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Harvey is not quite behind you
12 March 2020
This visually impressive horror thriller is no masterpiece, and certainly unoriginal in the extreme but should lead to greater things for all concerned.

We are going to see a lot of survival tales before we get rid of the taint of Harvey Weinstein, and this is one of those. It isn't a chick flick per se - but most of the negative reviews will come from men as the male characters are only there to sell the progress of the heroine.

I think it is fairly brauvera storytelling despite this, with enough of a twist to guide you away from the few logistical plot holes. I'm no fan of horror, but this certainly improves on the truly terrible Hollow Man, and enough of the work is done in your head to make the bumps all the greater. It sells out to Hollywood style before it has to, but maybe next time something will take flight.
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Parasite (2019)
Dark City
22 February 2020
This is a bravura and surprising thriller, with a fancy modernist brutalist house as one of the leading stars. There is little doubt that as a loser family start to target a rich household, their early success cannot hold.

I'm a fan of Korean films anyway, and so was relaxed about the various styles this film goes through. While the film is totally accessible, there are still enough references to Korean and Asian society to make it a little demanding on the viewer - which is why the Oscar success was nicely surprising.

The film does not perfectly handle it's different layers - the political message and the moral message rather wrap around each other awkwardly. The pacing doesn't always work either - the direction is relaxed in the house but pokes around nervously outdoors.

This is not the best Korean film I've seen - Old Boy and I saw the Devil were superior - but the setup, cinematography and the sheer chutzpah of the plotting make it a sharp witted success. (I don't reference the classic Old Boy accidentally; that too was effectively a double layered film, and on reflection it was a little better at it.)
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And it was all a dream
28 December 2019
This Chinese film doesn't quite fall into Tartovsky or even David Lynch territory ( actually it is more in keeping with Momento) but it is obtuse enough to even confound an arthouse crowd. For technical reasons, the german film Victoria also comes to mind, as it also is largely based on a single tracking shot.

The dream that winds around itself with constant references - in some respects it may be easier to follow with subtitles, as it is harder for text to slip by you - produces some very strong cinematography that is at first shot by shot, followed at the end by a single take from a very young director - but clearly experienced camera crew.

After returning home, a man searches for either a lover, or a friend, but we are already in a dream world either inhabiting the past, or reliving the past. People are often ciphers for other people in this mis-remembered past, where most objects reappear elsewhere almost like an adventure game. There isn't too much heavy metaphor - although a broken watch for being stuck in time is pretty silly - so like every film these days, you probably have to see it again to pick up on everything. Honey, apples, green things, red things, ping-pong, cells, tunnels, winter, summer, dilapidation, trucks - loads of things are connected to and through the past in a recurring dream that you know won't go anywhere.
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Monos (2019)
Size of a cow
7 November 2019
The Columbian photography is the most remarkable aspect of this film about a group of youth soldiers in a putative guerrilla force. The carefree teenagers with assault rifles start to come apart when their cow dies, and they cover up their misdemeanour.

While this is a small film, it does have a bit of trouble achieving escape velocity because of how close it is to Lord of the Flies and to some extent Apocalypse Now. It is effectively a two part film because the two different bases define the shoot. That said, it has some remarkably strong performances, including the quiet centre of the story who is gender fluid despite her name "Rambo". Her reticence and inability to fit in with the hormone driven "Monkeys" or with what she finds in her journey beyond is a well worked simile of how a neutral outlook has no place when a country is at war with itself.
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End in sight
27 May 2019
So time travel. This just doesn't really ever work well, but as best it can the film tries. It goes the unexpected consequences route, and the new timeline route.

There is some bravery pathos and humour in the aftermath of Thanos, and this gives the film a stronger emotional base than usual.

I like the fact that Thanos is still smarter and ultimately more principled than the Avengers.

But we get the usual dilution because of the number of characters not really involved. Or who just pose. And Captain Marvel appears to have suffered some reduction in her role, but still looks highly unbalanced.

But the strength of the film is in the end which while not amazing is one of the better series ends I have seen.
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As much as it is ever worth reviewing Marvel films, this is perfectly fine
14 March 2019
While it could be a Thor film, a Captain America film, or in fact any origin film, this one inherits the speed and flash of the better marvel films, and retains a workable dialogue.

Unlike Black Panther, we never follow a posse; all the characters are allowed their own motives. The pace moves quickly when necessary, and slows down while the little plot exposition needed passes. There are generally few characters in any one shot, which gives the film a little more space.

