All posts by titlerollreviews

Two postgrads on two separate continents talking about films like we should be making them. Maybe one day we will.

Menashe

Rating: 3 out 5 (good)

Director: Joshua Z Weinstein

Cast: Menashe Lustig, Yoel Falkowitz, Ruben Niborski, Meyer Schwartz, Yoel Weisshaus, Ariel Vaysman

Synopsis: Following the loss of his wife, Menashe (Menashe Lustig) is a man bearing the brunt of the world. Loathed by his family and belittled by his peers and his boss, Menahse struggles to find his place in New York’s Hasidic Jewish community. Menahse’s attempts to be with his son, who is kept at arm’s length by Menashe’s brother-in-law Eizik (Yoel Weisshaus), finds resistance in a community where being single is frowned upon.

How many different worlds walk alongside ours, invisibly existing until suddenly they materialise. Opening with a pan of everyday New York foot traffic, Menashe blends into the ordinary crowd until noticing his formal clothes belong to the 19th century. Menashe’s theme is hermetically contained in this opening shot. It is the flickering clash between Menashe and the crowd, a thread of ordinary problems amid a life starkly different from our own. Widowed and struggling to cope, Menashe suffers a dead end job beneath a vexing manager. Compared to the rigidity and stoicism of his peers and family, Menasche’s warmth is mistaken for foolishness, and only appreciated by his son Rieven (Ruben Niborski).

Entering into the Hasidic community both rivets and detracts. Having grown up orbiting around a nuclear family, I saw in Menashe the strengths of an actual community. Menashe is connected to something greater, a group bonded together by religion. Yet under those same strings I would certainly choke. Religion in Menasche’s community is a 24 hour procedure encroaching every facet of life and smothering any choice. Concepts within the Hasidic community were complete anathema to me, disconnecting me from it and Menasche. It is to the credit of the director and his two fellow writers, Alex Lipschultz and Musa Syeed, that they depicted the society so openly.

Despite my criticisms , the disparity between my world and Menashe jolts the film with an undercurrent of tension. From conversations at the local synagogue, Menashe’s world is cleaved by a thin divide between piety and apostasy, and Menashe subtly teeters between the two. Atop of this tension are glimmers where Menashe seems poised to break from his community. To see another human soul pitted against such odds and try to change their situation is Menashe’s power, connecting me to a man so unlike myself. Another powerful pull is the very real relationship between Menashe and  his son Rieven. Both share love and loss together. Rieven like all sons do, begins to challenge his father, changing their dynamic and increasing Menashe’s woes.

Menashe’s small budget and the director’s past work in documentaries leads to a film which is visually solid but reflects its lack of funds. Bearing a mainly documentary style of wide outdoor shots and an intense focus on individuals when indoors. There are symbolic devices of brilliance in Menashe’s ponderous moments of silence. I felt a particular poignancy when Menashe, alone in the local baths, places his head below the water and sinks back into his community. It is the solid writing and excellent performances which hold Menashe together. Yoel Weisshaus as Menashe’s brother-in-law Eizek really plays up to his role as Menashe’s antagonist, beating him down no matter the circumstances. Menashe Lustig as Menashe has a gregarious warmth which pairs well with his son’s playfulness.

Menashe’s slow pace mixed with its entrancing religious score reflects the central character’s inner turmoil, but the film drags in its final act. It is an unfortunate flaw which made me wish for Menashe to end in the last 15 minutes, undercutting the story’s resonance.

What Menashe attests to is the power of story, to find those universal emotions transcending background and race. It is a maxim that A24, as a film company, clearly understands. Over the past year A24 has released films from A Ghost Story to The Florida Project which are different, which have pushed my tastes and ultimately changed what I expect from cinema.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi [Film Review with Spoilers]

Film Score: 2 out of 5 (Below Average)

Cast: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Benicio Del Toro, Oscar Isaac, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Domhnall Gleeson, & Laura Dern

Director: Rian Johnson

Synopsis: Taking place directly after the events of The Force AwakensThe Last Jedi encompasses three story lines: the First Order who is attempting to vanquish the dwindling Resistance forces, the Resistance who is struggling for survival, and Rey who has located Luke Skywalker and is beseeching him to train her in the ways of the Force. All the major characters return from the The Force Awakens sans Han Solo (pour one out for the galaxy’s best smuggler). The Last Jedi runs for a two hours and a half making it the longest movie in the Star Wars saga. Sadly, that is not a good thing.

——————– Spoilers Ahead ——————–

 

 

 

Some people have praised Rian Johnson for taking Star Wars in a new direction. But I ask, did the movie even leave its docking station? The plot largely rotated around the First Order hunting down the Resistance’s remaining forces who were packed into three vessels that were running out of fuel. This meant that the Resistance could only stay outside of the First Order’s short range fighters (which for some reason did more damage to the Resistance fleet than the First Order armada’s heavy artillery? I think this was due to the fact that their TIE fighters could penetrate the Resistance’s shields?). This charade continued for two thirds of the movie. I kept wondering if the First Order lost the the plans to the Empire’s tractor beam technology. The Death Star sucked in the Millennium Falcon while the space station was so far away it appeared to be just a small moon. Even if the tractor beam wasn’t strong enough to pull in Leia’s smaller vessels, couldn’t Snoke’s flagship stall them? Or could the First Order not hail one of their dreadnoughts? Hyperspace jumps only take an hour or so. I realize I may appear to be arguing a trivial point, but THE ENTIRE MOVIE revolved around this chase. It bored me and removed “the fun” that so many people love in Star Wars films .

