“Last Flag Flying” Review

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The military remains a highly sacred institution in America, and disparaging it is still a risky move for any public official or figure to make. With Last Flag Flying director Richard Linklater pulls off the remarkable accomplishment of angrily critiquing the Governmental policies and regulations behind acts of war while honouring the men and women who serve for their country, sometimes with their lives.

In the early days of the Iraq War three Vietnam veterans reunite to attend the funeral of one of their sons. As they reconnect and reminisce on their own experiences and survival, there’s a profound sense of inevitability about war and death as they watch the younger generation fight in another seemingly senseless war. As is the case with Linklaider’s screenplays, this one written alongside Darryl Ponicsan as he helps adapt his novel of the same name, there are all sorts of rounded and naturalistic conversations on topics ranging from Eminem to survivor’s guilt. The journey across America to bring Larry Jr.’s body home turns into a profound and poetic road trip that deals with ageing, honour, duty, and the familial love between fathers, son, and those who serve together.

Bryan Cranston, Steve Carell, and Laurence Fishburne fit their roles like they were born into them, playing three very different men who have been forever bonded by their shared experiences. As bar-owner Sal Nealon Cranston is crude, loud, and outspoken – quick to laugh at both his own and other’s expense while clinging to his glory days. Carell is remarkably soft-spoken and fragile as Larry “Doc” Shepherd, a younger member of the platoon whose own army experience ended badly and is now emotionally lost following the death of his son. Reverend Richard Mueller allows Fishburne to utilise his voice’s power and softness as a man trying desperately to move on from his irresponsible youth, although the moments where he slips up are often unexpectedly humourous. The chemistry between three actors of their experience is natural and effortless, enabling Linklaider and Ponicsan to delve into complex topics like the politics behind the Vietnam and Iraq wars by pretty much stripping away the politics. Instead Last Flag Flying’s focus is always on the humanity of these men and others in the military, and how the connections between them overcome other differences.

It’s certainly a heavier topic than Linklaider’s Before trilogy’s analysis of romantic relationships or Boyhood’s coming-of-age story, and while the message borders on preachy at times there’s a gentle touch that stops it from feeling inauthentic. The two-hour run time starts to feel stretched after the first hour, particularly when there’s not a lot actually happening in many scenes, but the extra time we spend with these three men just strengthens the emotional connection we have with them as audience members. It all leads to a deeply moving conclusion, with some of Carell’s finest acting in years, which suggests that family is more important than anything else. It’s a clichéd message, yes, but films like Last Flag Flying demonstrate how true it is.

4 stars.

“Unsane” Review

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Steven Soderbergh has always come across as a director who needs a reason not to do something more than he needs a reason to do it, playing with forms and new technologies to always stay on the cutting edge of filmmaking. He continues this trend with Unsane, a psychological thriller filmed entirely on an iPhone that uses its technological limitations to its advantage.

The smaller size of the iPhone camera leads to a restrictive aspect ratio that boxes in its main characters while lending each shot an almost invasive feel, as if the audience is spying on the characters. This is an appropriate way to view Sawyer Valentini (Claire Foy) – a woman suffering from severe anxiety as a result of continuous stalking from a prior acquaintance. When Sawyer goes to a mental health clinic to talk to a psychiatrist about her experiences she finds her attempts to leave blocked by staff informing her that she’s inadvertently signed herself in to voluntary confinement – and she’ll need to stay at least a week before they’re willing to let her go. Her attempts to prove her own sanity are further hindered by her insistence that her stalker, David Strine (Joshua Leonard) has gotten a job as one of the orderlies…a claim that none of the staff take very seriously considering the circumstances. While the aspect ratio lends a claustrophobic element to the already uncomfortable setting the iPhone camera’s large depth of field ensures that the audience always sees everything in the background of each room Sawyer is in, making her feel both trapped and swallowed by her environment. When combined with a frantic performance from Foy Unsane promises a tense and unpredictable psychological thriller – but the script by Jonathan Bernstein and James Greer never really manages to deliver.