Unusually, all the performances are good, even the cat. Samuel L is his normal self (minus 30 years) and Brie Larson isn't so much plucky (which is actually what was probably intended) as cool. Using the cue that the Captain America films are supposed to be edgy, this one stuck to action and space - only getting a few emotional issues to keep it going. And yes the soundtrack sparkled.
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Well versed
31 January 2019
This is one of the better films I've seen in years, telling a traditional story with panache, humour and feeling. It definitely throws a spanner in the superhero juggernaut because it is a Sony picture, its an animation and it is probably the best Spider-man film out there.

It is both familiar and sometimes quite weird, with a quality in the artwork that means there is plenty of emotion in the faces when needed. At no point did I feel the film had nothing to say, or had run out of road. The lack of focus in the visuals in the last 5 minutes compared to the art vistas on the screen for most of the time. And yet nothing truly new or original was there, just a good story and a lot of paint.
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Suspiria (I) (2018)
22 November 2018
Warning: Spoilers
I didn't see the original, so I was pleasantly surprised by the work in this film. It is a horror film, partly by way of Don't Look Now and The Blair Witch Project.

The Baader-Meinhof terror in Berlin initially seems like a strange backdrop for an Amish girl to find herself in, but the film is simply using them as a 'vessel', much like the coven use the dancers. Her start as the ingenue can't hide that our Amish hero is a little too well directed to her fate.

I thought the running time was fine, but others didn't. Once you appreciate what this film is, it is completely captivating and entertaining.

Where the film begins to waiver is when we finally get to see the ritual sacrifice, and the direction of the film slips into Hollywood mode. In todays world, we have no new insights into this genre, so maybe that was inevitable. The symbolism is not laid out any more than you would expect - and you would expect a lot. This is, after all, a Girl Power film with actual Girl Power. But made by a man. In addition we get Freud too - and the inevitable sex/death imagery.

Because the film doesn't quite own its own destiny, leaning heavily on the performances and the camera work, it will not be remembered as a classic, but I still think it does not disappoint.
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Widows (2018)
Consider this a divorce
12 November 2018
My partner was so upset by this film that she made me watch the original TV series from the 80s. Incidentally, it still stands up and makes a lot more sense.

But the question must be asked, in this day and age, why convert something that was a TV series into a film? The story of wives taking on a bank heist feels kind of #metoo in a perverse way so I get that, but the motivation of too many of the major characters simply make no sense.

Colin Farrell plays a snake politician who wants no part in the family business, but already seems to be getting far too involved out of choice. One of the wives has a relationship whose only purpose is to provide a MacGuffin - this would be embarrassing in a student film. There is a Star Wars moment between one wife and another guy where the audience just laughs at how clumsy it is - this might be deliberate but plays no useful part in a heist film. The portrayal of the black gangsters is slightly more nuanced, but the only bits thats stick are uses of violence. There is also one more unexplained major character as you get nearer the end.

Viola Davis is very good, and McQueen clearly remembered her from Secrets and Lies, and most of the rest of the cast do their stuff well. Daniel Kaluuya is chilling. But Chicago itself makes less impact on the film. Some of the location choices were frankly puzzling.

I think the director (Steve McQueen) has managed to string a set of scenes that he feels have real human emotion in them, but has manifestly failed to create a film. Let alone a heist film. A brief look back at the brilliant Heat reveals a director who gave himself to the genre and let the cast breathe life into the characters. This film is treated more like a stage play, with characters already too constrained to expand.
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Dogman (2018)
Man's best friend
1 November 2018
The desolate beach resort and shady characters, familiar from Gomorrah, plays back drop to the dog man, Marcello, of the title. He is played by the superb Marcello Fonte, who he is directed well in this tale of morality and dog grooming amongst the immoral.

This is not a story of co-dependence; it is a modern story of paths that cross but never synchronise. While Marcello seems to play the inferior to a bully, we learn very quickly that Marcello is not a schlemiel, but I'm wondering if some reviewers missed this. He is the little guy, but in a milieu where the little guy has a valid place.

Problems with the film appear in two areas; Fonte is simply a much better actor than those around him, and the canvas for this film starts to look too small, very quickly. We are given strange bits of wonderful cinematography, before returning to the squalid world of the dog man. This neither serves to make the film seem kooky, or more realistic. Unlike Gomorrah that held an unrelenting documentary eye, this looks like at times a tentative Trainspotting.

There is something good going on here, but it doesn't quite make it's way into a fully fledged film. It engages strongly in parts, but just like the ending, doesn't focus on one thing or the other.
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Believer (2018)
I partly Believe
17 October 2018
When a baleful underling survives an assassination plot, and the police accept his help to crack the drug gang's mysterious Mr Big (or Mr Lee) we know we will not be witnessing anything original.

