Beast (2017): A slow-burning, dark noir-fairytale that will both thrill and un-nerve

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Director: Michael Pearce Writer:  Michael Pearce

Set in an insular, seemingly idyllic community on Jersey, Michael’s Pearce’s darkly disturbing thriller makes the very best of the claustrophobic setting. During the opening few minutes Moll (Jessie Buckley) relates a tale of killer whales being trapped in captivity and going slowly mad as they swim in endless circles, some breaking all their teeth as they try to escape. Over the course of the film we watch the human equivalent of this as tragedy unfolds.

We meet Moll at her 27th birthday party as she awkwardly makes small talk with her admirer Cliff, only to be spectacularly upstaged by her sister-who-has-it-all’s announcement of her pregnancy, with twins no less. Geraldine James, as Moll’s mother, makes matters worse by asking her to fetch the champagne from the garage following the announcement, completely ignoring the fact this overshadows her daughter’s birthday. Moll makes an escape, heading out into the night to drink and dance and eventually meet the surly, shotgun-toting Pascal.

Pascal (Johnny Flynn) is part Lady Chatterley’s Mellors and part Heathcliff, part charm and part menace, simultaneously sensual and unnerving. Moll’s family immediately close ranks as the pair grow closer, seemingly against Pascal, warning him she’s “a wild one”, while making comments about his strong odour. This stand by her family only serves to drive Moll into his arms, seeing their first kiss, a magnificently romantic cliff-top affair, make way for more animalistic pleasures and horrors.

Pascal has arrived in Moll’s life just as news of a fourth island girl going missing hits the news, a girl whose body is soon discovered on a local farm. Is this linked to Pascal? Is this something to do with Moll herself? Is it just coincidence? The film then takes us on a journey which is equal parts romance, thriller, horror and modern fairy-tale.

Cinematographer Benjamin Kracun brilliantly brings the feelings of both intimacy and claustrophobia to the screen, with extreme handheld close-ups which feel almost surreal. The shots of the Jersey countryside are by turns bleak and breath-taking, from wild seascapes to the benign, blank boxes of suburbia.

Jessie Buckley, Johnny Flynn and Geraldine James performances are all incredible and will make repeat viewings a must.

It is rare to be completely wrong-footed by a film, as Beast defies expectations of both narrative and genre, completely bold in every choice it makes. Every character’s motivation remains hidden but rings entirely true, making the ending all the more unsettling. Beast plays magnificently on ideas of the civilised and the wild, as the audience will be hard pressed to pin point who the titular character really is.

9.5 out of 10

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Isle of Dogs Exhibition and Noodle Bar at The Store X

Exhibition entrance

Full size Noodle Bar

Spots

Miniature Noodle Bar

Megasaki city set

Real humans for scale

Kobayashi’s bath

More humans

Kobayashi Park (with lots of cats in the dumpster)

Little Pilot’s crash (up close so you can see the newspaper print)

Sumo!

Temple of cats

Kobayashi rally (this is surprisingly large)

Science!

“That dog has no smell”

People with drummers

Dogs

Science bar

Trash dogs

Talk Show

Sake and ramen (the real thing)

The exhibition is open in London until 8th April 2018

A Quiet Place (2018): A masterful showcase of the power of silence

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Director: John Krasinski Writers: Bryan Woods (screenplay by), Scott Beck (screenplay by) | 3 more credits » Stars: Emily Blunt, John Krasinski, Noah Jupe, Millicent Simmonds

“If they hear you, they hunt you”; the seemingly simple premise for A Quiet Place manages to bring out a lot of scares and a surprisingly engaging emotional drama to boot to what could have been a B movie horror.

John Krasinski is probably still best known for his role as Jim Halpert in The U.S Office, despite a turn as the TV incarnation of Jack Ryan, but this directorial outing (his second after the 2016 romcom The Hollars) will ensure he will be remembered for much more than the affable romantic lead.

A Quiet Place is set in a near-future where human-kind is being hunted to the point of extinction.

Day 89- The world we enter is near silent as Evelyn (Emily Blunt) and Lee (Krasinski) roam a looted pharmacy with their three children, barefoot, trying not to make a sound. We are shown that the eldest, Regan (played by the excellent Millicent Simmonds) is deaf which puts her in immediate additional peril as she is unaware of the sounds around her. Following the most harrowing opening 15 minutes since Up! it is revealed that terrifying monsters lurk all around, their attacks triggered by the slightest sound.

Day 472- We are then plunged into the day to day lives of the family one year on from the fateful trip to the pharmacy as they try to survive in the now silent world. Soon the camera pans down Emily Blunt’s body, revealing she is heavily pregnant. Synapses start firing as the concept of trying to keep a newborn baby quiet registers, not to mention actually being able to give birth silently. The pregnancy does, of course, become a key focus for the plot as we see preparations beginning and inevitably go awry.

