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:

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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:

 

 

1922

Film Score: 4 out of 5 (Excellent)

Synopsis: Proud Nebraskan farmer Wilf James (Thomas Jane) is a man threatened by the modernity beyond his farm. When wife Arlette (Molly Parker) threatens to sell her share of the land and drag Wilf and their son Henry (Dylan Schmid) into the roaring 1920’s, Wilf murders her. Wilf’s sin taints him and everything he crosses as 1922 becomes a chilling ghost story.

October inaugurates my favourite time of year in England. A state of purgatory settles over the land, stalling the seasons between autumn and winter. Breath becomes visible and cold, tree trunks turn black from the rain and your day begins and ends in darkness. Surrounded by nature’s slow decay and enduring days that are never far from nightfall, it is easy to begin seeing specters reflected in window panes and faces lurking between branches. In 1922, Netflix has created a film befitting the Halloween season.

1922 harks back to the moral parable underneath the older style of ghost stories by M.R.  James and H.P. Lovecraft. I grew up on M.R. James’ cautionary tales of academics stumbling across hidden artifacts and whose curiosity incurs the wrath of supernatural forces. It is a style of story which seemed no longer wanted on the big screen or the small screen. Being a strange folk, we English used to tell ghost stories at Christmas Eve. The BBC upheld the tradition in the 1970’s and briefly in the 2000’s with A Ghost Story for Christmas. Yet like wraiths and ghouls, ghost stories vanished once again.  Hopefully, 1922 will mark a renaissance of ghost story adaptations based on crumbling morality and existential dread, rather than a paranormal sequence of jumps, bumps, and knocks on doors.

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Wilf, unable to escape his crimes

The slow canter of 1922’s plot renders the Jameses into a very human family. Wilf and Arlette are not simply a bickering couple but polar opposites trapped together. Strutting squarely across the land and tanned brown like a roasted turkey, Wilf embodies the land. Arlette, draped in a modern dress and sporting a flapper haircut, yearns to escape to the city. From the couple’s quiet staring contests, to the camera lurking behind Wilf’s shoulder when they talk, enmity oozes between the two characters. Shortly before the murder, Arlette drops her shield of bitterness and regrets her life choices which landed her with Wilf. Henry, like many children in a dysfunctional family is caught between husband and wife, with shot and counter-shot at the dinner table obscuring Henry against the outline of Wilf or Arlette. Once the deed is done, 1922 crumbles Wilf’s life away with dashes of dark humour nodding to his tragic fate while Thomas Jane’s narration prevents the plot from petering out.

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The unloving couple, Wilf and Arlette.

Cinematographer Ben Richardson’s short snaps of detail add a sense of brooding to 1922. Eyes wander between Wilf and Artlette as they talk or observe each other from afar. Objects and locations across the farm flash before the screen while Wilf diligently plans his wife’s execution like harvesting another bushel of the corn we see shadowed against the dawn. Richardson uses suggestion to convey a Hitchockian level of detail, with snippets of the house’s increasing dilapidation reflecting Wilf’s own mental strain and guilt. Overall 1922 is visually stunning. The plains of Nebraska are swathed in colour with pearl white banks of snow clashing against the crayola yellow of a neighbour’s house. The richness of Richardson’s work is complimented by the taught plucking of violin strings in Mike Patton’s score, which will prickle goosebumps as Wilf becomes haunted by his guilt and something else.

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A murder in the planning.

Having given a good performance in The Mist which I reviewed here, it is in Thomas Jane’s third appearance in a Stephen King film that he really shines. Affecting both the mannerisms and accent of a contemporary Nebraskan farmer, Jane is unrecognisable as Wilf. Jane speaks more through the roll of his green eyes than his lips like many hard men found on the plains. Despite all that Wilf does he remains a sympathetic character, a man who desperately clings to the life he knows, even when there is no reason to carry on. Again Jane’s narration of events helps to maintain sympathy as Wilf suffers a litany of misfortune. Molly Parker gives a great but sadly brief performance as Arlette. Following her work in 1922 and another Netflix production, Small Crimesshe will hopefully soon receive larger roles. Dylan Schmid is a delightful surprise as Henry James, balancing the conflict and guilt he feels over his mother’s death with the angst and rebelliousness of a young man.

