Tulip Fever (2018)

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In this film there is plenty of talk about rare flowers in Amsterdam, fetching a pretty price in auctions. Well, ‘Tulip Fever’ could be a similar rarity in terms of how late it’s been to blossom. Castings and production started back in 2014 and after being pushed back on more than one occasion, the film has finally sprung but is it a marvellous bloom or a wilting weed?

In 17th century Amsterdam, an orphan is purchased by rich and elderly Cornelius Sandvoort (Christoph Waltz). Sophia (Alicia Vikander) hopes to bear her husband an heir but there is no such luck. As Jan van Loos (Dane DeHaan); a struggling painter comes in by the request of Cornelius to capture the married couple, a mutual attraction burns between Sophia and Loos.

It’s not just a romantic yarn as the plot would suggest. Throughout the film there is a focus on the tulip market and the wealth certain marked flowers can bring to successful bidders. It is indeed a film boiling over with a duo of fevers that would have your local doctor reaching for aspirins and telling you to get some rest. It isn’t just the hot fever that boils over between the former orphan and the artist but the sweaty atmosphere with people from all walks of life crammed in a dingy auction hall is brilliantly captured and works in creating a fever of a financial kind, a swirling frantic environment which you may not have known about if not for this film.

In regards to the more romantic elements of the film, they are brought to life and detail by director Justin Chadwick, who has a background in corset drama, and the two young leads add further credibility to a pair heavy with arousal. Even though it is all convincing it doesn’t entirely prevent these characters’ desire to come across as melodramatic and there are character choices on route which feel annoyingly pushed, like contrivances just to solely push drama into the building climax when it could have been done more organically, it’s more of the roll your eyes stuff than it should be.

Considering the fires that burn in the loins of the cheating couple, the film doesn’t feel as passionate as it could, the story feels very safe and it doesn’t help that quite a fair portion of the dialogue isn’t exactly inspired or bursting with flair. Though saying that, the tricky games that Jan and Sophia play come with a good sense of doom, putting aside a cliched use of mistaken identity, a pregnancy becomes wrapped up in high stakes and this film neatly balances tension and humour within this scheme.

Dane DeHaan has the charm and smirk of a typically wistful artist always falling for his subjects. Alicia Vikander is as beautifully talented as ever, the emotive range she possesses in her magnetic eyes alone express the entrapping situation her character has put herself in. As she hopes to escape a stale world into a steamy affair, you truly buy into Vikander’s desire which make her final choices more captivating. But it is not really Sophia’s story to be spun, Holliday Granger as Maria is in fact the one whose tale is told. The actor finely sells her plight which runs through the house like a smartly drawn portrait as you feel her life getting caught up in the mix.

So while it may not have been altogether worth the wait, it’s not a dud bud to put on the manure pile either. If some lacklustre dialogue, twirl of many subplots and sappy endings were pruned away then this could have been a much more winning flower.

6/10

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Disobedience (2018)

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Love is an all consuming thing and this film goes some way in demonstrating the strength of that powerful four letter word. Anchored by two astonishing female leads, ‘Disobedience’ isn’t as resolute in the pursuit of its story and feels slightly lacking of consequence.

After a family tragedy, photographer Ronit Krushka (Rachel Weisz) flies from New York to London to pay her respects. The world she returns to is of the strict Orthodox Jewish community of which she’d left behind. As she stays longer, her past is unbottled and Esti Kuperman (Rachel McAdams) is a reason for why she was estranged and distanced from her father and his religion.

What this film has going for it, is a good sense of tenderness. Sebastian Lelio ensures that the central pairing of his stars are the focus, their developing connection one that feels soft and lovely around the edges. There are some great moments in the opening scenes of the film with the setting up of characters and Ronit’s arrival back in London comes with traces of strained family humour and a tickling sense of intrigue to these furtive looks that occur between Ronit and Esti.

On the other hand, it is this tender quality that can make the film feel somewhat wishy-washy. The burning nature of love and passion should be unmistakable and though you can tell the two ladies want each other, it’s the aftermath of their connection that never really hits like you’d expect or want. Perhaps the setting of it within the Jewish faith is why the glances and silence are all you get but a darker kick-back to what they do and what happened in the past would make this film more engrossing to watch.

