Gemini Man (2019) Review

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If you have read a few reviews for Gemini Man, you have probably seen many negative reactions to this Ang Lee/Will Smith collaboration. This film has not impressed film critics. Going by the poor box office results so far, with many predicting a rare Will Smith flop, the public does not seem impressed either. For the sake of giving you something fresh to read, this review will first focus on the positives. There is a lot to like, even if the chain holding these jewels together is  weak.

The characters are charming and likeable. Benedict Wong plays a comic relief stock character brilliantly. The scene in the plane when he is singing “Gold Digger” (possibly the Ray Charles song sampled in “Gold Digger”) is just so human and warm. Funny too. The moment when he later calls out Henry Brogan (Will Smith) for actually being fifty one also elicits much laughter. Speaking of Will Smith, to nobody’s surprise, he delivers here. His performance is safe. He does not offer much that is new in terms of his range- although, the scene involving him talking to his younger self about insomnia is a moving surprise. Otherwise, the performance is exactly what you would expect: a charismatic and one dimensional hero, but an engaging and absorbing one too. What works for Will Smith throughout his career works here too. Like the rest of the cast of characters, he is likeable enough.

Ang Lee’s direction, and the work of the cinematographer, is a major highlight of the film. Many of the shots are inventive and a joy. A tracking shot of a drone rising directly into the air is so satisfying to watch, it feels like watching a tape measure zip back into its holder. Early in the film, there is a shot with an outstanding sense of depth, as the camera is placed over the shoulder of someone sniping Henry Brogan (Will Smith), only for Henry to walk on screen, a small figure in the distance, and shoot the sniper. The takes are long and controlled too. None of the choppy, disorientating and confused editing, plaguing many Hollywood action films at the minute, is to be found here. Further, his use of the de-ageing digital technology is some of the most impressive put to screen so far. Fresh Prince of Bel Air Will Smith could have travelled forward in time to star in this movie- it is that good. The direction and cinematography make this film much more enjoyable than critics would have you think.

The action sequences are a lot of fun as result. The hand to hand fighting boasts some impressive choreography too: seeing the two Henrys rolling around the floor beating the crap out of each other is as fun as it sounds .The motorcycle chase sequence involving the younger, cloned Henry Brogan chasing his older, original self, is entertaining and enjoyable highlight of the action. The  chase ends with the cloned Henry using his motorcycle as a martial arts staff and smacking the older Henry all over the place. Admittedly, it is dumb- Henry should be dead after such an attack. It is a memorable and outlandishly cool shot though, and it is refreshingly original. Maybe it would work better if Spider-Man were fighting off a motorcycle in this way. Regardless, the action is worth the price of entry.

The fact this cool scene does not make sense is the biggest problem plaguing this film. The sci-fi is poorly set up. The first scene, involving Henry Brogan, is highly reminiscent of Skyfall, as a trained assassin uses a sniper to kill someone on a moving train. The opening scene sets the tone so that Gemini Man feels like a spy thriller, not a sci-fi. When the cloning technology is revealed through its end product, it is jarring as a result. The opening should have done more to establish the sci-fi side of the setting. When the two Henrys are fighting each other with a motorcycle, this could have been rendered more believable with a reference to Henry taking some kind of super soldier serum. This is not the case, and the scene is illogical as a result. The science fiction elements of this film should have been properly established.

Instead, the first half an hour is wasted on dated and cliched “bureaucrats shouting at each other in an office” set up. You hear talk of “assets”, and even more talk of “Russian terrorists”. You see the hero getting ambushed by a SWAT term in their country retreat. The hero is forced out of retirement. Later in the film, the villain (Clive Owens) says “go ahead. Do it”, meaning the cliches are not limited to the first half hour. The original idea for this film was devised in the late 90s, and it seems the building blocks of the story are also from twenty years ago.

Gemini Man is not an amazing classic. It gets a lot wrong: the story feels dated and the sci-fi is poorly set up. But it also gets a lot right: the characters are funny and likeable, the de-ageing technology is a marvel here, and the action is a lot of fun. It may not be worth the price of a an expensive cinema ticket, but if it ends up on Netflix, it will keep you entertained. If you go in expecting a popcorn thriller, that is what you will get, and you will not be disappointed.

