The Beguiled

the-beguiled-poster_1200_1778_81_sThree years into the American Civil War and young Amy (Oona Lawrence) comes across a wounded Yankee soldier (Colin Farrell) whilst picking mushrooms. Taking pity on the enemy soldier she takes him back to her all girl school where sexual tension rises amongst the residents. Owner, Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman) veers between wanting to turn him over to the confederate troops and sharing a brandy with him whilst the eldest members Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) and Alicia (Elle Fanning) seem awakened by the attention.

Whilst this is a remake of a 1971 film of the same name starring Clint Eastwood and Geraldine Page I could never imagine that to be the case based on how quintessentially Sofia Coppola this film is. Coppola is the writer/director of The Virgin Suicides, Lost in Translation. Marie Antoinette, Somewhere and The Bling Ring. As with those films you get the following themes; beautiful, but woozy and dreamlike camera work, strong female lead roles and a somewhat detached and distant emotional connection to events.

The cinematography is beautiful, exteriors are full of sunlight drenched gardens, whilst interiors seem to be lit with natural candlelight or sunlight through windows. Dunst and Fanning, both Coppola film veterans now in their 3rd and 2nd outings respectively stand out amongst the cast. But, and it pains me to say it, this feels the most emotionally detached of all of her films and it has a massive impact on the enjoyment of the film. It feels as though we are voyeurs not completely aware of what is motivating these characters actions and as a result it feels like a cold and distant dream.

A film to technically admire, but not to love.

War for the Planet of the Apes

apesposterFollowing Rise and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes the trilogy concludes with War. Caesar (Andy Serkis) and his ape tribe are being hunted by soldiers and a devastating attack on their camp leads to a personal quest by Caesar to end the war.

Whilst titled “War” it is much more of a personal journey for Caesar as he journeys with a small group into the soldiers base. The Colonel (Woody Harrelson) leads his troops like a zealot, giving speeches and shaving his head with a straight razor whilst his troops have daubed their gear with “monkey killer” and other mantras. The references to Apocalypse Now could not be more obvious when the film knowingly references them with a wall marked “Ape-pocalypse Now”. The story of whether Caesar will lose his humanity in his fight with them is gripping and sold in the main by Andy Serkis phenomenal performance.

Whether awards ceremonies will finally recognise motion capture performances must come to the fore following this performance. Serkis conveys such a range of emotion for a fully rounded character the fact that it is covered by state of the art effects must be ignored. Speaking of which, the effects here are so good that you will completely forget that they are there, other than perhaps to wonder how they manage it.

The Apes trilogy is one that has grown in stature with each iteration and this is a startling piece of film making that never loses momentum and provides huge emotional impact. Every plot thread has a purpose and is paid off in due course throughout the story. It also manages to pay homage to the original series of films with character names and a major plot point.

If only more summer blockbusters were this intelligent and this rewarding. It will be a shame to see an end to the series but it is a fitting finale.

 

The House

ho00004389Will Ferrell and Amy Poehler star in a high concept comedy about parents who decide to open an illegal casino in their friends home to pay for their daughters college tuition fees.

Let’s get this out of the way quickly, this is an awful film with very little positive to talk about. The opening set up is forced and you will be hoping it gets funny when the casino antics are in motion but unfortunately you will be treated to sporadic chuckles whilst you wonder how so many talented people are in such a poor film. As usual, my complaint here is improvisational comedy is fine if it is part of a plot and used to come up with some gems. But it will not help something that would struggle to fill a 22 minute sitcom episode.

The only positive aspect, by a long margin are the crazy antics of Jason Mantzoukas, who plays gambling junkie Frank, whose home the casino is set up in. His desperation and casual attitude to the criminal aspects of the venture are the only thing that will regularly make you smile.

Despicable Me 3

624a8766869bf2bb563519261f0865beGru and his minions return for a really enjoyable romp through Illumination Entertainment’s world of super villains where the trump card is a truly brilliant new nemesis for Gru.

