“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.

“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.

 

 

“Love, Simon” Review

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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.

“Annihilation” Review

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In an earlier review I praised the ingenuity behind The Cloverfield Paradox‘s surprise Netflix release and distribution as a clever and inventive way to promote a new blockbuster. Regrettably I don’t feel the same about Paramount Picture’s decision to sell the overseas release of Alex Garland’s Annihilation to the increasingly powerful streaming service, as the technicolour visuals and evocative soundscape beg to be experienced in a cinema setting. Having no other option but to watch it on a smaller screen does rob the creative and refreshing sci-fi of some of its power, but I’ll take the optimistic route and just be happy that it got released at all.

Annihilation is shrouded with mystery from the very beginning. We see a comet crash into a lighthouse, and Natalie Portman’s character, Lena, being interviewed by a dour faced scientist in a full HAZMAT suit. Apparently Lena is the sole returning member of an exhibition to an unknown location, and she doesn’t quite remember what happened to her. Garland’s screenplay jumps back to Lena’s husband (Oscar Isaac) strangely reappearing in their home after a year on a military deployment within a zone known as the “shimmer” – a strange fluorescent field extending from the crashed comet and slowly expanding over the US coast. With Kane remembering nothing of his time within the shimmer, and his body rapidly breaking down now that he’s out of it, Lena joins a five-woman team making their own journey in to figure out what happened and how to stop it. Natalie Portman gives yet another committed and emotional performance as Nina, and it’s nice seeing Oscar Isaac and Garland reunite, but it was Gina Rodriguez as paramedic Anya who had the standout performance for me. Anya starts out as a strong, friendly member of the team who welcomes Nina to the unit, only to get more paranoid and unstable as the effects of the shimmer become more apparent. It all culminates in Annihilation’s tensest scene, and demonstrates Rodriguez’s range extends far beyond the sitcom setting of Jane the Virgin.

As with his debut film, Ex Machina, Garland builds his world on familiar and believable foundations before exploring the more fantastical sci-fi elements. The world within the shimmer is earthy and floral, filmed in England’s Windsor Great Park, and cinematographer Rob Hardy emphasises the liveliness of the environment. It’s only as the team gets further in that things start to appear unnatural, represented by different species of plants blending together and creating vibrant mixes of colours along the same roots. The landscape continues to get stranger as the exhibition gets deeper, and all along the danger is visualised through these bright colours and unique floral formations. Production designer Mark Digby and the entire art department have clearly relished in the opportunity to create a world that looks both beautiful and dangerous. Garland uses other filmic tricks to give the shimmer a sense of unease, such as making the film edits themselves part of the story – scenes will start mid-way through with the characters unsure as to how they got there. Even the soundtrack begins to distort as the film progresses, with Ben Salisbury and Geoff Barrow favouring an acoustic guitar to set the tone early on before switching to distorted electronica for the otherworldly climax. It all leaves Annihilation a feeling like a mix between Event Horizon and 2001: A Space Odyssey – raising the deep questions of the former while threatening the nightmarish dangers of the latter.

Garland, having previously written the screenplays for complex films such as Sunshine, 28 Days Later, and Never Let Me Go, has never shied away from exploring deep questions in his work. Annihilation has numerous interesting concepts to discuss, many of which are developed in surprising ways within the film, but the climax does lean more in favour of abstract ideas than an actual resolution. This is hardly unusual in science-fiction, and I’m sure many viewers will embrace the questions the ending provokes, but I confess to preferring the peculiar yet grounded world that had been established prior to that point. Regardless, Annihilation is a promising sign that the strengths Garland displayed in Ex Machina weren’t a fluke, as he continues to create fresh works of science-fiction that aren’t afraid to favour the viewer’s intelligence over special effects.

4 stars.

“The Square” Review

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I find it more than a little bit amusing that the winner of the Palme d’Or at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival, a festival that (deservedly or not) has a reputation for promoting subversive and confronting art films, was a picture satirising the attempts of a museum to create subversive and confronting pieces of art. Nearly every aspect of the art scene is skewered in Ruben Östlund’s The Square, from exhibitions that accidentally get swept up by the cleaning crew to performance art pieces to end in physical assault, and much like any good artwork seems more concerned with provoking discussion than providing a simple explanation. This is a film that asks questions that I don’t have the answers to, and I’m not even entirely certain I understood the question, but I’m still thinking about them long after leaving the theatre.

Despite marketing that emphasises the roles of American stars Elizabeth Moss and Dominic West, The Square largely follows the day-to-day life of Christian (Claes Bang) – the curator of Stockholm’s X-royal art museum. Despite his stylish and trendy appearance Christian is first seen passed out on the couch in his office before conducting an interview where he struggles to explain his own vague quote regarding a previous instillation. Things don’t get much better for him when his wallet and phone is stolen on the street through a con that qualifies as a rather clever piece of performance art in its own right, while the marketing team working on the titular exhibition bemoan the lack of any controversy that would cause it to go viral. What I found interesting is how throughout Christian’s problems Östlund takes the time to focus on various members of Stockholm’s homeless population, who are either ignored by Christian or used for his own purposes. It effectively demonstrates the gap between the lower class and the upper, particularly those in power who claim to be making art that speaks for the ignored and unrepresented without any idea of how to actually interact with them. This theme becomes more evident as The Square progresses and Christian engages in a spectacularly ill-conceived plan to retrieve his stolen goods, while the advertising for the new exhibition receives the controversy the marketing team was hoping for.