El Camino: A Breaking Bad Movie (2019) Review

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Six years. Following four seasons of Better Call Saul, Jesse Pinkman is finally back on our screens. He continues to dazzle as the character that made him a household name, and Emmy award winner. No more needs to be said about Aaron Paul’s captivating and moving performance, which stays consistent and strong, even six years later, in this new Netflix film. But does the rest of the film hold up?

This is (nearly) a standalone story set after the events of Breaking Bad. El Camino follows Jesse Pinkman (played as compellingly as always by Aaron Paul) as he tries to escape a police manhunt, and to find the money needed to get his fresh start. There are moments where the film feels self-indulgent, such as when Joe brings up the “magnets” scene from the first episode of Season Five, or some slightly forced, and entirely expected, cameos towards the end. These moments are service for fans of the show, but ultimately hinder El Camino as a standalone piece of film. Also, the scene involving Ed (Robert Foster), the vacuum cleaner shop owner who also runs a witness protection programme for criminals, is not properly explained, and depends too much on the memory of fans of the show. Other than these moments of weakness, the film tells an original story about a criminal looking for his fresh start that even people who have not seen the show will be able to follow. The flashback sequences with Todd explain a lot of what is going on organically, whilst being captivating scenes in their own right. If you are a fan of the show, the returning characters and settings will add to your enjoyment with a cool wave of nostalgia, but El Camino works as a standalone film in its own right, for the most part.

The film is remarkably well told . This is to be expected, given that Vince Gilligan, the creator of the show, returns as writer-director for the film. Gilligan proves a master of suspense and tension. Characters are constantly trying to outsmart each other in thrilling, clever and wordy games of chess. The writing is superb so that these scenes can be just as intense as the gun shootouts. Gilligan constantly plays with what the audience knows in comparison to the other characters throughout to build suspense. One minute we believe Jesse has the upperhand because another character cannot see them, then a car will pull up and immediately spin the scene so that Jesse is now the one in danger. Gilligan’s control of audience knowledge is masterful, as he constantly reorientates the story so that what we know is given new context, and even more suspense is added.

Further, the film has two well integrated sub-plots. Transitions between the present, Jesse’s escape, and flashbacks to his time in captivity, are crisply done. Gilligan often uses an object or piece of speech to smoothly bring in a flashback; for example, early in the film, Jesse takes a shower, which forces him to remember the cold, garden hose showers he had during his time as a slave. This is a more obvious example example, but the links between scenes are sometimes, due to the finese and subtlety of Gilligan’s storytelling, quite hard to spot. Sometimes it will be something as organic as Jesse gaining access to a gun, and being given a choice to use it, in two seemingly unconnected scenes. The flashbacks are smoothly joined together. They never feel clunky. The transitions are seamless. This story is extremely well told.

The cinematography plays an essential role in the storytelling. One transition from present to past involves an extreme close-up of Jesse looking through an eye-hole, reminiscent of Psycho and Peeping Tom. One the camera pulls out, we realise we have gone back in time. The cinematography is fantastic throughout. It really is the strongest element of the film. The establishing shots of Albuquerque are stunning and immediately pull you in. Any cinematographer can take a good shot, but only the best can tell a story with the camera. In the scenes involving Todd (Jesse Plemons), you rarely see his face. You only ever see his face through bars, or through car windows. If his face is not blocked, it is a long shot. In comparison, Jesse’s face is constantly in the foreground, perhaps suggesting Jesse still cannot deal with the trauma, inflicted by Todd and his gang, properly. It is subtle touches like this that elevate the film, as it did the show.

El Camino does not feel like essential viewing because the show ended it so perfectly, and the film itself does not reach the quality of some standout episodes from the show, namely Ozymandias”. However, it is still a fantastic epilogue to the show, which is crafted carefully by a skilled writer-director. Finding the balance between being (mostly) standalone and delivering exciting service for fans of the show, El Camino is worth the six year wait.

Judy (2019) Review

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Adapted by screenwriter Tom Edge from the stage play End of the Rainbow, Judy will feel familiar for fans of biopic dramas released around award season. If you have seen any film of this genre, you have seen Judy. Stan and Ollie, for example, is almost identical to this film. One famous star is simply substituted for another. Nevertheless, it is not a bad film, for it gets right everything comparable films in the genre also get right. The plot, whilst familiar, is tight and well-structured, and Zellweger is brilliant as Judy Garland. The production and costume designers deserve a lot of credit too. It would have been nice if this film played it a little less safe.

