The Sisters Brothers

Synopsis: In The Sisters Brothers, two killers are tasked by an Oregon crimelord to hunt down a prospector. The resulting story is a unique Western crafted by the director of A Prophet. Starring an ensemble cast and boasting excellent writing, this film deserves praise and attention.

The Sisters Brothers epitomises what the Western has become; a boundless frontier whose meaning is endless like the horizon across desert plains. Set in a land and a time hewn from violence and gruff masculinity, The Sisters Brothers doles out its fair share of brutality. Yet the film truly captivates in its unexpected episodes of tenderness, when men of blood and gunpowder do something still frowned upon today; they candidly discuss their inner turmoil.

The story begins as two sub plots stapled together in one generic chase across the Wild West. The Sisters Brothers are instructed to find prospector Hermann Kermit Warn, while private detective John Morris attempts to befriend Hermann and trap him for the brothers. The crux of both sub-plots is a power struggle, between naive Hermann and wily John Morris while the reserved Eli Sisters tries to keep his crazed brother Charlie at bay. The power dynamics are subliminally dripped into the viewer’s mind through visual cues. The most evident is distance, with John Morris observing Herman along the Oregon trail while Eli falters behind Charlie on horseback or watches his brother’s night-time debauchery.

What results is a tale which never follows any expectations, but never feels cheap because of it. The characters grow and change as the unpredictable occurs time and time again. The western backdrop fades away until violence and gold are replaced by family, childhood and the future. At the same time, the men who would have been deemed weak in the Wild West turn into the strongest. I particularly loved the character of Eli Sisters, phenomenally played by personal favourite John. C. Reilly. Beginning as an overly tender man desperate to lead a better life, he becomes something far more powerful and interesting than potential comedic relief. Most of the laughs in The Sisters Brothers do emanate from Charlie Sisters, played by Joaquin Phoenix. Still carrying some weight following You Were Never Really Here, Phoenix exudes a manic aura whose comedic moments are more often nervous reactions to his absurd behaviour. The film glows from a convergence of great writing and great acting, with the duo of Jake Gyllenhaal and Riz Ahmed portraying Morris and Herman in a strange mirror image of the titular sisters brothers.

Directed by Jacques Audiard, The Sisters Brothers is visually competent while being peppered with scenes of stunning brilliance. The opening shot of a secluded Oregon farm slowly filters from pitch black to the swirling grey fog of a Monet painting as buildings and men are contrasted by gunfire. Audiard’s focus in the film is on his plot and his actors, but he still finds occasions to flex his craftmanship with a camera.

After a long spell away from the cinema, The Sisters Brothers is delightful welcome back to film.

By Saul Shimmin

 

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The Favourite

1.5 out of 5 (poor)

In the three weeks since I watched The Favourite, I have realised that it is a truly awful film. Overdrawn in length, underdeveloped in its story and lacking any distinct creativeness, The Favourite does not feel like a film made by director Yorgos Lanthimos.

Drowning under a bevy of Oscar nominations, The Favourite is certainly living up to its name across cinema’s award lists. However, I was overwhelmingly disappointed by the whole affair. Compared to Lanthimos’ earlier films which both entertain and incite further thought, The Favourite was empty.

Divided into five acts, The Favourite is a hollow shell of spectacle and romp that amounts to nothing. The film fits into the bland period dramas which circulate across British television and are designed for middle-aged viewers to fall asleep to.  Fixing its gaze on the typical British obsession with the aristocracy and their debauched behaviour The Favourite recounts the rise of lowly noble girl Abigail (Emma Stone) as she ingratiates herself with Queen Anne (Olivia Colman). At the same time as Abigail power grows, Queen Anne’s depression and her lesbian affair with Lady Sarah Marlborough (Rachel Weisz) is revealed.

The Favourite’s more interesting aspects are its study of Queen Anne and her relationship with Lady Sarah. Possibly scarred by post-natal depression, Queen Anne’s bouts of mania are denoted by the camera’s switch to a fish eye lens as her mind, or the strain of power itself, visually warps her reality. For the supreme ruler of England, Anne melts back into childhood while around Sarah who never truly reveals whether her affair with the queen is for love or for power.

