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

Film

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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

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The Limehouse Golem (2017): Gore and greasepaint in Old London Town

Film

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Director: Juan Carlos Medina 

Writers:  Peter Ackroyd (novel), Jane Goldman (screenplay)

Stars: Olivia CookeEddie Marsan, Douglas Booth , Maria ValverdeDaniel MaysBill Nighy,

Set in the gloomy East End of London, The Limehouse Golem is a gory Victorian whodunnit with a gloriously twisted difference.

Directed by Juan Carlos Medina (director of 2012 film Painless) the film is based on a 1994 novel by Peter Ackroyd, “Dan Leno and The Limehouse Golem”, a metafictional pastiche on the Victorian ‘shocker’ which interwove theatrical drama around a spate of murders, featuring real-life historical figures from Leno himself (a lauded music hall star) to the very-much-original Marxist, Karl Marx. The unusual source material has been adapted for the screen by Kick-Ass, Kingsman: The Secret Service and Stardust scribe Jane Goldman, who has added additional layers to the tale shifting the action away from the famous men, and back to a female perspective.

The films starts with curtains drawing back on the stage with the words “Let us begin my friends, at the end” uttered by Dan Leno, (Douglas Booth, escaping his usual type-casting as pretty posh-boy for a wonderful outing as a cockney music hall blend of Freddie Mercury and Russell Brand) and so the tale begins to be told, shifting between flashbacks aided by voiceovers to the escalating events relating to the central storyline.

Bill Nighy plays John Kildare, a detective with a stalled career (“he’s not the marrying kind”, said with a knowing head nod) who is brought in by Scotland Yard to carry the can on the stalled investigation of a series of extremely brutal murders in the largely Jewish area of Limehouse. The murder victims have ranged from prostitutes to elderly men and children, with seemingly no pattern to the killings, other than the gruesome tableaus the murderer leaves behind.

Kildare is paired with enthusiastic native Eastender, Constable George Flood (played with some aplomb by the ever fabulous Daniel Mays), who has recently been investigating the death of a playwright, John Cree. Cree’s wife Lizzie (Olivia Cooke), herself an ex-music hall star, stands accused of her husband’s murder and will face the death penalty if found guilty. The two cases begin to interweave as Kildare finds himself fascinated by Lizzie Cree’s rags to riches tale, learning how she was abused as a child, the two outsiders become drawn together, with the detective going to desperate lengths to save her.

The Limehouse Golem is a wonderfully atmospheric, Victorian murder mystery, with a twist in the tale. Elements of Hammer horror meet scenes which wouldn’t have felt out of place in Se7en, with the odd bawdy song and dance routine thrown in for good measure. The production design is beautifully realised, with the grim and grimy back alleys of Limehouse contrasting with the grease-paint of the music hall and the splendour of Lizzie’s married life.

Olivia Cooke as Lizzie is terrific, playing on her wide-eyed innocence with some joy, drawing us in as she recounts her tale to Kildare from her prison cell.

“You don’t need saving,” Kildare tells Lizzie. “Not by me. Not by any man.” While it is the famous men whose names initially draw the detective’s eye, this is a film about women claiming centre-stage.

8 out of 10

Baby Driver (2017) review: Car Car Land*

Film

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Director: Edgar Wright Writer: Edgar Wright Stars: Ansel Elgort, Jon Bernthal, Jon Hamm 

*I thought of this pun during the film, then was disappointed to discover Edgar Wright had already used it for an event he curated at the BFI. GREAT MINDS is what I say. It’s not stealing. Really.

Synopsis: “A talented, young getaway driver (Ansel Elgort) relies on the beat of his personal soundtrack to be the best in the game. But after being coerced into working for a crime boss (Kevin Spacey), he must face the music when a doomed heist threatens his life, love and freedom.”

Sometimes you go into a cinema showing with your expectations so high you inwardly know you’re sabotaging what you’re about to watch. I LOVE Edgar Wright. Everything he has done to date has been funny, clever, witty and all with an unmistakably Edgar Wright feel.  You can spot his hyper-pop, music-loving, rapid-fire style a mile off, and that’s not an easy feat. He’s also read my blog, so that clearly means he’s a man of taste.