The production and costume design is marvellous to look at. Recreating the 1930s American film sets and 1960s London, each setting feels real and authentic. The flashbacks and the main narrative both feel different from each other, and that is because of the hard work put into recreating both eras. From the very start, there is a recreation of the Oz set that is just gorgeous to look at. 

The work behind the scenes allows for an impressive backdrop against which Renée Zellweger dazzles. Her performance captures the sense that Garland was vulnerable and self-destructive, and that she was in denial about it at times. She sells the idea that Garland was frail and damaged, with a performance attentive to detail, even to subtle twitches. Zellweger’s performance is the film’s main selling point.

The rest of the film is well-put together. At the start, the scenes, cutting back and forth in time, run smoothly. The film’s climax comes with a performance of “Over the Rainbow”- ask yourself, does this surprise you at all? Of course it was going to end here. Further, the structure is predictable with a change in circumstance followed by flashback pattern. It is done well.  The relationship between the flashback and the present situation is always clear, so that the flashbacks do not feel jolting, and so the film has a smooth rhythm. Having this structure, however, gives the film an unoriginal “origins story” feel, as if all the bad things that happened to her made as a child were integral to making Garland a star, as if they are a necessary part of her development, akin to Bruce Wayne losing his parents so he could become Batman. Structurally, it plays it safe, with a very conventional situation, flashback, situation, then flashback, approach.  The film is well-put, but conventional and safe.

This style of storytelling is hard to stomach, given the fact the main character is Judy Garland. Garland suffered sexual abuse (which is not even depicted clearly!), and was denied a childhood, not even being allowed to eat, and being drugged up to suit the producer’s needs. She is not even allowed a birthday on her birthday because it will clash with filming schedules. Garland was used and abused by the studio system, but the film does not criticise the system enough; rather, it seems to suggest it was all part of the shaping Garland’s personality.

Judy could have benefited, and given itself much more to say, if it took the time to criticise this system that swallowed the real Garland whole and wrecked her life. It does not. It authentically shows the 1930s and 1960s as they were, with some impressive production and costume design, but it does not go out of its way to condemn the practices. As stated, this is not a bad film. Zellweger’s performance is a good reason to see it. It just feels like a missed opportunity. Judy plays it safe when it could have aimed for something more profound.

Joker (2019) Review

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This film is the masterpiece most critics, who have seen it so far, have described. Wow. Joker really lives up to the hype. With strong writing, a forlorn score, precise cinematography and an outstanding performance from Joaquin Phoenix, this is film people will be talking about for years to come.

The writing of Todd Phillips and Scott Silver has not been getting much praise, but it deserves it. The gritty story, which lives up to its 15 age rating, depicts Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), an already damaged and broken person, as he suffers incessant bad luck and cruel beatings from a careless society around him. The transformation from Arthur to Joker takes its time, feeling real and organic as a result (unlike other descents into madness from a popular show earlier this year). There is some unforced social commentary as well, for the inadequate state provisions for dealing with mental health issues are suggested to a possible cause in Arthur’s decay into insanity. Some truly surprising twists are also thrown in along the way, particularly involving Sophie (Zazie Beetz). The reason the twist works is because her affair with Arthur feels like a spin on the Joker/Harley Quinn romance. You believe in it. Then, the narrative pulls the curtain and reveals all was not as it seemed. Joker’s screenplay does this so well: exploiting our knowledge of the source material to shock and surprise. Take the inclusion of Bruce Wayne/Batman and his father, Thomas Wayne. Throughout the film, we know this subplot can only end one way. Another example is when Arthur/Joker is invited on a talkshow hosted by Murray Franklin. Not only is this calling back to a famous scene from the comics, but it is also an interesting parallel of a similar scene from The King of Comedy. By paying homage to these sources of inspiration, the talkshow scene is filled with tension, as we know things are not going to end well. The narrative is told through some carefully controlled writing.