I longed for the scenes on Ahch-To, the planet where Luke hid for the entirety of The Force Awakens (TFA). On the planet, Luke slowly caves to Rey’s wishes to train her. This plot line held the most promise, yet turned out to be the most disappointing. In Rey’s first lesson in the Force, Luke asks her to feel it in all its vastness. Rey sees the Light side, the energy of the Force, every place it resides, and finally, she sees the Dark side. It reaches out to her and she immediately heeds its call. Her failure to resist its beckoning frightens Luke and it gave me hope this movie would not be a knock off of The Empire Strikes Back as TFA largely mimicked A New Hope. Rey going to the Dark side or at least testing the waters of the darkness with the possibility of Kylo turning to the Light would lead to new territory for Star Wars. However, this plot line never formed. Instead, when Rey journeyed to the place on the island where the Dark side resided it turned out to be an infinite mirror that failed (or refused?) to tempt Rey. That’s not the Dark side that existed in previous entries into the Star Wars canon. The Dark side always tempts. It makes Force-sensitive beings long for their darkest or most selfish desires. I also hoped (even though it would be a copy of Empire) that Rey would face a trial in Dark side pit like the test Luke faced in the cave on Dagobah.

luke v vaderYoda testing Luke in The Empire Strikes Back

There were many other aspects that irked me about The Last Jedi. I felt the concept of Leia surviving a proton torpedo, space, and then unconsciously Force pulling herself to safety was ridiculous and it looked even more silly watching it. The movie’s humor elicited laughter from me and everyone in the theater, but seconds after the laughter quieted, I realized it pulled away from the gravity of certain scenes. The one at the top of my mind was Poe’s “I’ll hold for Hux” that occurred at the outset of the movie. It subtracted from the fact that the diversion he was creating was saving the entire Resistance movement. I read one review that stated, “If the characters in the movie cannot take these life and death situations seriously, how is the audience supposed to?” I felt the film’s humor that also arose in TFA seemed more in the vein of a Marvel film. That’s not to say I disliked all the humor. I thought Chewie chowing down on a roasted porg as its former brethren looked on was fitting and hilarious (Yes, I liked the Porgs. No, they did not subtract from the film the way the Ewoks and Jar-Jar unhappily diverted my attention away from previous films’ plots.).

Snoke. Why did Johnson have to kill off Snoke so soon? I thought he was one of the more brilliant creations of J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan from TFA. He raised questions like who is he? How’d he find Kylo? How’d he come to become Supreme Leader of the First Order? What’s his role with the Knights of Ren? What happened to the Knights anyways? Some naysayers may counter that audiences seeing Return of the Jedi never got that satisfaction with Emperor Palpatine. Unlike Palpatine, learning more about Snoke would have driven the plot and helped me better understand Kylo’s motivations to turn to the Dark side. Sure, Snoke tempted him after he fled Luke’s Jedi academy, but how did Snoke learn Kylo’s heritage and make him want to succeed his grandfather? One of my friends pointed out to me that killing Snoke in this film will allow Kylo (a highly conflicted character) to lead the First Order, something never before seen in the Star Wars saga. I agree, this could potentially be an exciting point, but I still feel cheated by Snoke’s quick death.

Now, what I’m about to say next some will accuse me of heresy, but it needs to be said. One of the elements that was instrumental in making the original trilogy iconic was John Williams score. However, in this film, besides his old themes (i.e. Luke’s theme, the opening crawl, etc.) his songs started to sound generic. I don’t know if he’s getting too old or if he was as bored with the film as I was, but I found his newer themes lacking.

The moment where The Last Jedi truly lost me happened when Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) “saved” Finn as he was trying to sacrifice himself so the Resistance could escape the clutches of the First Order. After “saving him, she gave some speech that sounded ridiculous and is currently eluding me but roughly it was “We have to live otherwise our cause is for naught.”  If Luke hadn’t shown up, by saving Finn she would have handed over the remainder of the Resistance to the First Order, which undercuts her speech. In both scenarios someone was going to die, yet with her interference, she consigned her brethren to almost certain death.

The Last Jedi was not a total loss. I loved the fact that Johnson brought back Yoda (thankfully the non-CGI Yoda from Empire) and I thought the advice he gave Luke was timely. The Force tunnel between Rey and Kylo was a new use of the Force and allowed the two characters to bond and show some of their weaknesses. Thank god Adam Driver is in this film. He brings sympathy to Kylo’s struggle, showing the character’s turmoil to make the right choices in light of masters who betray him. The hyperspace attack by Laura Dern’s character Vice Admiral Holdo was visually stunning and gloriously captured. The pinnacle of the movie was Rey and Kylo’s lightsaber fight with Snoke’s Praetorian guard and Kylo’s decision to stay in the Dark side immediately after. I don’t think there has been a more kickass fight in the history of Star Wars.

Sadly, these elements were not enough for me to enjoy The Last Jedi. By the end, I felt like the Resistance: beaten down with a poor outlook on the future. To be completely honest, I don’t care what happens to any of these characters in Episode IX. The Last Jedi sucked the fun out of Star Wars. Hopefully, Solo will win me back. If you enjoyed the film more than me, and want to read a positive review, Saul thoroughly enjoyed it. You can read his review here.

By Hagood Grantham

For trailer, see below.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi Review (Positive with No Spoilers)

Film Score: 4 out of 5 (Excellent)

Director: Rian Johnson

Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fischer, Oscar Isaacs, Andy Serkis, Gwendoline Christie, Domhall Gleeson, Laura Dern, Beneicio Del Toro, Kelly Marie Tran, Anthony Daniels

Synopsis: Immediately after The Force Awakens, the Galactic Republic is no more following the use of Starkiller Base’s superweapon. Hounded by the superior power of the First Order, the Resistance is a remnant struggling for survival. Against this backdrop, Rey (Daisy Ridley) struggles to adapt to her new powers despite finding Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill).

