Film Review: US

Wonderful example of the Horror genre at its best

Jordan Peele’s follow up to 2017’sGet Out is a funny, creepy and very smart high-concept horror/thriller. It’s the kind of horror film that plays fully within the genre yet finds something broader to say, using the idea of symmetry and mimics to talk about underclasses and the secret machinery behind the world that we know and understand. I loved it for its refreshing characters and situation and the aplomb of its execution.

Lupita Nyong’o stars as the mother of a wealthy nuclear family who are on vacation to a cabin in Santa Cruz. One night they come under siege by a group of mimics, each one an identical copy of a family member. They move in creepy, inhuman ways and mean to kill our protagonists and to say anything more would be to ruin some delightful surprises.

The writing is very good, with a nice amount of time spent getting to know the family so that you are invested and care when things begin to go badly. The film plays squarely to its genre boundaries and conventions but in refreshing ways that give new life to old concepts, and I love that kind of genre-exceptionalism. Everything is carefully structured and laid out with a lot of emphasis on symmetry and doubling, and it has the wonderful quality of a good horror film in that it can be read as a parable for societal relations.

The whole cast is great, but special mention goes to Lupita Nyong’o for her acting. Her Oscar for 12 Years A Slave was no fluke. What she does here is pull off two very distinct and yet deeply connected roles and she is amazing to watch. Winston Duke is charming as her husband Gabe and the two children, Zora (Shahadi Wright Joseph) and Jason (Evan Alex), are a lot of fun to watch interact. I also enjoyed Elisabeth Moss and Tim Heidecker as their neighbours.

Altogether, I loved Us and I think it is a fine example of what the horror genre is capable of. I loved seeing new faces and an intelligent script which finely balances the line between the amusing and the sinister. There are some great twists and surprises as well as creepy moments and real scares. This is great entertainment.

Review: Russian Doll

Twisty, funny, very smart and unexpectedly touching

I’m a little late to the party, but I just discovered this miniseries on Netflix and I really loved it. Eight episodes of 24-30 minutes each makes the complex story manageable and I found it very funny, a little on the dark side, with a lot of intelligence and heart. It obviously takes a lot from Groundhog Day but adds a neat twist which gives it an identity of its own. The writing, the acting, the whole production are all excellent and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys weird stories with interesting and unusual characters.

Natasha Lyonne plays Nadia Vulvokov, a name which is so loaded with metaphors I could spend a whole paragraph on it. The show begins with her in the bathroom at a birthday party thrown for her by her friend Maxine (Greta Lee) where she is not having a good time. Nadia is a deeply unhappy person prone to self-destructive behaviour and is struck by a car and killed while trying to find her cat in the local neighbourhood, only to find herself back in the bathroom at her birthday party where it all began. She goes on with her evening and the next day but when she dies again and finds herself in the bathroom once more, she realizes she is stuck in some kind of time loop. The twist comes when she then she discovers there is another person trapped in the same loop, Alan (Charlie Barnett). Together, they have to find a way out.

This is some really inventive stuff rom the creative minds of Amy Poehler, Leslye Headland and Natasha Lyonne. I don’t want to give away too much because the real joy in the series is discovery; this is the kind of show that rewards you for paying close attention to every detail. Every episode turns in subtle and different ways that balance both the fantasy aspect of the plot and the deep characterization of the leads. I found it very refreshing in terms of casting and how the characters were written and acted, with tragedy and comedy in equal measure. It’s very impressive, the kind of stuff you don’t see very often.

Film Review: Hereditary

A Truly Remarkable Horror Movie

High quality film-making from top to bottom sets this film apart from the rest of the genre. I thought it was extremely effective on a lot of levels, playing with audience expectations right up to the very end. Is it hallucination or are there supernatural forces at work? You are kept guessing until the final moments. I think it is one of the best horror films I’ve seen in years and it would have been on my top ten list for best of 2018 if I’d seen it when it came out. It’s nothing short of brilliant.

