a character that I didn’t connect with someone that I still empathised with. Jay Pharoah as Nate brings a needed level of light relief to the plot and gets some good scenes with Sawyer. Juno Temple is the right choice for an unhinged patient and Temple makes sure that Violet is worrying to be around but every character around Foy are less than engaging and serve as little more than script help for Sawyer to get through the film.

I wasn’t expecting to write so much about this Soderbergh release beforehand, but after seeing it I had a lot on my mind about how poor the story is that I can’t shake that off. Foy is great. Everything else is irritatingly not.

5.5/10

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

Downsizing (2018)

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A film about a huge idea has never felt so small and yet so long.

Earth is facing more climate change issues and the devastating toll of overpopulation sees Norwegian Dr. Jorgen Asbjornsen (Rolf Lassgard) invent a procedure that shrinks humans to be inches tall. Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) sees this as a chance to live a better life with his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig), but she runs scared from the downsize and leaves Paul to look differently at his way of life, with this newly gained perspective.

This was a movie that initially had me very intrigued and excited. The trailers and Alexander Payne credit gave me good reason to see this as a neat and quirky release but upon seeing the film a few months later, I must say that’s it’s far from the kooky gem it could have been. There’s an unshakeable mundane quality to the storytelling and the majority of the movie left me switched off and yawning.

To its credit, this is a fun idea to play around with but the idea never really gets played around with that much. It’s within the set up and initial thirty or so minutes, that the visual humour of small scaled people with large props works well. Leisureland; a community especially designed for the downsized is a cool idea and all the notions around that are executed very well. It’s just a shame that the movie feels like a split from one half to the next and this shrinking set story from Payne and Jim Taylor becomes one devoid of comedy and stretched to uninteresting ends.

The main problem, I feel with this film, is that almost all the characters left me bored. I never connected to them or felt engaged by their progression. The way they talked was uninspired and certain actions made by some of the characters, between Paul and Vietnamese activist turned cleaner Ngoc felt truly out of place. This idea of a love blossoming like a big yellow rose didn’t ring true. I didn’t really see them as loving each other at all and a lot of the characters; Paul, Audrey, Dave, Dusan and others are cartoonish almost unbearable people, so to follow them for over two hours left me wanting the film to shrink away.

Matt Damon is meant to be a pathetic character and he does carry this constant feeling of uselessness to his role and then manages to turn just upon seeing this inspirational cleaner turn up after a drug fuelled party. It’s the mostly dull and pathetic moping to his character that becomes annoying; to emphasise my point I want to mention Oscar Isaac in ‘Inside Llewyn Davis’ who is a talented musician but a pathetic man who never gets anywhere, that is a film and performance where you still feel connected and engaged, Damon and ‘Downsizing’ are not. Kristen Wiig is made out to be a villain of the piece after ditching her husband but you never really know enough about her to care. Christoph Waltz is an actor I do like watching but recently he’s appeared in some bad films and that’s no exception here, he’s still going with the shtick he’s been pigeonholed into but with extra arrogance. The MVP of the whole movie is Hong Chau as Ngoc Lan Tran who seems to be the only one with emotion and shows some connection to the film she’s acting in unlike everyone else.

It’s the sheer disappointment of what could have been, that lets down this movie massively. The premise has some good moments to start but becomes lost very quickly. I haven’t felt so unenthusiastic or uninterested for quite a while.

5/10

All the Money in the World (2018)

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I must admit I knew nothing of Getty or this 1973 abduction before the film started production and went through the well publicised adjustments. In that sense it’s a film that neatly sheds light on an event in history but it’s not one that fully grabbed me or will stay with me.

Sixteen year old Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer) is grandson to the wealthiest man in the world; J. Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer) who made a fortune in oil. Whilst in Rome, the teenager is kidnapped and held for ransom but the tycoon refuses to pay, leaving Paul Getty’s mother Gail (Michelle Williams) to try and get her boy back.

It isn’t an understatement to say this movie is receiving a lot of attention due to the Kevin Spacey drama and subsequent re-shoots. This is a fantastic and praise worthy feature just in the comradery and work from all involved to hustle and get back together to replace the in the can scenes with new actor Christopher Plummer; and he is a sensation throughout the film almost stealing the movie with his performance.

Ridley Scott manages to direct an almost fully engaging account of this crime ridden event, it just needed a slight more trimming down as the full film feels too long and it is somewhat of a slow affair considering it’s something that could have been more of a thriller. I left the cinema feeling like I got almost into the story but never truly felt immersed or gripped by it. It isn’t just the dragged out narrative that lets the film down, sadly this whole release will be overshadowed because of what it went through.

The screenplay by David Scarpa based on a 1995 book about the scandal, is one that manages to balance the scales well, showcasing the evil of money on one side and the unrelenting motivation and love from a mother on the other. It’s a film and script that comes into its own by the third act when moments heat up and the ‘thriller’ aspect finally seems to kick in but it’s just a shame that it takes forever to get to this point in a long drawn out kidnap plot that becomes boring to a point.

Michelle Williams is the light and soul of the drama, leading us through the majority of the run-time with a confident and incredible aura. She portrays the emotive strength of a caring mother and backs it up with ease of wits and smarts to counter the wily evils of Getty and his money backed reasoning. Christopher Plummer is a force throughout the film who expertly shows us the gross traits of greed and power, he gifts the film some comedic moments but more in the sense of exasperated laughter at how selfish and mean this man is. Mark Wahlberg brings a certain degree of charisma to a role that sees him play Getty advisor Fletcher Chase. It’s a fairly bland figure just shuttling along with former CIA know-how but it leaves Williams to capably swallow the limelight.

It’s an incredible feat to see a film that has openly gone through last minute changes and yet unlike the dire car crash of ‘Justice League’ this movie demonstrates how alterations can become unseen and effortless, in fact the scenes with ‘Plummer formerly known as Spacey’ are some of the strongest. It might not be a wholly engrossing or riveting film but it’s led by strong acting and an absorbing introduction and a solid third act.

7/10