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A Quiet Place is a neat and perfectly taut 90 minutes long, but it really packs a punch within that time. Despite the lack of verbal dialogue (much of the communication between the family is sign language, subtitled for the audience) Krasinski has elicited some great performances from the cast, particularly the younger cast members. So much is shown in one glance that dialogue becomes superfluous. A particularly touching scene involving real-life couple Krasinski and Blunt with just touches and glances, soundtracked by Neil Young’s Harvest Moon is a masterclass in both acting and directing- show, don’t tell. With a few deft scenes we begin to really become embroiled in the relationships of the family, their fears and hopes painted rather then explained. With this investment in the characters comes an added sense of peril as we become immersed in their world, flinching with every movement and potential sound.

There are of course some familiar horror elements; the cornfield outside the family home is the perfect place for unknown horrors to lurk, the “it’s behind you” jump-scares, the petulant teenager putting themselves in danger. The film is also oddly reminiscent of M. Night Shymalan’s much maligned Signs (a film I really like) both in terms of setting and tone. There is also a feeling of 80’s films like Close Encounters of the Third Kind, innocence mixed with dread. Then of course there is a parallels with The Mist and The Girl with all the Gifts with their distinctly non-mainstream endings. While some elements are not wholly original the overall effect is unlike most horror films you will have seen before, as it manages to be smart, emotionally nuanced and terrifying.

The ‘show, don’t tell’ approach does become a little over the top at the film’s conclusion as the audience is practically spoon fed one character’s thought processes and there is an over-reliance on newspaper headlines, but this is a dumbing-down blip in what is otherwise a clever horror film.

A Quiet Place will see you tip-toeing out of the cinema, hoping those monsters don’t come to get you.

8 out of 10

Isle of Dogs (2018) review: Audacious, futuristic rebellion adventure (with stop-motion dogs)

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Director: Wes Anderson Writers: Wes Anderson (screenplay) Stars: Bryan CranstonKoyu RankinEdward Norton 

In Japan, in the not-too-distant future, the dog-hating Mayor of Megasaki island has banished all dogs to nearby Trash Island. As part of the cat-loving Kobayashi dynasty the Mayor tells his citizens he is protecting them from the perils of Canine Flu and Sout Fever, which have infected the entire dog population and are threatening to transfer to humans. We follow the adventures of a pack of dogs. (including Bryan Cranston and Chief, Edward Norton as Rex and Jeff Goldblum as Duke) on Trash Island, who are working to help a 12-year old boy (“dogs love those”), The Little Pilot, find his beloved dog Spots among the piles of rubbish and feral hounds.

In order to capture the communication difficulties between man and hound, Anderson has all of the dogs speak in English, while the human population speak largely in Japanese (save for Frances McDormand’s Interpreter Nelson and Greta Gerwig’s Tracy the Exchange Student). The Japanese is largely offered with no subtitles, but due to context and the deft animation it is never hard to understand what is being said.

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The animation is beautiful, managing to keep the unique Anderson aesthetic while also giving firm nods to everyone from Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyasaki to Nick Park. The animation is apparently at 12 images per second, fewer than many stop-motion films, which adds to the jerky, off-kilter appeal. The intricate details in every scene are mind blowing, from the dogs’ fur seemingly blowing in the wind (from the animators hands simply touching the puppets between shots) to some of the scenery there is always a lot to look at. It’s a true feast for the eyes, sushi preparation and all.

This is a film that will stand up to multiple viewings as it is both visually stunning and densely packed with minor characters who could hold their own as part of their own narrative. Tilda Swinton’s brief turn as The Oracle, the seemingly psychic pug is just wonderful and all too brief. Yoko Ono also makes an appearance as Assistant Scientist Yoko Ono, a woman whose back story I would love to hear.

Anderson is often criticised for the coldness of his films, retaining a constant distance from the audience which means connection with the characters become difficult. Isle of Dogs is no different, with an omniscient narrator and chapter headings clearly delineating where in the narrative we are. The landscapes are bleak, with the monochrome of Trash Island a stark contrast to the beauty of Megasaki city. However the characters, despite the trademark Anderson stilted dialogue, still manage to display a lot of warmth. I’m not ashamed to say this was the first Wes Anderson film that made me cry. Twice. The dogs and their relationships both with each other and the various humans they encounter seem far more developed than many of Anderson live action human characters, perhaps a nod to the high esteem with which he holds our canine friends.

Isle of Dogs is a beautiful and engaging film, with plenty to keep both ardent cinephiles, dog-lovers and more mainstream cinema goers entertained.