For a spooky tale in time for Halloween, 1922 is a great addition to Netflix’s repertoire. Compared to Netflix’s previous adaptation of Gerald’s Game1922 does not scare as strongly but retains the eeriness of Stephen King’s stories.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

 

Gerald’s Game

Film Score: 3 out of 5 (Good)

Synopsis: Based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, kind hearted Jessie Burlingame (Carla Gugino)  and her older husband, Gerald (Bruce Greenwood), retreat to their isolated holiday home on the Alabama coast. A sudden heart attack leaves Gerald dead on the floor and Jessie cuffed to the bed with no escape.

Released nine months apart, Gerald’s Game and Split tread across the same tropes. There is the terror of dying trapped in a locked room with a monster prowling just beyond. Against such fatalistic backdrops, women confront and use their past trauma of abuse to become stronger. Split is a thriller with dashes of horror, while Gerald’s Game is a pure horror film that uses the simple scene of a single inescapable room. Gerald’s Game is scarier, but Split is the better film.

Trapped in her bedroom, it is the monsters Jessie conjures up which frighten the audience. Gerald soon rises from the tiled floor. Back from the dead and full of venom towards his wife, Gerald constantly criticises Jessie, goading her to give up and maliciously articulating her death. Yet Gerald is a mere imp compared to the ‘Moon Man’, a pale deformed wraith appearing in the dead of night. Personifying death, Carel Struycken is far from the gentle giant he plays in Twin Peaks. Struycken is a Nosferatu figure that caused me to stop the film repeatedly when his misshapen face emerged on the screen. Director Mike Flanagan uses the Moon Man to great effect. The monster appears like the twins from The Shining, sparsely present on the edges of the frame and far away down corridors until it finally invades the screen.

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 Channeling Stanley Kubrik, The Moon Man observes Jessie from down the corridor

The bravest, and most unnerving part of Gerald’s Game was its commitment to showing Jessie’s abuse as a child. Naturally, the scene of abuse is not outrightly explicit, but there pervades a disgustingly churning level of detail. Most films, Split included, build up to the abuse through suggestion and then cease. By committing to the scene, Gerald’s Game reinforces that these acts can unfortunately be committed by anyone, not simply the opportunistic stranger. The film also layers an inkling of mystery about who the abuser is, with Jessie obtusely referring to the perpetrator. Flashbacks to Jessie’s childhood maintain the ambiguity until it is too late. I am surprised that another scene in Gerald’s Game instead of the abuse has garnered public attention.

Overall, Gerald’s Game lets Carla Gugino shine. As an actress who I have often seen in minor roles and cameos, it is nice to see Gugino’s character change from a timid wife into a strong woman. Bruce Greenwood is good as the infuriating Gerald but Struycken is the stronger villain. A physical actor, Struckyen’s use of body language provides an ethereal sense of menace as he observes Jessie and waits to snatch her away.

Sadly, the ending sours Gerald’s Game. Continuing ten minutes after a fitting cliffhanger, the story delves into an epilogue that turns Gerald’s Game into a made for T.V8. film. Yet at other points Gerald’s Game has the feel of a television film. The humour, dark or otherwise, which I expect from Stephen King films flared intermittently, while both Gerald and Jessie were quite flat characters. Occasionally I was simply watching a bad situation suffered by another, rather than willing for Jessie to live.

The drawbacks of Gerald’s Game probably stem from the source material. Prolific authors do have hidden masterpieces but I was unaware of the Stephen King novel. Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard did their best adapting the story to film and watching Gerald’s Game on Netflix did hamper its delivery. Being a coward, I paused the film when the tension rose too much during my first viewing. My cowardliness does underline something ignored by Netflix, that the public still perceive the service as ersatz television. Despite watching on a laptop I still leave the room and return to films, Netflix originals or otherwise, like a television. Netflix’s approach to its original films does not help the public’s perception. Only Okja received an advertising campaign nearing the attention afforded to a film created by the traditional film companies. Instead Netflix originals appear on the site, just like another television series. If Netflix wants to ‘disrupt’ the film industry, it needs to treat its original films like films.

I will try not to pause next time.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

Mother!

 

Film Score: 3.5 out of 5 (Good)

Synopsis: Mother (Jennifer Lawrence) and him, a famous poet (Javier Bardem) live in seclusion at their country home until a stranger, simply called man (Ed Harris) arrives. Mother! twists biblical allegories into a horrifying condemnation of religion and humanity.