A film’s purpose is to push the audience, to guide us into the unexpected and therein find resonance with the tale. The Last Jedi does its job very well. Pushing the viewer between dismay and revelation, The Last Jedi leaves you in awe when the credits roll. Upending characters, uprooting expectations and ladened with twists, The Last Jedi is a stark contrast to The Force Awaken’s recycled nostalgia. The grandiose orchestra between good versus evil which has been Star War’s hallmark is sidelined. In its stead, The Last Jedi is a thread of different characters’ parallel journeys between the past and the future. Rian Johnson’s focus on characters moulds The Last Jedi into a film not seen before in Star Wars.  

A bold departure from the franchise’s foundations, The Last Jedi will be praised for its maturity and originality in the years to come. In the present, Rian Johnson’s choices will disgruntle and divide fans expecting a rehash. An absence of answers to questions raised two years ago will cause many, myself included, to feel cheated by differing degrees . Viewers of Looper will notice Rian Johnson’s repeated error of focusing on characters over plot details. This mistake pushes The Last Jedi to commit the worst sin of The Star Wars prequels, outright omissions and references to unknown past events which steal away much needed exposition. The differing fate of two major characters at The Last Jedi’s conclusion veers away from the rest of the film’s commitment to originality. Yet in the moment of viewing, all misgivings dissolve away in the rush of pure adventure amid a galaxy far, far away.

I watched the original Star Wars trilogy on VHS. I remember The Return of the Jedi beginning as the tape unspooled in the machine. Luke Skywalker appeared and  I knew he would be victorious. Silent and collected, draped in the black attire of a Jedi, Skywalker emanated an invulnerability and a purpose regardless of his surroundings. The Last Jedi swipes away all certainties. Every character is conflicted, their purpose tested and their perceptions of the world ultimately changed. From Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaacs) to Luke Skywalker, The Last Jedi is a lesson taught across different characters about what strength, weakness, and success really mean. Through this lesson, the characters learn who they really are. Atop this moment of conviction or failure is layer of moral ambiguity alongside a willingness to kill off characters.

Despite the desperate times humour pervades The Last Jedi.  A lot of the gags bear Johnson’s hand as his previous film Looper does have its laughs. Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron have their expected comedic moments but more unexpected jokes come from Luke and Leia (Carrie Fisher). Leia’s interactions with Poe as both teacher and friend have their chuckles. Luke has the goofy kookiness of an exile which Yoda displayed in The Empire Strikes Back. Part of Luke’s comedy comes from Rian Johnson letting Mark Hamill be himself, especially when he interacts with his old droid companions.

From extras to old favourites, every actor and actress excels in their role. Adam Driver bears a menacing teenage angst as Kylo Ren, without wallowing in the self pity which rendered Anakin Skywalker needlessly morose. Some of my favourite moments in The Last Jedi were the exchanges between Snoke (Andy Serkis) and Kylo Ren. Unlike the originals which did not develop the relationship between Darth Vader and the Emperor; Snoke treates Kylo as a student, offering him kernels of wisdom between rebukes. Growing up watching Batman cartoons and others, only to discover Mark Hamill was behind many of the voices, proved to me that he was a great actor. The Last Jedi will prove to many beyond the cartoon world that Hamill is just as good as any major star today.

Only one character falls flat despite the actress’ great performance. The character Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) and her arc underscore my personal issue with The Last Jedi, that Rian Johnson’s voice is bookended by J.J.Abrams and Disney. The overlap creates a disjointed transition between two directors creating different films with no shared source material. Atop of this is Disney ultimately dictating events. Following a spectacular opening space battle which may be Johnson’s best visual work, Rose arrives. Throughout her arc, Rose exudes an artifice, a clear purpose to create emotion and add meaning. Despite the actress’ attempts Rose never feels genuine, feeling more like a mouthpiece for what we are supposed to feel rather being a real person. This is contrasted by DJ (Benecio Del Toro), a character introduced in the same plot who with fewer words, conveys what he is meant to yet still belongs to this universe. Rose’s conclusion and its effect on The Last Jedi, while building on Johnson’s themes, were an artificial insertion preparing for the final instalment. Rather than bind me closer to the story, Rose’s purpose as an emotional device intermittently brought back all disbelief.

Certain moments in The Last Jedi were clear attempts to prepare for episode IX, with one scene causing me to cackle and remember I was in a small cinema screen full of people requiring cough medicine. Beyond Rose are a lack of answers to mysteries from The Force Awakens. Major plot details gain no explanation and earlier details from prior films are overlooked. Yet The Last Jedi never feels threadbare. Johnson’s talent for characters and visual knack distracts from the flaws until the film ends.

Looper had a visual imagery grounded in the minute which weaved into the past and the future of the story. In The Last Jedi, Johnson’s attentiveness imbues Star Wars with a vividness close to Blade Runner. Surveying every payload in a rebel bomber during the opening battle immerses you in this grand scale event. Johnson’s use of wide angle lenses and inclusion of the actors’ full body in the frame gave lightsaber battles a fluid poetry. Never have these alien lands felt so real.

I am giving The Last Jedi 4 out of 5 stars. Rian Johnson had the onerous task of the new trilogy, to go beyond the old and forge something new. Star Wars is moving beyond George Lucas, transcending what we expect from the franchise. When episode IX releases, The Last Jedi can be praised as middle chapter in Star Wars’ new generation.

