“Early Man” Review

Early Man.jpeg

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

a-Quiet-Place.jpg

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.

“Mary Magdalene” Review

 

Mary-Magdalene-2018.jpgWhether one believes through religious faith or reads it as fiction, the story of Jesus Christ and the crucifixion is one of the best in all of history. It’s unsurprising that filmmakers from Martin Scorsese to Mel Gibson have made their own attempts to depict the last days of a figure as open to interpretation as the supposed Son of God. Garth Davis, fresh off the Oscar-nominated Lion, reunites with Rooney Mara to provide his own reimagining by focusing on the perspective of Mary Magdalene and her own relationship with Christ.

Joaquín Phoenix approaches the role of Jesus with an appropriate level of gravitas and commitment, with a presence that is both powerful and comforting without ever resorting to overacting. Mara does fine work exploring Magdalene’s sense of isolation and yearning for truth, justifying why she gravitates to Jesus as she does, but the script by Helen Edmundson and Philippa Goslett felt quite flat in justifying this new perspective on a familiar story. Rather than providing a fresh feminist view on the birth of Christianity, the narrative follows the same predictable moments that feature in nearly every story of the crucifixion. It wasn’t until the final scenes that I began to get a sense of why Edmundson and Goslett wanted to explore Magdalene’s understanding of Christ and his teachings, and the most interesting details about her had to be literally spelt out in title cards before the end credits. I did appreciate Tahar Rahim’s take of Judas, a fascinating and complex character in any interpretation, as a man whose adoration of a man turns to resentment due to a profound misunderstanding of his message, and Chiwetel Ejiofor offers a more morally ambiguous take on Peter than usually presented. There’s a diverse mix of races and nationalities playing the apostles, suggesting Davis had opted for colour-blind casting for these religious figures, but having both Mary and Jesus played by traditionally white Mara and Phoenix lets down what could have been an interesting opportunity.

Greig Fraser’s cinematography is easily the strongest part of Mary Magdalene, almost covering up the flatness of the script through exceptionally emotive landscape photography. Filmed in Rome and Southern Italy, Davis and Fraser combine wide-open shots of the Italian countryside and ancient structures to present environments that are both desolate in their emptiness and beautiful in their scope. Davis’ direction and creative editing further gets into the very human psychology of Jesus as he becomes increasingly unstable due to the pressure, fears, and frustrations of his influence and inevitable execution. Yet as strong as the quality of filmmaking is, I can’t really think of any reason to recommend seeing Mary Magdalene. The performances are strong, the cinematography is powerfully expressive, and Davis’s direction is capable, but it doesn’t change the fact that the story offers little surprises. The Easter release was certainly a deliberate move to make the tale feel relevant, but only serves to bury it within the countless other Passion plays. The story moves too slowly when we all know where it’s going, and it never justifies its alternative take on the material. There is definitely more that could be said about the life of Mary Magdalene, but Davis and his team keep things too focused on Jesus’s influence to enable her to speak with her own voice.

3 stars.

“The Death of Stalin” Review

DeathOfStalinFacebook_OGImage.jpg

A tyrant as monstrous as Joseph Stalin isn’t the most obvious subject for a feature comedy, yet the circumstances surrounding his death and the ensuing power struggle do have a certain farcical quality around them. Director and co-writer Armando Iannucci provides the same satirical touch he applied to British politics with The Thick of It and American politics with Veep to the Soviet Union in the 1950s, deftly balancing the pettiness of the high-ranking members of the Communist Central Committee with the atrocities being done to the common people.

The first thing one is likely to notice about The Death of Stalin is the lack of Russian accents, with the opening sequence demonstrating some deliciously British cringe comedy as Paddy Considine attempts to restage an entire concert rather than fail to deliver on an unexpected request from Stalin himself. As the other primary characters get introduced performers like Steve Buscemi, Jeffrey Tambor, and Simon Russell Beale all utilise their natural speaking voices – with Jason Isaacs in particular relishing in the opportunity to belt out his character’s crude and bombastic declarations in a thick Yorkshire accent. Whereas a film like Red Sparrow became unintentionally absurd through the number of European actors adopting fake Russian accents, the complete lack of dialect in Death of Stalin is a stroke of genius on Iannucci’s part. The contrast between the setting and the language adds another layer of lunacy to the proceedings, emphasising the human follies of figures like Stalin and his council despite the atrocities they commit. Major historical characters like Nikitia Khrushchev (Buscemi), Lavrentiy Beria (Beale), and Georgy Malenkov (Tambor) are introduced through slow-motion shots and dramatic blasts of Russian chorales even as they swap crude jokes over dinner at each other’s expenses, laughing uproariously like College frat boys. The grandeur of the regal environments and Chris Willis’s military-esque score serves to emphasise how childish the characters are being as they race (sometimes literally) each other to snatch whatever morsels of power they can acquire.