The plot should be wince inducing, but seems to work well in this strange world of villains. Gru (Steve Carrell) has a long-lost twin brother Dru (also Steve Carrell) which is brilliantly explained away by Gru’s mum (a returning Julie Andrews who missed the 2nd film). Dru wants to be a super villain, but is hopeless at it and wants to enlist his brothers help. But the main plot running through the film is of Gru’s battle with his new arch-enemy, the truly brilliant Balthazar Bratt (South Park’s Trey Parker). Bratt was a child television star who played a super villain, but when he entered puberty and his show was cancelled he took on the role for real.

The absolute joy of this film is rooted in the 1980’s. Super villain Bratt is stuck there and this means cheesy music, insane hair cuts, shoulder pads and dance fights! And if you do not think that will be funny, then this film might not be for you. The other stroke of genius is that the film sidelines the minions for the majority of the film, bringing them in for interludes that are very funny but not necessarily connected to the plot. I think this gives us the best of both worlds, as the minions proved they can not necessarily hold a film, but they are funny in short bursts. One particularly funny scene reminding me of West Side Story of all things.

Overall, a breezy 90 minute romp that should keep young and old laughing throughout.

Spider-Man: Homecoming

mv5bntk4odq1mzgznl5bml5banbnxkftztgwmtmymzm4mti-_v1_uy1200_cr8006301200_al_For the third time in 15 years we have a new Spider-Man and this time he is in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU from here). Thanks to an agreement between Sony and Marvel, Spidey is finally allowed to live in the same world as the Avengers, but only on the proviso that Marc Webb’s films with Andrew Garfield are consigned to history. So, how good is the new Spidey? Unfortunately I would say his score card is very mixed.

Picking up from Captain America: Civil War we first see our new Spider-Man excitedly watching phone footage of his adventures with the Avengers. It is good fun and sets the tone for this high school Spidey who is full of wise cracking humour. There is no origin story, no tale of Uncle Ben or “with great power, comes great responsibility”. On the flip side of that we see Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) as a contractor cleaning up the city after the events of the original Avengers film hung out to dry and forced unto using alien technology to create weapons as a means to provide for his family. Of course for those familiar with the comics Toomes will become the Vulture and he is destined to battle with Spider-Man.

So far, so good? Tom Holland is great fun as Spider-Man. Young enough looking to pass as a high schooler, great at wise cracks and athletic enough to look the part. Keaton is great as the Vulture, someone pushed down the wrong path by circumstance, but morally ambiguous enough to snap up the opportunity. Where it fails though is in the relationships Spider-Man has with those around him. It is far more excited about the fact that this is Spidey in the MCU and his relationship with Happy Hogan (Jon Favreau returning as Tony Stark’s bodyguard) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) than it is with his relationships with Aunt May (Marissa Tomei) and his high school friends. As a result we do not really see the bonds to his home life that matter the most. Aunt May is barely seen throughout and there are no moments showing the deep relationship between the two. Peter Parker’s best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) just gets to be more comic relief and advertise Lego. And love interests Michelle (Zendaya) and Liz (Laura Harrier) and school bully Flash (Tony Revolori) also have minority parts with perhaps Liz only getting any moments to shine.

This is exacerbated further by the fact that anyone who has seen the trailer knows the story arc between Spidey and Iron Man, thanks to another example of a terrible trailer showing all the major plot points. But at no point does the Spider-Man/Iron Man relationship compete with Sam Raimi’s Spidey/MJ/Harry Osborn dynamic or Mark Webb’s Spidey/Gwen Stacey dynamic.

So, thank heavens for Tom Holland and Michael Keaton then. Because they both really work hard to make this work and when the Vulture is soaring I think the film is at its best.

Oh, and as with all films in the MCU, hang around for a mid credits and post credits scene.

Okja

okja-posterOkja is my first review on this site for a film that I did not see at the cinema and that on its own gives me incredibly mixed feelings about the health of the Cinema. The film, financed by Netflix has received a limited cinema release the same day as it became available on the streaming service. So limited in the UK that I am unable to seek it out, especially when I already pay for Netflix. More about my thoughts on this state of affairs at the end of this review, but lets talk about the film because it is very much worth talking about.