In fact, the film doesn’t totally sell us on the build up to their elicit rendezvous, there’s just a smidge enough to know there’s something going on but it doesn’t feel like the movie has enough gusto to sell us on the fact and suddenly what happens, happens. It’s the softly softly approach which makes for good detailed performances but doesn’t help the screenplay feel sparkling, in fact the film quickly loses dynamics and come the end, it feels vaguely like a quiet soap opera.

Weisz is superb and you can see it in her face and the way she fiddles with her hair or scarf that she’s juggling feelings of grief, annoyance and love. McAdams is just as sensational as her counterpart, if not more so. The complicated state of her marriage, the possible lack of love in her life and the reappearance of Ronit are all carefully balanced by the American actor, she is captivating to watch and I wouldn’t be surprised to see her up for an Oscar in 2019.

‘Disobedience’ has some nice qualities and the background of the Jewish community feels well handled, Weisz and McAdams are the perfect lovers. If only the film didn’t disobey it’s own powerful rules on love, when it should have instead, committed to a more vivid and less unsatisfying flow of tension in the relationship.

6/10

Widows (2018)

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Steve McQueen is certainly an influential figure, his tiny collection of works being as powerful as a director with numerous features. This 2018 release sees the British director slightly move away from drama as he presents audiences with a smart heist thriller.

After Harry Rawlins (Liam Neeson) and his crew end up dead following an attempt to steal millions of dollars, their widows are left facing a dangerous choice. Harry’s wife Veronica (Viola Davis) is threatened by the man whose money was lost and she has a month to pay that cash back. Instead of sitting by, she stands up for the count and receives help from two of the other women, as they plan their own score.

With McQueen and novelist Gillian Flynn behind the screenplay you’d be correct in expecting a slick thriller with turns and the pair of them do incorporate some riveting unexpected curves into the narrative. That is not the be all and end all though, they’re not going down the easier route of just creating a twisty thriller for the sake of it, it’s 100% clear that Flynn and McQueen are interested in the characters and their motivations.

On reflection, there are times when you wonder why the three other ladies are sticking with Veronica but this is just a mere fraction of a niggle that is swiftly lost once the plan takes shape. As the latter stages of the film arrive and their heist takes flight, then you’re in for one hell of a ride; a brilliant burst of tense thriller perfection that latches on and won’t let go.

The characters are what keep the tension ticking, even if Veronica feels like the most fleshed out. The other three widows and a driver are less focused on but they provide a good dose of feminine smarts, will, vulnerability and engrossing power to keep us connected to their predicaments. It could be that I was expecting more, but the story amongst the character work, isn’t as magnetic as I’d hoped but there is plenty of style to make for a worthy movie.

Veronica Rawlins is so damn captivating and that’s down in most part to the dominating talents of Viola Davis. She is formidable as this broken yet unbreakable female force. Elizabeth Debicki and Michelle Rodriguez are strong too but aspects of their characters feel off, down to the development in the plot not their acting. There a couple of brilliantly heated scenes between the reliable Colin Farrell and the great Robert Duvall. Daniel Kaluuya is incredible as a wholly mean, unpredictable presence, he sells this vicious streak with masterful skill, making Jatemme Manning someone to truly fear.

‘Widows’ is perhaps not as tight knit all the way through as it could have been but the final parts are filled with adrenaline and dynamic tension. Women are in it together and they definitely have the balls to pull off a watchable thriller.

7/10

Searching (2018)

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‘Searching’ is the first big Hollywood thriller to be led by an Asian actor; the wonderful John Cho and in Aneesh Chaganty’s debut full-length feature we are presented with a technology based run of hints and danger with near-perfect execution.

After Margot Kim (Michelle La) doesn’t return home after a supposed study session round her friends, her dad David (Cho) begins to worry as this isn’t how she normally behaves. As her days gone missing go by, he learns he doesn’t know as much as he thought about his child and with the help of officers from the California South Bay police force he hopes to understand what’s happened to Margot.

It wasn’t too long ago that a similar-but-not-sequel of ‘Unfriended’ was out and showed us the dark side of the web. This thriller, again provides audiences with the same stylistic methods of the 2014/18 horrors but puts across its unfolding dark side through the drastic clue quest taken by David and the possible warning signals of people around Margot. ‘Searching’ also fares a lot better than the computer-screen heavy visuals of the ‘Unfriended’ movies by better realising its concept and creating an engaging watch from start to almost finish.

