Sunday, July 1, 2018

Hereditary

Over the last 5 or so years, I’ve been gradually losing faith in the horror genre of movie making. I know, quite dramatic, right? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not claiming that no good (or even exceptional) horror films haven’t been released over the last few years - just take The Conjuring as an example. The problem however, dear reader, is that it’s been ages since a horror movie has actually properly scared, unsettled and slightly terrified me. So much so, that I actually started forgetting how it feels to have a horror movie creep into the dark crevices of your mind and find a nice, warm little corner to torment you from.

Luckily for me though, I made the glorious mistake of going to watch Ari Aster’s directorial debut horror movie by myself, in a completely empty cinema, at night. Thanks to Ari’s instant horror classic, I haven’t been sleeping soundly ever since I’ve watched it and I even find myself embarrassingly running from light switch to light switch at night (even a week after). Not only is Hereditary an exceptionally well made horror film, but it’s a legitimately fucking scary one. And that’s the greatest compliment I can give a horror movie.  

So what actually makes Hereditary so profoundly unsettling? As is the case with all highly considered horror classics, Hereditary’s overall staying power is a culmination of various painstakingly nuanced and subtle directorial touches. It’s clear that 30-something Ari Aster has an amazing knack for building a dread-filled horror storyline that slowly tightens its grip on its viewer.
Believe it or not, but Milly Shapiro's chilling performance is not the scariest thing about this film...

One of the core aspects of what makes Hereditary so utterly dreadful, is the standout performances from the entirety of the ensemble cast. It’s been ages since I’ve had the pleasure of seeing an ensemble cast command the screen so confidently in a horror film: From a super creepy performance by the very young Milly Shapiro and a highly emotive one from Alex Wolf, to seasoned acting chops from Ann Dowd (Handmaid’s Tale) and Gabriel Byrne (Vikings, Stigmata). A special mention has to however go to Toni Collette, playing the role of an unsettled mother, estranged from her equally unsettled family. Collette’s nuanced performance masterfully shows the scars of the complicated events that transpired before the film’s plotline, whilst also illustrating her terrifying gradual descend into dreadful hysteria, as she slowly uncovers the terrible truth of her family heritage. I wouldn’t be surprised if Collette receives a few award nods for this performance (yes, she’s that good).

Part of what makes a horror movie really scary to me lies in the things you as a viewer are not told about – when your mind is allowed to fill the gaps for itself, it has the makings for a truly unsettling cinematic experience. This is why I was so relieved that Hereditary doesn’t fall into the classic Horror movie trap of over-elaboration. The film doesn’t babysit its viewer with loads and loads of backstory and context. Although the central plot is by no means anything highly complicated, it’s the rather muddy and unclear backstory of the family that really gets to you. The Graham family is as unaware of the actual truth behind their family heritage as is the moviegoer, with the film gradually relaying only little titbits of the disturbing backstory to its viewer over time. This culminates in a truly terrifying final 10 minutes, where the forces behind the scenes finally play their cards in a distressingly spectacular fashion.  

"... when your mind is allowed to fill the gaps for itself, it has the makings for a truly unsettling cinematic experience."

I can seriously go on and on about how amazing this film is and I haven’t even started delving into all the other standout aspects of the film, like the remarkable cinematography and the profoundly eerie score.

All you need to know is that Hereditary is an undeniably absorbing and stirring horror movie experience that never relies on cheap scares and thrills to get its audience’s attention. It’s one of those rare horror movies that is so surprising in its approach that there is no way to mentally prepare yourself for the chilling journey it will take you on.

Go watch this film if you’re brave enough to find out how much a masterfully crafted horror movie can deeply upset you.

If you dare, that is. 

Highlight: The completely terrifying final 10 minutes of the film will never leave my head. Ever.


Sunday, May 13, 2018

Avengers: Infinity War

SPOILER ALERT: Unlike most of my reviews, this review includes a very direct focus on the specifics of the actual plot of the film. It is strongly suggested that only those that have seen the film read further.

You have been warned...

When I reviewed the magnificent Black Panther a few months ago, the one thing that I was quite sure about was that it was going to make the next Avengers film seem completely sub-par. Not only was Black Panther a unique take on Marvel’s go-to superhero film recipe, but it introduced us to a world and characters never touched upon before by the franchise, resulting in an exciting and fresh superhero adventure.