For those who have seen the film and disagree with my review, Hagood’s reaction was the complete opposite to mine. It can be read here.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

Good Time

Film Score: 5 out 5 (Classic)

Director: Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie

Cast: Benny Safdie, Robert Pattinson, Taliah Webster, Barkhad Abdi, Jennifer Lason Leigh, Buddy Duress

Synopsis: Following a bank heist gone awry Connie (Robert Pattinson) resolves to free his disabled brother Nick (Benny Safdie). From dodgy bail bondsmen to ex-cons and drug dealers, Connie traverses New York’s forgotten underbelly in a frantic spiral to bail out Nick.

Devoid of division between title and opening, Good Time pans across New York before swooping down onto Nick and his psychiatrist Peter (Peter Verby). The opening scene is a deceiving moment of calm, with the pulsating soundtrack by Oneohtrix Point Never foreshadowing events. Soaked in the grainy noise and neon colours of New York, Good Time engulfs the viewer as Connie commits a mesmerising display of self- destruction not seen since Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless. Connie does both the imaginable and the unthinkable as he bungles his way towards Nick, yet Pattinson humanises Connie. Bearing a tangible desperation in his eyes, Connie is detestable but understandable and even charming when his oddball personality shows. Pattinson again proves what is witnessed in The Rover and The Lost City of Z, that he is a great actor.

Amid Connie’s frantic spiral springs a manic strain of humour from both Connie and the rest of the cast, depicted by upcoming and untrained actors.A standout performance comes from Buddy Durress as Ray, a freshly released ex-convict who becomes Connie’s accomplice. Ray’s confusion when Connie finds him and later attempts to befriend Connie adds emotion and humour into the plot. Equally facing lengthy prison time if caught, Ray’s recollected 24 hours since leaving prison unveils a parallel life to Connie. A cautionary tale of mixing brandy and Xanax, Ray’s story before crossing Connie is the perfect prelude to Good Time’s tense final act.

Sporting a substantial budget of two million dollars compared to their earlier work, the Safdie brothers mingle their hallmark guerrilla style with sleek longer shots and intimate close ups. The use of lighting is one of Good Time’s visual strengths, with ambient sources leaving characters in a darkened haze or a neon glow, pervading the film with a documentary feel. Beyond visuals, Good Time mirrors The Florida Project in having a great story alongside untrained actors. The combination transforms Good Time from being another cathartic dip through a city’s underworld into a believable tale beyond society’s safety net.

In film there are moments of convergence. Works from different artists unconsciously overlap into an undercurrent like rivers meeting at the ocean, crystallising the hopes and fears of our society. In The Florida Project, Good Time and Buster’s Mal Heart which I aim to review soon, we see the ignored parts of America, desperate and angry. Interspersed between the bank heist and the mad turmoil of Connie’s spree are still moments focused upon Nick. Emanating a vulnerable loneliness, Nick’s frustration spews forth, revealing his and Connie’s troubled childhood and that the heist was Connie’s plan to give them a new life. During these scenes Good Time resembles Matthieu Kassowitz’s La Haine, depicting the lives of people trapped outside the middle-class bubble. Beginning and concluding with Nick being comforted by his psychiatrist Peter (Peter Verby) a fatalistic tragedy looms over the brothers. Peter later consoles Nick, saying;

‘Nick, you are where you are supposed to be, and Connie is where he is supposed to be’.

Peter’s words are an unwitting admission that Nick and Connie were bound to remain in the mad world which Good Time depicts, where people deal, scheme and scam to get by. Despite all that unfolds, Good Time concludes with a moving end as Iggy Pop rasps about love while Nick begins to open up to others. The contrasting narrative between Nick and Connie emphasises the very human urge to protect loved ones which compels Connie, shifting Good Time beyond a simple crime thriller.

Having waited three months for Good Time to release in the U.K. since its distribution in America, the film was worth the delay. Good Time has sadly received a limited release across Britain. I thank Home Manchester for actually showing Good Time. For those yet to see the film, a DVD or streaming platform might be the only option.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

 

The Florida Project

Film Score: 4 out 5 stars (Excellent)

Director: Sean Baker

Cast: Bria Vinaite, Brooklyn Prince, Caleb Landry Jones, Macon Blair, Willem Dafoe

Synopsis: Orlando’s Disneyland is the American Dream, a vivid mirage of luxury enticing people from every nation. Beyond that fleeting dream where tourists fail to look, are motels full of desperate people living week to week before they have to move on. 6 year old Moonee (Brooklyn Prince) and her mother Halley (Bria Vinaite) live outside the Disney fantasy. Through Moonee’s eyes, we see her fragile life break down over one long summer break.

The Florida Project is a documentary wrapped inside a drama. The events are fictitious but the people who live in this forgotten corner of America are real enough. In 2014 I volunteered in the Great Smoky Mountains of North Carolina. Every second weekend was spent in a roadside motel outside of Asheville. Besides the straggle of unfortunate tourists and Mexican workers, the motel’s patrons were people who had nowhere else to go and would wind up sleeping in the alcove of McDonald’s when their money disappeared. Poverty is an eternal and ubiquitous problem. In Europe, we have a smug disdain for America’s inequalities, forgetting that we had the same problem until 70 years ago and to some extent still do. In The Florida Project, director Sean Baker has created an unflinching portrait of America’s poor and forgotten which neither fetishises nor patronises its subjects. Through Sean Baker’s lens, the inhabitants of the Magic Castle and beyond are just people getting by.

Baker’s Tangerine is a film that I have ashamedly not watched. I do remember the film, shot on iphone 5s and with mainly ordinary people playing the roles, being lauded upon release for its realism. The Florida Project continues Tangerine’s legacy, dissolving the fourth wall into a blurred pulp of reality and performance. Bria Vinaite is an untrained actress headhunted through Instagram. The children in the film are actors with only a few previous credits between them. The intermingling of young talent, untrained actors and season performers creates surreal yet beautiful moments where events might be scripted, improvised or the actors just being themselves. It is charming to watch Halley and Magic Castle’s manager Bob (Willem Defoe) arguing until suddenly both begin to snicker like old friends.

