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

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

Halloween (2018)

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October is rocketing into the latter half and soon All Hallows Eve will come around so what better mood setter than this film. There’s been a lot of expectation riding on this since its announcement back in 2016; the first is a personal favourite and the many sequels failed to capture the same magic. So, with Blumhouse taking over the reins and John Carpenter on board as creative consultant could this film restore hopes in the franchise?

Forty years after the Haddonfield murders, Michael Myers is visited in his sanitarium abode before he’s transferred to a more secure prison but on the way the bus crashes and Myers escapes hoping to track down the survivor of his spree, Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis).

The fact that this film ignores everything that came after the 1978 movie is great, it keeps the story tighter and really hones in on the cat and mouse set-up of Laurie and Michael. Any fear that ‘Halloween’ would be awful are lost sharply; the opening scene is foreboding and sets the scene well and as soon as the revamped score blasts out and orange credits open on the screen, goosebumps prickle over the skin and a welcome smile covers the face as if a long lost friend is coming home.

David Gordon Green may not have a strong calibre of films in his back pocket but with Jeff Fradley and Danny McBride, he’s crafted a neat modern spin on the icon of slasher horror. The new stylistic choices never overshadow the simple but effective story of boy wants girl and vice versa and along the way there are fun, knowing winks to moments from the original. Green ensures that the most important factor remains after retconning the other sequels and that’s delightful thrills.

The Shape is as dominant as ever, this unstoppable force with just his trusty knife and mask still has a predilection for Halloween playfulness and this is darkly amusing to see. Michael is a powerful entity of evil, a version of us if we were to have every emotion drained from our being. He certainly lights up, or perhaps darkens the screen with the same spine-tingling sense of dread as his mission for Laurie escalates. No more can this be seen than in a superb but short-lived unedited trick or treat sequence in the suburbs where the camera follows Myers roaming along the sidewalk and through homes getting back into the murderous swing of things.

In a way, what’s more effective than The Boogeyman’s rampage is this movie casting a well focused eye on trauma and the prolonged aftermath it can rustle up for someone. This paranoia and constant living fear are explored really well and come to a head within Strode’s fortress in the woods. The house is a fantastic metaphor for her fearful nature concerning the ordeal 40 years prior but it doubles up as a nifty home of tricks mirroring her internal pulse to not let the past defeat her and take a further hold over her family.

Brilliant horror stereotypes rear their head, from stoner boyfriends to promiscuous babysitters who engage in premarital sex and each part are played appropriately. Andi Matichak is pleasing as Laurie’s granddaughter, a character framed as the kind, innocent pure final girl to follow in her grans footsteps. Laurie Strode is the ultimate bad ass scream queen and Jamie Lee Curtis is the ultimate, nobody can capture this scared yet brave duality like she does throughout the movie.

‘Halloween’ knows it’s a spooky romp and has great fun with the antics of building characters and their possible slaughters. It might be a simple sequel but a feeling of pin-point classic horror brilliance showers the entire film.

8.5/10

A Star is Born (2018)

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From comedy star in ‘The Hangover’ to more dramatic turns in films like ‘American Sniper’, Bradley Cooper has certainly been down many avenues and now he throws his stetson behind the camera for his directorial debut; a musical romance and fourth remake of the ‘A Star is Born’ brand.

Hugely famous country star Jackson Maine (Bradley Cooper) seriously struggles with alcohol and drug addiction. On a desperate trawl to find a bar, Maine staggers into one where waitress by day-singer by night Ally (Lady Gaga) is performing. He quickly falls for her looks and talent and they begin a whirlwind relationship that sees Ally become a singer/songwriter idol.

In the 1950’s Judy Garland headlined the first remake and the 70’s saw Barbra Streisand take the lead in a rock and roll setting, one Bollywood film later and now it’s mega popstar Lady Gaga’s turn to take the cinematic stage. There’s no doubt that she’ll be up for an Oscar nomination because her performance is sensational and she makes the film what it is. The road to success with tricky obstacles and media manipulation is ripe for the times currently in Hollywood and the music perfectly encapsulates Ally and Jackson’s rocky relationship.

This movie is like a biopic of Gaga’s career, you can just see how the films’ content of moulding someone to how the management want them to be, mirrors her Poker Face days, before her songwriting and more heartfelt tunes took flight. The pop music side of Ally’s journey and the SNL showbiz aspect are necessary attributes in showing how the industry works and really demonstrates Ally as a strong individual to stick with all these changes in the dream of being recognised for her talent. She also sticks with Maine because he saw that spark within her, their relationship may be odd and harbour some cheesy moments but it feels real and the pair work beautifully together.

At a certain point it does feel like the film stretches ever so slightly and you could almost check out of the plot but thanks to the music you get drawn back in. Also, there is a very predictable narrative to follow but there’s some stunning cinematography from Matthew Libatique which goes from a pristine bathroom to a gorgeously crimson tinged drag club and the films final shot rests on a powerful, stunning image and though it is silent it sings a thousand words. On top of the great DoP work, the musical numbers themselves are toe-tappingly heartfelt and ‘Shallow’; a song penned by Gaga and Mark Ronson is gunning for an Oscar nom as well and rightly so because it screams with drama.

Cooper, with his flushed red cheeks and slurring Western drawl embodies the stereotypical drunken cowboy singer but softens this rough edges with a clear love for his Ally rose. Gaga is incredible throughout, her voice is a God given gift that fills the heart and the speakers with power. It isn’t just her singing talents that sell the film, she makes Ally a fully rounded character and you truly buy into her rise to stardom with a difficult romance aiding the way.