Mother! is an ordeal to watch. Following a viewing of the film last week, I remained slumped in my seat once the credits began, drained and disgusted by what had unfolded. The closest work to Mother! that I have experienced is F.Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Reaching the novel’s conclusion, I felt so enraged at the characters that I began to hate the story itself, and that was the point. Fitzgerald wanted the reader to hate the people and the system that Great Gatsby focused upon. Mother! like The Great Gatsby, is a statement spread through shock. Mother! evokes such a visceral emotional reaction that the disgust it gleefully creates reflects towards the film itself. A week after viewing, I am not eager to ever see Mother! again.

Director and writer Darren Aronofsky’s surrealist style takes a harrowingly Hitchcockian turn in Mother!  When the film begins, the world of Mother! is two steps away from reality. An appearance of normalcy exists but a strangeness is always present. The house appears modern but every implement from the refrigerator to mother’s medication are approaching one hundred years old. Before the walls begin to bleed, Aronofsky flags that nothing is right in Mother! The camera nauseatingly spins between rooms and strangers gaze at mother like fixated alligators sizing up their prey. A menace looms over mother but it is never quantified, letting imagination shape the abstract threat and causing Mother! to become deeply terrifying. Nearing the film’s final act I averted my gaze when mother was alone in a room and slices of white noise began to play.

The dutiful and besotted mother rebuilds the house and tends to her husband, him, played by Javier Bardem, an actor known for playing villains since his role as Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men. Although not a traditional villain, ‘him’ is Bardem at his most unsettling. Complacent towards his wife, he deflects mother’s questions about the strangers arriving at their home. Bardem reveals no emotions despite mother’s despair, suggesting that he has orchestrated these events while Aronofsky’s focus on Bardem in these scenes morphs him into a devilish figure.

Jennifer Lawrence is commendable as mother but the role stops being a performance and becomes a feat of endurance in the second act. Similar to Leonardo Dicaprio’s role as Hugh Glass in The Revenant, character development is replaced by a series of ordeals which mother goes through. Personally, the real star of Mother! was Michelle Pfeiffer as the ‘woman’, the wife of man, played by Ed Harris. Appearing unexpectedly, Pfeiffer relishes in woman’s Eve-esque demeanour of temptation and manipulation as she toys with mother through feigned warmth and outright prying. Domhnall Gleeson alongside his brother Brian Gleeson both have a brief but memorable role as the two sons of man. Domhnall dominates the screen during his appearance as the black sheep of the family, incarnating the biblical character his role is based on.

Mother! is an ordeal to watch, and that is both its strength and weakness. Over halfway into the film my tolerance was completely spent. Persistence and my wristwatch is what got me through the remaining fifty minutes while others in the screen quietly departed. Cinema can and should push viewers, but personally Aronofsky overran my limit in terms of length, not content. Enough had happened by over halfway that I was ready for the ending to arrive. Mother! shares the same problem as A Ghost Story albeit more pronounced. Both films, ensconced by the themes they pursue, are addled with moments of dead time where little, if anything, makes sense. Mother! is more afflicted by this problem, at times feeling like a student theatre play plugging holes in the plot with provocation.

Mother! will be picked apart in the ensuing decades by film student and film critic alike, it is a rewarding film but often not an enjoyable one.

If I had to recommend one film in cinemas currently, it would still be Blade Runner 2049.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below:

 

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi [Official Trailer]

Ok. Wow. WHAT. Those were my first thoughts after I first watched Star Wars: The Last Jedi‘s official trailer. It is chock full of twists or what the trailer editors made us die-hard fans believe are plot twists. In this post I want to put down my thoughts and theories about what some of these twists could be, and then both Saul and I would love to hear your theories.