9 out of 10

Veronica (2017) review: Claustrophobic and unnerving Spanish coming of age horror

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Director: Paco Plaza Writers:  Fernando NavarroPaco Plaza

Stars:  Sandra EscacenaBruna GonzálezClaudia Placer

Set in Madrid in 1991 and based (extremely loosely) on true events, Veronica tells the chilling supernatural tale of the 15 year-old titular heroine and a series of unexplained events taking place over a few days.

Veronica is the carer for her three younger siblings, while their mother is mostly absent, a fleeting figure in their lives who spends her days and nights working in a local bar since the death of the childrens’ father. While Veronica’s friends are experimenting with smoking and boys Veronica is left with the mundane role of young carer, cleaning, cooking and acting as babysitter to her siblings.

The film is set in familiar horror territory; an eclipse and a convent school. Scary nuns and the world being plunged into darkness provide a solid start for supernatural horror. Amidst this backdrop Veronica and her friend (with interloper to the friendship and experienced older girl Diana)  try to contact Veronica’s dead father through a ouija board in the basement of the school. Very quickly the seance takes an unsettling turn and Veronica has a terrifying seizure.

Veronica finds herself in the school nurse’s office where the event is explained away as anemia or low blood pressure, leading her to reveal she has not yet had her first period. Thus we stumble into the real main theme of the film, the changing pubescent female body, which has long been a source of great fascination and horror.

Paco Plaza keeps with the urban high rise setting of his previous films [REC] and [REC 2] (which are two films which I find genuinely chilling) to great effect. Employing a Rear Window approach to exploring Veronica’s own stunted teenage years he shows the stark contrast of a teenage girl in a neighbouring building who is enjoying all the normal teenage freedoms of dancing, making out and being looked after. Meanwhile our heroine slowly unravels under the weight of responsibility of being parent to her much younger siblings while tackling her own changing body, forcing her to straddle the two worlds of childhood and adulthood.

While the film could be viewed as another ouija board driven supernatural horror, an alternative explanation for events is firmly apparent, making Veronica far more compelling viewing than many of it’s horror counterparts. Veronica’s mother uttering ominously “I need you to grow up” framing the narrative for the rest of the film.

Sandra Escacena is mesmorising in the title role, managing to capture both child-like innocence and a building anger and passion, all the torment of hormonal teenage years coming out in rage filled bursts, which may or may not be related to a summoned demon. Her siblings  are also superb, with the two bickering twin sisters  Irene and Lucia (played by Bruna Gonzalez and Claudia Placer) displaying sass and verve, while young Antonito (Ivan Chavero) manages to be supremely cute without being irritating.

The special effects are largely practical and in-camera, which is when the projection of Veronica’s haunting is at it’s most effective. Indeed the appearance of the children’s father is an image that will remain with me for a long time. Some appearances of the spirit are a little hokey, but these are always the moments when we see the horror through the childrens’ eyes.

The real test of effective horror isn’t so much the experience while viewing, but what it does to you afterwards and somehow Veronica got firmly under my skin, making me sure I’d firmly locked my doors before going to bed.

Like The Babadook and Rosemary’s Baby before it, Veronica works best when it is rooted in the claustrophobia of family life and the terror of both childhood and adulthood. The hokum of being based on true events should remain secondary to what is an excellent piece of coming of age horror.

8.5 out of 10

 

 

Paddington 2 (2017): A joyous future festive favourite

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Director: Paul King Starring: Ben Whishaw, Hugh Grant, Sally Hawkins, Hugh Bonneville

The 2014 Paddington film took everyone by surprise. Having had to recast the voice of Paddington himself when Colin Firth stepped away from the project, many already sceptical folk were worried the end product might be a bit of a mess. However it ended up being in many critics top ten lists of the year and Ben Whishaw’s voicing of Paddington left us all convinced he was the only man for the job. It was an absolute delight and has become a staple family favourite.

Given the joy with which the first film was met, this second outing had a lot to live up to. Luckily it more than exceeds expectations, with Paul King and Simon Farnaby’s script being both riotously funny, supremely touching and even politically savvy.

Paddington 2 centres around the titular bear’s wish to find the perfect birthday present for his Aunt Lucy, who is still living out in Peru. He is still living with the Brown family in Windsor Gardens and is a firmly established member of the community. Visiting Mr Gruber’s antique shop he finds a one-of-a-kind pop-up book (or popping book, as Jim Broadbent’s Gruber would have it) featuring London landmarks. However, upon discovering how much it would cost Paddington decides to earn the money by getting a job to buy it for his favourite Aunt. Cue some hilarity involving first electric clippers and then a plastic bucket. Meanwhile a wonderful steamfair is opened nearby by Hugh Grant’s fading star, and neighbour to the Browns, Phoenix Buchanan. Plans for Paddington’s perfect present are then scuppered when the ‘popping book’ is stolen, leading to Paddington and the Browns working to unmask the thief.