‘A Star is Born’ is a country and western musical for modern times and like TV show ‘Nashville’, it hits with lyrical gems and dramatic characters to soar to the top of the charts.

7/10

Night School (2018)

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After success with ‘Girls Trip’, which I’ll be honest I still haven’t seen, director Malcolm D. Lee once again teams up with breakout star Tiffany Haddish who unites with Kevin Hart in this American comedy. It’s just a blot on the whole thing that the comedy proportion leaves something to be desired.

After an explosive incident at a BBQ store, Teddy Walker (Kevin Hart) is left needing a job and to get to work with his friend as an investment advisor he’ll need to obtain his GED. Roll on Walker attending night school classes taught by Carrie (Haddish), where he’ll have to swot up to hopefully pass the test but he’s doing this on the sly unbeknownst to his fiance.

Written by six, yes six different writers, this movie and the comedy is hopes to achieve cause all the problems. There’s too many cooks and the jokes bomb hard, not even a single one of them is funny which isn’t great when you’re selling yourself as a comedy film. The likes of principals doing black voice, prom-night twerking, fart jokes and boring prat-falls do zero to make you laugh. In all honesty with more refining and less American style comedy of screeching dialogue, this could have been a better film in terms of a comic touch.

What is slightly surprising is there are traces of charm to be found and the film does have its heart in the right place. The drama may not be impressive but these bunch of night school sad saps and their bonding have a smattering of magnetism which makes the road of GED revision a fairly entertaining watch. The morals of trying hard and redeeming yourself through honesty and motivation are nice themes which hold up well amongst the Hart vs. Haddish shouting fest.

You’re in for a forgettable watch but each character on the GED course has enough of a generic quirk to pull them through against the boundless and annoying energy of Kevin Hart. Romany Malco gives Jay a great distrust of technology based off Terminator fears. Anne Winters and her youthful charisma are up for some stereotypes but she acts a developed caring side when chatting with Theresa who is played by Mary Lynn Rajskub, she may be the best of the group with her craziness and mumsy quality ripe for oddball moments. It’s Tiffany Haddish as the teacher who excels most though, her commitment to ensuring her students do their best are well played and help the film in its more grounded stages.

Success can be achieved with second chances, or 3…or 4 and maybe if you have nothing better to do you should give this film a passing chance as even though it’s not at all funny, there’s something lightly distracting and so-so about it.

4/10

 

 

 

Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again (2018)

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Ugh, here we go again! A sequel/prequel to the fifth highest grossing film of 2008 is on our shores and with the success of the first ABBA inspired musical, I imagine this follow up will stay in those successful footsteps even if it is a lame rom-com story and does very little to dispel the notion that it’s a stonking great cash grab.

It’s been five years since Sophie’s (Amanda Seyfried) wedding and she’s now busy planning the reopening of her mum’s hotel. As the final preparations are under way, the story cuts back and forth between this and Donna (Lily James) back in 1979; just graduated and wanting to see the world. The film then follows her meeting Sophie’s trio of fathers and how her stay in Greece came to be.

Firstly, it’s not a major issue that the songs are relentless throughout but this musical almost shoehorns songs in that vaguely fit in with what’s going on during the narrative. I was listening to lyrics and some just don’t coincide with what’s been or is happening at all. Secondly, the film only just kicks off and we’re right into a song, I know it’s a musical but there’s something about the ‘Mamma Mia’ landscape that serves up a cringe aspect alongside the jovial antics, extremely evident in the graduation sequence and the Waterloo themed restaurant.

This film feels like it was battering me over the head with song after Swedish created song, that by the end I was involved and part of the music. It’s as if I was bombarded to say Thank You for the Music because it was incessant. It may have been the broken will but I have to say that the glittery disco themed Super Trouper number was an enjoyable blast, Mamma Mia itself is a fun listen/watch and Angel Eyes is sold nicely thanks to the power of the actors behind the song.

Ol Parker’s screenplay from a story by him, Catherine Johnson and Richard Curtis is a loosely veiled attempt at tying two stories together. The plot doesn’t do much to really make you care for Donna, she just seems like a young gal gallivanting and exploring what our planet has to offer, though she seems to know she belongs in Greece after only going to visit Paris. The hotel re-opening is a flimsy excuse to get the sprawling cast back together but amongst the less than inspired writing there are some funny moments. A sassy Greek lady, a goat chase and the terrific double act of Julie Walters and Christine Baranski are great highlights.

Lily James is superb, she gives the background of Meryl Streep’s character such radiating presence. She may fall in and out of beds but she has such a bubbly performance throughout this film that you can’t help but like her and James’ infectious smile even made this cynical chap less so. Seyfried is a class act, she’s always reliable for musical features and her talented vocals do this film wonders amongst the likes of some less than gifted singers elsewhere in the cast. She manages to be expressive and likable in a role that sees her bridging gaps between the past and present. The ‘singing’ and dad-dancing of Colin Firth, Pierce Brosnan and Stellan Skarsgard is awkward but highly amusing. Cher rocks up like this wicked west persona; the helicopter and her introductory music add to this oncoming doom but she does little in the film and reveals a name before singing that song which is an eye roll AND sigh if ever there was one but it’s Cher, I can’t say anything bad, can I!?

This sun-drenched film arriving 10 years after the original didn’t need to arrive at all, it’s not a fascinating story and the cringe is most certainly real but it’s a carefree bop that knows what it is; a summery feel good distraction that will have die-hard ABBA fans singing in the cinemas and calling out for the inevitable singalong versions.

5.5/10