This film is more than just a screenplay; the cinematography from Lawrence Sher, under the direction of Todd Phillips, is that of a craftsman. So much of the story is told from remarkably well chosen shots. An early shot in the film depicts Arthur at a makeup table. He is on the left of the frame, slightly off from the centre, suggesting how his life and mental state have slightly skewed from the normal. He is forcing a smile on his face, but a single tear is falling down his cheek, dragging the makeup with it. This one shot tells you everything you need to know about Arthur. Further, there are many shots depicting Arthur/Joker on a set of stairs. These shots are always framed so Arthur looks trapped between the two barristers, just as he is trapped by his depression and the crushing forces of an indifferent society. (Gotham, too, is perfectly realised by Sher as a neglected, brutal, and, sadly, recognisable city.) It is also important to track what he is doing on these stairs: is he struggling on his way up? Or dancing like there is no one else in the world on his way down? It is a clever way of tracking his character’s descent into madness.

Of course, Joker would not be what it is without the Oscar worthy performance from Joaquin Phoenix. Backed up by a moving, dark and tragic score from Hildur Guðnadóttir, Phoenix really captures the idea that it can be hard to determine whether Joker’s life is a tragedy or comedy. His physicality as he dances like the world is his stage, the way he can look in fits of laughter and genuine, gut-retching pain at the same time, and the way he effortlessly sends a chill down the audience’s spine as he changes from manic laughter to cold silence, all work to make the film as memorable as it is. Phoenix also lost a lot of weight for the role, and this was a superb artistic decision. It conveys how downtrodden and beaten this character is, whilst making for some unsettling viewing as his skin slides across his bones during his dance performances to himself. Phoenix joins the pantheon of great Joker performances.

Even if Phoenix was the only good thing about this film, it would still be worth seeing. Fortunately for us, everything is else is superbly crafted and lives up to this career high performance. The writing is careful and precise. The cinematography is even more masterful. And, unlike a lot of superhero films from Marvel, there is a terrific and dark score too. This really is the five star movie we were promised, and a true high point for film in 2019. 

Between Two Ferns: The Movie (2019) Review

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Between Two Ferns, the show, is a YouTube series that borrows the premise of the 00s hit show, Da Ali G Show. In both shows, the comedian/host interviews celebrities, but the twist is that the questions are harsh, scathing, and make you ask how he thinks he could get away with asking that. Between Two Ferns is a weaker imitation because the celebrities (including the likes of Obama) are in on the joke. Their responses to the hostile questions are funny, but you can tell they are as scripted and planned. In the 00s show, they did not, and their responses were all the more real, damning and revealing as a result. Nevertheless, the show is still funny. How does one turn an interview-based series into a feature length film for Netflix, though?

This is where Between Two Ferns surpasses the show it inspired. Da Ali G Show made the mistake of turning a character designed for short interview sequences and sketches into a character with a three act arc. It lacked the interviews that made Ali G a star. The film did not work. Between Two Ferns does not make this mistake. At the front and centre of this film is what makes the show so successful: Zach Galifianakis conducting uncomfortable interviews. The film is filled with them. The stars are big and recognisable: everyone from Peter Dinklage to John Legend to Matthew McConaughey makes an appearance. The eclectic range of the cast- from Instagram stars to famous interviewers to actors- will make sure everyone who sees this film can watch an interview they enjoy. This film is at its strongest when we are presented with these interviews.

The film’s plot is faint and tenuous. “Plot” is perhaps the wrong word. Rather, it is a thin storyline used to connect the interviews together. A dot to dot. A barely visible frame. In this sense, Between Two Ferns: The Movie borrows a lot more from Borat than Ali G. It is a mockumentary about the making of the show, with elements of the road trip and quest movie genres. Zach and his team have to travel around America, as in any road trip film, getting celebrity interviews within two weeks so that Zach can get his dream talk show deal, giving it a quest movie feel. In reality, the plot is an excuse, a set up, in order to connect some celebrity interviews together.

This is not necessarily a weakness, however. Between Two Ferns: The Movie is at its strongest when Galifianakis is roasting the celebrity guests. They are as funny and awkward as fans of the show expect. Some of the plot heavy, between interview scenes do work, but mostly when they connect directly to a celebrity interview to increase the level of humour: the John Legend sequence is a notable example of the show within a show blending with the outer story in humorous fashion. Another example is when Zach is “walking through the door of adventure” nonchalantly and coolly as he introduces the viewer to his documentary, only for it to cut behind the scenes and reveal that we are witnessing the twenty first take. When we are just given “plot”, such as the crew meeting for drinks in the bar, the film falters. Fortunately, these plot heavy scenes are few and far between, so that they do not get in the way. The pan shots turning towards the crew, zooming into their face, as they look at Zach in disdain and embarrassment are glorious. They have as much meme potential as similar shots in shows like The Office. This is a mockumentary, not a drama. For this one instance, the less plot the better.