  1. During Snoke’s voice over, I came to wonder who is he speaking to? His words were, “When I found you, I saw RAW, untamed power and beyond that, something truly special.” During his monologue, the trailer mainly displays footage of Kylo. However, as Snoke’s words are echoing away, Rey appears, igniting her saber. We know from later in the trailer that Snoke and Rey finally meet and it appears Snoke tries to break her through torture. Why couldn’t Snoke’s speech actually be directed at Rey? Maybe he’s making it as he’s attempting to make her feel special since she sounds lost and seeking guidance. If you’re thinking “Snoke could not have ‘found her,’ she was on Jakku and after that she went to the find Luke. When could he have ‘found her.'” I’d reply, who put Rey on Jakku? Where did Rey come from? Who are her parents? Maybe Snoke is her father or creator much as Palpatine was Anakin’s likely creator. Or possibly Snoke stole Rey from her real parents and placed her on Jakku till he was ready to tap into her power. I admit this theory is far-fetched, so if Snoke was indeed speaking to Kylo, it sounds like he’s dressing down Kylo in disappointment. For instance, “You [Kylo] were so great when I found you, so full of potential. And you’ve done nothing with it.” Could this be the origin of Kylo’s return to the Light side? Maybe Snoke is favoring Rey over Kylo and drives Kylo back to Luke and draws Rey to him.
  2. Rey pleads to Luke: “Something. Inside me has always been there. But now it’s awake. And I need help.” We all know the Force is unbelievably strong in Rey after she dominated Kylo at the end of The Force Awakens. I believe it was in this fight that Rey realized her full power and even the existence of the Dark side, since hatred can be seen on her face after the defeats Kylo. Luke also quickly realizes her power and appears to abandon her because he doesn’t want to unleash that power like he did with Ben/Kylo. The trailer shows us the price of that mistake: his temple decimated in flames and his padawans slain. If Luke does abandon Rey, this act would be doubly powerful because she already felt disowned by her parents after they left her on Jakku and she’s begging Luke for guidance as a potential father-figure. Maybe this is the motivation for her turning to Kylo and possibly Snoke.

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Luke realizing Rey’s full power and potential for both Good and Evil

3. Kylo’s words, “Let the past die. Kill it,” intrigued me. This voice over occurred as he was supposedly speeding towards Leia’s flagship with a payload of torpedoes to kill her. I say supposedly because there were so many cuts that it’s impossible to know if Leia was actually on the ship Kylo was targeting. I believe, this voice over, once again, could be aimed at someone else at a completely different moment in the movie. Who is Kylo talking to? Luke? Leia? Snoke? Rey? I’m wagering he’s talking to Rey and attempting to sway her to the Dark side. I’d be curious if he was talking to Snoke. If it were Snoke, which past does Kylo mean? His past with his parents, Han & Leia, his time with Luke at the temple, or his Dark side tutelage under Snoke with the Knights of Ren? If he’s talking about his time in the Light with Han, Leia, and Luke then that means he’s just continuing down the path of the Dark side after murdering his father in The Force Awakens. He probably is considering blowing up Leia if that’s the case. If he’s talking about his time as Snoke’s apprentice then he could be renouncing his Darkness and returning to the Light. Smashing his helmet could be Kylo’s rejection of his attempts to turn to the Dark side. However, this action could also portray his hatred for his grandfather, Vader, who he was trying to mimic with the helmet. Maybe Snoke told him he ended up turning to the Light as he was dying and this enraged Kylo so much that he wanted to kill his past. There is not enough information in the trailer for us to know which path Kylo chooses, and I applaud Disney for not giving us any more.

4. My favorite line from the trailer was Luke’s. He said it as he was on his back, speaking to someone above him. My guess is that it’s Rey who is about to leave Luke. He warns her, “This is not going to go the way you think.” This statement harkens back to The Empire Strikes Back when Luke left Dagobah to fight Vader in Cloud City and save his friends. Yoda and Obi-Wan both warn Luke he is not ready to face Vader. I think this line is Luke warning Rey that whatever “this” is, that she is ill-prepared. Maybe she’s going to face Kylo or maybe it’s Snoke. In Empire, Vader tried to tempt Luke to the Dark in Cloud City. Maybe whoever Rey faces will make the same attempt, but will Rey be strong enough to stay with the Light? The ending of the trailer gives a deafening no as Kylo extends his hand.

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The new The Last Jedi poster released yesterday with the trailer

I will end there. Each time I rewatch the trailer another tid-bit or line catches my eye or ear. Frankly, there is too little information for any of us to draw definite conclusions about the plot or outcomes of The Last Jedi. I am so happy Disney, Lucasfilm, Rian Johnson, and Kathleen Kennedy refused to give us fans much more than this.