Unsane starts out strong, with genuine questions about whether or not Sawyer is in need of confinement. While she claims to not need additional mental treatment beyond the counselling she initially requested, Sawyer displays examples of paranoia, anxiety, hallucinations, and violence within her first twenty-four hours of being hospitalised. The hospital hardly seems comfortable but the staff we see appear to be following all necessary protocols – cheerfully making conversation with the police officers that investigate Sawyer’s claim that she’s being held against her will as they hand over the forms she signed. Is Soderbergh making a savage attack on the state of mental health facilities in America, or is everything we’re seeing distorted through the perspective of a mentally unwell woman? I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, for some twist or reveal that would demonstrate the point Unsane was trying to make, but instead it just relies on out-dated stigmas towards mental facilities and the usual game of cat-and-mouse between Sawyer and David that appears in most psychological thrillers. As the story loses its ambiguity it relies increasingly on Foy to keep it together, who imbues Sawyer with enough strength and resilience to make her both captivating to watch and surprisingly dangerous.

It’s almost more fun to appreciate how Unsane was made than to actually focus on the story, as the clever directorial tricks Soderbergh uses are more surprising than the relatively standard plot. Exterior night scenes appear to be day scenes under a blue filter, and the most complicated visual effect is a simple but effective overlapping of two shots of Foy. It demonstrates how accessible filmmaking has become, and how a little ingenuity can get around the confines of lower quality cameras, but doesn’t raise the quality of Unsane itself beyond ‘pretty good’.

3 and a half stars.

“Avengers: Infinity War” Review

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I remember going to the first Avengers film back in 2012 and being uncertain as to whether or not Marvel Studios would be able to balance six superheroes in a single film. Now, ten years since the post-credits scene of Iron Man where Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) hinted at a larger universe, Avengers: Infinity War has arrived with a cast-list of comic book characters longer than the word count for this review. The 19th film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Infinity War brings together characters (and not only the ones you’d expect) from every film so far to do battle for the sake of the Universe.

After appearing with a sinister grin at the end of The Avengers, Thanos (Josh Brolin) has finally gotten around to putting his sinister plans in motion – bringing together all six infinity stones in order to wipe out half the population of the universe. With so much build-up around the character Thanos could have been another underwhelming addition to Marvel’s admittedly lacklustre roster of villains, but his impact is almost immediately felt. There hasn’t been another Marvel villain who manages to be this complex, determined, and physically imposing at once. It’s a role that would have been easy to overact but Brolin keeps his performance remarkably understated, presenting a powerful figure singularly focused on his goal and willing to do anything necessary to achieve it. Infinity War is easily the darkest film in Marvel’s line-up so far, wasting no time demonstrating the destruction Thanos and his team are capable of and proving that fan favourites have no guarantee of making it to the sequel. That’s not to say Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely’s screenplay has lost Marvel’s trademark wit, with Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) and Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) struggling to stop bickering long enough to face their foes, and the Guardians of the Galaxy just as irreverent as they were in their own films.

The sheer scale of what Marvel has attempted with Infinity War has never been seen in a blockbuster before, and directing brothers Anthony and Joe Russo take full advantage of this size in the action and spectacle on display. The battle sequences blend the varied fighting styles of each of its heroes, seamlessly mixing together the martial arts of Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), the acrobatics of Spider-Man (Tom Holland), the technological weaponry of Iron Man, and the reality bending magic of Doctor Strange. Every time I wondered how the conflict could get any larger something new and surprising would happen, whether it be through Thanos displaying his true power as he fights multiple heroes at once or an all-out war as the Wakandan army from Black Panther fights off alien hordes. It threatens to be overwhelming at times, and indeed it is occasionally frustrating leaving one exciting scene to catch up with the other plotlines, but the Russos do a remarkable job keeping all the plates of the Marvel universe spinning and giving every character their own moment to shine. It helps that the core cast have been playing their roles so long, some as far back as Iron Man, that they slip effortlessly back into their parts. The downside of this is the amount of assumed knowledge the audience is required to take with them. While die-hard fans will appreciate all the surprises and in-jokes, the plot is almost impenetrable to those who haven’t faithfully followed each new release on the Marvel calendar. Even characters within the film struggle to keep up at times, with Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner frantically trying to keep up with everything that’s happened since he left Earth at the end of Age of Ultron. At this point it’s probably easier to just sit back and enjoy it rather than trying to keep up.