I always try and catch Korean films in a festival, and I'm glad I caught this one. Borrowing heavily from style over substance hits such as Diva, through Usual Suspects and Infernal Affairs, it keeps a Mission Impossible tempo but in the end goes for a mystery ending. The hyper violence isn't quite up to 11 but is fairly unrelenting.

While definitely a great film, with notable sound and cinematography, it doesn't quite hit the heights of some other Korean action films due to some limited character development and imprecise editing. And the editing has filed away a sometimes visible consistent heart.
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First church of Hawke
25 July 2018
It seems there are quite a few actors rolling around, now ready to take on serious roles - not just Ethan Hawke - and small films such as this are the benefactors.

First Reformed is a film much described by the Calvinist church exterior of the first shot, stolid but with a roiling interior. The familiar path of the American independent film is taken, as quite lives are rolled out until they break.

As strong as this piece is, and Mr Hawke is absolutely excellent, the elements of the film don't all land together perfectly so by the end we are not 100% convinced. The back story, the health issues, the environmentalism, the radicalism, the depression; the Calvinism; it needed a better touch to keep a balance than Paul Schrader managed. Two people walked out in the final act in my showing, not I think because of the context but because of the misalignment.

This is still a great film, best served by the scenes with Hawke drinking himself into despond. But less might have been more.
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Deadpool 2 (2018)
I believe X will give it to you, again
31 May 2018
I was expecting less, and pleasantly surprised that it over delivered. In the first outing, when the jokes were stripped away there wasn't a whole lot happening. This time, there is a greater belief backing the picture - probably because this time Deadpool and crew more tightly inhabits the MCU. The new characters are all well fleshed out, Cable is a great foil, Domino a great sidekick and the action is not second rate. In fact the action was very solid. Cable kicks ass in a non derivative way - he is clearly a soldier. The emotional story is played reasonably straight - another sign of confidence. It doesn't hang off the film, but is integral to it. The plot is strangely lacking in the usual jar load of massive holes - even given the time travel. This just all gives the humour even more space to stand. (For me, Weasel gets top billing)

I'm happy to give a film, however lowbrow, an appropriate score if it delivers on it's premise. But there is an issue here: this film burns it's own genre for heat. The X-men are thrown onto the fire right in front of our eyes. With Thor: Ragnorak also played for laughs, there will be a more stratified feel to future Marvel. There is room for funny, or political, or world stretching. But falling between these stools will no longer work.
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The Stream of Now
28 April 2018
How long has it been since the Dark Knight? The DC film that defined how an epic comic book fantasy could wrap a world around a hero and a villain.

Marvel have a different way of building product, and the Avengers universe has spread over many instalments. And while the last two Captain America films have escaped popcorn and can be seen as real achievements, the Avengers have kept to a more Disney comfortable spectacle.

We ride from fight to fight, changing scenes but staying firmly locked into a fantasy present with no solid meaning, much better explored in comics. But even this limited form is broken here - with the idea of a villain who is neither camp nor fickle. By developing Thanos the film actually makes it's normal limitations feel worse. There is an empty parade that is supposed to support the narrative but can only manage sputtering buddy humour and colourful mayhem. From this thin gruel we are expected to construct a framework in our minds to justify the story. While enjoying the expensive antics, the attention wanders through the inevitable plot holes, pointless scenes and rolodex of similar heroes.

Better to keep to the single dimensional tunnel of the continuous spectacle, or dare to write a proper film. This fails to do either, rendering the final scenes like a Monty Python sketch without a punchline.
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Black Panther (2018)
Wakanda is the new Asgard
18 March 2018
With Disney setting the ground rules, we now know that Captain America gets the adult themes, leaving Black Panther and the others to tow the family with it. Unfortunately, one of the villains from the backstory isn't really quite Disney, so the film mixes a Bond lack of sentimentality at the beginning before going full Lion King at the end. The political points do hit home properly, but don't stay with you.

The design and look of the film was as spectacular as sold, and mostly everything makes sense. It is this that will keep Black Panther going. There was a certain elan, which is missing from many other Marvel works. The afrofuturism provides an ever present thematic anchor.

The film follows the 'first in franschise' template that states you must see lots of Wakanda and its denizens. Yet when it is slightly mysterious it is much better. Consequenly too much time is spent with the royal family and it feels like Thor in Asgard. The film was strongest away from there.