Baker lets his performers be themselves, especially the children. The young stars behave before the camera with the unfettered confidence of youth, running off-script and simply speaking their minds like children do. Earlier this year, charming animated french film My Life as a Courgette  broached the dark adult world through a child’s eyes, and The Florida Project does much the same. Awash with incandescent violent and popping orange, the children’s summer is a frolic through mysterious new lands as they run past the neon signs and cartoon figures of motels and gift shops. Their innocence lends both warmth and poignancy to later events as Halley increasingly struggles to keep her and Moonee sheltered.

Willem Defoe may deliver his best performance as Bob. Defoe does not need words to show Bob’s conflict between his job and his desire to help the Magic Castle’s residents, especially the children. Caring and fatherly to Moonee and her friends, Bob becomes slowly crushed by an uncaring world, much like Halley.

The Florida Project’s pacing falters for the final twenty minutes but does not detract from the film’s engrossing story or social message.

Thanks to A24 for supporting the unusual and the innovative like Ghost Story and Good Time. 

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

Wheelman

Film Score: 3 out of 5 (Good)

Synopsis: Indebted to Boston’s West End mob, wheelman (Frank Grillo) serves as a getaway driver until a job turns sour at the hands of a mysterious caller. A small budget film picked up by Netflix, Wheelman carves a space for itself in a genre overshadowed by Drive, Baby Driver and Thief.  The film’s speed turns Wheelman into a giddy joyride, glancing attention away from the plot’s pastiche of generic crime thriller tropes.

Written and directed by Jeremy Rush, Wheelman is a crime thriller which tinkers with the genre. The confined world of wheelman’s car permeates claustrophobia like Phone Booth, while the camera’s fixed presence in the car borrows from Locke. Yet Wheelman provides its own take on both of these ideas. In Locke, the story is one man and a telephone. The car is the conference room where Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) makes his calls. In Wheelman, the car is put to better use, becoming both a stage and a lens into the world. Characters enter the car, causing the world to feel more inhabited than Phone Booth. The presence of other characters creates some great moments as friend or foe sit beside wheelman in this cramped space. In the opening shot and later, outside events are framed behind the car’s front seats, adding a voyeuristic sense that you are in the back seat watching all unfold.

Visually, the camera’s constraints add realism to wheelman’s panicked dash around night-time Boston, while zoomed shots of the car flash with neon colours from the streets. Music is sparingly used in Wheelman, with silence or the car’s roaring engine filling the scene. However, the pulsing soundtrack by Brooke Blair and Will Blair ratchets up the tension in the right moments.

The plot follows what is expected from a crime thriller, but distinguishes itself through great performances and some clever tricks. The editing style is a rapid burst of quick shots across the car as though the camera, just like wheelman, is beginning to panic under pressure. A loop of calm jazz, better suited to a hotel elevator, constantly plays in the background when the mystery caller telephones wheelman, projecting the villain’s menace and dominance. Bank robber ‘mother fucker’ (Shea Whigman) and wheelman’s criminal associate Clay (Garret Dilahunt) both spend time in the car, providing humourous dialogue and extra tension during their appearances. Although the plot quickly becomes chaotic,  Wheelman slowly builds suspense through terse conversations with the mystery caller, causing me to jump back when bullets pop through the car windshield 30 minutes into the film.

Wheelman’s strength is Frank Grillo’s performance as the anonymous wheelman. Grillo’s rugged demeanour and animated toughness lends a credibility to the character, even when the plot predictably devolves into showing wheelman’s softer side. Having starred in The Purge sequels and been a brief character in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Wheelman is Frank Grillo’s star vehicle.

For a film I downloaded on a whim for a long train ride, Wheelman was a pleasant surprise. I recommend it for anyone looking for a good, uncomplicated thriller to fill a lull in the weekend.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

Tears in Rain: A World Repeating

* Spoilers below for Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049*

Saying goodbye to Blade Runner 2049

I felt compelled to watch Blade Runner 2049 one more time. When the eye opens to behold a fractal of solar farms repeating across Californian fields, Blade Runner 2049 ascended from mere story into an experience, one to be savoured in the cinema before it disappears.

In revisiting Blade Runner 2049 last week, a line from the original Blade Runner circled my mind.

‘All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain’

A nihilistic statement about human impermanence spoken by dying replicant leader Roy Batty; after a fraught cat and mouse game between him and blade runner Deckard through a crumbling L.A. apartment block. Having won the fight and Deckard bound to fall to his death from the rain soaked rooftop, Roy saves Deckard. Reflecting on what he has witnessed as his four year lifespan reaches its end, Roy’s soliloquy reframes his struggle for a longer life into the most human desire, to have enough time leave a mark on the world.

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Deckard saved by Roy

Staring at the ensuing erosive tide of eternity, we distance our mortality through legacy like a raft amid darkened storms. The physical shell dissolves into a husk but a part of what we were remains on this plane, even if just for a moment longer. Accepting death, Roy saves Deckard in a last bid to remain in this world through the memories of another.

A World Repeating

Surveying Blade Runner 2049, Roy’s words have been proven wrong. The world of 2049 is seared by the actions of Blade Runner in 2019. After the murder of the replicants’ creator Tyrrel by Roy’s hand, the Tyrrel pyramid once the apex of the L.A. skyline lies dark and dormant. Replicants now have embedded memories just like Rachael, an experimental Nexus-7 replicant. Assumedly, the Blade Runners have been eventually replaced with replicants due to Deckard’s flight from L.A.

