“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.

“All the Money in the World” Review

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Where should I even begin on All the Money in the World? This film should have been a fairly simple real-life thriller based around the kidnapping of John Paul Getty the Third in 1973, and his billionaire grandfather’s refusal to pay the ransom. Things got more complicated after Kevin Spacey’s sexual assault allegations, resulting in director Ridley Scott removing Spacey from the role of J.P. Getty and replacing him with Christopher Plummer through a series of reshoots and digital edits. This move bought All the Money considerable media attention and positive press, which quickly turned sour when it was revealed Mark Wahlberg was payed substantially more for the reshoots than co-star Michelle Williams. Chances are that you already know this, dear reader, and indeed it’s hard to watch this film without considering its complicated backstory. It was definitely a remarkable decision from Scott, but does it make for a better film? Or should it be considered on its own merits?

I’m going to say yes, replacing Spacey with Plummer does make the film better. Plummer is a wonderful actor, and in the current climate seeing Spacey play such an irredeemable person would have been too uncomfortable and distracting an experience. Despite all the behind-the-scenes drama Plummer truly does make the role his own, appearing almost genial even as he holds onto his money and power at the expense of his family’s own safety. There is little, if any, moral complexity to a character such as Getty – Scott even desaturates the visuals of many of his scenes so much they border on black-and-white. Considerably more colour, and humanity, is displayed whenever the focus is on Gail Harris, mother to the kidnapped John. Williams brings substantial strength to the role of Gail, who at one point expresses indignation that the press expects photos of her crying over her son, and hides her character’s terror behind a composed and stern expression. Fletcher Chase, negotiator and former CIA operative, bridges the two moral grounds as he deals with both Gail and Getty, but as a character most of his positive talents are informed rather than displayed. It doesn’t help that Wahlberg, who admittedly gives one of his better recent performances, isn’t quite at the same level of actors like Williams or Plummer so is frequently outclassed in their scenes.

One of Ridley Scott’s greatest strengths as a director is crafting atmospheric tension, and All the Money in the World allows him to demonstrate this in a more restrained fashion than last year’s Alien: Covenant or 2015’s The Martian. The impressive thing is how Scott is able to match the stakes between overtly dangerous situations, such as John Paul Getty’s (Charlie Plummer, no relation) fraught interactions with kidnapper Cinquanta (Romain Duris), and subtly sinister moments like Getty looming over the alimony dispute between Gail and his son. John’s famous disfigurement at the hands of his captors is almost casual in execution, with Cinquanta whispering comforting words to the frightened boy as the camera gets up close to all the grisly details like a twisted medical drama. Meanwhile, one of Getty’s monologues about his own power is accompanied by a subtly rising soundscape of insects buzzing, making him seem more monstrous and inhuman than the kidnappers. It’s an interesting juxtaposition between these two groups, even if Gail and Fletcher start to feel like a less interesting pairing stuck in the middle for most of the film.

All the Money in the World is a well made, if unspectacular, picture that would have been almost destined to be lost within Scott’s formidable filmography were it not for the more interesting behind-the-scenes issues. As it stands, the removal of Spacey from the final product does serve to immortalise it – both due to the assured performance of Plummer and the powerful message Scott’s actions send to other filmmakers.

4 stars.

 

“Darkest Hour” Review

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Genuine question: How many films about World War 2 can possibly be made? It feels as though the war has been covered from every angle and perspective imaginable, yet around December/January each year there seems to be a new picture about the conflict and the struggles endured by those who lived through it. Admittedly, having director Joe Wright team up with actor Gary Oldman elevates Darkest Hour to a higher quality than most WW2 dramas, but I found it difficult to shake the feeling that I’d seen much of it before. It doesn’t help that the evacuation of Dunkirk plays a major role in the climax of Wright’s film, which only served to make me think about Nolan’s Dunkirk instead of the images on screen. This exemplifies the problem I have with historical dramas and World War 2 biopics: No matter how well made and performed they seem while watching them, when they’re finished they all just seem like one part of a much larger tale.

Fortunately Wright and Oldman manage to make the story of Darkest Hour feel somewhat fresh through the strength of the expressionistic direction and a commanding performance. Oldman loses himself in the role of Winston Churchill throughout the first month of his role as Prime Minister in a warts-and-all depiction that emphasises his brashness, insecurities, arrogance, and eloquence. Many of Churchill’s iconic speeches are recreated in full, but it’s astonishing how Oldman doesn’t just sound like he’s imitating the originals. Instead he delivers each speech with such emotional conviction that it’s as if we’re hearing them for the first time. It works to strip away the iconic status of a historical figure like Churchill, and enable us to consider him as a man. Wright emphasises Churchill’s sense of isolation over any other quality, with Bruno Delbonnel’s cinematography regularly positioning him boxed into small frames of the screen and surrounded by a black void. Combined with a soundscape that magnifies the impact of each plodding step, the shadowy and ominous look of the Halls of Parliament, and Dario Marianelli’s militaristic soundtrack, it’s hard not to feel the weight of the world on Winston’s shoulders. With the German invasion of Europe getting closer to swallowing Britain each passing day, Churchill’s decisions often mean life or death for British soldiers – and Wright doesn’t shy away from depicting how they impact both the men on the field and the man himself.

Kristen Scott Thomas brings light into the bleakest moments of the picture as Clementine Churchill, who’s unafraid to challenge her husband while recognising what he’s working towards. Thomas does such a fine job of bringing out the tenderness in Oldman’s performance while demonstrating Clementine’s own strength that it’s frustrating how Anthony McCarten’s screenplay prioritises the role of Elizabeth Layton, Churchill’s new secretary, as the one to humanise him. It’s not a flaw in Lily James’ performance, who brings her usual amount of charisma to the lower-class ingénue, but the scenes between Thomas and Oldman demonstrate such a compelling shared history and understanding between the two characters that the relatively new relationship between Layton and Churchill is less investing as a result. A much more interesting partnership is the one that develops between Churchill and King George VI, magnificently portrayed by Ben Mendelsohn. Mendelsohn manages to present George as a man relatively powerless in his new position as King without feeling as though he’s in the shadow of Colin Firth’s Oscar-winning role from 2011’s The King’s Speech, displaying great dignity even while apprehensive of Churchill’s actions.

Yet ultimately the comparisons to other films couldn’t help hanging over Darkest Hour for me, as the events and characters on display have been presented countless times before. Darkest Hour stands on its own merits as a superbly acted and stylishly directed recapturing of one of the most uncertain moments in British history, but the inherent issue with a story so famous is there’s never any uncertainty as to what will happen next. It’s hard to be surprised by something we see recreated year after year.

4 stars.