Here comes the but… I found myself mildly disappointed in Baby Driver. The reviews from friends who’d seen previews were glowing. In a they’d-bought-the-soundtrack-and-were-champing-at-the-bit-to-see-it-a-second-time kind of glowing. In a summer that has so far has given us stinkers like Pirates 5 (I can’t even be bothered to check if that’s the correct  number, that’s how much I care about the Pirates of the Caribbean films). Transformers: The Last Knight and The Mummy reboot, it seemed no Rotten Tomatoes score would edge over 30%. Baby Driver appeared like ray of light beaming down on the cinematic universe sewage. An original film with a great soundtrack, great cast and director with a lot to prove.

The opening 20 minutes are stunning. From the tinnitus that accompanies the studio logo and first few frames, to the carefully choreographed ballet of the opening heist, to Baby grabbing a coffee and singing along while the lyrics play out in graffiti and signs on the street behind him, this is an all-time great start to a film. Every step, every shot, every extra conveys something. It’s clever, it’s cool and it filled me with joy. I was fully prepared for Baby Driver to instantly go into my top ten films of all time. However it just didn’t quite keep up that glorious early pace.

We start the film firmly in Baby’s world, witnessing events from his point of view, from the glorious heist set to Jon Spencer Blues Explosion’s ‘Bellbottoms’ (if you don’t own it already you should check out Orange) to the charming scene with his foster father Joseph demanding his peanut butter be spread right to the edges.

By the time Baby has witnessed the first on-screen death (there have been so many previous heists the assumption is this isn’t the first one there has been) the pace starts to slow. We start seeing how the world sees Baby and the initial joy starts to fade. No longer do we have Baby singing and dancing, instead we’re given his passive facade behind shades, looking increasingly moody and uncomfortable with the situation he has become trapped in, leading to a dramatic and tense conclusion.

The music and the visuals are so much fun, and the film really could have been dubbed ‘Car Car Land’ (see above for credit to Edgar Wright) for it’s marriage of car chases and classic musical elements, but it was the narrative which let it down a little for me.

The romance between Baby and Debora (Lily James) is a wonderful hybrid of John Hughes and Quentin Tarantino. Baby’s relationship with Joseph (CJ Jones) is sweet and touching. There is something about his interactions with the criminal gang of Doc (Kevin Spacey on fine Spacey-esque form) which just didn’t quite ring true.

The female characters were also somewhat underwritten. Debora is very charming, but she very much falls into the good old manic pixie dream girl trope, and Darling (Eliza Gonzalez) could be summed up as ‘hot drug-addict, lapdancer and wife’. Some of the decisions the characters make also seem to be somewhat pulled out of a hat. But then I guess heist films aren’t subtle, so maybe I am asking too much for the characters to be given nuance or subtlety when so much of the film is so very loud, and extended backstories would undoubtedly have slowed the pace.

Of special note is the fact that Jon Hamm somehow remains attractive in the role of Buddy, Darling’s husband, despite the dodgy haircut and neck tattoos. He also seems to be having the time of his life playing the role, which makes it a joy to watch.

Baby Driver is a fun, fast-paced, popcorn flick that shows Edgar Wright is a director at the height of his game (and clearly has a kick-ass music collection), the narrative just tends to rely a little too heavily on familiar tropes when it could have been as original and exiting as the audio and visuals.

8 out of 10

 

 

My Cousin Rachel (2017) review: Weisz impresses in Du Maurier’s classic ‘Did she or didn’t she?’

Film

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Director:  Roger Michell Writers:  Daphne Du Maurier (novel), Roger Michell (adaptation) Starring: Rachel WeiszSam ClaflinHolliday Grainger

Synopsis: “The story of a young Englishman, Philip (Claflin) who plots revenge against his mysterious, beautiful cousin, Rachel (Weisz), believing that she murdered his guardian. But his feelings become complicated as he finds himself falling under the beguiling spell of her charms.”