I was initially concerned that the comedic approach to Stalin’s regime and the aftermath of his death would make light of the crimes committed in his name, but Iannucci isn’t afraid to expose this uncomfortable reality. Jumping between exaggerated displays of mourning from the committee members to innocent people being lined up and shot can be jarring at first, but as the film progresses Iannucci displays a boldness in his approach to comedy by gradually stripping away the humour to confront the cruelty of the men we were previously laughing at. It’s not always an easy watch, and anyone expecting a simple satire may be confronting by the violence on display in certain scenes, but The Death of Stalin embraces its status as a black comedy of the darkest nature to expose a brutal truth. The laugh-out-loud moments, such as character trying to move Stalin’s body without kneeling in his urine, may be fiction, but the crimes these characters go on to commit are uncomfortable facts.

4 and a half stars.

“Ready Player One” Review

Ready Player One.png

Only a few months after the release of The Post master director Steven Spielberg is back with a movie as different from the wordy and political film imaginable, with a special effects laden celebration of pop-culture and video games. Ready Player One, based on the novel by Ernest Cline, demonstrates how Spielberg is still able to keep up with the constant advances in technology and special effects after all these years, even if he lets the spectacle overwhelm the characters at times.

CGI has become so commonplace and accepted in blockbusters lately that it’s common for characters and action sequences to resemble something out of a video game (particularly in superhero films like last year’s Justice League), so it makes sense for Ready Player One to embrace that aspect and set the majority of its story inside an enormous online game world. In the year 2045 most of humanity spends their time hooked up to the virtual world of the OASIS – a combination between the Internet, an MMO, and social media. Anything in possible in the OASIS – one can change their appearance, engage in any activity imaginable, and connect with people all around the world. For our main character, Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), his goal is to find three hidden keys spread throughout the Oasis by its creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance). Whoever finds the keys first is granted full ownership of the OASIS, which Watts is determined to do before a company like Innovative Online Industries (IOI) and its profit-motivated CEO Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) can take control and privatise the whole place. The links to modern concerns like Net Neutrality and Pay-to-Play systems aren’t subtle, but then again little about this movie is.

The real selling point of Ready Player One is pure spectacle, and fortunately Spielberg has always been able to deliver visually stunning moments of cinematic excitement. The OASIS is filled with references to all sorts of real movies, TV shows, and video games – I doubt even the biggest pop-culture nerd would be able to spot them all on the first viewing. These references are both Ready Player One’s greatest strength and weakness, as while I can’t pretend to be iron-willed enough to not enjoy seeing Back to the Future’s DeLorean racing through an obstacle course avoiding Jurassic Park’s T-Rex or King Kong himself, too many of the conversations between characters end up divulging into spouting nerdy trivia back and forth. The script by Zak Penn and Ernest Cline also relies too heavily on the 80s nostalgia that has been pervasive in pop-culture lately and is feeling increasingly tired. Modern properties like Overwatch and Halo have brief visual appearances, but it would have been nice to see Cline’s seven-year-old book be updated even more.

Spielberg has been responsible for some of the most iconic and original moments in cinematic history, yet there’s a disappointing lack of originality displayed in Ready Player One. The obsession with nostalgia goes so far that the characters literally end up invading the world of another film for a significant portion of the second act, which only served the purpose of feeling like a borderline blasphemous invasion on another director’s work while making me want to watch that film instead. That’s not to say it isn’t enjoyable spending time in the world of the OASIS, as Spielberg and the team at ILM have constructed a futuristic and flashy setting that Janusz Kamiński has the camera whooshing through, and one of the climactic battle sequences contains so many iconic characters fighting each other that its almost impossible to not get some geeky pleasure out of, but it never manages to avoid feeling artificial. When the characters that die can immediately sign back in and re-join there’s never any tension, and the attempts to introduce the threat back into the real world fall flat due to that setting being so underdeveloped and uninteresting compared to the OASIS. The cast is filled with talented actors, yet I could feel that they were so weighed down by the wires and motion-capture suits that they struggled to really connect with the audience.