Written and directed by Boon Joon Ho (The Host, Snowpiercer) Okja starts out as a live action My Neighbour Totoro and ends as a call to arms for vegetarians everywhere. Okja is a super pig, created by the Mirando Corporation to address world hunger. Led by CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) they aim to spin a heartless corporation into a caring one with a publicity stunt where they send 26 super pigs to different farmers across the world. The pig sent to Korea becomes Mija’s (Seo-Hyun Ahn) companion and the opening scenes are set in idyllic mountain side locations where we watch them bonding. Anyone who has seen My Neighbour Totoro will see the comparisons straight away, a giant super cute animal making odd noises bonding with a small girl, its a sweet introduction that makes you care about an animal intended for slaughter.

As Mija and Okja’s tale unfolds we are also introduced to Paul Dano’s Eco warrior Jay and Jake Gyllenhaal’s utterly crazy performance as a TV personality Johnny Wilcox.¬†okja-character-posters-4-600x900The film is almost worth watching for his performance alone. Check out his character poster that I have included here for evidence of this.

The subjects of ethical practices, genetically modified foods and companionship wrapped up in a quirky, sometimes crazy and original world view make for a really thought provoking film that is well worth a watch.

But coming back to my comments at the beginning, how you can watch this film is very much limited to your home cinema. Unless you happen to be near a Curzon screen in the UK (6 of their 10 screens being in London). My issue with this is that mainstream cinema is now unwilling to take risks on original film makers with original visions. It is too dangerous for them to distribute this sort of film when they know they can make money with more generic fare. As someone who sees around 100 films a year at the cinema I still arguably only see mainstream films, borne out by the fact that critics like Mark Kermode’s best of lists often feature films never distributed at a cinema near me.

A state of affairs that means a director stung by the handling of his most recent film, Snowpiercer will turn to a streaming service. Where arguably more people will see it, but not on the big screen, where it would look best.

The Book of Henry

fid17516Henry is 11 and a genius. He lives with his mother Susan and his younger brother Peter in a leafy suburb. Aside from setting his family up for life via the stock market he is concerned that apathy is worse than violence and people should do more to help others. When he suspects his classmate and neighbour Christina is in trouble he documents how his mother can help her in a book.

Directed by Colin Trevorrow this little indie film is sandwiched between Jurassic World (currently the 4th highest grossing film of all time) and Star Wars Episode IX on his directorial slate. It is also only the 3rd film he has ever made, with another indie feature called Safety Not Guaranteed his debut. And it is fair to say that this film has taken a critical mauling, one that I do not think it deserves. It is by no means a perfect film and it is incredibly strange in terms of where the plot goes, but as films go it’s fine with more than a dash of peculiar!

The opening half is a very standard precocious child film. Henry (Jaeden Lieberher) behaves like an adult and virtually runs the household. Susan (Naomi Watts) is a slightly wayward mother who plays video games (no, her controller movements bear no resemblance to the game she is playing as per every film to portray gaming). Peter (Jacob Tremblay) idolises his brother whilst living in his shadow. But then tragedy strikes and the film moves into surreal and dark territory, totally at odds with the tone of everything that has gone before. It’s a brave idea, but it’s not completely convincing and I struggle to find an underlying point to the story other than its surrealness.

It is undeniably intriguing though. And if Trevorrow wants to make indie curiosities in between tent poles then why not?

Transformers: The Last Knight

tf5ovbbThe 5th Transformers movie from Michael Bay sees Cybertron heading to Earth to try to renew itself whilst we are treated to mythology about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table being part of Transformers history. Stanley Tucci is a drunken Merlin, Anthony Hopkins plays an utterly bonkers English Earl, Laura Haddock takes on the role of eye candy that every Transformers film must have (professor at Oxford who wears stiletto heels and low-cut dresses) and Mark Wahlberg returns to play hero.