Observing Tyrrel’s dead pyramid for a second time in Blade Runner 2049, the perspective is changed. Looking from the ground up,  the palace has become the cornerstone for the headquarters of Tyrrel’s successor, Niander Wallace (Jared Leto). Layering the new atop the old, Blade Runner 2049 is the reincarnate of the world and the people from 2019.

The marks of  Blade Runner’s 2019 still linger in the physical space of 2049. Tyrrel’s pyramid is silent and the L.A.P.D. remains, anchoring the two worlds together by the thread of action and consequence. Yet in the characters of Blade Runner 2049 do the echoes from 2019 meld together. Created by Wallace to be his assistant, Luv embodies the polar extremes of replicants in Blade Runner. Luv is both Rachael and Roy, caring and cruel, childlike yet ruthless. She can be devotedly attentive, caring for the crazed industrialist Wallace even when he disembowels a newborn replicant. For those who cross her, Luv is a sadistic monster, shedding tears as she kills and cruelly toying with victims before death.

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Luv attacks

The parallels between industrialist Niander Wallace and Blade Runner‘s Eldon Tyrrel are clear. Industrialists who save humanity from crisis through invention. Tyrrel’s replicants propel humanity to the stars and Wallace’s synthetic farms keep Earth’s civilisation alive following environmental collapse. Fathers to the replicants, the pair are gods flawed by vision. Tyrell is a god of wisdom distracted by hubris. His eyes, bulging in their thick glasses, have the appearance of seeing but his pyramid is an ivory tower, obscuring Tyrrel’s understanding of what the replicants are. Wallace is a crazed oracle, accepting that replicants are the slaves to build a new human civilisation, he is literally blinded by his prophecy of spreading mankind far beyond the solar system. Tyrrel and Wallace may or may not see the replicants for what they are, but both are in the rut of complacency of the master, to believe that the slave will never rise up.

Not Heroes: Deckard and K

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Madam forewarns the breaking of the wall and the world

Writing this piece was partially inspired by a Washington Post article about Blade Runner 2049 by Alyssa Rosenberg. The article is an interesting read but what sparked my attention was the title;

Blade Runner 2049 is about learning that you are not the main character in your own story.’

Speaking after finding Rachael Tyrell, L.A police chief Madam confides in K, saying

‘The world is built on a wall that separates a kind, tell either side there is no wall, you’re brought a war.’

The world of Blade Runner is the wall, the barricade between replicant and man. Blade Runner and Blade Runner 2049 are one conflict, each side pushing at the boundary entrapping the other, be it a life longer than four years or the gift of children. Deckard and K, pawns from the beginning dragged unwillingly into a larger fight. Deckard is forced from retirement during Blade Runner to draw out Roy and the other rogue Nexus-6 models. K is commanded to destroy all traces of Tyrrel’s secret of replicant reproduction. Deckard is almost a villain in Blade Runner as he coldly tracks down the escaped Nexus-6 models. After every killing, the replicants become more human and childlike. In Blade Runner 2049, Deckard is not the wise man who can answer K, but an old outlaw hiding in the bones of a dead city, pursued for what he knows rather than for any threat he poses.

Against the foreground of Blade Runner’s events, Deckard and K are the heroes of their own stories. They are two characters from different sides walking towards the wall. Finding the wall absent, each discover their humanity. Both begin their long walk towards the wall assured of the structure of the world and their place within it. Deckard firmly believes he is human and that replicants are simple machines, until meeting Rachel and almost being killed by Roy. In finding love with Rachel, Deckard questions his assumptions about replicants and whether he is indeed human. Deckard’s crisis about his own existence is clearer in Phillip. K. Dick’s ‘Do androids dream of electric sheep?’, but it is still present in Blade Runner. Rachael is the catalyst for Deckard’s doubt about himself, remaining silent when Rachael asks if he has ever performed the Voight Kampff test on himself. By Blade Runner 2049, Deckard no longer distinguishes between human and replicant. When asked by K whether his dog is synthetic Deckard replies;

‘Ask him what he thinks.’

Deckard’s response repeats the understanding  he briefly flashes in a slow blink as Roy quietly dies at Blade Runner’s end. For Deckard, he finds his humanity through love, through empathy, in connecting with the replicants he has hunted so very well for so long.

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K gets to hold the hand of someone he loves, Joi

The mirrored reflection of Deckard, K walks from the opposite side towards the wall. If Deckard finds his humanity through discovery, K finds his humanity through loss. Deckard finds connection to the rest of the world, while K wants to be connected. A Nexus-9 designated to hunt the outlawed Nexus-8’s, K initially accepts he is a machine, telling Morton Sapper when asked if he likes ‘scraping shit’ that;

‘We new models don’t run.’

In K’s world, life is one where ‘Joi’ is an illusion and ‘Luv’ is a monster. The baseline K is routinely subjected to tests whether he has begun to see himself as human. The faults the test searches for are the desires we take for granted: ‘to be interlinked’; to hold the hand of a loved one, to be part of a family. Each question asked in the baseline are desires K hides even to himself. Desire make replicants human. For Roy it was legacy, for K it is love, to feel connected to the world. Believing himself to be Rachael’s child, K desperately searches for Deckard, asking him about the mother he never had and why Deckard left.

Rooftop Revelation

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K and Joi one more time

It is K’s A.I. girlfriend Joi that makes him believe he is unique, encouraging the search for Deckard and renaming K ‘Joe’. After losing Joi, K discovers he is the decoy, the replicant implanted with the fabled child’s memories. Rescued and tasked with eliminating Deckard by the replicant resistance, K encounters a gigantic sexualised version of Joi on a rooftop.