At the end you can feel that this film was carefully guided down a safe path to protect it, but it could have done with less of that. Character development suffered because the Avengers gets all the good dialogue work. The final fight was the usual weakly choreographed fudge, a decades old format now. And the Black Panther is as strong in his mask as he is lightweight without it.
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Molly's Game (2017)
Did you know the centre of the universe smells of elderberries?
7 January 2018
When a story needs to be told, Hollywood is the place to go. And this story is bold and resilient. It has a bravura ending. But despite the solid cast and the presence of Sorkin, this film seemed to have clear quality gaps, with the occasional feeling of an 80's TV movie.

Chastain was superb throughout, although often shot as if the director really wanted Julia Roberts. She plays the sharp hostess, the sympathetic ear and the foil to the boys with money. And yet the script often just fails her. Intelligence is often reduced to stupid wikipedia quotes, and the indie style sidetracking didn't really work. At one point she almost said 'I know Kung Fu'

Idris Elba finally gets his first serious role for ages, and the film's clinching speech, but he has a couple of scenes which simply needed to be reshot. He doesn't yet display the timing needed for light comedy or the touch for those early two way sizing up parts.

The photography was surprisingly poor; combined with indifferent post processing that made it look inferior to most Netflix productions. If you have sports shots, you need sport photography - which was evidently missing. They used some of the classic 'bag of money' shots, and the god life going out of control fast sequences, but there were many energy sapping loose scenes between. Much of the set design was oddly second rate. I don't understand why this should be.

Some of the scenes just lacked chemistry; Chastain doesn't always work well with others. This sometimes reflected Molly Blooms slightly fish out of water naivety, but sometimes not.

All in all this was an entertaining piece, with some fun bit parts, that just should have been treated better.
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They keep moving just out of the range of our guns
14 December 2017
The original Star Wars, now 40 years old, was always presented as a complete but fairly sterile universe. We enjoyed the heroics of the first 3 films, but were largely nonplussed by the CGI laden effects of the next 3. Like the last film, this is a return to form.

And however enjoyable this romp is, it effectively admits that there is nothing much more that can be done with the franchise at the moment. The film is probably as entertaining as any of the other Star Wars films, and even shows occasional flashes of strong film making. But the fresh stuff cannot quite escape the weight of it's own familiar format.

The Star Wars pieces are deftly moved about in grand sweeps, but with surprisingly little outcome. The character arcs seem strangely un-epic.The humour is deployed well, but just serves to reduce the size of the characters, because there is little counter-balancing in tension. At no time do we learn anything new about the Star Wars universe, or anything about where we are today in the real world. It is stuck in a fixed moral code. The attempted theme of renewal splutters along careful tramlines, and just about keeps the show on the road.

Overall the film is satisfying, and is more than just filler for the video games and McDonald's toys, but it needs something fairy strong to make it anything more than an echo of what it was.
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Special K
8 October 2017
So Blade Runner gets a remake, the hero is called K (and indeed he is partly on Trial) and we still don't know or care whether Deckard is a replicant. But the journey is wonderful.

Of Hollywood directors, I thought it was only Tarantino who believed that film making was more art than business. While all the narrative is in service to the story, the film has enough space to lets things unfold. (Yes, it is bloody long too)

The first 10 minutes of Blade Runner 2049 are already better than most films I've seen from that last few years. It focuses on no more than a cooking pot. The cinematography throughout is stunning, but not in the hamfisted throw it at the screen way of the remake of Ghost In The Shell for example. The budget and the imagination are actually in sync with visions of vast desolate eco corrupted landscapes and cityscapes. It was a reach in the original, but in this film it is complete.

I'm not actually a big fan of the original. It was far too stagy even with the bits of philosophy sewn into the action plot. One thing the remake manages well is not to keep digging into the original source for meaning. Where they do meet the remake comes off better. The signature Voight-Kampff test for instance has a truly unsettling equivalent. K's sexual relationship is embarrassingly modern, not noir romantic.

The most pivotal scenes are all brief and between women (though they all fail the Bechdel test quite dramatically) and in fact the plot revolves around birth giving the film a kind of Children of Men vibe.

The elan showed by the film is remarkable even for such a high profile remake. Everything has a heft and quality. The design is great. We get a few glimpses of other sci-fi hits (a lot of Matrix type scenes, a few Minority Report fixations) but all in service to something, not just a fancy trailer. The film drops hints, but then muddies them leaving quite a few things mysterious. Another film could follow, but there is no feeling of incompleteness to power a franchise.

A remake is a remake, but this has enough about it to be a classic.
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Shin Godzilla (2016)
a tall tail
11 August 2017
Viewing Godzilla as a political disaster gives this monster flick a far greater reach and meaning. We laugh as the Japanese politicians failing to take control, but feel for the city under threat.