Fans of the show will love this feature length adaptation. The hilariously unpleasant atmosphere of the celebrity interviews have been preserved, and we get many more of these funny interviews. All of them are linked together with a thin “plot”, but the film never allows the behind the scenes framing plot to slow the film down. Rather, some of the scenes off set work as comedy gold in their own right. Given the rather simple premise, and lack of a narrative, about the original show, the film adaptation can be watched by anybody. You do not need to see the show to get it. And if this is your introduction to Between Two Ferns, you will be hooked immediately.

Retrospective Reviews: Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice Ultimate Edition (2016)

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Celebrating the 80th Anniversary of Batman, Bob Kane’s pop culture icon, could not be done properly without watching a few of the films. So many great Batman films have come out: The Dark Knight and Batman (1989) to name a couple of the best. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, for many, was not one of the great Batman movies, nor one of the great DC films more widely. Perhaps this is because the “Ultimate Edition” was not the one released in cinemas. It is a vastly superior cut of the film that gets a lot right. The differences between the r-rated cut and the theatrical cut are all very welcome.

The plot is a lot more fleshed out in this version. There is a smoother flow as plot point A moves to plot point B, rather than A going straight to C, as was the case in the original film. The Nairomi sequence is extended to make it clear how Superman (Henry Cavill) was set up so it looked like he caused the deaths in the terrorist compound. Wumni Nosaku’s Kahina Ziri is giving a much more significant role. Like the theatrical cut, Kahina testifies against Superman, but in this film, we find out she was paid by Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) to lie about the deaths. In fact, Lex just comes across as a better villain in this version. Eisenberg’s performance during the scene with the Senator (Holly Hunter), as he sinisterly drops his childlike innocence act, is so subtle in the way he changes from the public Lex Luthor to real one. He really sells the unhinged interpretation of Lex. When he is sent to Arkham Asylum, you do not doubt the decision. It helps that his plan make a lot more sense now too, for it is given greater time to develop. The fact all of these plot points were taken out for the theatrical release is baffling. It is difficult to differentiate between old and new scenes because the “new” scenes were always meant to be there. As the Ultimate Edition includes them, we are given a much more cogent film.

Most of the additions relate to Superman’s half of the story, rather than Batman’s half. Clark Kent/Superman is given clear reasons for being sceptical about Batman (Ben Affleck). He does some unassigned investigating of his own and witnesses first hand the intensity and brutality of Batman’s vigilante justice. The scene where Superman helps victims out of the burning Capital building is a particularly moving addition, demonstrating his sense of helplessness (for the bomb is revealed, in this edition, to be covered in lead) and his unwavering desire to help. Like the epic long shot where Superman blocks Doomsday’s punch from killing Lex, despite everything Lex has done, this film shows great understanding of the Superman character. It is a shame the theatrical cut did not get more of this Superman story.

The reason Batman’s story gets few extra scenes is because the theatrical cut’s greatest scenes were all related to Batman anyway. Ben Affleck is a natural as Bruce Wayne, and effortlessly changes from the public playboy persona to the angry soul behind the mask. We get a few more shots depicting Bruce struggling to sleep and taking pills, which hammer the point about his troubled mind home. No major additions though. The shot, early in the film, with the police officer’s nose and cheek in focus as the Batman watches out of focus is still a brilliant introduction to the shadowy hero. The warehouse scene did not need extra footage, for it is still one of the best Batman fight scenes put to film. The choreography is intense and violent in a way no other Batman film has been able to capture. Batman’s theme is played in all its magnificence during this scene too. Like Superman’s theme, it is memorable, captures the character perfectly, and just a pleasure to listen to in its own right.  Everything the theatrical cut got right was related to Batman, so the Ultimate Edition did not need to change much.