For Deckard and K, clarity comes atop the summit. Deckard is raised up from death by Roy, now Christlike with a nail driven through his palm, while K gets to see Joi one more time while staring at the city from a rooftop.  By calling him ‘Joe’ again, Joi’s programming makes K realise that he does not need uniqueness to be a person, to be connected. Raising Deckard’s pistol, K chooses his own path. K saves Deckard and the two men wash up from the water, arriving together at the wall which divides the world, cutting L.A. from the oceans beyond.

By sacrificing himself, K just like Roy connects himself to something greater, love and legacy. For many of us, our only legacy will be loved ones, the family that remain after we fade like tears in rain.

By Saul Shimmin

I have written more about Blade Runner here. If you have yet to see Blade Runner 2049, hopefully our review can persuade you.

Thor: Ragnarok

Film Score: 4 out of 5 (Excellent)

Synopsis:  Subversively self-aware and willingly self-deprecating, Thor: Ragnarok is for those who are bored or dismissive of superhero films. A Taika Waititi film throughout, Thor: Ragnarok bristles with a dry New Zealand sarcasm which caused my laughter to fill a dead multiplex on a Tuesday afternoon.

Under the cartel of Marvel, Disney, D.C and Warner Brothers, the superhero genre has become the soap opera of cinema. Throwaway stories whose heroes, villains, and dangers are interchangeable parts to be switched around. Each story is a predictable, comfortable clone of what came before and what will come next in the sequence. Seeing the success of Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight trilogy, these companies have tried to emulate the Nolan brothers’ work. Deprived of any finality, the frame of endless sequels fails to match the empathy or sense of attachment which The Dark Knight trilogy invoked, instead becoming garbled trains of self induced seriousness robbed of any pathos or realism.

Thor: Ragnarok harks back to the despicably underrated Mystery Men starring Ben Stiller, William. H. Macy and one of the best ever attacks on a villain’s limo. For both films, superheroes are just fantasies to be enjoyed as such, beings which would be completely alien to the rest of us if they existed.

Despite still having to clunkily tromp to Marvel’s beat of secret, revelation and post-credit teaser like a chained circus bear, Thor: Ragnarok did not care whether I became invested or attached. Instead, the film presents itself as a good time, a head spinning adventure full of gags, fuelled by the mad vibrancy of Jack Kirby’s comic books. The approach makes Thor: Ragnarok the best Marvel film so far, a colourful trip to be enjoyed for all its jokes, adventures, neon vividness, and thrilling synth soundtrack.

Waititi’s brand of zany humour pervades the film, delving into a meta narrative prodding fun at the seriousness of superhero films today. Much of the humour comes from ‘The Master’ (Jeff Goldblum), ruler of a borderland planet caught between wormholes, and in particular Korg. Voiced by director Taika Waititi himself, Korg’s calm demeanour of a ‘South Auckland Maori bouncer’ clashes with his towering pastel blue rock body and revolutionist tendencies. Poking through the fourth wall, Korg’s naivete leads to comments of both deep insight and awkwardness, garnering him laughs whenever present. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and Loki (Tom Hiddleston) benefit from changes to their characters. The film plays up their detachment from the real world, giving them a bumbling almost child-like approach to problems when they arise. Thor is a meathead with a heart of gold, with Hemsworth’s deadpan delivery of lines causing a lot of laughs both with and at Thor himself.

Mark Ruffalo excels as ever in his role as the Hulk and Cate Blanchett develops a funny bone as villain Helas. It is always great to see Karl Urban, an actor who remains underrated despite his roles in The Lord of the Rings, The Bourne Supremacy and his lead in Dredd. The real surprise character was Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), she is strong yet goofy like the rest of the cast but also has a moving back story.

Waititi and company are hopefully being thanked by Marvel for reviving a dead segment of their franchise. The last Thor film, Thor: The Dark World is a plane movie as defined by Tom Waits, where the film could only ever find an audience in a trapped container speeding at high altitude. That is how I watched the previous Thor film, while on a creaking Boeing 747 transatlantic flight to North Carolina squished between snoring businessmen and howling babies. The four year wait for Thor: Ragnarok was well used. Not since Anchorman 2 has a film caused me to uncontrollably laugh in the cinema.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

P.S: Tom Waits is also in Mystery Men, another reason to watch the trailer below:

 

Only the Brave

Film Score: 4 out of 5 (Excellent)

Synopsis: In 2008, the town of Prescott, Arizona formed an elite team to combat any wildfires threatening the town. However, the crew, lead by Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin), did not start out as “Hot Shots,” the elite designation for wildfire fighters who can be requested by municipality within the United States. After their formation, they were only regular, Type-2 municipal firefighters who indirectly fight fires and had to take a backseat to the Type-1, “Hotshots,” who directly battle blazes. Through Prescott’s local fire chief and friend of the Marsh’s, Duane Steinbrink (Jeff Bridges), Marsh and his crew are finally able to get reviewed for Type-1 certification. Just as this process is getting under way, Brendan McDonough (Miles Teller), a local stoner, discovers a past fling is pregnant with his child. Awoken by his impending responsibilities, McDonough interviews for an opening on the crack-shot crew, and because of Marsh’s own history, he decides to give McDonough an opportunity to prove his worth. However, by coming straight to the crew from the pipe, McDonough is the de facto weakest link as the team undergoes rigorous review for their long sought Type-1, “Hotshot” status.

It’s a slow time for movies right now in the United States. I needed a movie to see and Only the Brave was the highest reviewed movie out. I liked its cast, but the story sounded boring. Firefighting? That was just a job I wanted when I was four years old. Since then, its magic has faded making the movie have little appeal.