The director of Notting Hill brings us this fresh take on Daphne Du Maurier’s dark thriller My Cousin Rachel. The book had previously been brought to life in 1952, just a year after the publication of the source novel, in a lavish affair starring Richard Burton and Olivia De Havilland which, while not quite reaching the heights of fame of other Du Maurier adaptations Rebecca and Don’t Look Now, was considered a cinematic success and was nominated for 4 academy awards. To attempt another adaptation could be seen as a bold move, but Michell and team do bring a breath of fresh air to the story.

The story itself is not so much of a whodunnit, but rather a ‘did she do it?’ as we take Philip’s perspective in attempting to unravel the true story of his guardian’s death.

During the early scenes of the film we only hear about the mysterious Rachel through letters and gossip, she comes into Philip’s life not with the bang and confrontation he had been expecting, but with an understated entrance that means our first view of her is silhouetted against the moon, her back to a window. Rather than the monster we are led to expect, Rachel is quiet, funny and warm, with the household’s army of dogs following her about loyally from the moment she arrives.

As Philip’s infatuation grows, Rachel remains a mystery. She seems genuine in her affections for her departed husband Ambrose (the ‘great family resemblance’ is achieved by Claflin playing both roles) but why does she keep plying Philip with that odd herbal tea…?

Weisz plays Rachel with great skill, with Michell seeming to lead our expectations one way as a single glance leads us another. Rachel seems decidedly modern and at odds with the stifling societal expectations exhibited by all those around her. Indeed the fact that she is a woman ‘of appetites’ is whispered knowingly by several of the supporting cast. However Weisz ensures Rachel flits between being charming and likeable then cold and standoffish, just enough to keep us asking ourselves if she could really be capable of murder.

Claflin plays Philip every inch as the ‘wet-nosed- puppy’ Rachel describes him, which does become grating at times. Seeing the world through Philip’s eyes is a somewhat disarming and claustrophobic experience, with the view sometimes becoming as blank and shallow as he seems.

Philip’s lack of experience with women is referenced several times, and indeed the view of Rachel we are given is one buried beneath his own misunderstanding and confusion, alongside a burning attraction and fascination. The whole film could be seen as a giant metaphor for modern cinema, as we struggle along with an old-fashioned male gaze trying to depict highly complex modern womanhood.

While the longing glances and candlelit encounters increase, the orchestral score swells, keeping true to the genre. Other melodramatic tropes abound, from the waves crashing on the shore to the string of pearls breaking and scattering down the stairs.

The film may seem a little slow for some tastes, but the many threads of the story are drawn together in a deft web for the final act. Audiences have been discussing their view of Rachel for over 50 years, and this won’t change that, but ultimately My Cousin Rachel is a well-made period melodrama with an interesting modern twist.

7 out of 10

 

 

 

Lady Macbeth (2017) review: Macabre melodrama

Film

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Director:  William Oldroyd Writers: Nikolai Leskov (based on the novel by), Alice Birch (screenplay)Starring: Florence Pugh, Naomi AckieChristopher FairbankCosmo Jarvis

Synopsis: “Rural England, 1865. Katherine is stifled by her loveless marriage to a bitter man twice her age, whose family are cold and unforgiving. When she embarks on a passionate affair with a young worker on her husband’s estate, a force is unleashed inside her, so powerful that she will stop at nothing to get what she wants.”

Oldroyd establishes early on that this will not be a run-of-the-mill costume drama, but rather a melodrama that will play with viewer expectations at every turn.

We first see Katherine (Florence Pugh) on her wedding day; a simple shot of her demure face under a veil, turning coquettishly towards the camera. The next scene finds Katherine on her wedding night, her Grinch of a husband barking at her to remove her night-gown only for him to glance at her naked body before he gets into bed and falls asleep.

There is no romance here.

For the first half hour Lady Macbeth feels like a study of boredom, as we are exposed to the same dull, quiet rooms as Katherine, with just a ticking clock marking the passage of time in the cold northern home she now inhabits, virtually alone, as her husband and father-in-law have departed for undisclosed locations. Motes of dust become dazzling points of light, otherwise the screen is still and bereft of interest, bar Florence Pugh’s captivating face.