The ending is slightly underwhelming, just in the sense I found it to unravel what was an excellently taut story with a fairly ridiculous and sentimental conclusion. The plot does also rely on bordering on silly camera placements and websites to keep the online, onscreen narrative going along. Aside from this, the film is a riveting thriller boosted by Torin Borrowdale’s work, his score has hints of dark tension which add to the slow-burning stakes and with the eventual revelations this adds up to a dynamic, chilling movie.

What do you really know about your children? This suspenseful success at the box office proves that it’s not always that much. Truths get uncovered, mysteries are juicily served up and a visual representation of a detective-esque Crazy Board on a desktop scattered with files speaks volumes for the strained search a father goes on to hopefully find his girl. This film works well because it has you guessing along, as if playing a cinematic game of Cluedo. That sense of intrigue is like catnip for many people and seeing this story play out via live news broadcasts, mobile chats and social media stalking has us invested in a gripping turn of events.

John Cho is great in this movie, whether up for judgement in pixelated zoom or seen through countless FaceTime conversations he really does sell us the panicked, doting father with flaws that help round him out as an interesting character who forgets what is important to both him and his daughter Margot.

There may have been a smidge of expected moments come the wrapping up of this movie but by and large, ‘Searching’ is an expertly organised thriller that may utilise a gimmicky premise but plays on an effective story to quickly overshadow that feeling.

8/10

The Equalizer 2 (2018)

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There’s a storm coming, we’re frequently told in this sequel to 2014’s ‘The Equalizer’. This foreboding grey, rain soaked onset of weather nicely mirrors the grey, dreary soaked plot that’s scattered with showers of subplots and only thunders with some flashy snaps of violent action.

In a block of apartments, former spy Robert ‘Mac’ McCall (Denzel Washington) is still living under the guise that he’s dead but makes money and back-seat friends from his gig as an on-demand taxi driver. Upon hearing that one of his only friends has been killed, Mac exits the shadows to try and get help from one time teammate Dave York (Pedro Pascal) to work out who was behind the murder.

It was four years ago, but from what I remember I enjoyed the kinetic thrill of Antoine Fuqua and Washington teaming up to create a movie which had great style, music and bloody vigilante justice. They’re both back but the their talents don’t make for a repeat success because this follow up is very disappointing.

There’s just something about the film; mostly down to the plot, that lives a bland taste in the mouth. As you try and follow the narrative it just gets littered with taxi-led subplots  and the link with Mac and his past is never unexpected or dramatic enough to sustain interest. Richard Wenk’s story doesn’t twist or turn enough to positively overshadow the underwhelming action scenes.

Some of the hand-to-hand combat are energetic, even if so snappily edited that you can’t see what’s going on but on the whole I found the action to be sorely lacking something special. The final wind-battered blowout is majorly anti climactic too. Mac constantly takes down foes with no effort before this point but here it would have been electric to watch him tackle some equally equipped opposition but that isn’t the case.

Two things are great with this film; the first is a sequence that’s empty on action but fantastic for that reason. This panic room portion is loaded with tension and really makes you feel the threatening entrapment of the situation. Second is the the presence of Washington who is cool, charismatic and a top class actor as always. A heated scene of paternal advice between him and a character named Miles demonstrates the peak performing talents of Denzel but even he cannot save ‘The Equalizer 2’ from an almost boring tone.

After this movie, all I can say is I feel like ordering a Lyft what with the excessive shots of car journeys but this movie ride won’t be gaining 5 out of 5 stars from me.

5/10

Entebbe (2018)

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Inspired by a true moment in history, this biographical thriller from Jose Padilha has some nicely executed tension in places and a bold choice of book-ended dancing but isn’t as thrilling as you’d expect it to be.

Set over one week in 1976, we see the planning and execution of Palestine ‘freedom fighters’ hijacking a plane and keeping the passengers hostage at an airport terminal in Entebbe, Uganda. Hoping to lead and show they’re not radicals or dangerous is Wilfried Bose (Daniel Bruhl) who doesn’t reckon on the Israeli government strategising a combat response to their demands.

Considering the events being shown to us are based on real life ones, the film never really lifts off and becomes as deeply tense as it would have been in that scenario for the captives. There are some brief elevations of tension that help keep some interest alive, but these are at the beginning and end of the film, which leaves a hefty middle portion to sit almost stale-like.