Toni Collette stars as Annie, an artist who builds miniature houses and recreations of events. She is married and has two children and the film opens with the funeral of her mother which causes friction in a family we come to realize is already somewhat dysfunctional. A family tragedy follows close on the heels of the funeral and the family is plunged into further disarray with hints of either madness or supernatural powers working on the family to some sinister end.

I thought the film was instantly remarkable for the power of its images. Writer/director Ari Aster uses some very interesting camera moves and angles to draw you in and make you feel unsettled. The story unfolds at a nice, slow-building pace which gets very frantic toward the end. The production design is great, making the film feel totally authentic and rooted in reality but also allowing for this other-worldliness that pervades everything. It also managed to surprise and stun me with some of its imagery and ideas.

The cast was marvelous and really made the film feel real. I especially liked how Gabriel Byrne’s performance as Steve, the beleaguered husband trying to hold the family together through two close tragedies, anchored the film in an authenticity that made the situation believable. Alex Wolff also deserves special mention as Peter, the older child who goes through some incredibly dark stuff. Toni Collette really carries the film and gives one of the most intense performances I’ve ever seen her in. She really is amazing.

Hereditary is a truly remarkable horror movie. It is top-notch film-making in every department with talented people delivering great work and it shows on screen. Not only is the script really sharp, the telling of the story by camera, production design and performance operating at such a high level of quality makes this a great movie, regardless of genre. A must-see.

Film Review: Three Identical Strangers

This is a crazy story, so out-there that it defies belief. Twins, separated at birth, find each other and then a third finds them, making them triplets unaware of each other’s existence for the first 19 years of their lives. How did this happen? The film digs into the mystery and comes up with some very strange, sinister and unsettling answers, many of which only lead to more questions. I found it to be one of the more compelling, fascinating and unexpectedly moving documentaries I’ve seen.

The film opens with one of the triplets relating the story of how he came to discover his brother by being mistaken for him at college. Their reunion became a news story big enough to attract the attention of a third brother, who got in touch as soon as he heard about them. They became something of celebrities in the 80’s as a result of their story getting national newspaper coverage, but as they began to investigate the circumstances of their situation they uncovered a bizarre chain of evidence that adds up to what looks like some kind of cover-up.

To say anything more would spoil the film’s genuinely shocking twists and turns. The filmmakers use archival footage, modern-day interviews and re-enactments to tell the story, all of which are exceptionally well put-together and make a great unified whole that demonstrates the puzzle-like nature of the triplets’ quest for more information. The implications are challenging and a little disturbing, but what I liked most about it is that it presents every side in a very balanced way. Knowing how easy it is to manipulate information for dramatic effect, I appreciate the filmmakers’ even-handedness in allowing the audience to decide for themselves how to feel.

I highly recommend Three Identical Strangers for its compelling subject matter, the excellence of its assembly and just the astoundingly twisted tale it tells. This is the kind of documentary I love. I give it a solid 8 out of 9.

Trailer

Once again, Mark Kermode’s review nails it:

Film Review: The Lego Movie Part 2

Terrific family entertainment

I really enjoyed the first Lego movie and had doubts that they could pull off something as good a second time. I was wrong. This movie is fun, funny, smart and unexpectedly touching. It teeters close to schmaltz a few times, but the endless sight gags and jokes plus the earnestness of the story overcome any such weaknesses.

The story picks up some time after the end of the first film with a satisfying recap of the events and what lead to the current state of dystopia the Lego world has become. Apocalypsburg is now a Mad Max-style world of brooding tough guys and gals where anything pretty gets taken away by the Duplo invaders from the Sistar System. Everyone is committed to being tough and hard-hearted except Emmett (Chris Pratt), who still retains his sunny disposition, and people call him immature for it, urging him to grow up and get tough. When his friends are kidnapped to attend the marriage of the Duplo Queen Whatevra Wan’abe (Tiffany Hadisch) to Batman (Will Arnett) he has to find a way to save them and prevent the Armamageddon (Our-mom-ageddon) with the help of the suspiciously familiar Rex Dangervest, a grizzled tough-guy, macho-hero who flies a spaceship shaped like a fist and crewed by velociraptors.

The film has the same madcap energy and near-improv tone of the first film and I thought it was nonstop fun in that regard. The film breaks into the real world more often than the first film, and while I felt at times they were coming close to spending too much time there, the story makes it work really well because a large part of it is about the estrangement between siblings. Another theme I loved was the exploration of maturity and how superficial a lot of our ideas about maturity tend to be. Fortunately, the film does not fall into the trap of promoting endless childhood even though it looks like it might in places. I think it’s more about how a lot of the positive qualities we tell our children to invest in (such as co-operation and compassion) often become sacrificed in our rush to appear grown up and toughened to the world later on. It’s surprisingly complex and rich for what appears to be a children’s movie, but I love films whose scope goes beyond whatever genre they appear to be and The Lego Movie 2 is a brilliant example.

I really like this movie. I think it is exceptional family entertainment in that it plays to two audiences – the kids who love Lego and the adults who may recognize personal truths in the narrative, with lots of laughs for everyone along the way. The film deals with themes of maturity, disillusionment, community and optimism in ways that were unexpectedly complex and moving. I found myself quite affected at times by the storyline which is basically about how things aren’t always what you’d like, but that doesn’t mean we can’t pull together and make it better, and that’s a sentiment I respond to quite strongly.

Trailer

As usual, Mark Kermode’s review hits the bull’s eye.

Retro-Review – Superman: The Movie (1978)

By luck, I discovered a screening of the first super-hero movie, Superman: The Movie, the one that set the standard four decades ago, at a local major multiplex. A movie I have longed to see on a big screen my entire life, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity and I am glad I went. I love the movie, I think it is the best Superman film, but I am also aware that this movie is of a different time. It’s fun, but flawed.

First of all, seeing the film on a big screen with big sound was a lot of fun, especially the opening titles sequence with the bombastic music, but having a bigger picture also revealed details I had never noticed before, such as Marlon Brando obviously reading his lines off cue cards. Also, a lot of the visual effects do not hold up well, with the miniature effects for the earthquake sequence being particularly dodgy. All of this was cutting edge in 1978, of course, but it also shows the limitations of practical effects, especially where water is concerned.

The film is very slow, it has to be said. The drag was noticeable in places and I definitely found myself thinking more stuff could have been cut – and I was watching the 1978 theatrical cut with no restored scenes. The film also seems to have three beginnings, first on Krypton, then in Smallville and then finally in Metropolis where the tone of the film adopts a much more snappy, comic-book feel. Even then, Lois Lane’s “Can you read my mind?” bit sort of stops the show, seemingly hearkening back to a bygone era of Hollywood in which she would have sung the lyrics instead of speaking them (I’ve heard Margot Kidder was supposed to sing it but couldn’t carry a note).

The movie is undoubtedly one of the most well-cast productions ever. Each actor is superb in their role, no matter who or how big. Gene Hackman is a joy to watch, chewing the scenery with Ned Beatty and Valerie Perrine, but the heart and soul of the picture belongs to Christopher Reeve and Margot Kidder who are the most perfectly cast couple in super-hero movie history, in my opinion. Only Gal Gadot and Chris Pine are as fun to watch together.

Superman: The Movie on the big screen was everything I hoped it would be. The script is actually very good considering how sprawling the production is and the cast nails it perfectly, every one of them. The best thing about the movie, forty years on, is the music. John Williams was at the peak of his powers in the era that also gave rise to Star Wars, Indiana Jones, E.T. and many others. This movie may have its creaky special effects and its bad fashions and its clunky, between-eras pacing, but it also set the standard for every super-hero movie to come since and the truth is, a lot of it still works.

Top Ten Fave Films of 2018

#10 – Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – I am not a fan of documentary in general because I know film is a manipulative media. That being said, I think this film about the legacy of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood is something special. It doesn’t preach about how to be a better person, it simply shows how one person’s never-ending effort to be a better person can be an inspiration to everyone. Yes, human beings can be despicable, but we can also be generous, kind and helpful to one another. Negativity may get more attention, but I think that’s because it is anomalous to our basic, socially co-operative nature which we take for granted. This is a movie about love, and I love it.

#9 – First Reformed – Paul Schrader delivers one of the most subtle and damning critiques of the intersection of religion, politics and marketing I’ve ever seen. It is slow and quiet but very strong and Ethan Hawke gives one of his best ever performances.

#8 – Paddington 2 – An absolute delight and a rare instance of a sequel being as good as its predecessor, if not better. Both of the Paddington movies are far, far better than they needed to be and it’s that kind of exceeding of expectations that I always hope to see in any art form. Like the aforementioned Won’t You Be My Neighbor? it is a movie about kindness and generosity of spirit which we seem to take for granted so often that we forget how good we can be.

#7 – Widows – A terrific cast and a wonderfully complex story that builds a tale of social stratification around a heist plot. If you like heist movies, it delivers. If you like social commentary, it delivers. If you like strong, charismatic performances, it really delivers. Great entertainment.

#6 – Tully – I really loved this movie for its core concept of the importance of remembering yourself, as well as how it depicts motherhood as an endless series of tests. The script is really sharp and the performances by Charlize Theron and Mackenzie Davis are really interesting.

#5 – The Death of Stalin – This merciless send-up of power and ego is so apt for our times, but it is also simply hilarious in the way it depicts the insane grab for power by members of the political elite in the wake of a brutal dictator’s death. The cast is absolutely superb, especially Steve Buscemi and Jason Isaacs, who practically steals the show.

#4 – 8th Grade – I loved this movie for a lot of reasons. I thought they did such a great job of capturing the insecurities of being 13 that I totally identified with the main character despite our generational and gender differences. It’s a hysterical and uncomfortable look at how being 13 sucks, no matter what time you live in.

#3 – Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse – Arguably the best Spider-Man movie ever made, the film captures the soul of the character somewhat ironically by giving us six different Spider-people, only one of whom is Peter Parker. I loved the movie for its fresh animation and its wonderful characterizations, but mostly for how it democratizes the idea of being a super-hero. It wasn’t fate or destiny that Peter Parker was bitten – it could have been anybody. What matters is how you deal with that power. I found it charming, funny and inspirational in a way that no other Spider-Man movie has been since the second Tobey Maguire film (with Alfred Molina as Doctor Octopus).

#2 – Sorry to Bother You – A scathing critique of capitalism that is also highly creative and highly hilarious. Its budgetary constraints are noticeable in places but forgivable considering how brilliant the writing and overall concept are. This could well be the most original movie I’ve seen all year and is very nearly my favourite movie of 2018 for its jokes, its intelligence and its scrappy positivity. I cannot recommend it enough.

#1 – A Quiet Place – This won my heart for its intriguing premise and elegant execution. I love high-budget, high-concept genre films when done right and this one is really different. The use of sound in the film is brilliant and it is one of the most suspenseful movies I’ve ever seen, but there is also tremendous heart in the picture too with one scene in particular that actually brought tears to my eyes – virtually unheard-of in a horror film. Bravo to John Krasinski and everyone involved. You win.

Film Review: Sorry to Bother You

This movie was an absolute delight. I had heard some good things but missed its initial release, so when I made the effort to see a one-night screening at the Rio, in spite of wanting to stay home and watch the new Black Mirror, I was very surprised and elated to discover one of the most original movies of the year. Sorry to Bother You made me laugh, made me think and made me go “WTF?” with its truly unpredictable plot twists. I loved it and I think it is one of the best movies of 2018.

The movie opens with Cassius Green (Lakeith Stanfield) interviewing for a telemarketing job at Regalview, part of a huge multifaceted corporation run almost as a personality cult by Steve Lift (Armie Hammer in hilarious form). The job sucks and there is discontent between workers and management with a move to unionize led by Squeeze (Steven Yeun), but when Cassius starts using his “white voice” (dubbed by David Cross) to connect to clients he rises through the ranks leaving his friends behind when he becomes a star “powercaller”. But Reglaview has a dark side which is only revealed as Cassius climbs higher and it only gets darker and funnier and flat-out weirder as the film approaches its conclusion.

The first thing I loved about this movie was its tone. It is very relatable with a fine supporting cast of rich and diverse characters, and it definitely plays to a mature audience with grown-up sensibilities. It’s not an overt crowd-pleaser (although the large audience I saw it with did sound very amused throughout). I also really loved how it’s one of those kinds of science-fiction movies that creeps up on you. There is already a heightened sense of silliness in a lot of what we see, but the real world is also very silly when looked at in certain ways and it’s only the gradual accumulation of details that clues you into the fact that this is not the real world. That is, until a crazy plot twist late in the movie that is pure sci-fi but works because of all the subtle groundwork laid in.

There are some rough edges to the movie (the film’s lack of budget is very apparent in one sequence involving a riot) but that is part of its charm. It’s a scrappy underdog of a movie, about working class heroes and featuring a fairly socially progressive point of view (the union subplot being a perfect example). That’s the kind of real community justice you don’t see in most movies, probably because most movies tend to reinforce the status quo instead of challenging it. The film has many little touches that tip you off to its subversive nature which had me grinning when I wasn’t outright laughing, and that is the most important thing of all – the film avoids being preachy by making you laugh.

Boots Riley deserves special mention for his writing and directing, the movie is full of wildly inventive visual ideas that match the story perfectly, and the cast is terrific. Lakeith Stanfield is immensely sympathetic, keeping you on his side even when he’s selling out, and Tessa Thompson is wonderful as Cassius’ performance artist girlfriend Detroit. Terry Crews has only a couple of scenes as Cassius’ uncle Sergio but he’s always a gem. I really enjoyed the mostly non-white casting because I love seeing other faces and voices on screen. The movie is incisive in its comments about race and one sequence in particular had many in the audience at the screening I attended squirming with discomfort, myself included. I love it when a movie can make me squirm and laugh and think.

Sorry to Bother You is very high up on my list of best films of 2018. I thought it was highly creative and original with many genuine surprises, but also that it was smart and funny – very, very funny. I was smiling almost from start to finish and for a long time after it was over. I really can’t say enough good things about it, I thought it was truly unique and special. I loved it.

Film Review: Spider-Man – Into the Spiderverse

Best Spider-Man movie since Spider-Man 2

Sony Animation has produced this slick piece of eye-popping animation that is a lot of fun to watch. I found it to be tremendously entertaining, fun and funny but with emotional weight where it needed it. I think it is the best Spider-Man movie since 2004’s Spider-Man 2.

One of the many things I loved about this film was how progressive and positive it was. The whole film really captures the essence of Spider-Man in ways that pretty much every other film in the past 14 years has failed to do, and Spidey is a relentlessly positive, optimistic character despite his tragic origins and his outsider status. This movie captures the correct tone to convey that spirit while also being a lot of colourful fun, just like the title character.

The story here centers on young Miles Morales (voiced by Shameik Moore), a New York teenager who somehow gets bitten by the same (or similar) spider as the one that bit Peter Parker. The Kingpin (Liev Schreiber) is the main villain of the piece whose experimental particle collider creates a crossover of parallel universes that delivers different versions of Spider-Man from those worlds into ours before it is damaged in a fight that kills our resident Spider-Man (Chris Pine). The multiple versions of Spider-Man have to work together to find a way to get back to their own universes and then destroy the collider before it destroys everything. Along the way, Miles faces challenges and comes to terms with the responsibility of being Spider-Man.

First and foremost, I loved the animation. That was the principle thing that got me interested, because I am very unimpressed by most animation for its lack of novelty. Rarely does an animated film present a style that I haven’t seen before, but I really think this movie did show me something new. I loved the characterizations of everyone, particularly Miles, but I also really liked Peter B. Parker (Jake Johnson) and Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) as his peer support. I thought Nic Cage was an unexpected pleasure as Spider-Man Noir from a hard-boiled 1930s universe and I have always loved Spider-Ham, who I was afraid would be just a sight gag but turned out to be a fun side-character.

In a lot of ways the movie reminded me of the Lego Batman Movie. It has a very similar sensibility of reverence as well as humour about the legacy of the character. I think Spider-Man’s appeal is in his misfit status and the total anonymity of the suit – anybody could be under the red and blue spandex, and that is what a lot of the movie’s underlying substance is about. It’s part of the reason why the film has so many different versions of the character and gives us the lesser-known Miles Morales as our central protagonist instead of the familiar Peter Parker. I found the story quite soulful in its presentation of what it means to be a hero – it’s not the suit, its the person wearing it and the choices he or she makes. I found the movie unexpectedly moving in parts, much like Spider-Man 2, and its closing coda by Stan Lee about heroism was very touching in light of the man’s passing earlier this year.

If there is anything negative to say about the film, it has to do with the presentation in 2D. I haven’t seen Into the Spiderverse in 3D but I would like to despite my overall misgivings about the medium. I think the cityscapes and web-swinging could be enhanced by the 3D, but what bugged me about 2D was that a lot of backgrounds had a blurry look like I was watching a 3D movie without glasses (except the foreground characters were clear), almost as if the studio did a half-assed job of making a 2D version.

I really loved Spider-Man – Into the Spiderverse a lot more than I tought I would. I laughed out loud many times and I appreciated its sense of Spider-Man lore, not just in the easter eggs sprinkled throughout for hardcore fans to giggle over, but for its authentic understanding of what the character means and stands for across multiple interpretations. An amazing movie.

Film Review: Widows

The new movie from British director Steve McQueen (12 Years A Slave) is one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, a new twist on the familiar heist movie with political overtones. Although it is to some extent a very familiar beast as a heist film, the plot has plenty of delightful twists, and I thought the characterizations and the cast were very compelling and the best part of the movie.

Viola Davis plays the wife of Liam Neeson, living very comfortably off his life of crime, of which she chooses to know nothing until a job goes wrong and wipes out him and his gang of thieves. Then, the gangster-turned-politician Neeson ripped off comes looking for the money, threatening Davis to come up with two million dollars or else. At about the same time, she finds her dead husband’s notebook detailing a job he was planning worth five million, and she enlists the help of the widows of Neeson’s crime-mates to carry it out to cover the debt and split the rest. Of course, a huge amount of tension comes from the question: can the completely amateur widows of professional thieves pull it off?

First of all, I have to say the cast is superb. Viola Davis is amazing as always, propelling the story with her determination, but I was equally impressed by her team-mates played by Elizabeth Debicki and Michelle Rodriguez. Robert Duvall and Colin Farrell as father-and-son political legacies are very good, particularly Farrell whose character had more dimension than I expected. Daniel Kaluuya is especially chilling as the gangster’s enforcer.

I really appreciated the socio-political flavour of the film, and how everyone came from these different class backgrounds that wold lead one to assume certain aspects of their personality, but often there would be more than would perhaps be convenient. The political race between the crooked establishment and the community led by a former criminal has some interesting facets and the whole thing is actually pretty challenging and complex the more you think about it.

The camera work and editing in the film is also very compelling. There is one camera move in particular where we follow Colin Farrell from making a speech in a run-down part of the city, into his car and across a few blocks to his political headquarters in a well-to-do neighbourhood, all in the span of a few minutes which really highlights the income inequality and social problems that give way to all kinds of crime.

Widows is definitely one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. It’s complex, it’s subtle, it’s challenging, it’s interesting, it’s fun and exciting when it needs to be but also makes you stop and think and care about what’s happening. I love it a lot.

And, as usual, Mark Kermode’s review nails it better than I ever could.