Katherine’s sole companion in the manor is her lady-in-waiting Anna (Naomi Ackie) who helps her dress, brushes her hair and serves her dinner with increasing levels of aggression, (the reasons for which become abundantly clear).

A turning point in the story of solitude comes when Katherine wanders to the outhouses out of boredom one day to find Anna being held hostage, naked, by some of the workers. She demands she is released and bad-boy groomsman Sebastian (Cosmo Jarvis) is introduced to the story.

After a distinctly problematic courtship (Straw Dogs, anyone?) a relationship between the pair unfolds and it becomes apparent that Katherine is not the usual costume-drama heroine. As her behaviour descends into the unpleasant, then the horrific, any audience sympathy for Katherine dissipates and  Lady Macbeth begins to feel like an odd combination of Wuthering Heights and 2011 horror film The Woman; an exploration of the natural, primal and animalistic versus the urbane, civilised and constrained.

Katherine’s choices are made out of boredom, as a way of raging against her captivity, and Pugh’s performance is every inch the caged tiger.

There are some bold directorial choices made, with the camera often avoiding some of the more disturbing action, remaining static as if keeping it’s gaze demurely averted.

The soundtrack is as sparse and unnerving as the visuals, with long passages of almost complete silence, often punctuated only by the naturalistic soundtrack of the wind whistling around the house, or the aforementioned clock ticking.

Lady Macbeth is both a bold directorial debut for Oldroyd and also a showcase of the significant talent of Florence Pugh,  but the dark tale certainly won’t be for everyone.

7 out of 10

Wonder Woman (2017): Kick-ass empowering comic-book fun

Film

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Director: Patty Jenkins 

Writers: Allan Heinberg (screenplay) Zack Snyder (story by)  Jason Fuchs

Stars: Gal Gadot, Chris Pine, Robin WrightConnie Nielsen 

The plot synopsis “An Amazon princess, Diana, (Gal Gadot) finds her idyllic life on an island occupied only by female warriors interrupted when a pilot (Chris Pine) crash-lands nearby. After rescuing him, she learns that World War I is engulfing the planet, and vows to use her superpowers to restore peace.”

A note on this review

Straight off the bat let me get this clear; this film gave me FEELINGS. So many complex feelings. So much so that I’m going to split this into a few sections for those of you who like Buzzfeed brevity, and also in an attempt to curtail my need to talk about this ALL DAY.

The background

DC have not had a good time with their films of late. I will confess early on that I didn’t bother seeing either Batman vs Superman or Suicide Squad because of the terrible critical reception they both received, so I won’t comment on their quality. However, Wonder Woman had a lot riding on it for DC. They needed a critical hit to try and break them out of the “we make movies for the fans” model.

Add to this the fact that this film was about a female character, and was *dramatic pause* to be directed by a woman *gasps* and you have some additional obstacles. It shouldn’t be that this is a big gamble, but given the horrible reception that the reboot of Ghostbusters received, the Gamergaters and DC Dudebros were going to be armed and ready to expose any flaw in the film.

A lot of mileage has been made of the fact that Patty Jenkins hadn’t directed a film since her much-acclaimed 2006 debut Monster (although she had been directing for TV) so putting her at the helm was seen as a gamble in itself. As has been better articulated elsewhere however, that in itself is symptomatic of our male-dominated media view of the world, as this happens to male directors ALL THE TIME.

There was a continuing, ongoing backlash rumbling at the casting of Gal Gadot, who had been in the Israeli army and had been very open about her support for the IDF. Again, my views on this are summed up far more articulately than I could muster in this excellent piece ‘Gal Gadot isn’t Wonder Woman’. In essence, what this film represents is actually far bigger than a single cast member. Possibly a grand statement for a comic-book film, but hell, that’s where we are.

