13 April 2018

Isle of Dogs review

It's been the best part of a decade since writer/director Wes Anderson first ventured into the world of stop-motion animation with his wonderful take on Roald Dahl's Fantastic Mr. Fox, but Isle of Dogs quite handily proves that his time away from the medium has done nothing to lessen his ability to effectively utilise it. It might be a long way from perfect thanks to some story decisions that feel insensitive at best, but between its stunning animation, a stellar voice cast, Alexandre Desplat's gorgeous score and Anderson's unique sensibilities, Isle of Dogs is probably going to end up being both the most charming and the best looking film I'll see this year.

Not that you'd guess that from the film's premise, of course, which in a vaccuum sounds about as far away from "good looking" or "charming" as you could possibly imagine. Set in the wake of fictional Japanese city Megasaki choosing to send all of its dogs to the appropriately named Trash Island after an outbreak of Snout Fever, we follow Atari Kobayashi - the adopted son of Megasaki's ruler, Mayor Kobayashi - as he searches for his guard dog/best friend Spots, who was the first to be deported. While searching for Spots, Atari befriends a pack of five dogs who decide to help him, accompanying him across Trash Island as Mayor Kobayashi attempts to both "rescue" his son and put an end to Snout Fever once and for all.

28 March 2018

Ready Player One review

"Come with me / And you'll be / In a world of pure imagination". So goes Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory's "Pure Imagination", a version of which scored the first trailers for Steven Spielberg's Ready Player One and promised an imagination fuelled adventure in the process - a promise only reinforced by main character Wade Watts' description of The Oasis (a virtual reality that most of the population of Earth spend the bulk of their time in 2045) as a world where "the limits of reality are your own imagination". So with that in mind, how is it that Ready Player One has ended up being one of the most deeply unimaginative and creatively bankrupt films I've even seen?

The answer is simple but depressing: it's a film that seems to be operating under the wild misconception that grouping a lot of recognisable things created by other people's imagination under one roof counts as using your own. It doesn't, obviously, and yet it's so busy doing this throughout that it forgets to do much of anything else, meaning that while those looking for a seemingly never ending parade of pop culture references presented to the audience with all the intelligence, elegance and wit as an episode of The Big Bang Theory are in luck, those looking for an engaging story or interesting characters or... well, a real movie, are going to end up feeling more than just a little bored and frustrated with a film that simply doesn't even seem to be trying.

20 March 2018

Mom and Dad review

"Brilliant!" I hear you say through the microphone(s) I've hidden on your person, "a film where parents are driven to kill their children by a mysterious radio transmission? Starring Nicholas Cage, written and directed by the guy behind the Crank films? This is going to be a blast!"

Well not so fast, my clueless friend. Your line of reasoning makes sense - it's always fun when Nicholas Cage goes full Nicholas Cage, and the idea of seeing that happen in a film about child murder that's written and directed by Brian Taylor is an exciting one - but there are two pretty fundamental problems at the heart of Mom and Dad that stop it from ever being the film you think it might be. The first is simple: Nicholas Cage is the main reason that most people will want to see Mom and Dad, but there are large stretches of it that he's entirely absent from, presumably because the film doesn't have a high enough budget to pay Cage's fee throughout. The second is... a little more complicated.

8 March 2018

I, Tonya review

"Good artists copy; great artists steal". It's a fairly well-known saying that speaks to the way art evolves over time as the innovations of influential artists seep into the work of those who come along later, but it's worth breaking down what exactly the phrase means by "steal". Mimicry or simple replication isn't enough; you have to make something your own in order to steal it, add your own unique spin or use it in a particular way that stamps your name on it, and that means that I, Tonya - a biopic whose style was quite clearly heavily influenced by the work of Martin Scorsese - doesn't qualify as an act of theft. Appropriately then, it also doesn't qualify as great art - merely quite good.