Östlund’s previous film, Force Majeure, demonstrated the director’s knack for the uncomfortable that is again demonstrated here. The camera will linger on characters as they dig themselves deeper with pathetic acts of desperation or misunderstood interactions, and scenes extend well beyond the point where the viewer would expect them to finish. A post-coital argument between Christian and Elizabeth Moss’s character is possibly the funniest argument about condoms ever put on screen, and an excruciatingly long sequence of Terry Notary performing as an ape at a black-tie dinner could serve as a brilliantly provocative short film itself. As The Square progresses the gorgeous production design and elegant cinematography that is so striking at first seems to fall away to reveal the shallowness and emptiness of Christian’s life, with Claes Bang masterfully exposing more of his character’s vulnerabilities and insecurities as the film progresses.

Throughout its lengthy two hour twenty minute runtime The Square explores topics as ranged as homelessness, social media, the class divide, bystander syndrome, the role of art in society, freedom of speech, casual sex, and more. Not every scene relates to the overarching story, and indeed certain moments are never brought up again, and yet not a single moment seems wasted – throughout it all, The Square always feels like it has something to say.

4 Stars.

“Black Panther” Review

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Early on in Black Panther the title character’s resident tech genius and sassy younger sister Shuri (Letitia Wright) justifies improving his gear by saying “Just because something works doesn’t mean it can’t be improved.” This attitude seems to be the prevailing view behind the Marvel Cinematic Universe lately, as the blockbuster studio continues to demonstrate willingness to fit new voices and styles into their well-established franchise. For the eighteenth film in the series, director Ryan Coogler has brought together a primarily black cast and infused the fictional country of Wakanda with aspects of different African cultures to infuse Black Panther with a different energy while still retaining the action, special effects, and humour of its predecessors.

After making his debut in Captain America: Civil War Chadwick Boseman returns as Prince T’Challa, inheriting the title of King after the death of his father. T’Challa spent much of Civil War on a revenge-quest so his first solo outing gave Coogler and fellow screenwriter Joe Robert Cole an interesting opportunity to flesh his character out and expand his personality, but he still ends up feeling a bit flat. It’s nothing to do with Boseman’s performance, who brings ample amounts of charisma and power to the role, and more to do with how he keeps getting upstaged by his more interesting co-stars. Letitia Wright steals all the dialogue scenes as his teen-prodigy gadgeteer, bringing boundless enthusiasm to every creation she makes like a mix between James Bond’s Q and a YouTube star. Meanwhile the focus of the action scenes is quickly stolen by Danai Gurira as Okoye, the leader of T’Challa’s personal bodyguards and a fighter every bit as capable as the Black Panther himself without the need for the mystical herb that gives him super strength and agility. It’s noteworthy that both of these characters are women, as Black Panther is chock full of strong, intelligent, and badass women of colour without feeling the need to draw attention to it. It’s a welcome example of how times are changing, and we’re getting some fantastic characters out of it. Poor Martin Freeman ends up looking particularly out of place for much of the film as the Everett K. Ross, the required outsider who can have Wakandan customs explained to himself (and by extension the audience), but will surely help bring the characters of Black Panther into the superhero free-for-all that will be the upcoming Avengers: Infinity Wars.

Excepting Ross’s role and a few scenes with Age of Ultron’s Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkins), Black Panther manages to keep its story fairly self-contained against the broader Marvel Universe. The villain, Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger, keeps his vendetta primarily to Wakanda and T’Challa himself, even if the conflict does naturally increase to something world threatening to justify an appropriately explosive final battle. Killmonger stands out against other Marvel villains for having a motive beyond simple “Take over/Destroy the World”, instead wanting to hold Wakanda accountable for its wealth and technological advances while other African countries languish in poverty and black people around the world are mistreated. In a rarity for superhero films I actually found myself agreeing with the villain at times, and I commend Black Panther for not being afraid to tackle uncomfortable questions and allowing both sides of the argument to make valid points. Obviously they still have to keep Killmonger clearly in the antagonist role to foster T’Challa’s growth and justify a final fight between the two, but thanks to Jordan’s committed performance and the writing of his character there is a genuine sense of pathos around him that hasn’t been seen in many other Marvel villains.