Then there was a lack of publicity. There had been a couple of trailers, but the DC publicity machine seemed terribly quiet. Potentially trying-to-cover-up-a-stinker-of-a-film quiet. The arrival of Wonder Woman looked too low key for this to be a film DC wanted to shout about. Did we have another superhero-turd-fest on our hands?

Then the early reviews came out and we all breathed a sigh of relief… But was this just hysteria after the bumpy birth of the film?

Thankfully- emphatically- no.

The film review part

Wonder Woman looks fantastic. The early scenes on the Amazon’s hidden island of Themyscira are just beautiful, and punch through the Bechdal Test in seconds (see, it’s THAT easy all-other-film-makers). The scenes in London are beautifully contrasted against these lush early scenes, with Diana’s early exclamation of “It’s hideous!” striking a chord with us all, transferring from a world full of women with agency to a land where women still don’t have the vote.

The design of Diana’s costume in particular is terrific, with just enough of a modern twist to make it seem exciting, while completely being faithful to the original.

The fight scenes are just gorgeous, somewhere between the technologically-enhanced glory of The Matrix and the wonderful choreography of The Raid. I’m someone who hates fight scenes done badly- who is that punching who?- so to have me inner air-punching at some of them (Robin Wright kicking ass on the beach was a thing of beauty) is quite a feat.

Some of the directorial touches are wonderful, and Jenkins tackles both moments of tenderness (dancing in the snow) and horror (No Man’s Land) with equal aplomb.

Gadot is terrific in the role of Diana, managing to balance the wide-eyed innocent abroad with the inner power she holds brilliantly. Her performance does call to mind Christopher Reeve in Superman with that blend of naivety and strength.

Chris Pine also provides a wonderful comic foil/love interest in Steve Trevor , straddling the line between Himbo and hero well, while not stepping too far on Diana’s toes. He and Gadot have real chemistry and spark. There is also a lot of light-hearted comedy between the two which is a highlight. An early scene on a boat sees Steve defending himself as ‘above average’ while Diana extols the virtues of a 12 volume book on Sapphic pleasures.

Honourable mention to Lucy Davis as Steve’s secretary Etta, who again brings some levity that has so desperately been missing from previous DC films.

Diana Prince: What’s a secretary?

Etta: I go where he tells me to go, I do what he tells me to do.

Diana Prince: Where we come from, that’s called slavery.

Etta:  I like her!

The story-line is, by and large, interesting, although the lengthy running time does leave it feeling, much like myself, saggy around the middle. Notably the least interesting scenes are those firmly in the world of men. There is a slightly uncomfortable and jarring perspective shift towards the end, so while we have been firmly following Diana’s story suddenly we are thrust towards the perspective of her male entourage. This seems odd given the amount of agency Diana has and smells of ‘decision by committee’ rather than an artistic decision.

The big show-down at the end (I’m assuming this isn’t a spoiler as, again, comic book) is pretty over-blown, but doesn’t quite go full Zod. That said, this is where the script is at it’s weakest with the mantra of “Show it, don’t say it” being heartily ignored for a “say it, then show it, then say it again” approach.

The diversity of representation throughout is terrific (although yes, some characters are hugely one-dimensional, but this IS an adaptation of a 1940s comic book after all) with people of colour featuring not just on Themyscira but as Diana’s gang and also prominently as troops.

Overall the film remains hugely enjoyable, despite a few flaws and I’m really looking forward to the next installment regardless.

The FEELINGS

This is important.

Wonder Woman made me cry.

Not because of the plot, but because of representation. I found myself filled with joy shortly after the aforementioned scene with Robin Wright kicking ass on the beach, then immediately became angry and depressed. I was ecstatic that this film was just showing women as people, doing things that we see male characters doing all the time. They were talking to each other, they were making decisions, they were having awesome fights… then I became super sad that it has taken the resurrection of a character from the 1940’s to achieve this. Yes, we’re getting slightly better at diversity on screen, but the fact that Wonder Woman is such a novelty is just sad. Why can’t we have more women on screen JUST DOING THINGS and not having things done to them? Why can’t we have more women who make decisions for themselves and don’t just follow men about as plot foils? WHY IS THIS STILL A NOVELTY?