After all the build-up and anticipation, it was almost inevitable that I’d walk away from Infinity War a little unsatisfied. Without giving too much away the ending is unexpected and promises major changes to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but we’ll have to wait for Part 2 to see how many of these changes stick. There’s a tremendous sense of finality around much of Infinity War but with a sequel due out next year and the required tease to another Marvel film at the end of the credits it’s clear that there’s still more to the story, meaning it’s hard to reach a final verdict as we don’t yet have all the pieces. Fortunately by now Marvel have well and truly proven they’re able to keep the audience excited for another film.

4 stars.

 

 

“Truth or Dare” Review

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Some party games are scarier than others. Rituals like chanting Bloody Mary into a mirror or playing with a Ouija board already contain the risk of summoning some sort of supernatural spirit, and even ‘Hide and Seek’ has something innocently sinister about it. Truth or Dare, however, is more often used as an excuse for teenagers to reveal secret crushes or challenge each other to make out, so when a group of friends get stuck in a deadly version of the game it just raises the question of why a demonic trickster would be so invested in their sex lives.

When Jeff Wadlow’s Truth or Dare introduces its cast of stereotypical doomed teenagers I couldn’t decide which of them I hated more: The nauseatingly pure Olivia Barron (Lucy Hale) who describes how her YouTube channel is for charity while her Snapchat is for fun, or the rest of her peer-pressuring judgemental friends. While it’s common for horror films to introduce a close-knit group of characters that are gradually torn apart by horrible situations, it’s rarer for these friends to be complete assholes to each other from the beginning. Some of Truth or Dare’s main cast are so openly obnoxious that it’s like Wadlow knows we’re just waiting for them to die suitably violent deaths. Thankfully we don’t have to wait too long for that to happen, but at least the assholes are more entertaining than the bland main characters. The only one of the group who even feels like a real person is Hayden Szeto as Brad Chang, with a scene between his closeted character and homophobic policeman father being the only moment in Truth or Dare that actually had an emotional impact before it’s immediately forgotten and moved on from.

The trouble starts for Olivia and her friends when they follow a stranger going by the name Carter (Landon Liboiron) to an abandoned chapel to continue drinking and partying while on a spring break vacation to Mexico. In this dilapidated setting it’s revealed that Carter only needed someone to pass the game onto to save his own skin, in a scene resembling It Follows if it was made for fifteen year olds. From then on Olivia and her friends can be asked the question at any time by a force that can possess anyone around them. This possession turns their eyes unnaturally wide and gives them a creepy distorted grin, an effect that more resembles a Snapchat filter more than a horrifying supernatural force. I’ll admit that one of the characters in the film made this same observation, putting Truth or Dare in the odd category of films that insult themselves before critics can. There are actually multiple points that I could feel the screenwriters desperately trying to justify their own premise – with a change in the rules meaning characters can only ask for two truths before having to complete a dare, or players being texted “Truth or Dare” if there’s no-one around to be possessed. While Blumhouse Productions has found success with unusual premises in horror films like The Purge, Ouija, and Happy Death Day, trying to make Truth or Dare scary suggests they may be running out of ideas.

1 and a half stars.

“Isle of Dogs” Review

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A Wes Anderson film about dogs is such an appealing concept that I was pretty much sold on Isle of Dogs before even getting into the theatre, but I’ll admit to still being surprised by the love and warmth Anderson continues to bring to his films. Isle of Dogs marks the ninth picture by the distinctive auteur director, and despite his filmic style evoking countless imitators and parodies his techniques never seem forced or artificial. Instead it feels like a singular story by a peculiar mind that could only be told in this way.

For a director as particular about production design as Anderson working in animation seems a logical decision, particularly stop-motion where the textures on each model can really come through. Nearly every frame is precisely arranged and awash with colour, even those on the grey and gritty garbage island, and the puppet designs of the canine characters lend them sweetness within their coarse hairs and scars. While 2009’s Fantastic Mr. Fox was a faithful adaptation of a classic Roald Dahl story presented with all of Anderson’s famous flourishes, Isle of Dogs allows him to make something entirely new. Drawing heavily on Japanese storytelling traditions to the point of opening with a Kabuki-styled expositional narration, the screenplay presents a dystopian view of Japan in the near future where all dogs have been cast out of the fictional city of Megasaki due to a widespread dog flu and sent to live on Trash Island. The first dog exiled belongs to the man behind the decision, Mayor Kobayashi (Kunichi Nomura), but also happens to be the security dog of Kobayashi’s orphaned nephew and ward Atari (Koyu Rankin). Desperate to find and rescue the dog, Spots, Atari crash-lands a stolen plane onto Garbage Island and teams up with a group of dogs to find him and reveal the true extent of Kobayashi’s plans – even if they don’t necessarily speak each other’s language.