Ryan Coogler, fresh off the brilliant Rocky reinvention Creed, keeps Black Panther filled to the brim with both style and African influences. Ludwig Göransson’s soundtrack mixes tribal drums, hip-hop hooks, and the typical superhero fanfare, which along with Kendrick Lamar’s original songs had me enjoying the music so much I’d forget to pay attention to what was happening on screen. While the fight sequences may lack the same visceral punch the boxing matches in Creed had, cinematographer Rachel Morrison has the camera flowing around the characters in slow motion as they gracefully perform extravagant stunts like running up buildings and whirling through car wrecks. These stylistic touches serve to distinguish Black Panther from other Marvel pictures on the surface, but at its core it does still fit within the Marvel mould. I’d love to play all of the MCU films at the same time and see how many of them simultaneously hit certain emotional beats. Yes, it’s basic story structure, but Marvel has been following the classic three-act structure so religiously that you could basically set your watch by when the film hits its darkest moment. For all the Black Panther does different it’s clear there are some things Marvel is unwilling to change, especially the obligatory Stan Lee cameo and post-credits teasers.

Black Panther isn’t the first superhero movie to have a black lead, not even the first based on a character from Marvel comics (I haven’t forgotten you, Blade), but it’s undoubtedly a milestone in mainstream cinema to have a film that celebrates black culture so openly. It also demonstrates why these things are worth celebrating, as when you get different voices like Coogler or Thor: Ragnarok’s Taikia Waititi to handle blockbuster films you get different types of blockbusters. It may have taken Marvel a while to figure that out, but if they’re able to keep their films feeling this fresh after 10 years then it’s a lesson well learned.

4 stars.

“Molly’s Game” Review

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Aaron Sorkin has a remarkable knack for making complex topics seem accessible to audiences; whether it’s the politics of The West Wing, the coding language of The Social Network, or now the high-stakes poker of Molly’s Game. From the opening scene the viewer is bombarded with numbers, statistics, and facts rapidly delivered via Molly’s narration as she breaks down the freak accident that ruined her chance to ski at the winter Olympics, but all done so in a way that makes it both bitterly funny and easy to understand. As is often the case with Sorkin’s screenplays the amount of information being delivered at once can be overwhelming, but the story behind the arrest and investigation into Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) and her underground poker games involves so many overlapping details and characters that it takes a writer like Sorkin to do it justice.

Molly’s Game follows a similar structure to Sorkin’s prior screenplay for The Social Network, alternating between Molly’s meetings with her lawyer Charles Jaffey (Idris Elba) as he attempts to understand her true motives, and flashbacks detailing the evolution of the poker games she runs. These games move from LA to New York and include movie stars, athletes, bankers, and members of the Russian Mob amongst their players. Over all of it looms Molly, maintaining control and earning thousands of dollars worth of tips each night as she keeps her games popular and (mostly) legal. Chastain is present within nearly every scene of the picture, and those that she’s not in contain her narration, and she flawlessly pulls off everything Sorkin throws at her. Her performance varies between charming, determined, vulnerable, confident, and sardonic, on top of reading out Sorkin’s notoriously difficult dialogue as she explains topics as varied as the rules of poker, legal jargon, skiing, and the backstories of many of her players. She’s matched by Elba, who’s struggled to lock down a good role lately with flops like Dark Tower and The Mountain Between Us but is yet again able to display his natural charisma and sense of cool professional intelligence. The scenes between them best showcase the typically quippy back-and-forth banter Sorkin is famous for, even if at times Elba seems to be struggling to make it sound as natural as Chastain does.

This is Sorkin’s first foray into directing, and while he’s clearly studied from the master directors he’s worked with before (including David Fincher and Danny Boyle) I got the sense that he’s definitely more comfortable with the dialogue sequences. Moments that relied more on action tended to be weaker, with Molly joyously skating on an ice rink towards the end feeling like something out of a Disney channel original rather than the dark and complex drama/thriller I’d been watching. The whole film starts to feel a touch too sentimental in the third act, with both Elba’s character and Molly’s estranged father (Kevin Costner) having moments where they spout her virtues and praises. I don’t know anything about the real Molly Bloom beyond what is presented in Molly’s Game, but while The Social Network may have exaggerated Mark Zuckerberg’s worst qualities this film presents an unfalteringly positive depiction of its protagonist. That’s not to say Chastain doesn’t make her believable, but when every other character is as despicable as the sort that Bloom deals with in her games I found myself siding with Jaffey when recommends selling them out to the police to protect herself. Her ultimate explanation as to why she doesn’t is so thin that Sorkin immediately has to follow it up with a joke in the hopes that we don’t question it any further.

I wouldn’t have expected a film about poker and event management to be as exciting as this is, but Molly’s Game does pull it off. On-screen diagrams and Chastain’s narration ensures that those of us who know nothing about the game can still follow along, and even if I did get occasionally lost in the more specific details I was kept constantly engaged by both Chastain’s powerhouse performance and the quality of Sorkin’s dialogue. I’ll be interested to see what dry topic Sorkin is able to weave a screenplay out of next, as at this rate he’d be able to make something entertaining out of a terms and conditions agreement.

4 stars.