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Benicio del Toro’s character, DJ

Personally, I still have plenty of questions. Like what did Snoke mean by “Fulfill your destiny.”? How does he know what Rey’s destiny is? Where was Benicio del Toro’s character, DJ? Where will Laura Dern’s character, Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, fit in? What planet does the bad ass battle take place with the new AT-AT’s and the Mad Max land speeders? Why is Finn back in First Order fatigues? What is the spark that Poe is talking about? A trailer is supposed to raise such questions without providing answers. However, that doesn’t mean we can’t hypothesize and make our own plots and theories. Saul and I would love to hear yours. Please leave them in the comments below.

By Hagood Grantham

 

Small Crimes: Review

Film Score: 3 out of 5 (Good)

Synopsis: Along the spectrum of small town crime thrillers, Small Crimes lays nestled between Blue Velvet and Blue Ruin. Disgraced ex-cop, Joe (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), returns to his hometown of Bradley County where only Joe himself is deluded by his gimmick of reformation. Joe’s past actions cause his present to become a litany of dire situations from which he tries to escape.

The name Small Crimes alludes to Joe’s delusion about what he really is. From the film’s beginning, Joe’s reformed persona is a facade as he brazenly displays his sobriety chip to the prison pastor. Despite returning to a town where he is reviled, Joe desperately clings to his act, scrambling to prepare excuses for family and victims alike.

Joe’s conflict with his duality, between the man he is and the man he claims to be, personifies Bradley County. Symbolised by the division of the local newspaper’s front page between the upcoming pumpkin festival and Joe’s release, Bradley is torn between its idealised image and its reality of vice and crime, as seen below. Every citizen in Bradley except Joe’s parents pretend to be someone else; from the reservist Scotty (Macon Blair) who spends his downtime in the local bar still dressed in his army uniform to the morally righteous D.A., Phil Coakley (Michael Kinney). The only person at ease with their duality is the ironically named Lieutenant Pleasant, Joe’s former partner who remains in the pay of the local crime family. Pleasant is played by Gary Cole with a refined humour oscillating between the dark and the mildly obscene that adds to his menace.

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The Newspaper of Bradley, caught between pumpkins and corrupt cops

Small Crimes’s exploration of the reality behind the American icon of the rural small town is a well tread trope beginning with Blue Velvet. The film’s uniqueness stems from its protagonist being a reluctant villain instead of a hero tackling the darkness within the town. Macon Blair, George Cole, and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau imbibe Small Crimes with enough dark humour that the film never gags on its own tension.

Director Evan Katz has delivered a visually solid film with glitters of brilliance. Brief cuts to townsfolk, from a taxi driver’s glare or the librarian’s following eyes subtly denote Joe’s infamy. Little details are repeatedly focused upon like the blood stains on the pickup truck borrowed from Joe’s father. This consistently adds an observantly dark humour through image alone, similar to Blue Ruin and Green Room. The overlap between these two films is unsurprising given that Macon Blair who plays Scotty, and co-adapted Small Crimes from David Zeltserman’s novel, also starred in Blue Ruin and Green Room. The plot falls into an expected spiral but has enough originality and twists in Joe’s descent to be refreshing.

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Hatred, condensed into one look

The acting in Small Crimes is excellent. Similarities appear between Joe and Jaime Lannister, the role in Game of Thrones that Nikolaj Coster-Waldau is famous for. Both characters involve an unhealthy degree of narcissism. However Jaime Lannister is a morally ambiguous anti-hero while Joe is a desperate man in denial about who he is. Despite Joe’s acts both past and present, he remained an understandable soul which is to the credit of Nikolaj Coster-Waldau. Molly Parker, of House of Cards fame, is Joe’s love interest, Charlotte. Parker depicts someone who is loving but through her dialogue and physical demeanour, Charlotte enigmatically infers that her past is equally as dark as Joe’s. I am excited to see Molly Parker’s performance in Netflix’s latest Stephen King adaptation, 1922

The true star of Small Crimes is Robert Forster as Joe Sr, a man whose rounded shoulders show the guilt he bears for what his son has become. Robert Forster breathes life into this honourable working class man trying to maintain peace between Joe Jr and Joe’s mother Irma (Jacki Weaver) who is fervently distrustful of her son. At a time where Al Pacino and Robert De Niro find themselves in comedic bits, it is good to see older stars receive genuine roles because acting is a skill that never stops maturing.

Small Crimes, currently available on Netflix, is a good independent film with solid performances and plenty of dark humour. I would recommend it to Cohen brothers fans and those looking for a decent Sunday film.

By Saul Shimmin

For the trailer, see below;

 

Two movie buffs readying to conquer the world.