Please, don’t let such reasons discourage you from seeing this film. While the plot structure of an underdog team training to be great is overused, writers Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer fill it with rich details and small scenes replete with strong character development. These small asides allow the movie to be more than just an action/firefighter movie/underdog story. Instead, Only the Brave is also a movie about addiction, marriage, friendship, and bro-mance (seriously).

The last movie I remember striking such a delicate balance between creating small scenes that still utilize extraneous details to accelerate the plot was last year’s Hell or High Water. These small scenes could have just as easily torpedoed the movie by slowing the movie’s pace. My favorite of these scenes occurred after a rattlesnake bit McDonough sending him to the hospital. When he woke up from surgery, his roommate and best friend, Christopher MacKenzie (Taylor Kitsch), was in a chair next to McDonough’s bed, snoring so loud he sounded like a chainsaw. As the audience watches McDonough’s face as he struggles to decide on whether to wake up MacKenzie and stop the painful snoring or let him sleep, the camera slowly pans out revealing an assortment of donut related gifts (Donut is McDonough’s nickname on the crew): Donut balloons, a giant donut pillow, and donut cards. In these brief seconds, we learn through showing, not telling, the dedication of MacKenzie to their friendship and the crew’s love for Donut while maintaining a sense of humor.

“So what?” you might think, but what I didn’t tell you was the crew hated Donut when he arrived at their station for the interview, shaking from withdrawals. Yet Marsh, their respected chief, offered him a chance to fill a coveted spot on their crew. Mackenzie was the ringleader of the hate against McDonough, especially after the Marsh forced him to lend Donut a pair of limited edition sneakers so he could complete a training run, which ruined the shoes’ value. In this hospital scene, all it takes is just a few quick shots for the audience to see how far the relationship between the crew and Donut has grown without having a heavy-handed narration or even words exchanged amongst the crew. That takes skilled writing and excellent direction.

It takes even more expertise to make a serious drama humorous. I know I failed to do the above scene justice to its comedic elements, but, believe me, it was quite funny. Actually, the whole movie had an incredibly lighthearted air that was by far my favorite aspect of Only the Brave. 

If this movie is still on near you, go see it before Thor: RagnarokJustice League, or Pixar’s Coco kick it out of theaters. We’re in serious movie season now. I’ll try to keep  up the reviews. I’m sorry it’s taken me almost a week and a half to write this review, but I started a new job recently which has zapped my energy.

For trailer, see below.

By Hagood Grantham

 

The Death of Stalin

Film Score: 5 out of 5 (Classic)

Synopsis: In the wake of Soviet leader Joseph Stalin’s sudden death, a power struggle begins in the upper echelons of Russia. Armando Iannucci brings his style of political satire from Veep and The Thick of It to his directorial debut.

To observe the interminable everyday evil under Stalin is to collide with farce. An orchestra collapses into a throng of panicked intellectuals when Stalin calls, while starving peasants arriving from the street listen obliviously to Mozart. Against the backdrop of the NKVD stealing people from their homes and causing son to denounce father, the soviet elite are tucked away in Stalin’s dacha, drinking, playing pranks and watching John Ford films. In modern times where ‘strongmen’ rule over Russia, America, China and elsewhere, The Death of Stalin forewarns the destruction such leaders and their followers can cause.

For a comedy, The Death of Stalin depicts life under Stalin with the fidelity of a documentary. Unsurprisingly, The Death of Stalin has not been well received in Russia. The film unflinchingly gazes at a chapter of Russian history which Putin has slowly redacted into something twisted and sanitised. Officers enter prison cells followed by the pop of a pistol while their chief Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) takes another of his victims away.

The Death of Stalin shatters the slick oil portraits of Stalin and equally attacks the pedicured images of the entourage behind him: A ring of sycophants, vying for the leader’s attention, while longing for his death and an end to the terror which has loomed over them. They all arrive to Stalin’s dacha like bad actors in a worn Greek tragedy, boasting their grief rather than helping their still living leader. Once the power struggle begins, the film is a mix between Iannucci’s usual observations of hushed plans between politicians and an exquisite dance concocted by Laurel and Hardie. The surviving Soviet leadership each hunger for power, but jostle and bumble to maintain appearances, with each competition becoming sillier than the next. A darkly deadpan thread of humour pervades the film, reminiscent of how The Lobster stared at the sickening until it became funny.

The strength of the Anglo-American cast gathered for The Death of Stalin attests to Armando Iannucci’s work on both sides of the Atlantic. Alongside Jeffrey Tambor and Steve Buscemi are British actors who deserve greater global recognition, especially Paul Whitehouse who terrifically plays Anastas Mikoyan. Molotov (Michael Palin) is a true believer, tottering around like an embattled veteran and idolising Stalin despite all he has suffered. Unintentionally but rather comically, Paul Chahidi’s appearance as Nikolai Bulganin has an eerie physical resemblance to Colonel Sanders, albeit far from the safe lands and fried poultry of Kentucky. My favourite was General Zhukov (Jason Isaacs). Unlike the rest of the soviet elite who prance around seising power, Zhukov is honest about what he wants. Zhukov’s soldierly bluntness casts Khrushchev and company as the sheep they are, while netting him both attention and laughs.

The film’s arc begins and ends with the Moscow State orchestra. The musicians have marshalled and play Mozart once more, but only one pianist Maria Yudina (Olga Kurylenko) plays confidently. Maria alone denounces Stalin before his death. Maria’s constancy is contrasted against the charade of Beria’s and Kruschev’s reforms, which were attempts to seize power and stay alive. Maria’s presence amid the chaos and evil which unfolds in The Death of Stalin reminds us how men cast in all political systems can become so dangerously divorced from morality.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below: