Joker (2019)

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DC and Warner Bros. send in the clown for this Joker origin story; one set apart from the established DCEU and one that has been a hot topic during it’s festival run where it landed the major Golden Lion trophy in Venice. This film is definitely one that’ll get people talking but is it for the right reasons?

Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix) is a clown with dreams of being a comedian but instead has to undertake menial jobs around Gotham City and look after his ill mother Penny (Frances Conroy). After being beaten on a metro train, Arthur rises from his depressing state and begins a new birth of violent terror that sweeps through the city and sees him become the Joker.

Moving away from comedies like ‘The Hangover’ and ‘Old School’, is Todd Phillips who clearly models this super-villain tale on the Martin Scorcese pictures of the 1970’s. The cinema of old with the gangster vibes and the civilian violence echoing ‘Taxi Driver’, mixed with our new and frankly scary environment of American mass shooters creates a bold and disturbing story.

What works insanely well about this movie is the feeling that you can’t overlap it into any other comic book film that we’ve come to grow familiar with in the last 10+ years. ‘Joker’ is a fresh angle on the genre, what with it’s early 80’s setting, the lack of any pigeonholing to tie it in with the DCEU and an out-and-out sense that this triumphs as a startling stand alone flick.

The film is extremely heavy on close ups which shoves you into the worrying world of Arthur. It’s almost as if we’re holding his hand alongside the descent into psychopathic carnage, set about by how society views people like him. The treatment of mental illness is a tricky one as it sort of gives explanation to the real-life white men who pick up a gun and kill innocents and in an alarming way this film does almost feel celebratory of a man unhinged.

Mob mentality and civil unrest take hold and before long, the New York style of Gotham City are rife with aggressive protesters. This is all thanks to an unknowing Arthur, whose fate and figure are painted out in front of him thanks to a brutal sequence of events. The film gives us sanity to the insanity as the script sympathises with why Fleck goes the way he does, which both feels unnerving and takes away from the mystery and reckless chaotic nature of the Joker doing what he does just for the sake of it.

Saying this, the man with the bleeding smile is a force of unattainable talent. Joaquin Phoenix drops the pounds and puts on a happy face to build up a seriously chilling man on the edge. Arthur Fleck takes part in a post-murder meditative routine and further on he calms down the craziness around him with dance inflections that are perfectly jarring. The incessant cackling and staring eyes, glistening with distracted disorder set within the green hair and red suit are an image you won’t forget. Phoenix makes sure his Joker is not like the others and relinquishes true uncomfortable terror.

‘Joker’ is a slow-burner of captivating unease; with a fascinating central performance, a gritty 70’s inspired atmosphere and a score which pricks up the hairs on your skin as if anything can happen around the corner when Arthur is present. It’s a film that some will adore, some will dislike but it’ll provoke all to a sensory reaction.

7.5/10

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Animals (2019)

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We’ve (maybe) all had those drunken, blackout nights with a hangover serving as the only memory of the fact you’d been on the tiles but what if you constantly carried on this trend of drugs and alcohol? ‘Animals’ is such a film to explore the riotous behaviour of two friends and it’s an expressive piece to say the least.

Laura (Holliday Grainger) cannot seem to get her story past ten pages as she leads a life of drink and tomfoolery with long-time pal Tyler (Alia Shawkat). Together they traverse the ups and downs of female friendship as Laura becomes enamoured by pianist Jim (Fra Fee); who happens to exist in a much more mannered world not ruled by liquor.

Sophie Hyde directs the words and wisdom of screenwriter Emma Jane Unsworth; who just happened to author the book that this 2019 Sundance premiered film is based on. They both manage to evoke a strength in the portrayal of the pair of women. Through the script and direction, the streets of Dublin come alive as the shenanigans of Laura and Tyler take hold. What works, isn’t just the believable haze of their alcohol-fuelled partnership but the fall outs and coming together; their past and present as friends being an unspoken bond through thick and thin.

‘Animals’ is a drama which focuses in on animal imagery, from cats and foxes to a spider weaving its home. This arachnid theme mirrors the progression of Laura, a 32 year old woman who is trapped in her very own web of forgetting a whole decade and struggling to complete a novel. It also works for the desire of the story for a woman to free the spider, as she too maybe hopes to escape the life she has lead.

Tyler and Laura are a tenacious twosome, they’re incredible examples of fun but also self-destructive personalities. They stalk the Irish pavements like midnight animals and it’d be fair to say they can often be viewed as a blurry mess but gladly the film isn’t. The movie swiftly has us thrown into their antics and see-sawing relationship and the idea of late 20’s/early 30’s striving to life every day as it could be your last is most definitely felt throughout the story.

The film may not be for everyone but if you’re of similar age to the women in this feature then the fear of missing out and the desire to live it up and not let life pass you by is a notion that hits home. Everyone wants to have a good time but there does come a point when the constant thirst to drink and go out can be looked at as a tragic state by those around you, which is what happens in this film. The pressurising way that Tyler holds on to Laura is where the conflict rises and it’s as the latter possibly finds a way into normal adulthood with Jim that the film becomes compelling.

Grainger is a dreamy choice as the writer facing a brick wall, but she doesn’t solely um and ah as a lacklustre producer of literature, she positively crackles as a fiery woman rooted to the ideals of youthful abandon yet pressed for a more normal, or civilian life as Tyler calls it. Plus her Irish accent is stunning. Shawkat has plenty of quips and brings comic touches but you’d be hard-pressed to connect to her. It’s hard to root for her because she’s so much of a party animal and enclosing grip on Laura’s life, that you’re practically screaming out for Laura to get away.

The only main weakness this vivid burst of conflict and crazy has is that it could have done with being trimmed slightly, the onset of feeling the run-time does occur but thanks to the charged performance of Shawkat and the mesmerising turn from Grainger, ‘Animals’ is a wild ride.

6.5/10

 

Yesterday (2019)

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It goes without saying that The Beatles are music legends known the world over, but what would life be like without the Fab Four in it? ‘Yesterday’ is the answer to that question and with director Danny Boyle and writer Richard Curtis behind it, could we expect a sweet treat or is it meh, actually?

Suffolk lad Jack Malik (Himesh Patel) struggles to pick up any attention playing his own songs in pubs and on the streets, the only real interest he’s always had is from maths teacher and manager Ellie Appleton (Lily James). After a cycle accident, he wakes up to discover that no-one knows who The Beatles are; leading him to recapture the British Invasion magic and pass their songs off as his own.

Whether you’re a fan of Paul, John, George and Ringo or not, the Liverpool band have a great number of songs that get you humming along and in that sense this film is a wonder. The vocals of Patel as he strums along to Yesterday or Here Comes the Sun are soothing and help create a feel-good atmosphere to the story but whenever the film steps off the Abbey Road crossing and away from the music then you really cannot Help! but see the many flaws in the story.

Richard Curtis’ script is predictable to the nth degree and not even a few funny flashes of what ifs, to the likes of other well known brands disappearing, can save the familiar territory of a film that has a simple premise, and an even simpler love story attached. The whole sequence that sees Jack crash and emerge into a Beatle-less world is laughably silly and throws up questions that shouldn’t be asked because it’s a fluff film but you cannot help but ask anyway. For example, having him sing a Beatles track at the flashback school scene would at least show he’s a fan of them, because up until the point of his hospital awakening, The Beatles aren’t ever mentioned as an influence for Jack and yet he knows every single lyric to a whole rostra of their hits.

On top of the more mainstream look at The Beatles and exceptionally obvious storytelling comes a cringe cameo-cum-main part from Ed Sheeran, in the same dragged out way that Elton John had in ‘Kingsman: The Golden Circle’. Whoever helped effects in post production seem like they had a blast discovering a free trial of title FX as we see graphics spin and whoosh on screen for every single location. Worse than any of these gripes though, is the lazily drawn character of Ellie which has Lily James desperately trying to inject charm into. The romance side of the plot is bland, expected and more of a staggering issue than a beach-side meet-up with a face from the past; if you could Imagine that.

There are traces of fun along the way but the tone is so light that it blows away in the wind, and not even Danny Boyle, James or the pleasing sounds of Patel can pull it back down to Earth. ‘Yesterday’ is a film that should have been left be, it’s easy-going but nothing to Twist and Shout about.

5/10

Missing Link (2019)

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It has been 3 years since the engagingly rich and complex world of ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’. Laika are back again and this time they’re setting their hands on constructing the search for legendary creatures.

Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) is a self-centred explorer and investigator of mythical monsters; in his hopes of joining an exclusive club, he sets out to find a Bigfoot. After finding this beast surprisingly fast, Frost comes to realise what a gentle and awkward giant Link (Zach Galifianakis) is. Together they trek the planet in the hopes that Link can find home with more of his kind.