As the theatrical cut was two and a half hours long, the Ultimate Edition, with all its additions, comes to the three hour mark. This may put some off, especially because not all of the shots and scenes seem entirely necessary. Whilst the “Knightmare” sequence is great, and the fact Batman fails/gets captured subtly reveals a lot about Bruce’s insecurities, we could probably still do without the Flash sequence. It is confusing, even in this version. Did we really need to see Ben Affleck naked in the shower too? Extraneous shots and scenes are harder to forgive when a film is this long. Even harder when the titular battle does not take place until the two hour mark, and the first meeting between the two heroes does not take place until an hour has passed. Nevertheless, the narrative flows a lot better, and the action is still entertaining. The CGI is superbly rendered and remarkable in how realistic it looks, and all of the action is well-choreographed. What else would you expect from a Zack Snyder film? Action is what he does best. Even though the film is three hours, there is a lot to like to make sure it goes quickly.

Give Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice another go, but watch the Ultimate Edition this time. Everything the theatrical cut got wrong (an incoherent plot, lack of depth to Superman’s character development) is corrected. These are seamlessly mixed with everything the theatrical cut got right, such as the stellar cast of performances and the action sequences, which are still just as thrilling this time around. It may be three hours, but you can forgive the runtime when the film is this damn entertaining.

Ready or Not (2019) Review

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Ready for a film that is a strong contender for film of the year, or not? It is difficult to be one of the best comedies of the year, and even harder to be one of the best horrors in 2019, with such tough competition. Yet, a case can be made for Ready or Not being the best of both genres. At once both eerie and nonchalant, abhorrent and amusing, this film walks a fine line between comedy and horror with the expertise of an Olympic gold-winning gymnast. The cast, score, and writing are essential for this darkly comic tone. However, this film is more than just a black comedy horror. It really has something to say about class relations in the same vein that Get Out had much to say about race relations. Like the latter modern classic, this film deserves your attention.

Ready or Not maintains a consistently brilliant darkly comic tone throughout. The scene which best encapsulates this is the scene where Grace (Samara Weaving) is driving away and is trying to contact the police. The person on the other end is going through procedure and being typically difficult. Somehow, at the same time, this is both hilarious and tension-raising. Throughout the film, the film oscillates from comedy to horror, and sometimes stays in the middle, with pitch perfect control. One minute it looks like Grace is about to die, the next the person about to shoot her misses and screams, humorously, “FUCK!” in response. The impeccable score, and every single performance, is integral to maintaining this balance between comedy and horror. Grace’s murderous in-laws are all perfectly cast, and their timing is perfect as they tread between the horrifying and the humorously incompetent. This film is better at the comedy side of things, for the horror sections are a bit over-dependent on jump scares and Weaving’s screaming. Nevertheless, it does both genres justice. This is a black comedy horror hybrid at its best.

The cinematography is also essential for creating this comic tone. The opening shot is of a Joker/Green Goblin like figure, suggesting that the sinister and the comic will bleed into one another throughout. We also getting close ups of Fitch’s phone as he searches for “how to use a crossbow” videos and as he asks whether this “pack with a devil” business is “bullshit” or not. It is laugh-out-loud funny, but unnerving when you actually think about it. Without trying to spoil the ending, the closing shot hammers this point home. It is a long take and the last line of dialogue perfectly captures the absurd comic horror of the film .The cinematography is well-considered and an important part of the tone being created.

What makes this film so special, though, is that it really has something to say about class. The “hide and seek” game seems to prove a perfect metaphor for the reluctance of the upper class to allow for breeding between classes. We know this from the wedding. All the characters seem sceptical that Grace will prove good enough for her husband, Alex. Grace points out that there is “no way to for me to win this game”, which seems to refer to her difficulty in being accepted and the game “hide and seek” itself. In fact, the entire family frequently let slip their polite facade to show their disdain for the lower classes. One servant is killed accidentally and they care as much as Vince Vega when he accidentally shot Marvin in the face. “She’s dead? She was my favourite”- it is like he has lost a toy. Why is it so difficult? Why is the upper class so concerned with preserving tradition? The absurdity of this tradition is frequently pointed out in the movie’s funniest scenes, as Fitch points out that he does not even know how to work the crossbow he has been given to go hunting. This film has a lot to say about class relations and it needs to be heard.

If you love Get Out, then you will adore this movie. Both are about the horrific underbelly lying underneath the relationship between two social groups. Both create much tension from a sinister family, which the main character is only just getting to know. That same family is also the source of  humour in both films. Their nonchalance attitude towards murder, and the way they have all accepted something truly horrifying as normal, is another common element to both films. This is the Get Out of class relations.