For all its positives, The Favourite is exceptionally boring for the bulk of its run-time. Concluding Abigail’s arc by act three, The Favourite  pointlessly continues for another two acts. There is neither consequence nor catharsis in act four or five of The Favourite. Nothing happens in these two extra acts, which were either created for Lanthimos’ vanity or as DVD features which then slipped into the film. I lost all patience with The Favourite’s flat humour and its overwhelming focus on the oddities of Stuart England. Abigail’s rise is foreseeable from the start, and besides the odd joke The Favourite consists of conversations chock full of antiquated language, lavish parties, and noblemen marching across the same corridor to Queen Anne’s apartments.

Emma Stone cements her position through The Favourite as one of Hollywood’s most overrated actresses. Arriving to Hampton Court flustered and muddied, her English accent is a curdling impression of received pronunciation, embodying the narrow worldview many Americans have of England being London, green fields, Mary Poppins and cockneys. I did not stop wincing at Stone’s accent because she improved, but because everything else in the film worsened.

Do not bother with The Favourite. 

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below

 

Destroyer

Rating: 5 out of 5 (classic)

Washed up detective Erin Bell (Nicole Kidman) begins a hunt for Silas (Toby Kebbell), a bank robber from Erin’s past who haunts her present.

Director Karyn Kusama and writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi have created a brooding detective film through L.A spanning loss, love, regret and revenge. Bristling waves of momentum push Erin towards Silas across the grime and glamour of Los Angeles’ many faces, becoming a circular loop in time of obsession and pain. Beautifully directed and accompanied by a score full of sombre organ bellows and moaning bass cries, Destroyer overflows with urban alienation and melancholy.

Nicole Kidman delivers her greatest performance as Erin Bell, whose life both past and present, personal and professional is vivisected before the audience. Erin transcends from rough cop to victim and then to something entirely else. Kidman’s gruff demeanour, stooped shoulders and limping gait meld with her prosthetics into a character crippled by the pain of the world. Kidman propels Erin’s fixation with Silas into something mythical, with flashes of  his visage transforming him into a supernatural figure.

The story is an intricate enigma that buries a dark truth. The plot’s layers and revelations naturally melt away into an unforeseen twist which changes the film’s perspective. It is a testament to Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi that despite its complexity, Destroyer always feels like one woman’s ceaseless desire to absolve her past choices.

Kidman is complimented by an astounding cast of actors, both known and unknown to most audiences. Sebastian Stan as fellow undercover cop Chris, and Bradley Whitford as scuzzy lawyer diFranco are Destroyer’s best supporting actors.

Nothing akin to Destroyer has been seen in American crime films since Heat. This truly is one of the best films of 2019.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

Glass

2.5 out of 5 (okay)

Glass is a disappointing end to M Night Shyamalan’s refraction of superheroes into the everyday. The engrossing beginning of Glass and its refreshing return to Unbreakable’s David Dunn peters out into a babble of pseudo-psychology and philosophy as this ‘realistic’ rendition of superheroes bends logic ever further. A last minute twist designed out of desperation sours Glass’ climax.

From his best to his worst, M Night Shyamalan founds his films upon an interesting premise, yet he often struggles to convert his ideas into a cohesive and compelling story arc. Removed from the tight constrictions of Split, Shyamalan visibly grapples in Glass to realise the story in his head. The tone of Glass is an even return to characters and themes of Shyamalan’s Unbreakable while also slotting in Split’s antagonist Kevin Wendel Crumb (James McAvoy).

Once the main characters are assembled in a Philadelphia mental institute, Glass stalls as the viewers wait for the inevitable clash between good and evil. The film treads for a whole act through exposition and Shyamalan’s watery construction of heroes existing in the real word. Although the second act remains enjoyable, it is not improved by Sarah Paulson’s automaton-like performance as Dr. Ellie Staple. Paulson’s character exists as a glaring plot device which either spoons exposition to the audience or repeats that ‘hero delusions’ are on the rise.

The final act’s potential to redeem Glass is spoiled by an unannounced twist which is not even faintly hinted at through the film. The twist, thrust upon the viewer and outside Glass’ events, upends both the film itself and the events of Unbreakable. Personally, the twist felt like an excuse by Shyamalan for his own poor writing, which from Dr. Ellie Staple’s goal of curing three protagonists in three days to Mr. Glass’ antics, reeks of stupidity.

What must be praised about Glass is its direction and the performances of James McAvoy, Samuel L. Jackson, Bruce Willis.  The fight scenes are quite superb, with the first brawl between David Dunn and Kevin Crumb being an eerie evocation of Split’s finale. The final battle inventively switches between recorded footage and first person perspectives to really immerse the audience. Each of Glass’s protagonists, much like the colour schemes for comic book heroes, are denoted by their own pastel colours which adds liveliness and eeriness to their meetings in the mental institute. Samuel L. Jackson and James McAvoy gleefully return to their villainous roles, but I loved witnessing Bruce Willis as David Dunn once more. Shamefully Dunn becomes lost in Shyamalan’s focus on the villains.

Speaking as a long time fan of Unbreakable, I enjoyed most of Glass but still felt largely disappointed by Shyamalan’s treatment of his past works.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

The Dead Room

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 (okay)

Veteran voice actor and narrator of ‘The Dead Room’ radio show, Aubrey Judd, returns to his old BBC recording studio. Yet more than happy memories wait for Aubrey in his old haunt.

There is a tradition, a very English and Victorian tradition, of telling ghost stories upon Christmas Eve. It was this tradition which spurred M. R. James, grandfather of the genre, to create ghost stories for his students at Cambridge University. Later published in printed collections, M. R. James’ works fed into the stories of H. P. Lovecraft and Stephen King. Yet while Lovecraft’s cosmic horror and Stephen King’s unique voice predominate pop culture, ghost stories have begun to fade away. The BBC did adapt many ghost stories into made-for-television films through its A Ghost Story for Christmas series which sadly ended in the late 1970’s. Luckily a brief revival in the series occurred during my early teens, when I was terrified one Christmas Eve by M. R. James’ Number 13.

The premise of Mark Gatiss’ The Dead Room reflects the state of the ghost story in modern times, relegated to radio and lamenting better days. The Dead Room acts as a  meta narrative about the archetypal ghost story descended from M. R. James and asks whether the genre remains relevant. Dialogue between Aubrey Judd and radio producer Tara highlight the ghost story’s transition from following over-curious English academics to more personal narratives of past trauma and guilt.

The Dead Room is a fitting analysis of the ghost story but fails to be fundamentally scary. Beyond the immediate frights and flitting tension, The Dead Room lacks the lingering dread of prior tales in the BBC’s tradition of ghost stories for Christmas. Ghost stories need time to build up to their terrifying crescendo and let fear seep into the viewer. The Dead Room’s brief time-span forces the story to hurtle along, robbing the tale of any sting as it concludes events.

The Dead Room’s cinematography plays well within the confines of the BBC’s cramped recording studio and the cast all deliver consistent performances. Yet the tale’s brevity, and Mark Gatiss’ insistence to show his understanding of ghost stories, makes The Dead Room feel like a clumsy addition into A Ghost Story for Christmas.

It is warming to see that the ghost story tradition is not quite dead so to speak, but future adaptations should look to Jeremy Dyson’s Ghost Stories to understand how the ghost story can adapt.

By Saul Shimmin

The Dead Room is available now on BBC iplayer

 

Nightcrawler: a lack of feeling

Nightcrawler begins oddly. The film’s protagonist, Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), is introduced to viewers while he steals wire fencing. Apprehended by a security guard, Lou notices the guard’s watch and kills him for it. In most anti-hero stories, the spectator is supposed to connect with the lead character. Typically given some tragic back story, the anti-hero usually begins as a normal enough person who starts committing crimes. The anti-hero’s moral fall also heralds their rise towards success, while the spectator cheers the anti-hero on. Symbolising complete freedom from law and morality, the anti-hero lets the spectator live vicariously in a world absent from consequences and everyday constraints. Yet in Nightcrawler’s Lou Bloom nothing can be found resembling the typical anti-hero. Stripped of a backstory and absent of any redeeming qualities Lou Bloom simply arrives into Nightcrawler. Devoid of any moral scruples, no excuses are ever afforded to Lou. Any initial impressions of Lou being an overly desperate man fades as he preys upon others during his rise to the top.

Dispassionate towards its own protagonist, Nightcrawler eschews the traditional anti-hero structure of a flawed character study. Instead Nightcrawler examines the forces which allow Lou Bloom to flourish; capitalism and modern media. What binds the pair together in Nightcrawler’s world is a shared lack of empathy for anything.

Capitalism, characterised by Lou Bloom himself, masquerades behind the language of ambition. Nightcrawler’s opening scene preordains Bloom’s entry into the nightcrawler profession of recording disasters. From a security guard’s watch to ATMs and luxury cars Lou scours L.A for opportunities to exploit until his arrival, by way of a recent car crash, into the nightcrawling trade. From there Lou Bloom commits depravity after depravity to excel in his new career; justifying each new descent with a coldly twisted rationale of business savvy, market demand, and motivational speaking. Lou’s behaviour is naked capitalism in action. He finds a market where he can sell a service and takes any measure to beat his competition. The tragedies that Lou manipulates into fruition is his creation of a product, another part of his nightcrawler service to the ever-needy news networks.

Lou’s ruthlessness is only matched by the media networks purchasing his disaster footage. In green rooms and editing booths, the same news networks projecting concern for local citizens are addicted to the disasters they peddle. Each news bulletin of catastrophe is an overcompensating display of empathy.  In the background the networks tailor each new tragedy into a demographically targeted narrative, which push the boundaries ever further to shock viewers and boost their ratings.

The symbiotic relationship between media and capitalism in Nightcrawler points to a society which has gone numb; hooked on the cathartic sting of fresh tragedy to give it any facsimile of feeling.

By Saul Shimmin

Nightcrawler is available on Netflix for subscribers in the U.K and the film’s trailer is below:

Dark City

Rating: 5 out of 5 (classic)

In an anonymous city plunged eternally in night, ordinary citizen John Murdoch (Rufus Sewell) awakes to find his memories are gone. Suffering from amnesia, Murdoch’s quest to discover his past makes him a target for the police and the vampire like ‘strangers’.

Saddled by an ambitious narrative, Dark City struggles against a plot which can be both scant in detail and overly complex. Dark City does succeed in crafting a coherent conclusion which mainly clarifies the entanglement of plot threads. The likely reason behind Dark City’s limited success in 1998 is the film’s reluctance to guide viewers. The mystery of the strangers and the city’s existence are surreptitiously inserted through Dark City’s beginning. Director Alex Proyas frames information before the camera, but it is the viewer’s responsibility to pick out the answers. Each clue, so sparingly given, do coalesce into a clear web of logic upon retrospective viewing. Attentive viewers will notice the repetition of swirling circles and the changes across characters as their memories are altered by the nefarious strangers time and time again.

Despite Dark City’s weaknesses, director Alex Proyas and production designer Patrick Tatopoulos have conjured a benighted cityscape dreamed up from Kafka, Raymond Chandler and Metropolis. Borrowing dashes from film noir, science-fiction and German expressionism, Proyas’ use of scale affronts the viewer with a world as convincingly real as Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Proyas’ concise editing and focus on minute details breathes life into this strange city full of secrets. Some of the special effects are decrepit compared to modern CGI, but Dark City consistently feels like our world if it was bound in ethereal strangeness.

The heart of Dark City queries the essence of the human self. In a city whose memories are the results of experiments, is man a malleable material shaped by his past, or does he have within him the bedrock of a soul? Dark City focuses this debate in John Murdoch, a blank slate bestowed with a reality warping power enjoyed by the strangers. John Murdoch’s empowerment is connected to his own dawning consciousness, an identity created around love. It is John’s connection with love interest Emma Murdoch (Jennifer Connelly) which sparks his individuality in a city of guinea pigs. John’s enlightenment is symbolised by him being the sole man who remains awake as the strangers change the city. Dark City never outright answers its own debate or its surrounding mysteries. The conclusion yields neither tangible happiness nor any clear answers. Instead the viewer only receives more questions, much like life itself.

British actor Rufus Sewell struggles at first to convey an American accent, but that is the only fault in an otherwise excellent cast. Jennifer Connelly, William Hurt and Crystal Maze presenter Richard O’Brien deliver great performances in their respective roles. Perhaps the best among the cast is Kiefer Sutherland as Dr Schreber. From his affected limp and panting pattern of speech to his costume design, Sutherland imbues intrigue into his character’s shadowy past.

For fans of thought provoking science fiction, Dark City is well worth multiple viewings.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

Sorry to Bother you

Rating: 4 out of 5 (excellent)

In an alternate depiction of Oakland, California, struggling African American Cassius Green (Lakeith Standfield) lands a telemarketing job where he discovers his ability to project a white voice to customers.

Nicknamed ‘Cash Green’, Cassius Green’s rise from lowly telemarketer to peddler of slave labour unveils the nature of capitalism. At its worst capitalism is a god demanding the sacrifice of the poor and the weak while revelling in its own excesses. From self-motivational nonsense spewed by mangers to the evangelical quest for profit extolled by CEO Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), capitalism never stops demanding more.

Cassius Green’s own position in Sorry to Bother you splits between race and capitalism. Sadly Sorry to Bother you’s commentary about race is blotted out by director Boots Riley’s focus on the cost of neo-liberalism. Yet Cassius’ rise to a power caller among telemarketers is an indication of what African Americans sacrifice to succeed. They must jettison their identity and become a safe caricature to their white compatriots much like Get Out’s plot.

Sorry to Bother you’s plot problematically dissolves into an erratic series of fits and starts, but its conclusion is an uncomfortable vision of where our profit driven culture will lead to. Plenty of jokes appear in the film, but Sorry to Bother you is far from the dark comedy sold by its trailers. The film’s latter half discards all humour and becomes a grim spectacle to behold. Sorry to Bother you will be supped upon by film academics, but viewers should be wary that it diverges from its own advertisements while playing loose with traditional narratives. Moreover many of the jokes within Sorry to Bother you are scathingly quick and can only be appreciated by viewers who have suffered dead-end office jobs.

The most important question asked in Sorry to Bother you is whether art is a conduit for social change or if it is just another commodity. This query unfolds through Cassius’ girlfriend Detroit (Tessa Thompson), a radical artist who lambasts capitalism. Detroit’s Banksy inspired graffiti defaces the adverts of mega company WorryFree, who run a series of work houses for the poor. Cassius later finds one of Detroit’s works within the house of Worry Free’s own CEO Steve Lift, now ripped from a wall and framed in gold. Detroit derides Cassius for losing his own identity and helping WorryFree sell slave labour, yet she too uses a white voice to narrate her exhibition, diminishing her message against exploitation.

An unpolished art-house attack on our modern times, Sorry to Bother you has its problems, but it will make viewers see uncomfortable realities long unaddressed.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Rating: 4 out of 5 (excellent)

Set in alternate reality to the normal universe where Spider-Man unfolds, teenager Miles Morales is bitten by a radioactive spider and must take up the mantle of Spider-Man as a new threat menaces to collapse the multiverse.

Contrasted to previous live action adaptations of Spider-Man, it would be easy to dismiss Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse as an animated direct-to-video film which had snuck into cinemas. In fact Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a refreshing take on the superhero while also introducing mainstream audiences to Mile Morales, a well-established character in the Spider-Man comics.

Vibrant and hemmed together with cell shading, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse deliberately plays up to the goofiness of comic books with a knowing wink towards the fourth wall. By embracing its innate silliness much like Mystery Men, Into the Spider-Verse achieves the feat reached by no other film sporting Marvel superheroes. Into the Spider-Verse effortlessly flits between levity and a serious exploration of the human behind the mask. Miles Morales’ journey is all too relatable. A young teenager placed in a new high school, Miles Morales feels out of place and uncertain that he can succeed. Given opportunities never afforded to his parents or his larger family, Miles also grapples with his own self-doubt about whether he can live up to the expectations put upon him. Despite its cartoon background, Into the Spider-Verse remains a remarkably down to earth and human tale.

The central element of Spider-Man, of a young teenager being bitten by a spider and gaining new powers, has always been an allegory for puberty. Spider-Man’s struggle to cope with his powers is a reflection of our own journey to adapt from childhood to adulthood as our minds play catch-up with our rapidly morphing bodies. Into the Spider-Verse is the most convincing rendition of Spider Man’s central theme of becoming an adult. It was clear in the live action versions of Spider Man that the actors playing Peter Parker were twenty-somethings blessed with youthful faces. The live action films of Spider Man had young looking protagonists, but they always had the Hollywood sense of ease which an awkward teenager never holds. Disembodied from his voice actor Shameik Moore, Miles Morales truly feels like a young man struggling to adapt to the ordinary and extraordinary aspects of his life.

The villains of Into the Spider-Verse offer some new depictions of Spider-Man’s rogue gallery, but Into the Spider-Verse shines through its bevy of spider-men. Voiced by a stellar cast, favourites were Jake Johnson as flawed and unlucky Peter B. Parker and Nicholas Cage as the hilarious Spider-Man Noir. Cage’s delivery of Spider-Man Noir’s dialogue, all spun straight from pulp detective novels, provides some quick witted mirth for any adults in the audience.

Younger viewers will enjoy the film’s gags and its action-laced plot, but Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse offers story arcs and humour that all audiences can appreciate. For viewers who became disinterested in Spider-Man after the Sam Raimi films, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse might just rekindle your interest in the character.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

Mandy

Rating: 3 out of 5 (good)

Set in 1983 among the unnamed forests of the North Western U.S, Mandy follows gruff logger Red (Nicolas Cage) as an eerie cult leader becomes obsessed with his wife Mandy (Andrea Riseborough). The film is a psychedelic pastiche of 1980’s aesthetics intermingled with Lynchian absurdism and exploitation flicks.

Mandy is contrived for prescribed tastes. The film’s design and events will appeal to followers of Nicolas Cage, 1980’s films and David Lynch. For other viewers Mandy is an enjoyable film which attempts to balance the supernatural alongside a revenge quest. The supernatural aspects of Mandy which dominate the film’s first sixty minutes are superbly crafted. The film is scored by pock marks of visible grain while scenes are swathed in lens flare or stained by colour tints. Strange objects and rituals by the cult seem to be the nightmare spawn of the very pulp fantasy novel Mandy herself enjoys on screen. The cult’s biker gang of enforcers, all heavily inspired by Hellraiser, terrifyingly suggest that cult leader Jeremiah Sand (Linus Roache) may have powers after all. Then Mandy is subjected to one scene which dispels all allusions and plonks the plot straight into the well-worn territory of a revenge tale.

Despite a delightfully strange encounter between Red and an LSD dealer later on, Mandy’s supernatural elements devolve into dressing for Red’s quest for retribution. Mandy descends down a particular path which has been better covered by films such as Blue Ruin. Mandy is also plagued later on by details which sadly push the film towards the farcical. Red suffers a fatal wound yet marches on, calmly forging a ridiculous axe and then slices his way through foes. Red’s transformation from blue collar worker to avenging angel panders to the mad persona affiliated online with Nicolas Cage. Only Cage’s devoted performance stops whole sections becoming ripe meme fodder. Mandy remains enjoyable even if audiences become detached from the film’s ridiculousness.

Mandy cannot be damned however for its visuals or its cast. The film faultlessly replicates the feel of John Carpenter films from the 1980’s, as well as borrowing from Manhunter and other contemporary thrillers and horror films. The film is not devoid of uniqueness, with director Panos Cosmatos’ use of lighting, colour and animation converging into an ethereal film of strangeness.  The cast all commit to their roles, with cult members being particularly creepy. Besides Nicolas Cage, Linus Roache is alarming as he displays two symbiotic personalities living inside cult leader Jeremiah.

Mandy is a commendable ode to the grime and the gore of 1970’s and 1980’s cinema, but it is also fairly flawed.

By Saul Shimmin

Two movie buffs readying to conquer the world.