Laika, as a studio, are a dream machine of stop-motion animation and this globe trotting adventure truly proves what a master of the arts they are. It’s their most light-hearted and comically toned outing yet and it is also true that a fair few of the aspects in ‘Missing Link’ are catered to children but it is a colourful and beautiful story to watch.

The hustle and bustle of London town to the wilds of America and India to the snow capped Himalayan mountains; this film provides many points on a whistle stop guide of the world. Each new setting is breathtaking and an astonishing feat of craftsmanship, that as a fan of stop-motion you cannot help but internally applaud. It isn’t just the backgrounds, the close up textures of fur or rosy red skin or the angular sharpness of Frost’s face show what fun Laika have in making distinguishing features for their movies.

This narrative tries incorporating humour into the film more than the depth or darkness found in the likes of ‘Coraline’ or ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’, in a way it feels akin to the breezy style of Aardman Animation. The chuckles in this mostly come from the characteristics of the hairy Sasquatch and it is very kiddy but it has some mildly amusing graces.

The vocals from all involved, including the likes of Stephen Fry, Zoe Saldana and Emma Thompson are all spirited, bouncy and they lift this film with an extra boost of energetic delight. So, even if the film may not be memorable enough to last out until the end of the year, it’s light and fun enough to stick on in the future and gather round for an afternoon flick.

Sadly, Laika are in a financial sticky spot as of late, with their recent films not performing so well at the box office. Even if ‘Missing Link’ has tried to be more approachable and family friendly it hasn’t helped them which is a shame because it’s a charming jaunty movie. It’s too little and too late to say but please go watch Laika films and support them before we end up in a cinematic marketplace where the art of stop-motion has no place.

7.5/10

Wild Rose (2019)

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The lead in this musical drama has the words ‘three chords and the truth’ tattooed on her arm. Here are three words and nothing but the truth about ‘Wild Rose’; authentic meaningful satisfaction. And another word because I cannot contain myself – outstanding.

Freed from jail after 12 months, Rose-Lynn (Jessie Buckley) returns to her mam and 2 children but the home sweet home life has never really suited her. She’s a boozer, a force that can’t be tamed and country music swells in her bloodstream. Rose-Lynn only wants to make a name for herself in Nashville but juggling a cleaning job and having a family brings up what really matters.

‘Wild Rose’ contains this inescapable family aspect and director Tom Harper ensures that the carefree Glaswegian antics never overshadow the true feeling of the story. Perhaps his work on shows like ‘This is England 86’ have helped him craft that narrowing in on struggling family units and it pays off wonderfully in this feature.

Rose-Lynn’s home life is engrossing in its richness and it serves as an ideal series of notes in her narrative songbook. By the time we reach the final showstopping moment, with the camera lingering on those closest to the aspirational singer, you’d have to possess no empathy to not be moved to tears by the destructive, yet beautiful smacks of power, heart and delight shown on screen.

In this movie, Glasgow itself becomes a character. It embodies life, entrapment, hope, pain and growth which Rose-Lynn mirrors in fine measure, this helps really make you understand her roots, so by the time she touches down in the shiny world of Nashville you cannot help but know this glittery city, overrun with similar dreamers may not be the oasis she yearned for after all.

Along the way, there are a few parts which sniff of almost whacking in obstacles every other scene, just to keep raising the stakes and adding weight to Rose-Lynn’s personal tug of war but the sheer majesty of her vocals instantly makes you forgive these minor broken strings, on an otherwise finely tuned film.

Jessie Buckley pours her absolute all into this role and therefore her character crackles with life and pure soul. She is wonderful at capturing a feisty energy and emoting Rose-Lynn’s struggles with heart-wrenching power. It’s not just running amok in Scotland and beyond that make her fun to watch, up on stage or on a webcam, Buckley is a firecracker with a voice which gives you goosebumps and can also soothe you with a twang of joy. Julie Walters is a marvellous treasure; her connection to Rose-Lynn and her children are magnificent and you utterly invest into every scene she appears in.

Music can be such a megaton of power and through the truth and storytelling qualities of the country scene, ‘Wild Rose’ is one of those musical gems with something to say and it’s leading lady is a rising star to be reckoned with.

8/10

 

Pet Sematary (2019)

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Stephen King’s ‘It’ was a box office smash and with Chapter 2 around the corner, his back catalogue is being mined for further cinematic attraction. This time we enter the land of the living dead, for a second go-around with ‘Pet Sematary’; an original came out in 1989. Thirty years between the two and this one has you calling out for it to be lowered in an unmarked grave.

Louis (Jason Clarke) and his wife Rachel (Amy Seimetz) have moved from Boston to a small town in Maine in the hope of slowing down a bit and having more time with their son and daughter. However, their new property means they own a huge amount of land, some of which is used as a local cemetery for pets and a place behind this could spell reanimated trouble for the family.

Jeff Buhler’s screenplay leaves you with so many why questions; not because the film is cleverly subjective, posing you thoughts about what can be taken away from it personally, but because the script is far from tightly written and chucks up numerous fur-balls of dumb oversights. A large portion of Buhler’s adaptation makes no sense and/or provide whopping plot holes to dive into.

I have no doubt that the authors work goes into way more depth and broaches the gritty context of our mortality with better attack, but in terms of the movie it winds up skirting around deep issues and tosses in jump scares and many, many predictable story beats. A hissing cat with matted fur and creepy kids are always going to be horrifying images but that does not mean you can constantly rely on that to pray you’re a solid horror film; you must contain a burrowing sense of something extra below the surface, which the film has to begin with, but swiftly loses.

A birthday scene outside their new abode is well executed and certainly grips you with shocking tension, even if it’s overladen with slow-motion. There are also some neat early discussions about death and the afterlife which shine like rare beacons in a film that is otherwise a faulty bulb in need of a burial.

It’s irritating because what it has to say and tries to say about grief are meaty talking points but this is never rounded out to become a compelling, and engaging movie about that subject matter. The fear of dying is replaced by misty woods, masked children and a tribal land that could easily fit into the bleak, dull world of ‘The Nun’. Instead of being a serious topic with scary aspects it becomes an increasingly laughable, mildly serviceable horror flick.

Some people may find the whole thing nightmarish and lap it up like a feline to milk but the majority of it for me and especially the final five to ten minutes were presented in an unintentionally hilarious manner. ‘Pet Sematary‘ is more like kitty litter than frightening catnip to lose yourself to.

5/10

The Sisters Brothers (2019)

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On horseback, from Oregon to San Francisco comes this dark-comedy Western which may not exactly spring out the saloon doors but has enough cinematic artistry to prevent it blowing like some yawn-some tumbleweed in the breeze.

Eli (John C. Reilly) and Charlie (Joaquin Phoenix) are the Sisters Brothers; a pair of assassins who are hired by a wealthy gent to track down and violently extract information from a man named Hermann Warm (Riz Ahmed), who may have a formula to aid finding gold.

It has to be said first of all, that the cast on display in this film are a magnificent bunch. The four main characters are extremely talented and put on a satisfying show, to really lure you into this well-worn world of Western dramatics. It’s a shame then that the film has multiple points where it attempts conflict and humour but doesn’t quite succeed on either.

Co-writers Jacques Audiard and Thomas Bidegain, who worked together on ‘A Prophet’, manage to drop in some nice flourishes though. Be it Eli’s bedtime routine with a red shawl to the weakening state of his horse, it’s the character based details that triumph more than the whole. It’s a finely tuned exploration of connection and strife but the entire film does not quite echo that sentiment.

Glows of orange and yellows in the beautiful cinematography of a country landscape not only add wonder but it provides dusty intrigue to a tale about family. The film is strongest in the contemplative moments and self-reflection from the brothers. Eli and Charlie are a great representation of sibling life; they bicker, fight, laugh and ultimately they support each other. The gorgeous deserts, hills, streams and towns appear almost like painted backdrops for the pair to play in front of.

Even if the film doesn’t hold court from beginning to end, the final short scene is perhaps the most delightful and saves the long wait to get there. We witness a lovely, homely set-up which perfectly demonstrates the relationship of the Sisters Brothers. A use of a near un-edited tracking shot, flowing through this last sequence adds to the calm denouement.

Phoenix is energetic and feels like the Joker of the duo, he is blissfully happy to follow orders, drink and kill whereas Reilly does well in the more thoughtful role, Eli is a man of aspiration and love. Together, the actors provide splendid yin and yang.

Gold shimmers, guns crackle and horses gallop in a story which strides down a much beaten Western trail but thanks to a brotherly bond, the film however long in its journey, is an interesting one.

6.5/10