The language difference plays a vital role in how characters in Isle of Dogs, with many of Atari’s lines spoken through un-subtitled Japanese while the dogs communicate amongst themselves in English. While some scenes do contain either subtitles or translations through interpreters (primarily the comforting voice of Frances McDormand) the need to understand exactly what was being said quickly becomes irrelevant. Atari’s thoughts and feelings are easy to read through both his delightful character animation and the strength of the bond that naturally forms between a boy and his dog. Said dog characters are almost irresistibly lovable, with models that perfectly capture all those quirks and intricacies that make pooches such popular pets and each voiced to absolute perfection by an astonishing cast including Jeff Goldblum, Scarlett Johansson, Bill Murry, and F. Murray Abraham. It’s primarily the voice of Bryan Cranston as Chief, a life-long stray that adamantly refuses to have any sort of master, that really carries the emotions of the film. Cranston’s naturally gruff voice is ideal for such a character, and he gradually brings a softness into how he delivers each line as Chief opens himself up. The sheer amount of personality displayed through both the designs and vocal performances brings these very good dogs to life and demonstrates why people are able to form such strong connections with them, to the point that both pet and owner are able to do anything to protect the other.

Those who struggle to appreciate Anderson’s distinctive style aren’t going to be won over by Isle of Dogs, as all of his favourite techniques are on full display here, and the conversation about how he uses Japanese cultural elements is a larger and more complicated one than I know how to get involved in. But for how he blends the visuals, the lightness of a family-friendly story that never shies away from darker implications, Alexandre Desplat’s stylistically varied soundtrack, and the sheer charm of his characters, Isle of Dogs stole my heart completely.

5 stars.

“Early Man” Review

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With CGI as prevalent and accessible as it is today, any animation studio that still specialises in stop-motion animation has to be doing it out of sheer love for the form and how the handcrafted characters can bring a story to life. Aardman studios, the British company behind beloved figures like Wallace and Gromit, exemplify this approach through the charm and distinctive humour they bring to each of their films, from Chicken Run to Early Man. It is director Nick Park’s love of football in particular that carries Early Man, a film that is so British that it suggests much of mankind’s development stems from playing soccer.

After a disarmingly cute opening where the asteroid that killed off the dinosaurs is turned into the first soccer ball by a group of confused caveman, Early Man jumps forward to the dawn of the Bronze Age. Our protagonist, Dug (Eddie Redmayne), is a young caveman living in a tribe under the rule of chief Bobnar (Timothy Spall) within a forest valley surrounded by “The Badlands” – a rocky and volcanic area that visually resembles the land of Mordor from Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films. When the villainous Lord Nooth (Tom Hiddleston) invades their land and declares the dawning of the Bronze Age, Dug and his pack must find a way to compete with the more advanced force or else be exiled into the badlands forever. The concept of a clash between characters from the Stone Age and the Bronze Age is rife with comedic potential, and indeed initial scenes of Early Man demonstrate Aardman’s well-established blend of sight gags and wordplay as Dug jumps between the two worlds. It’s when Dug challenges Nooth’s celebrated soccer team to a match for their land that the focus of the film turns too narrow, turning into a fairly standard underdog sports movie within an admittedly different setting. Whereas films like Chicken Run or Curse of the WereRabbit thrived on accessible stories that had almost universal appeal, I felt that in order to fully appreciate Early Man one would have to be a die-hard soccer fanatic. That’s not to say I didn’t find moments entertaining despite my lack of interest in the game, but more that I found it frustratingly specific in its execution of an exciting premise.

Like most of Park’s protagonists Dug is delightfully cute and earnest, voiced with just the right amount of sincerity from Redmayne as he leads a cast of notable British actors and comedians such as Richard Ayoade, Rob Brydon, and Miriam Margolyes. Tom Hiddleston’s bizarre French accent as Nooth is less appreciated, never quite fitting the world of the film and turning what could have been a smarmy love-to-hate villain into one that’s just annoying. Maisie Williams favours much better as Goona, a soccer player from the Bronze Age who comes to help Dug out due to not being able to join Nooth’s all-male team, but her role largely divulges into pushing every clichéd training montage and sports trope onto Early Man as the cavemen train for their climactic match.