At the very least it's a vast improvement over the pale Scorsese imitation that David O. Russell has been doing for the last few years, thanks in large part to director Craig Gillespie's much firmer grasp of how to make the particulars of this style - such as the fourth-wall breaking narration, or the eclectic soundtrack - work on-screen. But just as important to why I, Tonya works where films like Joy don't is the simple fact that the story of disgraced American figure skater Tonya Harding is both a) actually worth telling and b) well-suited to this style of film-making, hitting all the required funny, sad and tense beats as it focuses on a number of vibrant, almost larger-than-life characters who you actually want to learn more about and see interact with one another.

20 February 2018

Black Panther review

I don't think it's going to come as a massive shock to anyone to learn that Black Panther, the 18th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is worth seeing. Marvel Studios have been releasing films that are good at worst for so long now that it almost feels like a foregone conclusion, which means that the real question at this point is if each new instalment in this mega-franchise can meet the expectations set for it. In the case of Black Panther, those expectations are sky high thanks to the character's impressive debut in Captain America: Civil War and the fact it's written/directed by the brilliant Ryan Coogler - and unfortunately, I don't think it quite manages to meet them.

Don't get me wrong, it's without a doubt one of the stronger films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe to date, introducing us to a ton of great new characters and telling an interesting, thematically complex story that I'm sure people will be analysing and talking about for a long time to come - but it's also Ryan Coogler's weakest movie by a fair margin, lacking the sense of craft and rich emotional substance that made both Fruitvale Station and Creed as deeply engaging as they are. It's a really good superhero film for sure, certainly one with more ambition and intelligence than most, but the realities of making a Disney-backed Marvel Studios film means that it's also ultimately *only* a really good superhero film, rather than the legitimately great piece of cinema it often feels close to becoming.

6 February 2018

Early Man review

Thanks to their seemingly constant rotation on our TV since I was a child I've loved A Grand Day Out, The Wrong Trousers and A Close Shave for as long as I can remember, which naturally turned me into a huge fan of Aardman Animations after films like Chicken Run, Flushed Away and Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit (a film I'd happily consider to be a personal favourite) proved that they could handle the leap to feature-length just fine, especially if director Nick Park was at the helm. Between their distinctive visual style, their steadfast dedication to the craft of stop-motion claymation and a thoroughly British sense of humour, there's simply no-one else quite like them - so why is that Early Man, Aardman Animations' latest film and the first film directed by Nick Park in a decade, left me feeling so deeply disappointed?

The answer is simple: because it's a real disappointment when compared to a lot of what they've done in the past. With the sole exception of the animation itself (which is simply fantastic throughout), there isn't an area where Early Man doesn't pale in comparison to the studio's previous works, from how well its story is told to how funny it is to the level that it's ultimately pitched at. Set in prehistoric times, we follow a stone age caveman named Dug who lives in a lush green valley alongside his fellow tribesmen and tribeswomen. But after being forced out of the valley by a bronze age civilisation led by the villainous Lord Nooth, Dug and his tribe must reclaim their home in the only way they'll be allowed to - by beating the bronze age civilisation at a game of football.

26 January 2018

The Post review

Like a few of Spielberg's more recent movies, The Post (which sits comfortably alongside Lincoln and Bridge of Spies in what I'm calling Spielberg's "important events in American history" trilogy) is a film with a lot of narrative on its hands. It's telling the story of Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Washington Post during the Nixon administration and the difficulties she faced in being taken seriously in a male-dominated environment. It's telling the story of Ben Bradlee, the executive editor of the Washington Post during the release of the Pentagon Papers and, later, the Watergate scandal. And it's telling the story behind The Pentagon Papers, a decades long deception of the American people by the American government in order to maintain public support for a war they know they can't win.

It's a lot, but it works because much like how Bridge of Spies isn't really about the Cold War at all, The Post isn't really about those things either. Instead, it's about the importance of a free press and the vital role they play in any true democracy, which makes The Post feel extremely relevant in the time of Trump and "fake news" accusations. There are speeches given by characters here that may as well be delivered directly to the camera and addressed to 2018 itself, and while that has the potential to come across as preachy, Spielberg's guiding hand alongside Liz Hannah's solid script ensures that's never quite the case, resulting in a film that speaks to its audience rather than at them. It helps, of course, that most of these speeches are delivered by everyone's favourite uncle Tom Hanks, who plays Ben Bradlee much the same way he played James Donovan in Bridge of Spies - intelligent, righteous, and not afraid to speak up in the face of injustice, regardless of the consequences he might face.

12 January 2018

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri review

It's a really good movie.

I say this upfront because I know that parts of the following review might indicate otherwise, and I wouldn't want that to be the only thing people take away from what I'm saying here. Yes, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri has problems in its approach to some of the topics it attempts to deal with - but that doesn't stop it from also being a really well-made and engaging movie that I liked a lot. It's writer/director Martin McDonagh through and through, a great script bolstered by some of the best performances you're likely to see this year, and that alone means that it's a film very much worth seeing, warts and all.

Set in the fictional town Ebbing, Missouri, we follow divorcee Mildred Hayes in the wake of the rape and murder of her daughter, Angela. Frustrated by the inability of the local police to catch her daugher's assailant, she erects three billboards outside the town that specifically take police chief William Willoughby to task about the lack of arrests - a decision that the seemingly tightknit community of Ebbing don't take kindly to, being as Willoughby is in the late stages of pancreatic cancer.

30 December 2017

The Must See Films of 2017

One the one hand, it's deeply depressing that almost everything I said in my introductory paragraph to last years The Must See Films of 2016 article also applies handily to 2017, because it means that like 2016, 2017 has been an awful year for any number of reasons. One the other, it's also really convenient that I can change the year and have an introductory section to this article ready to go, so I'm going to do just that. You've gotta take the small victories where you can, after all.

2016 2017 may have been a shit year for a vast number of reasons, but the sheer number of high quality films released means that by and large, cinema wasn't one of them. Sure, there have been a few quite high-profile disappointments (I'm looking at you, Warner Bros), but on the whole there have been an awful lot of really great films released this year, to the point where this list became surprisingly hard to narrow down to a reasonable number.

But narrow it down I did. Below are a list of the films released this year in the UK that I would consider to be "Must See" movies - not necessarily the most "worthy" or the most important, just ones that I personally think any fan of cinema owes it to themselves to see.

So, in release date order;

La La Land

It's been almost a full year since I saw it, and I still find myself humming "City of Stars" and "A Lovely Night" from time to time. La La Land's lasting legacy might have been tainted somewhat by an unfair backlash and a now infamous Academy Awards cock-up, but that doesn't stop it from being a beautifully crafted and emotionally resonant film, one that handily puts to bed the idea that "they don't make 'em like they used to". Between 2015's excellent Whiplash and now this, writer/director Damien Chazelle has established himself as not just a director worth keeping an eye on, but one whose films I will always make the effort to see.

You can read my full review of La La Land here.

20 December 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi review

There's a moment quite early on in Star Wars: The Last Jedi that concisely sums up writer/director Rian Johnson's approach to his entry in this new trilogy. After an opening space battle establishes the stakes of the main plot, we cut to where we left Rey at the end of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, still standing in front of Luke Skywalker with her arm outstretched, offering him his father's lightsaber. He slowly reaches forward, gently takes it from her... and throws it straight over his shoulder and off a cliff. Like Luke, Star Wars: The Last Jedi simply isn't interested in the plot threads left hanging by Star Wars: The Force Awakens, nor is does it care for what direction you thought the franchise might take - and it's all the better for it.

Rather than trying to answer the questions posed by its predecessor, Star Wars: The Last Jedi either ignores them or undermines them entirely in what feels like a deliberate refutation of J.J Abrams' "mystery box", instead choosing to spend its time in much more interesting ways. What we have here what many (myself included) wanted Star Wars: The Force Awakens to be - not a movie that panders to the characters and iconography of the original trilogy but one that isn't afraid to take bold creative risks with them, and while that's certain to anger the more possessive Star Wars fans, it also results in the most original, imaginative and genuinely exciting Star Wars film since 1980.