It makes me sad/angry that this is still even a talking point.

A testament to how oddly exciting the film actually is came as we exited the cinema. Three girls, who must have been 12 or 13, were leaving at the same time as us, giggling with joy and doing high-kicks. That’s what it’s all about.

8 out of 10

To finish off my rant, I’ll leave you with this from the wonderful Michelle Wolf

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I, Daniel Blake (2016) review: a passionate and gut-wrenching look at modern Britain

Film

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Director: Ken Loach   Writer: Paul Laverty (screenplay)

Stars: Dave Johns, Hayley Squires, Sharon Percy

Ken Loach has long been a fearsome and tireless campaigner for political change, giving a voice to those in society who might otherwise be overlooked, through films which merge drama and reality. When ‘I, Daniel Blake’ won the BAFTA for Outstanding British Film Loach took the opportunity to thank the Academy for endorsing the truth of the film “which hundreds and thousands of people in this country know, that the most vulnerable and poorest are treated by the Government with a callous brutality that is disgraceful”.  ‘I, Daniel Blake’ is the best kind of cinema, one that entertains but that could also enact social change.

Written by long-time collaborator Paul Laverty (The Wind that Shake the Barley, My Name is Joe), I, Daniel Blake focuses on the life of 59 year old Daniel. Daniel is a carpenter, living in Newcastle, who has recently had a series of heart problems that have meant his doctors have ordered him to stay off work. Having worked in manual labour his whole life Daniel find the transition difficult and finds himself having to rely on help from the State to see him through. The film follows Daniel in his battle to negotiate the welfare system and keep himself going.

Along his journey he meets up with Katie (Hayley Squires) a single mother to 2 children, who has had to move out of London when the benefit caps meant they could no longer afford to live anywhere other than a one bedroom homeless hostel. Wanting some space and freedom for her family (with her son displaying some worrying behaviours) she has taken the plunge and moved away from everything she knows to give her son and daughter a better quality of life. Now desperate to be able to go back to college Katie tries to keep up appearances for her children as her life slowly unravels.

Both Daniel and Katie find themselves at the mercy of a benefits system which seeks to meet arbitrary sanctions targets, driving them both beyond poverty and desperation and into very dark territory.  They form a kind of surrogate family and help support each other in their darkest times.

The film looks at the benefit system through the lens of a country which has been brain-washed by a media intent on propagating the idea of the deserving and undeserving poor and is unflinching in it’s portrayal of a system set up solely around numbers and absent of humanity.

As one of those hundreds and thousands of people who has seen the cruelty of the benefits system I can also testify to Loach’s truth here. I have seen first-hand the arbitrary decisions that are made in order to fulfil an imaginary quota of ‘undeserving’ poor which in turn leads to callous abandonment of those in our society who are the most vulnerable. The tale told here is not one that has been exaggerated for dramatic purpose; this is happening every day.

However, if politics isn’t your thing, ‘I, Daniel Blake’ is a masterful piece of film-making, as you would expect from someone of Loach’s standing. Despite the subject matter it never lectures, allowing the viewer to be caught up in the story at hand. It manages to balance warmth, humour and hope against the bleakest of backdrops and makes you truly care about Daniel, Katie and all those who have found themselves either trapped in or cast out by the system.

A rare mix of the passionate and human, the gut-wrenching and the comedic, ‘I, Daniel Blake’ is an absolute must see and one of the most important films of recent years.

9.5 out of 10

Free Fire (2017) review: A distinctly British twist on an American classic

Film

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Director: Ben Wheatley  Writers: Amy Jump, Ben Wheatley Starring: Sam Riley, Michael Smiley, Brie Larson, Armie Hammer, Cillian Murphy, Sharlto Copley, Jack Reynor, Babou Ceesay and more…

“An arms deal goes spectacularly and explosively wrong. Justine (Brie Larson) has brokered a meeting in a deserted warehouse between two Irishmen and a gang led by Vernon (Sharlto Copley) and Ord (Armie Hammer), who are selling them a stash of guns. But when shots are fired during the handover, complete pandemonium ensues, with everyone at the scene suddenly thrust into a heart-stopping game of survival.”