A few films about the upper class have come out recently: The Souvenir, Downton Abbey, and Ready or Not. This is the one with something to say, though. And what it does say is told masterfully, with expertly timed performances, a fantastic score and smart cinematography. If you are going to see any movie about the upper class this year, see this one, if you’re ready.

The Kitchen (2019) Review

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This should work, but it does not. The Kitchen is extremely well-cast, the source material is lauded, and the writer-director was involved with Straight Outta Compton, a highlight of the 2010s. Sadly, it does not. Whilst it does have its moments, one’s overall enjoyment of the film is ruined by a few bad apples.

Most of The Kitchen‘s rotten eggs come from the script. This film is over-saturated with cliched dialogue. It is a wonder Andrea Berloff has not been done for plagiarism: lines such as “trouble will come looking for you”, “we’ve got a problem”, and “we need to talk” have been used so many that they have no impact. People do not talk like this at all. Considering Berloff wrote a standout film of this decade, Straight Outta Compton, it is surprising her script is so lazy here.

Another problem with the script is its structure. Events fly by so swiftly and without any narrative cohesion that the film is hard to follow. It feels more like a montage of different crimes than a woven together narrative. One minute these women are mobsters’ wives. The next they are on top of the criminal network. What does not help is the fact very few of these events gel together tonally. Scenes humorous in tone awkwardly jar with intense and uncomfortable scenes depicting attempted rape and violence against women. Funerals are mixed with laughs. Tone oscillates from the camp to the gritty and never picks a side. Whilst none of these scenes are done particularly badly per se- the use of silence during the attempted rape scene was particularly effective- the way the story is structured means that none of these plot points feel seamlessly connected. The script is the main thing holding this film back.

This is shame because one of the performances is superb and deserved a better script. Elizabeth Moss does a fantastic job conveying the meek and vulnerable side of Claire at the beginning, and effortlessly transforms into a cold killer by the end. Moss tells so much without saying anything at all. Her performance needs to be commended.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the other two leads. Melissa McCarthy’s only emotion in this film seems to be an inauthentic worry/look of concern. Tiffany Haddish is unconvincing as Ruby. Is anyone really intimidated by her? Both performances feel cartoonish, and do not feel like they belong in the same film as the one for which Moss is brilliantly acting.

Not everything feels inauthentic, though. The setting is impressively realised. Both environment and period are brought to life. You can really feel the grime and the neglect of Hell’s Kitchen. Shane Valentio deserves credit for excellent production design. It is hard to believe this film was not made in 1970s New York.

Some of The Kitchen works. In its pantry, you can find an impressive performance from Elizabeth Moss, individual scenes remarkably well-executed, and commendable production design. Sadly, these are paired with poor script writing and cartoonish performances from the other leads. This is a film with plenty of great ingredients, but all of them are thrown together thoughtlessly, with a few bad ingredients added too. As a result, The Kitchen fails to create a recipe that works.

Rambo: Last Blood (2019) Review

Wait until you can stream it…

Rambo: Last Blood is an attempt to update a 1980s action icon for the 2010s. To do this, it borrows heavily from other movies of this decade: the nightclubs and rooftop settings of John Wick, the last stand sequence from Skyfall and the plot of Taken. Unfortunately, in the updating process, the xenophobia of Trump’s America has also found its place in the latest Rambo film. Further, neither the well-written plot, nor Stallone’s mature and moving performance from Creed, find their way into this unpleasant sequel, meaning it has no saving graces.

The portrayal of Mexicans in this film is unsettling, particularly in the current political climate. The whole film comes across as a disturbing Trumpian revenge fantasy, as the heroic American slaughters Mexicans who lie, betray, and commit crimes. Rambo’s niece has a Mexican dead beat father. Of course she does. This film would have you believe there are no good qualities to the people of Mexico. The xenophobia makes this uncomfortable viewing.

The dead beat father sub plot does not even have significance to the plot nor any of the characters; it is merely included as a set up to get Rambo’s niece alone in Mexico. It is clear that the screenplay, co-written by Sylvester Stallone, started off as “Rambo meets Taken” pitch. The rest of the plot is lazily put together in order to reach this point. Paz Vega plays a character who’s sole purpose is to point Rambo in the right direction. The niece wants to show her friends the “tunnels”- is she sixteen or six? The only reason for this scene is to set up the fact Rambo has tunnels under his ranch. Rambo’s mistrust of strangers and foreigners is lazily suggested through clunky flashbacks that do not smoothly integrate themselves into the plot. The plot of this film is essentially a poorly structured set up for a rip off of Taken.