I honestly can not make the plot sound remotely coherent because it is utter bobbins. The first Transformers film to be formed from a “Writers Room”, where only 3 people finished with a screenwriters credit feels like they were not in the same room when they wrote segments of the film. Arthurian legend is quite cool, stick it in. Wouldn’t it be good if Transformers killed Nazi’s? Stick it in. Submarines? Drones? Space ships? Hey, the film is going to run for an interminable 149 minutes so let’s just put it all in.

The film jumps jarringly from scene to scene with seemingly no connectivity, but not only that, it seems to do it during scenes. Multiple times it felt like I had blinked for too long, because characters were suddenly somewhere else or doing something else. We are introduced to a young girl at the beginning of the film, only for her to disappear for the entire middle section and to return to do virtually nothing at the end. And there are multiple examples of characters having no purpose whatsoever, as though their role was excised in the writing process but no one bothered to go back through the script and remove them completely. Anthony Hopkins entire role in the film is to show up in the middle to try to explain the plot to us, failing miserably at that, but being completely batty in the process. It is as though he feels his character must match the preposterous nature of the film.

The biggest crime of all though is how the Transformers themselves are portrayed. Firstly, as with all of these films they are secondary characters despite them clearly being what people want to see. Secondly, every robot must be a massive walking cliché. This time we are treated to a Suicide Squad style intro to a handful of Decepticons all with their own quirky cliche only for them to disappear 10 minutes later! Thirdly, Optimus Prime feels the need to constantly inform us he is Optimus Prime, thanks for that, I had forgotten because I slipped into a coma from boredom. Finally, without stating the specific characters for those who want to see this first hand, they utterly destroy 2 key characters introduced in this film, much like they did with the Dinobots in the last film.

Just for some balance, I actually think the first Transformers film was pretty decent. It had character and it focused well on the relationship between a likeable outsider and his talking car. Every film since then has been an impossibly awful over long series of slow motion explosions and zero characters to care about. This is no different.

 

Baby Driver

babydriver-04aBaby (Ansel Elgort) is a getaway driver paying off a debt to heist boss Doc (Kevin Spacey). Following an accident as a child he has tinnitus and constantly plays music off of his many iPods, every aspect of his life choreographed to music.

Simply put, this is a great film. Edgar Wright is back following creative differences on Ant Man, resulting in this being his first film in 4 years and he absolutely nails every creative decision here.

As a high concept pitch it is a car chase film set to music, but there is so much more to it. The car chases are great, Wright has talked about his love for them and recently curated a season at the BFI of his favourites. That’s shown here with real chases, no CGI and an exhilarating sense of speed. The music is diverse and cool, each song working well with the scene it’s paired with. Elgort is great as the nearly mute Baby and shares great chemistry with Lily James, who plays love interest Debora. But the whole cast is fantastic, with a rotating gallery of rogues pulling off the heists all feeling like fully formed characters. Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx, Eliza Gonzalez, Jon Bernthal, Flea and Lanny Joon are all in the car with Baby at one point or another, all with their own hang ups and drives. (Pun intended).

At its best it feels like the camera is dancing around the action whilst a kinetic exhilarating heist unfolds. Watch this film!

 

Churchill

churchill-movie-posterThe first of two films about Winston Churchill this year decides to focus on the 3 days leading up to D-Day and takes a very human approach to its character.

I have to say I found the focus initially disorienting as this film is not about the decisive leader and greatest Briton who led us through the war. This is a film about a war veteran frozen with guilt and fear in the face of General Eisenhower (John Slattery) and Montgomery’s (Julian Wadham) plans for the invasion of France. The film opens with Churchill on a beach having flashbacks to the horror of Gallipoli, a campaign he feels responsible for and sees him rallying against the plans for the D-Day landings as not being enough. The idea being to show us all how human this man was.

Brian Cox steals the show of course, excellent as ever and succeeding in showing the humanity in an iconic figure. The film probably at its best when he is sharing the screen with Miranda Richardson as his wife Clementine and James Purefoy as King George VI. Both able to stand up against this man in their own way and steer him towards his duty.

Overall though, it lacks punch aside from a stand out lead role.