Except for the fact that Infinity War was going to have to follow in the giant footsteps left by Black Panther, there were other credible reasons why I was sceptical and nervous about the new Avengers film. For one, the formula that Avengers was relying on up until now was already wearing thin in Age of Ultron – the ever-growing list of main characters all felt underdeveloped, the humour was cheesy at best and the film makers were indulging so heavily in CGI that there wasn’t much actual substance to appreciate.

The Avengers franchise was in desperate need of a change in writing and directing staff and luckily, Walt Disney had the foresight to handover the lead to a new team. And not just any team. The team that was responsible for two of the best Marvel movies ever made (Captain America Civil War and Winter Soldier): director duo Anthony and Joe Russo and writers, Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely. If anyone could save the franchise, it was this formidable directorial and writing ensemble.

But even with the hope that such a formidable lead team brought with it to the project, for Infinity War to rise from the ashes (excuse the pun) left by its direct predecessor, something really different and noteworthy would had to be done. And as luck might have it, the film team did exactly that, delivering a final product that does not only rejuvenate the entire franchise, but also places the Avengers series on an unexpected and intriguingly darker future trajectory.

Although there are quite a few things that one can highlight that helps make Infinity War the surprising success it is, there are two aspects that truly stand out.

The first and foremost being the film’s focus on its main villain, who has been teased and hyped for a considerable time throughout the franchise. And rest assured, kids, now that Thanos has finally arrived, he delivers in spades. What makes Thanos different to most villains (across both the Marvel and DC film universe) to date is that the filmmakers had the wisdom to appreciate the importance of allowing him to develop into a fully rounded and fleshed out character during the course of the film. For the most part, this film is about Thanos and I struggle to think of another superhero movie where the main focus was actually on the antagonist.

The intriguingly layered villain is one of the best things about this film. 
Thanos, although admittedly insane, perceives himself as a messiah of sorts, working towards an objective of universal genocide that he deems necessary and completely humane, rather than sinister. Better yet, he displays a relentless sense of conviction to this end goal that puts most of the film’s heroes to shame. He even displays a clear sense of reverence and even admiration for his adversaries: “Stark… you have my respect. I hope the people of Earth will remember you”. In short, Thanos is the intriguingly ambiguous and non-stereotypical villain that the Marvel Universe has been in dire need of and now that he is here, it is my sincere hope that we see more of him in the films to come.

"... he displays a relentless sense of conviction to this end goal that puts most of the film’s heroes to shame."

The other standout aspect of the film is the ending. I very rarely talk about the ending of a film in a review, but considering its impact on the overall poignancy of the film, it’s worth discussing in specific detail. Due to the spectacular nature of the now considerably vast MCU character database, we have gotten to a point where most of the characters in the franchise feel virtually indestructible, leading to a feeling of low risk that has dulled the intensity and sense of thrill that comes with heated encounters between goodies and baddies - When you have characters like Dr Strange that can bend the rules of time to his pleasing, is there a way for the heroes to actually lose? Thanks to the sheer scale of Thanos’ power though, it provided the movie with the perfect opportunity to re-imbue the franchise with a real sense of dread and actual risk – and if you’ve seen the film, you’ll know the film utilises this opportunity to spectacular effect.

Not only do certain key characters die during the course of the film (which doesn’t happen often in big Hollywood blockbusters), but half of the main cast are obliterated into dust particles before the main credits start rolling – the antagonist has not only won, but left various casualties in his wake. Some of these deaths are even highly emotional, with special mention to the final moments of Spiderman, resulting in one of the film’s most difficult moments. And no, there is no secret ending where everyone magically re-appears – in fact, the end credits even see more characters dying. Although the disbelief that comes with this dramatic ending might be a bit too much to handle for certain fans who are not accustomed to such dramatic endings for a Hollywood blockbuster, I wholeheartedly believe that this ending is exactly what was needed to re-route the franchise in an exciting new direction. Was the ending merely a clever way for Walt Disney to slash their staff expenses for future films in half or will the franchise find a way to bring the dead cast members back to life? Nevertheless, it’s rare for a crowd-pleasing blockbuster to have such a risky, controversial ending and the overall film benefits from it massively.