Despite my initial enjoyment with Early Man the more it progressed the more predictable I found it to be, and the more tiring I found the potty humour and puns. There was just enough cleverness to keep me from dropping into out-right dislike, with a Manchester United pun towards the end that was so meticulously crafted that I have to give the screenwriters credit, and an always appreciated appearance by a giant monster duck, but as a fan of Aardman’s earlier works I’ll admit to coming away disappointed. It’s possible I just wasn’t the right audience for Early Man, but it’s hard imagining who the right audience is for a stop-motion children’s film about soccer-playing cavemen.

3 and a half stars.

“A Quiet Place” Review

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Horror works best when it taps into real fears. A unique premise and creepy monsters work for momentary jumps, but to have a lasting effect a scary movie needs to explore the primal anxieties and concerns we all face day to day. This is exactly what John Krasinski taps into so well with A Quiet Place, which Krasinski directs, stars in, and co-wrote. On the surface it’s a clever and tense monster movie about a family struggling to survive in the wilderness while hiding from creatures that hunt by sound, but on a Meta level it allows Krasinski to explore his own insecurities about parenting in a way that only the horror genre can. The real-life relationship between him and his co-star Emily Blunt adds an extra layer to the mother and father roles they play, and their desperation to protect their children truly feels as though it’s coming from somewhere very real. Given that there a few moments in A Quiet Place where the characters are truly safe, and it all adds up to a filmic experience that is as emotionally engaging as it is terrifyingly tense.

It’s uncommon for the sound design of a film to be one of its most notable aspects, but when noise is as important to a story as it is in The Quiet Place every creak, footstep, and scuffle is cause for alarm. The Abbott family’s farmhouse is located within hunting range of at least three of the sound-sensitive creatures that have wiped out much of the population, and there may be more they don’t know about. This forces the characters to be so quiet when interacting with the world that their own heartbeats are often louder that anything coming from the environment, until something inevitably goes wrong and makes a sound that feels very, very loud. It turns the film into a masterpiece of tension, as nearly every scene can turn dangerous with no warning through something as simple as a dropped lamp. Special mention must be given to how important Marco Beltrami’s score becomes in a film with as little dialogue as this, with the music setting the tone for both the more peaceful, melancholic moments as well as the heart pounding sequences when the creatures attack. More importantly, both Beltrami and Krasinski know when to not use music at all, as the silent moments are the ones that had me holding my breath and leaning in closer to the screen in anticipation of what would happen next.

As clever as the central concept of A Quiet Place is, there have been plenty of horror movies with smart premises that weren’t able to carry them for a full cinematic runtime. It’s thanks to the strength of the performers and the constant twists of the script that A Quiet Place is just as gripping in its nail-biting opening scene as it is for the powerful final shot. Krasinski and Blunt are both experienced actors who clearly relish the opportunity to express their characters and emotions non-verbally, utilising a mix of sign language and facial expressions, but I was surprised by how well the two child actors manage. Millicent Simmonds’s own deafness is reflected in her character, adding an additional level of lived experience to the silence she lives in, but both her and Noah Jupe bring out an extraordinary amount of personality without needing dialogue. It’s notable that the writing of one brief scene between Jupe and Krasinski where they can share spoken words feels uncomfortably clunky and unnatural, particularly after how effectively the characters have used alternative means to communicate up until that point.

The screenplay keeps the narrative fairly contained to the Abbott family and their farmhouse, but a few nice little touches suggest a larger world that’s surviving against the creatures in their own way. I particularly appreciated a minor sequence where Lee (Krasinski) lights a bonfire that is matched by other unseen households in the distance, wordlessly implying the presence of other families with their own stories. I was a bit underwhelmed by the actual monster design of the creatures the more we see of them, which end up resembling the demogorgon from Strange Things and are more frightening in how their absence forces the Abbott family to live in a constant state of caution. The truly impressive thing about A Quiet Place, though, is how even in this tense environment Krasinski is able to develop the relationship between this family and explore what lengths parents will go to in order to protect their children. Another example of how a simple horror movie premise can be used to say something much deeper about the human experience.

4 and a half stars.