And a rip off of Skyfall too. Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) ends up having to defend his ranch from an army, using rigged traps and a lacklustre fighting style. (The action is completely uninspired.) This conclusion would not be so bad if Stallone offered a likeable performance. He injected humanity and warmth in his portrayal of Rocky in Creed. None of that is to be found here. His only emotions are xenophobic fury and revenge. The relationship with the niece could have been Rambo’s saving grace, helping us to care about him during the final battle at the ranch. Without giving anything away, the one strand helping us root for Rambo is taken away. Instead, we are given corny one liners that are poorly delivered, in a finale that copies Skyfall poorly.

The fifth instalment of this franchise really should not have been released. Its politics are xenophobic and outdated. It is a step back in terms of Stallone’s acting career. The plot is a very thin thread trying to link cool plot points ripped off from better movies, from John Wick to Skyfall. Hopefully the subtitle, “Last Blood”, is a promise Stallone can keep.

Ad Astra (2019) Review

Watch this as soon as you can…

Ad Astra needs to be seen in the cinema. The score and special effects demand it. Even if you do not get round to watching it where it was meant to be seen, there is still plenty to enjoy. James Gray’s space thriller is a character study with an excellent performance from Brad Pitt. The story is as much about his own introspection as it is about exploring the frontiers of space.

Apparently some shots use real photographs of the surface of the moon, but you will not be able to differentiate them from the fake ones. The special effects are convincing. The vast odyssey through space is at its most beautiful and stunning in Ad Astra. Some of the most delightful shots are of the planets as Roy (Brad Pitt) floats past. The planets are fully realised and dwarfing; the cinematography does an outstanding job of reminding us just how small we are in comparison to the gorgeous but intimidatingly expansive void of space. Not for one second are you allowed to believe any of this is inauthentic. The special effects really do justice to the grand ambitions of the film.

This is ironic given that the film is not really about space at all. The quest to Neptune to stop the anti-matter surges threatening life on Earth is just a reason for NASA to get the mission started and the rocket soaring. Once the set up is complete, the film is really about Roy and his relationship with his father (Tommy Lee Jones). There is a Heart of Darkness like quality to the narrative as the journey further into space is more of a journey into Roy’s soul as he succumbs to depression and a withering sense of loneliness. Fortunately, Brad Pitt was cast in this film, who works wonders to ensure this nearly one man film works. Every subtle facial twitch and the sombre pessimism in his narration really convince you that this is a man being destroyed by the black hole of depression. His own sense of inadequacy and alienation are overwhelming him, and Pitt does an excellent job conveying this in his portrayal of Roy. The editing allows for the seamless transition between close ups of Roy’s wearying face and the expanses of the solar system, constantly reminding us that both Roy is undertaking two parallel journeys into himself and into space. Despite spanning the whole of the solar system, the film is about Roy’s introspection and meditation of his life, and Pitt is more than up to the job of carrying this film more or less by himself.

The only thing letting this film down is the pacing. Every exciting piece of action seems to happen in the first two acts. Damn they are exciting though. The moon buggy choice deliberately echoes a wild-west horse chase, as history has rhymed again, and the moon has become the new frontier. The disorientating opening sequence is thrilling to watch, having the gravitational pull to sweep you into the movie’s narrative. The encounter with the research primate is startling and brutal. Critics who have described this film as slow can only be referring to the third act, where the narrative begins to drift rather than drive forward.

One thing that does not slow down, along with Pitt’s powerful performance, is the score. It is delightful and overwhelming. Max Richter has created a score that is haunting, full of emotion, while also elevating the gravity of the situation. As Roy’s isolation increases, and we get further into space, the score proportionally gets more and more impactful. The one criticism that can be thrown at the impeccable score is that it does not surprise. Think back to any space movie, and the score will likely sound familiar. Nevertheless, this style of music is not broke, and Richter did not need to fix it. It remains a pleasure to listen, even if it does not feel particularly new.

Go see this movie at the cinema. For the price of cinema ticket, you are really getting two journeys for the price of one. One journey into Roy’s lonely and crushed soul, and another into the impeccably realised darkness of the outer solar system. With a score and special effects this good, you really a screen big enough to convey its grand scope.