Spiderman and Iron Man deliver some of the film's most emotional moments.
1000 words into this review and I haven’t even mentioned how well the film manages to juggle so many different characters and story arcs into a final package that feels noticeably polished. Add to this amazing on-screen chemistry (standouts are scenes between Thor and Rocket, as well as Spiderman and Iron Man); surprisingly clever dialogue; thrilling fight scenes; jaw-dropping CGI mastery, and you have a film that stands tall amongst most superhero films that have come before it.  

Avengers: Infinity War is a highly ambitious and courageous MCU entry that doesn’t only manage to save the core Avengers film franchise from what seem to have been an inevitable demise, but also pushes the boundaries of what audiences have come to expect from superhero movies in general. If you only watch it for the sake of seeing Thanos kill off a bunch of speedo-wearing nerds, then it will be money well spent.  

Highlight: The final battle sequence, culminating in a highly surprising ending that I doubt you will see coming. 


Sunday, April 8, 2018

Ready Player One

If you’ve read some of my reviews before, you’ll know that I seldom write reviews about movies that I didn’t particularly enjoy (which means most of my ratings are quite high). Today however I’m treating you, dear reader, to a negative review. Why? Because I am quite inspired to tell you much I didn’t enjoy Ready Player One.

It’s probably also fair to mention I’m not the biggest fan of Steven Spielberg movies – don’t get me wrong, he’s an amazing director, it’s just that I don’t feel like Spielberg is the type of director that makes movies for someone with a as blighted soul as my own. There’s a sickly sentimental quality to numerous Spielberg films that makes it difficult for me to connect with the worlds he creates and the characters that inhabit them.

But nevertheless, as a self-proclaimed retro pop culture and gaming geek, I was very curious to experience Spielberg’s attempt at the off-beat and rather strange world of Ready Player One, first introduced by Ernest Cline as a science fiction novel back in 2011.

Ready Player One starts with a bang, plunging the audience in the thick of a barraging plethora of convoluted retro pop culture and gaming references. Impressively (in a bad way, that is), Spielberg maintains this initial momentum for puking out pop culture references on-screen throughout the film’s tiring 2 hour runtime. Even worse, some scenes feel like nothing more than an excuse to add in and combine another series of seemingly randomised references in a mildly entertaining way. Although this approach has a certain charm for a while, it quickly degrades the film into a rather soulless promotional shell.
Also, this movie hasn't made me very excited for the future of VR.
Another aspect that doesn’t help improve the film’s lack of any real emotional resonance is the rather horrible dialogue. Except for a few quirky moments from T.J. Miller, most of the dialogue is painfully cheesy and superficial – the only real achievement of the dialogue is that it manages to successfully reinvigorate some excruciatingly awkward racial and gender stereotypes (Asian people should probably not watch this film).

"... the only real achievement of the dialogue is that it manages to successfully reinvigorate some excruciatingly awkward racial and gender stereotypes."

Did I also mention that the screenplay is rather silly and inconsequential? And yes, although one can forgive a sci-fi fantasy film for not having the most logical and rational plot, there are quite a few gaping pot holes and inconsistencies here that make it difficult to care much for (or follow) the events that are transpiring on-screen. Not all of the film’s scenes are completely useless though – one particular scene (inspired by a famous horror film) has a highly intriguing denouement, serving as a glimmer of what this film could have been if it was given more love and attention.

There is however one level on which Ready Player One really does work. The impeccable CGI effects and the seamless integration of various digital art styles is something amazing to behold. It’s just a pity that the effort didn’t transcend further than the film’s green screens.

What all of the above mentioned culminates in is a film that is a living and breathing contradiction. Instead of being a testament to where film technology has taken the sci-fi fantasy genre, Spielberg takes the genre back a considerable amount of years, to a time where sci-fi films were almost unbearably cheesy, awkwardly ridiculous and rather lifeless. Unless you are a ridiculously massive geek that gets turned on any and all sorts of cheap in-movie references, I don’t recommend seeing this film. And oh yes, if you were wondering – this movie has not managed to change my opinion of Spielberg films.

