“Beast” Review

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A darkly gripping tale of love and murder, writer-director Michael Pearce’s feature debut Beast explores the need for freedom and the danger it can represent.

Played by Jessie Buckley, Moll is a young woman living on the island of Jersey who is constantly belittled by her upper-class family and those around her. Her mother Hilary (a gracefully sinister Geraldine James) alternates between calling her stupid and selfish and insisting that the two of them are best friends. Her brother berates her for not caring for their ailing father while he himself neglects his daughter, and her sister overshadows Moll at her own birthday party. Moll seems to be drifting through life with no real purpose or ambition beyond insisting that her job as a guide of the island’s bus tours is “only temporary”. It’s little wonder why she is immediately struck by the rough and unrefined stranger Pascal Renouf, a hunter and craftsman who works with his hands and seems utterly unconcerned with the difference in social status between him and Moll. Johnny Flynn as Pascal certainly makes for a compelling figure with his scarred face, lidded eyes, and one of the best character introductions I’ve seen all year – defending Moll from the unwanted advances of a man by firing his rifle into the ground without a word or change in expression. He’s even defined by his smell, a rare character element within film, as Hilary’s insult that she could “smell him a mile away” becomes a recurring trait that Moll uses to distinguish him from the others around her. The relationship that develops between the two seems to offer Moll an opportunity to break free of her family’s confines, but when Pascal becomes the leading suspect in a series of assaults and murders on the island Moll’s desire to stay with him is tested by the hostility she receives from the rest of the community and her own fears of what he may be capable of.

Beast is largely a character study of Moll and she’s one of the richest and most multifaceted protagonists I’ve seen in film for a long time. At the beginning of the film she seems like a quiet and innocent girl – singing in the church choir and wearing a pristine buttercup yellow dress at her birthday party – yet her desire to feel something real manifests through self-destructive actions such as deliberately grinding glass shards into her hand. The more we learn about her past the more we understand the darkness and rage within her that she struggles to resist. She constantly insists that she’s “a good person” but it’s as if she’s trying to convince herself each time she repeats it. It raises the question of what about Pascal she’s drawn to, as what first seems like love starts to resemble defiance or even a desire for danger. It’s a phenomenal role for Jessie Buckley and a career-making performance as she gives Moll fragility, determination, spirit, and something vaguely threatening. With so much of the story told through Moll’s perspective even when Pearce gives us an answer as to whether or not Pascal is guilty I remained unsure if it was the right one or just what Moll had decided was true, leading to an ending that I’m still trying to decide my own interpretation of.

The Jersey coastline and forests look gorgeous through Benjamin Kracun’s cinematography – with still and isolated wide shots that seem to swallow the characters, while the more personal moments are filmed in close proximity with shaky, unbalanced movements. There are a few too many moments where I felt Pearce was teasing his audience with manipulative surprise dream sequences to demonstrate Moll’s fears, particularly when Buckley does such outstanding work expressing Moll’s emotions without the need for them, but this could be a consequence of the director moving from shorts to a feature film and unsure how to keep the pace up. For the most part, though, Beast is a powerful and confronting experience that suggests great things are on the horizon for both its leading actors and its director.

4 stars.

 

“You Were Never Really Here” Review

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Lynne Ramsay is a director who uses every filmmaking tool at her disposal to put her audience right into a character’s emotional state, and Joaquín Phoenix has been on a roll lately of delving deep into the psychology of conflicted, withdrawn men, so the team up of the two artists in You Were Never Really Here is just as dark, thought-provoking, and immersive as one would expect.

Phoenix’s presence is felt throughout nearly every scene as he lumbers, slow and heavy, through a cruel and intense world – gaining a significant amount of weight and bulk to fill the enormous figure of an ex-soldier suffering severe PTSD. The character, known only as ‘Joe’, finds both work and an outlet for his most violent impulses by seeking abducted children and punishing those who take them. “McCleary said you were brutal”, a prospective client notes. Joe sits in silence for a moment, his face blank and gaze averted. His response is simple and detached: “I can be.” The violence of You Were Never Really Here comes out in sudden bursts, flashes of rage glimpsed briefly through security camera monitors or shown only in the aftermath. On the surface the film seems like a revenge-thriller but Ramsey’s screenplay and Phoenix’s performance make it clear that Joe’s aggression is nothing more than a highly destructive release for his own inner turmoil. There’s nothing righteous about the violence, but it’s the only way Joe can cope with his past trauma. What made Joe this way is never explicitly stated and shown only through momentary flashbacks, but we see just enough to begin to understand him.