For a film that’s tackling events previously shown in other TV films, this one bravely includes a sequence to differentiate itself and stand apart. This is the opening dance number that then returns nearing the end and becomes a unique bookend for the movie, that I did find to work well. It mirrors the alarming nature of what is happening in Uganda and is exceptionally edited, giving the film a much needed sheen of atmospheric style.

More than anything, this is a movie that doesn’t just slow burn like great thrillers do, but just feels slow. Come day four and five, ‘Entebbe’ begins to lull and dare I say ache with boredom but does pick up its pace and as day six and seven roll around, the film had me more attuned and awake. There wasn’t much emotional attachment within the film and that’s maybe why the film feels slow, they try showing us a dancer and her soldier boyfriend but it comes to late to capture any connection to them and generally, there’s no one really to root for.

Bruhl is interesting in his role as someone wanting to fight against the powers of Israel and free his people, it also lets him briefly shine as he desperately hopes to step away from the expectations of society viewing the fact he’s German and taking prisoners, as the unfortunate parallels it has to WW2 Nazism, but it’s not his best performance by any stretch. Rosamund Pike is great in this, she has such expressive eyes which are full of guilt, sadness and ultimately, a realisation of the situation she’s ended up in. A scene with Pike at a payphone rings with softly powerful words and a simple yet effective static shot over this scene really hits home the problem Brigitte Kulhmann has gotten into.

The issue of the film is that there are no sides to take and the complexity of the still ongoing Palestine and Israel conflict; sees this film mired with frustrating emptiness, only briefly saved by some snippets of style and tension.

5.5/10

 

Annihilation (2018)

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Arriving on Netflix, is this bold and engagingly strange science fiction from Alex Garland. It’s arguably one of the finer films of this genre I’ve ever seen, questioning the audience with its intelligent themes of rationality and life.

After a figure from Lena’s (Natalie Portman) life comes back into the fold, she ends up at a government facility close to a glistening barrier known as The Shimmer which is expanding. Dr Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh) leads Lena and three others into this weird anomaly to try and stop it reaching civilisation and to hopefully uncover exactly what it is.

Alex Garland has been writing screenplays since 2002 and after his blistering debut directorial work on 2015’s ‘Ex Machina’, this was a movie I was eagerly awaiting. Garland has managed to capture the traumas and oddities of a strange new world from within Jeff VanderMeer’s novel of the same name. As this film goes along, there’s a fantastic sense of slow-burning tension that doesn’t always need to pay off with big action because he directs in such a way that chills to the core and makes this environment feel visceral.

A sci-fi with plenty of intrigue and interesting ideas aren’t always common to come by, so gladly this is an exception, in the same vein as the smartly concocted ‘Arrival’. It’s a film that I think deserves to go down as a classic in its genre, as it grips like a row of razor sharp teeth sinking into you, as you get hooked onto the creepy air of unease and confusion that roams this altering landscape.

The Shimmer itself is a world of melding possibilities leading to some of the most beautiful shots I’ve seen this year, ones that I utterly wished I could have seen on the big screen, but again Paramount offloaded one of theirs to be released by streaming juggernaut Netflix. Rob Hardy’s cinematography is sublime and truly keeps you on the edge of your seat as we trek through somewhere, that is at once stunning and dripping with mystery.

There are some unnerving moments within ‘Annihilation’ which I won’t divulge any further as to avoid spoilers, but I will say, what lurks in The Shimmer certainly builds a scary level to the back and forth narrative with Lena. Also, the final act is absolutely incredible. My mouth was agape for the duration and my skin was layered with goosebumps, in a lighthouse set sequence I can only describe as hauntingly glorious and terrifying in a way that seems to burrow into your very being.

Natalie Portman is a strong presence from start to finish, her character background aptly aids her through this lush yet dangerous world of lost memories and trepidation. Portman easily acts that sense of forceful wanting and knowledgeable progression. She also carries an empathetic sadness and regret throughout, which makes her an interesting character to follow. The entire team are a formidable squad of females with enough drip fed information about their lives, to give us understanding of their choices and motivations. Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Tuva Novotny and Gina Rodriguez all neatly display the fraying of their minds as they descend further into The Shimmer. The latter gets a crackling turn to shine in a scene that sees her burst with an intensity, adding to the ferociousness of what happens.

‘Annihilation’ is a masterful movie and one I will definitely be watching again. It carries a quiet menace as the unknown is explored and identity is questioned more and more.

8.5/10