Highlight: A cleverly creative scene inspired by a well-known horror movie is this film’s one and only highlight. 


Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Black Panther

When Thor: Ragnarok released a few months ago, the world exclaimed a massive sigh of relief, as it seemed as if the Marvel Comic Book Universe (MCU) was finally entering an upward trend. Not only was Ragnarok a welcome departure from the go-to Marvel movie tone and plot structure, but it was exciting, clever and felt fresh.

Although the success of Ragnarok was exciting, it did, however, paint a massive target on the back of the MCU movie that would follow it - would Black Panther falter along with so many MCU films before it, or rather, continue Ragnarok’s promising upward trend for MCU? The quick and easy answer is that Black Panther not only exceeds its noticeably hyped-up expectations but boldly confronted a very real, very sensitive central theme in a surprisingly considerate and creative manner.

Except for a very short cameo in one of the Captain America films, the Black Panther story arc remained completely untouched and unexplored before Black Panther’s release. Although this meant that the film couldn’t rely on the legacy or credibility of previous direct prequels, it did allow director Ryan Coogler (Creed, Fruitvale Station) to not be bogged down by the responsibility of linking and connecting his plot with the rest of the now highly convoluted Marvel Universe. And this really does show in the final finished product – the plot is fast-paced and never becomes unnecessarily intricate. Best of all, there are no characters that feel like mere unashamed product placements for other films, a crime many recent MCU films are guilty of.

Black Panther's costume design is one of the standout aspects of the film.
The impact of being able to utilise unexplored MCU material also positively influences the degree to which Black Panther’s cast can imbue the film with an intriguing sense of originality. For the most part, there are no cookie cutter character archetypes here, which makes getting to know the cast through the course of the film a true joy. Ironically enough (and perhaps this was intentional as a form of clever social commentary), but the only characters that do come over as slightly stereotypical are the non-black lead roles. It’s actually quite hard to single out one specific actor, but it’s worth highlighting Chadwick Boseman’s role as the main protagonist, Winston Duke, Angela Basset and Daniel Kaluuya. The cast does such an amazing job in highlighting the validity of their various agendas that the lines between good and evil become murky very quickly. There is also a commendable degree of character development on display here, with certain characters showcasing more personal growth during the course of this one single film than some Marvel characters do over the course of a whole lineage of Marvel movies.  

"...his respect and appreciation for African culture is clearly visible, resulting in a film that truly embodies the principles of Afrofuturism."

Coogler has also done a great job to not abuse the highly African inspired setting and cultural inspiration of his source material – his respect and appreciation for African culture is clearly visible, resulting in a film that truly embodies the principles of Afrofuturism. Some amazing CGI effects and painstakingly detailed costume work helps create a vision of an African-led future that is completely dazzling. Wakanda is the perfect marriage of new world technology and African tradition – audiences are sure to enjoy the journey of discovering this fictional land’s many wonders and surprises.

Another one of the film’s many successes are the highly thrilling and imaginative action sequences. Once again, Coogler uses the combination of African tribal traditions and futuristic technology to the film’s advantage, resulting in fight scenes that will leave your jaw on the floor. There’s also enough variety in terms of the types of confrontations that take place to fill up 2 whole Marvel movies. I saw this film in 4DX and believe me when I say that experiencing the film’s mesmerising action sequences in this format is totally mind-blowing.

But what stands out probably most about Black Panther is its highly ambitious and ballsy overall theme (which I’m not going to give away here). It’s not that Marvel movies haven’t ever before included any direct social or political commentary, but more that a Marvel movie has never addressed such a sensitive societal topic in such a direct way. Kudos goes to Coogler for addressing this highly relevant central theme in a way that showcases the complexities thereof, without allowing it to impede on the overall pace and plot of the film.

Armoured rhinos? Yes! Yes! Yes! 
Black Panther is one of those rare action films that nimbly side steps each and every genre trope and stereotype that currently plagues the genre. Add to this the fact that it’s a highly polished, well rounded and surprisingly poignant film and it shouldn’t be hard to comprehend why Black Panther confidently towers over almost every other MCU film that has come before it. Ryan Coogler and his team have set a new standard for superhero films and I actually feel sorry for the Marvel (or DC) movie that has to follow this genre-disrupting cinematic masterpiece.

Highlight: Let’s just say that the climactic final battle resulted in multiple and continuous ‘nerdgasms’ for me.


Sunday, February 11, 2018

The Shape of Water

If you’re lucky, you’ll come across a handful of films over your lifetime that redefine the way you look at movies in general. Yes, in some cases, this could be a bad thing – take 2003’s infamous Gigli as an example – a film that proved that there were new depths to the lows that a film can reach. In the case of cinematic visionary Guillermo del Toro’s latest masterpiece, Shape of Water, the ability to surprise and astonish an audience is however a really, really good thing.

Without giving anything away that you can’t already deduce from a trailer (warning, minor plot spoiler referenced throughout this review), Shape of Water tells the extremely odd, but oddly charming tale of love between a woman and an underwater humanoid-like beast. Yes, you read right: Shape of Water is a dark romantic comedy about forbidden love and its sometimes humorous, awkward and even dreadful implications.

At the surface, you can easily mistake Shape of Water for a rather whimsical and quintessentially French-inspired film with deliberate sprinkles of quaintness scattered throughout. But every time the audience is tempted to get lulled into the film’s sweetly sentimental lullaby (supported by an amazing score), del Toro provides a paradoxically melancholic staccato. Sometimes, these expertly crafted little moments of contrast are small and barely noticeable, but in other instances, they manifest as noticeably dark and even discerning plot devices. This constant shift between ‘cute’ and ‘not so cute’ teases the audience intellectually throughout the film and it’s clear that del Toro took a lot of care in delicately decorating his cinematic tapestry.

"But every time the audience is tempted to get lulled into the film’s sweetly sentimental lullaby, del Toro provides a paradoxically melancholic staccato..."

As with all great films, the director’s great ambitions are supported by a stellar cast, with Sally Hawkins (Blue Jasmine, Happy-go-lucky) leading the helm as the film’s highly intriguing protagonist. The greatest compliment I can give Hawkins is that it’s hard to imagine anyone else fulfilling this role – it really feels like the role was meant to played by Hawkins and anyone else would have done it a disservice. There’s an unbashful sincerity to Hawkin’s portrayal of the mute Eliza Esposito that is nothing short but mesmerising.

The rest of the cast is also fantastic and it would be insulting not to mention Michael Shannon’s (Nocturnal Animals) role as Strickland, one of the most infuriatingly fascinating antagonists you’ll come across. Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg and Richard Jenkins fill out the rest of the key supporting roles in expert fashion, resulting in an acting tour de force that will likely stay with you for weeks after you’ve watched the film.

The broader cast does an amazing job in fleshing out the film’s secondary themes and motives, some of which are as intriguing as the main love story that it all revolves around. And even though some of the film’s traditional character archetypes and sub-plots feel awkwardly outdated for a 2018 film (e.g. the suppression of women in the workplace, sexual discrimination), it soon becomes clear that del Toro intended for this to be the case. Del Toro is perhaps trying to remind his modern day audience (that have been desensitised to these matters) that they are still very relevant issues in today’s modern society.

Enjoying lunch and a song with a new friend.
It would also be a shame not to mention the film’s stunning visual style. When you consider that del Toro was the man responsible for the visually assaulting Pan’s Labyrinth, then it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Shape of Water is yet another visual feast for the eyes. This time around, Del Toro juxtaposes his knack for visceral visual horror with a world that feels like something taken straight out of the pages of a Disney fairy tale. This results in a hauntingly beautiful cinematic painting that is hard to compare with anything that has come before it.

To simply sum up Shape of Water as a ‘Beauty and the Beast’ for modern adult audiences, is in my opinion, underestimating its brilliance. There is a layered complexity to this enthrallingly strange film that makes it transcend anything that it might resemble on a surface level. What makes the film a true masterpiece is that it can appeal to different audiences at the same, without alienating the rest: whether you are looking for a sentimental, but slightly quirky romantic drama; or rather, a highly artistic and dark cinematic excursion, Shape of Water will take you on a journey you are unlikely to forget. 

Highlight: Any scene with Hawkins in it – take your pick.