This is a Godzilla film at heart, and the effects of Tokyo being laid waste district by district are well shot, as are the attempts to do battle. But the heroes are politicians, scientists and firm noodles. (Much of the humour is on screen text, so if you don't like subtitles then give it a miss)

But the joke is very much on us, as we realise that the monster is our own decisions come to life, and Donald Trump could indeed destroy Tokyo through a stupid decision.
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The white picket fence
26 April 2017
I gave this documentary a slightly higher score than it might otherwise have because of it's timing.

Perhaps it would be good at anytime, but it has an added poignancy because the message of American self destruction (there is even a little Trump excerpt) is the also the story that James Baldwin tells with the notes from his unprinted history of civil rights.

Within the pantheon of the black movement, Baldwin was not similar to either Malcolm X or Martin Luther King; he was a transgressive wordsmith - not a fighter or a stoic example. But he is the perfect foil for this documentary that melds the 60s with today, as he understood that racial hate was a self hate that cannot easily be quenched.

His important point is that American white society cannot square it's myths and dreams with reality. Samuel Jackson's narration adds to this solidly put together documentary that keeps the viewer engaged all the way.

This film has a slight family superficiality sometimes, with little depth attempted with the lives of the black heroes who already have several films dedicated to them. A good knowledge of the time line is assumed, as the film jumps up and down it regularly.

Many images, old and new are (still) shocking - though Baldwins diagnosis remains the bitter pill that America cannot swallow.
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Raw (2016)
More Belgian veterinary violence
12 April 2017
If you've seen Bullhead, then you know to expect some cattle mutilation and more in a Belgian film.

This does not disappoint, with the vets college backdrop hosting lots of human and animal flesh for a potential alternative diet to get started.

The film moves towards visceral, not so much weird or humorous (Get Out) with a family connection that doesn't quite cement the film but does act to explain some of the narrative.
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Get Out (I) (2017)
Sunken Brothers
5 April 2017
I don't see too many of these type of teen horror movies as they are rarely good or original.

There have been a few original ideas that made good small films - "it follows" was a shining example. But Get Out comes at things quite differently - being both political, occasionally funny and appropriately weird.

In the end you are presented with a cross between Being John Malkovich and The Lobster, with not quite enough developed material to pull it through. The performances give it a little gravitas, but the ambition tails off.
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Ghost trapped in the Shell
1 April 2017
From a technical standpoint, the world of New Port City is well transcribed. It's a tribute to the film that it takes quite a long time before the first minor inconsistencies arise. But the spirit of the original has been replaced with the spirit of a police procedural. The shell however is well executed - and suffers only from the inevitable feeling that this should be a series not a film.

The Japanese original material was far more technical and much less emotional than this adaption - where you get the feeling that most of the characters are the usual Americans with mummy issues. Most of what is good is almost certainly dragged in from Beat Takeshi (who gives not a f*ck about Hollywood).

In some ways this is both reasonably faithful and perfectly watchable. That it is a squeezed into the formal corset of a studio picture you already knew and can't seriously complain about. Watch, enjoy, forget, and keep the original on DVD.
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The Wailing (2016)
Bad mushrooms
19 December 2016
This continues the chain of great Korean films that thankfully come over to the West. Violence, intrigue and somewhat strange pacing all play their part.

This horror film plays with aspects of ghosts and shamanism, when bad mushrooms are blamed for something that looks far worse. There are reminders of things as far apart as Peter Jackson's Braindead and Spanish horror film Rec.

One aspect to watch out for is the use of an initially pathetic character in the lead role, a device used to lead you into the happenings in the small town of Goksung. A knowledge of Korean culture may help you decipher what is going on, but you will be running for the internet either way to work out what just happened.
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Fool on the hill
18 November 2016
This is a great looking film, that has perhaps diluted itself by trying to tell two stories at once.

The bland and cold LA lifestyle intercepted by unreality in a very Lynch type of way is finely done, but is inferior to the visceral story within a story that gives the film its nerve. The vista view from the Hollywood hill is always good cinema - even though we know that we are being fed a stereotype.

For this reason the ending, which is - one supposes - the connection between these two ideals falls ever so slightly flat. There are times where we are spoon fed unnecessarily, and times when detail is strangely lacking. The different styles of film communicate in different ways.

It is nice to see a real adult film in the independent American cinema tradition, and repeat viewing would likely even out some of the crinkles. The quality is there, but the substance may have needed some more work.
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