Ready Player One ends up being incredibly entertaining, and a popcorn flick of high quality, without providing much memorable for itself. The overall message of the film, that we shouldn’t sacrifice reality for artificial worlds, felt particularly appropriate as I happily wandered back into the real world after 140 minutes in this one.

3 and a half stars.

“Love, Simon” Review

Love Simon 2.jpg

The high-school movie is a specific genre that can sometimes feel like it’s been done to death. Since the master John Hughes defined the style in the 80s most of the imitators have followed a relatively standard formula: Expect nerdy friends, unrequited love, parties with underage drinking, and most likely a big showy display of romance or two. Love, Simon demonstrates that there’s still new ground to break, as by being the first mainstream Hollywood movie to have a teenage gay protagonist it opens the formula up to uniquely authentic and heartfelt moments while providing some highly important representation.

Simon Spier (Nick Robinson) is a typical American teen who’s hiding the big secret of his sexuality from everyone, until one day an anonymous student from his high school makes an anonymous confession of their own homosexuality. Sending him an e-mail through the fake name “Jacques”, Simon begins to open himself up to this stranger (known only as “Blue”) and embrace the side of himself he’d kept hidden for so long. I appreciated how Aptaker and Elizabeth Berger’s screenplay, based on the book by Becky Alvertalli, offered a realistic depiction of how modern teenagers use technology – as while Vice Principal Mr Worth (Tony Hale) bemoans how much time the students spend looking at their phones, for Simon the Internet becomes a place he can find people going through the same experiences as him. The problem is that the Internet can also be used to tear people down, as Simon discovers when a classmate (Logan Miller) finds his e-mails and uses them to blackmail him. The actions of Miller’s character, Martin, were for me when the movie started to stretch the credible a bit. Through no fault of Miller’s performance I found Martin too grating a character – being simultaneously too evil in his threat to expose Simon’s sexuality, too stupid to think his plan would work, and too annoying to be entertaining. Thankfully Simon and his friends are more than likeable enough to make up for it.

Katherine Langford, Alexandra Shipp, and Jorge Lendeborg are all able to jump from the lighter quirky touches that director Greg Berlanti infuses on the story to emotionally honest and open moments of confession and vulnerability, yet none more so than the leading actor. Robinson’s performance as Simon is truly beautiful – sensitive and touching as he grapples with his character’s struggle. We can practically see the weight of his secret on him and how much pain holding it back is causing him. Simon’s one-sided conversations with Blue force Robinson to express both love and heartbreak as he acts against a computer screen and he does so wonderfully, turning them into soulful and life-affirming moments of discovery. It helps how Berlanti uses these scenes to inject imaginative fantasy cuts ranging from Simon speculating the true identity of Blue to full-blown music and dance numbers, cleverly visualising how the mind gets lost in the excitement and anxieties of a first love. Add in a soundtrack produced by Jack Antonoff with music by Rob Simonsen that blends current popular artists with 80s synths and you get a film that evokes classic John Hughes while retaining modern sensibilities.

It doesn’t feel like hyperbole to say Love, Simon will be a life-defining movie for many. Moments like Simon first coming out to a friend or the reactions of his parents (wonderfully played by Josh Duhamel and Jennifer Garner) to how his life is changing are scenes that teenagers need to see, as they might help them through similar moments of their own. Conversations of youth sexuality and identity are important and worth having, and it never feels like the makers of Love, Simon are holding anything back. Ultimately it sends the message that all teenagers are hiding some sort of secret, whether it’s their sexuality, a crush on a friend, or the fears they don’t want others to see. The performances, screenplay, and direction all come together to provide a mainstream teen-romance that is authentic and honest, which is a remarkable feat. Even if the final declaration of love does feel a bit too grandiose and ‘cinematic’, in the years of men and women making enormous displays of affection to each other on the big screen it seems overdue to have a film where two men make their own romance public. If anything we could do with a few more like this.

4 stars.