The plot largely focuses on Joe’s attempts to rescue the daughter of a New York State Senator, and the conspiracy he winds up involved in as a result. Ekaterina Samsonov as Nina is a beautiful representation of both innocence and its corruption, and the relationship that forms between her and Joe in their brief scenes together resembles that of De Niro’s Travis Bickle and Jodie Foster as Iris in Taxi Driver. Indeed much of You Were Never Really Here plays as a blend of Scorsese’s classic and Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive, with the classic story of a tormented figure struggling to find redemption or purpose. There are moments of peace and happiness within the bleak world Ramsay presents, particularly moments with Joe’s mother (a scene-stealing Judith Roberts) where Joe manages a semblance of a normal life, but they are gone all too fast as Joe is thrust back into the darkness.

You Were Never Really Here is a film made with exquisite skill in every department under the capable direction of Lynne Ramsay. Ramsay and cinematographer Tom Townend know just when to use a close-up and when to stay back, letting action play out in beautifully framed shots or putting the audience up close to just see what remains of a horrible incident. Johnny Greenwood’s score alternates between pulsing, thumping, and screeching as it suggests the sounds going on within Joe’s own mind. Phoenix’s best-actor win at 2017’s Cannes Film Festival was well-deserved for the way he holds in all of Joe’s pain, showing it only through the subtlest of facial shifts until the moments when it bursts forth. Special mention must also be made of the sound design, with the sound of Joe’s footsteps given additional impact and weight as he carries himself forward one step at a time. Admittedly the dialogue is so quiet at times it’s easy to lose, particularly with Phoenix mumbling nearly every word, and there were times I nearly missed vital information. Yet it also demonstrated how in the hands of the right director and actor the dialogue can be almost unnecessary, as even if I missed the words I never lost sense of the tone Ramsay has created or the message she was trying to convey.

4 and a half stars.

“The Nun” Review

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The success of James Wan’s The Conjuring back in 2013 was a major factor in reminding studios of the market for classic supernatural horrors, and with a sequel and three spin-offs it’s clear that New Line Cinemas is trying to get as much out of this bankable franchise as possible. Unfortunately, if The Nun is any indication, this is another horror series that’s fast running out of ideas and in danger of containing more bad films than good ones.

After two spin-offs focusing on The Conjuring’s creepy Annabelle doll The Nun instead turns to the antagonist from The Conjuring 2, a demonic figure that prefers to present itself in a mockingly warped version of the classic hooded nun. While this spectre had some admittedly creepy moments in The Conjuring 2, it doesn’t really have any new tricks on display here – spending most of its screen time standing at the end of hallways, floating ominously towards the camera, or roaring at nothing in particular. Horror movie antagonists can usually get by with little more than the occasional creepy appearance provided that the scares are good and the story is interesting, but both these qualities are lacking here.

In a Romanian monastery the attempts of two nuns to stop the demonic influence slowly spreading through the area ends with one killed by the creature and the other committing suicide to prevent it from possessing her. In response, the Vatican sends Father Burke, a cynical priest and one of the few capable in performing exorcisms, and initiate nun Sister Irene to investigate whether or not the ground of the monastery is still holy and determine what motivated the suicide of Sister Victoria (Charlotte Hope). To get there they rely on help from ‘Frenchie’, a French-Canadian living in the area that delivers food to the monastery and discovered Sister Irene’s body. When they arrive at the monastery the already slow-moving plot grinds to almost a complete stop as they are forced to wait around while occasionally seeing glimpses of the other inhabitants and moving from jump-scare to jump-scare. There’s no narrative tension or sense of urgency, and things only really start to pick up in the last twenty minutes as director Corin Hardy rushes through a loud and sometimes laughable conclusion to reach for an ending that can vaguely link this story to the Warren family from the main series. The main cast provided little to draw me in any further, with Demián Bichir imbuing Father Burke with minimal characterisation beyond an impressive scowl and raspy voice while Taissa Farmiga goes the opposite direction with a wide-eyed earnestness that never really makes Sister Irene’s reactions to anything seem real. Jonas Bloquet is more enjoyable as the shotgun-swinging womaniser Frenchie, but his character feels more like he’s stepped out of Brendan Fraiser’s Mummy series than the dark and demonic world of the Conjuring films – particularly as any tension the film may build is immediately lost when a character cries out for ‘Frenchie’.

There are a few decent ideas for scary moments in The Nun, aided by the gorgeous production design of the Romanian monastery setting, but the execution regularly falls flat as Gary Dauberman’s script moves from one to the other with nothing linking them. The characters repeatedly end up separated due to someone seeing something in the distance and blindly wandering off after it, and even before the credits had finished rolling I’d found myself forgetting what had happened in certain scenes due to how sloppily the film jumps between the characters in its attempt to deliver three scares at once. Bonnie Aarons as the titular Nun does have a suitably creepy presence, and there’s plenty of religious imagery and practices for Hardy to turn sinister, but those who were impressed by the character in her first appearance would probably have a better time re-watching The Conjuring 2.

1 and a half stars.

“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.