If you were pitching to a studio executive you could describe Free Fire as being an action-packed homage to the 1970’s gritty crime B-movies so beloved of Quentin Tarantino.  Sold in another way you could describe it as a talky, theatrical set piece all housed in one warehouse in Boston. In another way you could well describe Free Fire as 90 minutes of 10 (Ok, shhh…12) great actors crawling around the floor, firing guns indiscriminately at one another. All are true, but all under-sell it as a film, as it’s certainly more than the sum of it’s parts.

Wheatley and Jump’s witty script takes in a range of styles from a pastiche of the aforementioned gritty 70’s crime flick like the two choices presented by Vernon to Ord:

Vernon: We’ve got two choices. One, you distract them and I leave.
Ord: What?
Vernon: Two, you kill all of these motherfuckers and I leave.

To those which could have been plucked from a distinctly pre-PC 70’s sitcom:

Vernon:You’re a bird, they’re not going to shoot a bird!”

The costumes, hair and make-up are all fantastic, capturing the glamour of the late 70’s while perfectly encapsulating each character.

Somehow, in spite of the witty dialogue (which more than passes the Kermodian 6 laugh test), great costumes and a plot familiar to more glossy films, Free Fire feels wonderfully ordinary. I mean that in the best possible way. The film seems to outline exactly what would happen if 10 (*cough* 12) real people with guns, grudges and quick tempers found themselves in a shoot-out. Shots ring out randomly, people get shot in the leg, bullets graze shoulder-pads. This is not neat, Hollywood violence (a nice aside about the ‘real’ Hollywood being in Ireland is made early on). This is bullets accidentally ricocheting off the walls and hitting your mate in the butt. This is you cowering behind a concrete pillar hoping everyone will just walk away.

Even the direction and choreography of the violence lends itself to this feeling of chaos and normality. None of the usual action director tricks are pulled out of the bag, with bullets flying in all directions, the camera crossing the line wildly, dragging the audience in to the character’s point of view.

Free Fire somehow manages to brilliantly balance drama, comedy and tension, with huge laughs almost immediately interrupted by a wince and your hands involuntarily flying in front of your face.

Sharlto Copley’s comic turn as the ostentatiously-coiffed and 70’s Savile Row-suited Vernon is a joy to behold, as is Armie Hammer as the charismatic and handsome stoner who just doesn’t really seem to be bothered about the whole affair. Cillian Murphy and Brie Larson’s more straight laced roles are also worthy of note as both give great performances which hold up against the big comedy guns.

Being Ben Wheatley there is of course somewhat of a twist in this cinematic tale…

Free Fire feels like a modern classic, somehow managing to breathe new life into what was a tired cinematic trope.

9 out of 10

 

 

 

Mustang (2015) review: A powerful, magical feminist masterpiece

Film

Mustang is a film which (as is the case with many foreign language flicks) has taken a while to make its way over to the UK. First released in France back in June 2015, after a successful showing at Cannes, ‘Mustang’ was actually only released in select UK theatres in May of this year.

In a small Turkish village, five orphaned teenage sisters play on the beach on their way home from school at the start of their long summer holiday. They splash around with some boys from the school, jumping on the boys’ shoulders so they can wrestle each other into the warm waters. By the time they have arrive home, their world has changed forever, as news has reached their strict grandmother (via a nosey neighbour), that they have been “putting their private parts against boys’ necks”. Soon the girls find themselves under virtual house arrest, having all items which could “corrupt” them removed from their lives and being groomed for life as wives and mothers, having their freedom ripped away from them. The three eldest sisters are taken to have a “virginity test”, finding themselves at the mercy of a middle-aged male doctor armed with a speculum.