Whishaw yet again turns in a wonderful vocal performance as Paddington, the kind-hearted bear who believes that being kind can make the world a better place. You completely fall in love with his vulnerability and optimism, ending up really rooting for the little bear.

The whole Brown family are warm and a little nuts, with more wonderful performances by Hugh Bonneville and Sally Hawkins. Hugh Grant is magnificently unhinged as fading star Buchanan, bringing a little Machiavellian menace to his music hall shenanigans.

The production design is wonderful, from an incredible sequence featuring the ‘popping book’ itself to the Brown’s fabulous house and design of Windsor Gardens, with a less-twee Wes Anderson feel to it all.

The supporting cast are all universally incredible, with some of British comedy’s biggest names appearing in tiny, but brilliant, roles. Paul King’s previous life as director of The Mighty Boosh really shows again, as he has an absolutely brilliant grasp of comedy timing and lends the whole affair a wonderfully off-kilter feel.

Paddington 2 is as whimsical and joyous as the first film, with some genuinely hilarious moments of comedy and beautifully drawn characters. It balances this with some really great action sequences and some moments of real peril for Paddington and the Browns, which will have you both on the edge of your seat and possible shedding a tear.

It’s a film that will delight children and adults alike and will doubtless be a firm festive favourite for many years to come.

9.5 out of 10

Blade Runner 2049 (2017): A breathtakingly beautiful sci-fi sequel

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Directed by: Denis Villeneuve

Starring: Ryan Gosling, Robin Wright, Harrison Ford, Jared Leto, Ana De Armas, Sylvia Hoeks

Ridley Scott’s 1982 dystopian sci-fi epic Blade Runner saw Harrison Ford playing Deckard, one of the titular blade runners, who had been tasked with hunting down and killing four replicants, (extremely life-like androids), who had escaped from the colonies and were now posing a threat to human life in the city of Los Angeles. The film is filled with stark and beautiful imagery, philosophical musings on the nature of humanity and love, and is scored by a wonderful soundtrack by Vangelis.

When it emerged there was a sequel in the works, with Harrison Ford attached to star again hearts sank. Let’s face it, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull was almost bad enough to turn the world off the originals, so bringing Ford back to the role of Deckard 35 years later did not seem like solid thinking. Then it was announced that Ryan Gosling was attached, an actor who has been extremely canny in his choice of roles, seemingly not having made a recent mis-step. Once Arrival and Sicario’s Denis Villeneuve was announced as director, hopes were raised once more. But would this be the thoughtful sequel the world wanted or clumsy “re-energising” and potential franchise starter?

Blade Runner 2049 continues the hunt for artificial humans, 30 years on from the original, echoing the real-life passage of time since Ridley Scott’s classic hit the big screen. Gosling plays K, a blade runner who has been charged with rounding up and dispatching the last of the old model replicants, the last of the robots with free will. To say much more about the plot could ruin the experience, as this is a near perfect piece of cinema which should be enjoyed to the full.

From the opening shot of a single ice-blue eye filling the screen, to the inclusion of a clear plastic raincoat, ‘Blade Runner 2049’ is perfectly respectful of its predecessor while taking some of its beautiful imagery to even more extraordinary places. The film is stunning, mildly disorienting and borderline surreal, quietly worming its way under your skin over the course of its 2 hour 43 minute run-time.

Roger Deakins cinematography is just sublime. Every shot in the film is near perfect. The design of costumes and make-up is among the best I’ve seen, subtle but always adding to character. The soundtrack, by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch, is by turns a thundering juggernaut of mechanical crunches and shudders and then delicate piano notes, giving way to the space-age echoes of Vangelis work on the original.

Every single member of the cast is superb, with Villeneuve eliciting some career-best performances. Ford adds multiples layers to his usual curmudgeon-with-a-heart turn, embracing an unusual vulnerability. Gosling is quietly enigmatic, channelling his turn in Drive. The real stand out among the cast is Sylvia Hoeks as Luv, who manages to be both eerily serene and utterly terrifying.

Blade Runner 2049 may also be Villeneuve’s best work to date. Taking time to really linger on key scenes, to build tension, but also to allow the audience to think and take in not just the visuals but the concepts, it’s an extremely confident and uncompromising piece of cinema.

It is an absolute marvel of film-making, a thoughtful, beautiful piece of art. Profound, moving, intellectual and solid evidence that studios can make blockbusters that might also win Academy awards. Go see it big and loud and be left breathless by the spectacle.

10 out of 10