Seen largely through the eyes of youngest sister Lala (brilliantly played by Gunes Sensoy), director Deniz Gamze Ergüven expertly weaves a tale that is equal parts endearingly mundane, truly horrifying and a little bit magical. Events that are seen through the eyes of a grown-up could have dominated the whole film, but are instead reduced to mere footnotes and shadows, as Lale’s understanding of them is limited. At the same time, moments where the girls play together achieve a kind of magic as you can feel Lale reveling in the simple joy they bring her. By subverting the way in which the events are viewed, Ergüven gives what could have been a well-worn tale, a truly fresh voice.

The girls, and the Turkish countryside, are filmed with the utmost reverence and love, portraying their beauty in spite of the bleak circumstances. The sisters retain their sense of humour, and provide a few laugh out loud moments in the midst of the most difficult situations. However, as the girls are married off, one by one, the horrors become more real for Lale, and the remaining girls’ freedom becomes more and more restricted to ensure they comply. While the men of the world they occupy eat separately, shoot guns in the air and lob fireworks onto football pitches, the girls’ sexuality is treated as the most dangerous and subversive thing in society.

The real joy of cinema is being transported to another place for the duration of a film – be it galaxies far, far away, a zombie-infested dystopia, or a very real, very current horror. Ergüven, and the terrific ensemble cast, throw a spotlight on a modern tragedy; that women the world over are still having to fight for their right to freedom from oppression. The magical realism of ‘Mustang’ helps the reality of life, which affects far too many women in our world, truly hit home. This is a powerful, magical, raw, feminist masterpiece.

9 out of 10

Tale of Tales (2015) review: a brutal carnival of the grotesque and magical

Film

tale-tales

Director: Matteo Garrone Writers: Giambattista Basile (book), Edoardo Albinati (screenplay) Stars: Salma Hayek, Vincent Cassel, Toby Jones

In ‘Tale of Tales’ Matteo Garrone takes the basis of three Italian folk tales – originally collected in the 15th century by Giambattista Basile (who also made the first known records of the tales of Rapunzel and Cinderella) – and weaves them into a sumptuous and magical portmanteau film.

In the first tale we see Salma Hayek as Queen of Longtrellis, with John C. Reilly as her heroic King, being told they will be able to have their long-yearned-for child if he can only defeat a sea monster, and she can then devour it’s heart having had it cooked by a virgin. Bizarre, I know. The second tale sees Vincent Cassell as the lothario King of Strongcliff, who is banging his way around the kingdom, exhausting himself and the ladies he leaves strewn in his wake. One day he hears the beautiful voice of a woman he has never heard before, and finds himself accidentally wooing two elderly sisters. Toby Jones leads the third tale, as he finds his Kingly affections swayed not by women, but an altogether very different kind of creature, leading him to make a decision which leaves his daughter Violet (Bebe Cave) in mortal peril.

‘Tale of Tales’ is a very grown-up fairy tale of sorts, with sex and violence galore, and some pretty adult themes to boot. Part ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’, part ‘The Princess Bride’, it comes as no surprise to learn that the cinematographer is Peter Suschitzky, who has a long history working with David Lynch on films such as ‘Naked Lunch’ and ‘eXistenZ’, and consequently is well-versed in capturing gruesome beasties and body horror to maximum effect.

The performances are all excellent, but they are often eclipsed by the incredible costumes, sets and make-up, which really make the film stand out from its more saccharine counterparts. The practical effects in particular are stunning, with several impressive and terrifying creatures being bought to life not through CGI but through good old silicon and ingenuity. The aged make-up on Hayley Carmichael and Shirley Henderson is truly something to behold.

It’s great to see that the women of these fairy tales are not all damsels in distress needing saving by a handsome Prince. Indeed, their lives are far more complex, their desires more nuanced, and they certainly don’t all live happily ever after. While one of the tales peters out and another meets a brutal, gory end, it is Toby Jones and Bebe Cave’s tale which provides the substantial backbone to the film, and gives us the most satisfying resolution.

‘Tale of Tales’ is a resolutely gorgeous, brutal carnival of the grotesque and magical, although it is a little too patchy for it to be ranked as a classic, it may still make it to cult status.

7 out of 10