“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.

“Early Man” Review

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

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

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

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

3 and a half stars.

“Ready Player One” Review

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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.

“Game Night” Review

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Max (Jason Bateman) and Annie (Rachel McAdams) are a very competitive couple. Everything about their relationship – from their meeting, engagement, and marriage – involves some sort of game or contest between the two, as established by an entertaining opening montage that quickly sets the tone of John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein’s Game Night. Part of Max’s competitive nature stems from constantly feeling inferior to his older brother Brooks (Kyle Chandler), a problem that isn’t helped when Brooks comes into town and suggests throwing Max and Annie’s weekly game night at his new place. The game suggested by Brooks involves a member of their group being suddenly kidnapped, with the winner being the first player to find them. Sure enough, armed men soon burst into the room and kidnap Brooks to the amusement of everyone in the room, who are completely oblivious of the fact that he’s really being kidnapped.

Mark Perez’s screenplay offers a clever premise with plenty of potential for unique comedic moments, and like the best game nights keeps the rules fairly simple to instead let the players (or audience) just enjoy the company they’re in. Joining Max and Annie are Kevin and Michelle (Lamorne Morris and Kylie Bunbury), high-school sweethearts who realise over the course of the night that they haven’t been as faithful to each other as they thought, and Ryan and Sarah (Billy Magnussen and Sharon Horgan). Ryan is their moronic friend trying to defend his own intelligence by bringing an older, smarter woman than his usual game night dates with the witty and British Sarah. Admittedly I found Ryan’s stupidity a tiring character trait, stretching credibility and raising questions of why anyone in the group bothered to spend their time with him, but Sarah’s bemused acceptance of the night’s events does balance him well. Lurking in the shadows is Jesse Plemons as Officer Gary, a frighteningly intense man who used to attend the group’s game nights with his wife but is left out after their separation. Plemons plays his character more like the lead suspect in a Law and Order episode than a supporting role in a comedy, and the delightfully uncomfortable humour that comes from his interactions with the rest of the cast make for one of Game Night’s strongest selling points.

Game Night is largely built on the chemistry between Bateman and McAdams, with Bateman’s finely honed deadpan humour addressing some of the more absurd moments while McAdams, a captivating screen-presence in any genre, brings a joyousness to even the darkest situations. The scene when Annie has to remove a bullet from Max’s arm brings the biggest laughs as the two treat the task in front of them like a morbid round of ‘Operation’. Daley and Goldstein cleverly make much of the film feel like part of a game, employing clever CGI to make the establishing shots resemble figures on a board or turning serious moments into elaborate matches of keep-away or charades.

Unfortunately the rules do become a bit too complex as Perez’s screenplay tries to throw countless twists and turns into the final act, and it was around the point that Max and Annie are driving a car through the wheels of a moving plane that I started wondering what had happened to the simple premise I’d been enjoying so much for the first hour. The supporting cast are so strong that when they’re unceremoniously pushed to the side for the climax the film does lose the mix of camaraderie and competition that had moved things along so smoothly at first, even if Bateman and McAdams are strong enough performers to keep things relatively grounded as the stakes become increasingly overblown. Even if the plot does lose sight of itself towards the end, Game Night manages to stay as fun and entertaining at the name suggests. This is very much a film that should be watched with a group of friends on a night out, and I’d definitely be up for another night in these characters’ company if a sequel comes along.

3 and a half stars.

“The Cloverfield Paradox” Review

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Beyond the films themselves, the Cloverfield franchise deserves to be recognised as one of the most innovative and surprising ones out there simply due to how the films are marketed and released. The first film back in 2008 was famously announced with just a vague teaser and release date, making audiences wait over a year to determine what it actually was. Then, eight years later, a sequel was confirmed only a month before the release of 10 Cloverfield Lane, which had almost nothing to do with the original beyond some minor references and hints to a larger cinematic universe. Now we’ve seen the surprise release of The Cloverfield Paradox, a Netflix exclusive film that was only announced only a few hours before the film was available to watch.

To honour the secrecy the Cloverfield films are famous for shrouding themselves in, I’ll keep the narrative details of this review vague. A team of scientists working on the Cloverfield space station are performing experiments on a particle accelerator in an attempt to create infinite energy and solve the world’s energy crisis. Things go horribly wrong.

The Cloverfield Paradox puts forth some genuinely interesting concepts and ideas within the first thirty minutes to an hour, with similarities to sci-fi films such as Alien, Event Horizon, and Sunshine. The introduction of Elizabeth Debicki’s character is both surprising and horrifying, and a particular death scene seems to be trying to out-do Alien’s famous chest-buster sequence through sheer gross-out qualities. For a while I was even optimistically thinking this could finally be a worthy successor to Ridley Scott’s genre-defining masterpiece, the shadow of which hangs over nearly all sci-fi horror pictures, but unfortunately Oren Uziel’s screenplay runs out of steam towards the end. The interesting and weirder elements of the first half of the film become replaced by the same types of conflict that seem to appear in every space film, and the climax boils down to a one-on-one fight rather than the Lovecraftian cosmic horror teased at by the premise. Characters shout clichéd dialogue at each other and you get the sense that not even the cast really understand what’s going on. Which is a shame, because director Julius Onah has assembled a brilliant group of performers including Daniel Brühl, Chris O’Dowd, David Oyelowo, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw as protagonist Ava Hamilton. Each actor fully commits to their role, even if the script lets them down at times, and Mbatha-Raw does a tremendous job bring true emotion to an often insane film.

As was the case with 10 Cloverfield Lane, Uziel’s original screenplay was not initially intended to be a part of the wider franchise. This is distractingly noticeable at times – scenes of Hamilton’s partner Michael as he deals with a mysterious disaster on Earth completely divert from the main plot and seem to only exist to provide vague links to the previous films. Rather than answering any questions about the greater story of the Cloverfield franchise, though, The Cloverfield Paradox just raises more questions of its own. The last shot in particular felt like an infuriating tease of the movie I could have been watching, instead of a satisfying conclusion to the one I just watched. Apparently there’s another Cloverfield film due out towards the end of this year. Whether or not that one will do anything to explain itself I can’t quite say, but given the series’ track record so far I’m sure it will be more interested in trying to deliver its own surprises rather than giving some depth to the franchise.

Despite the flaws of The Cloverfield Paradox, and I can’t deny noticing plenty of other critical reviews, I couldn’t help but enjoy it as an unexpected treat. Being unaware of a film’s existence until a few hours before its release makes it hard to be disappointed or build any real expectations about the final product, a refreshing change from the sort of blockbusters scheduled years in advance by franchises like the MCU, DC, or Star Wars. The Cloverfield Paradox will most likely be remembered largely due to the clever marketing move of its surprise release, but there are worse surprises to be had.

3 and a half stars.

“Just to Be Sure” Review

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Erwan Gourmelon is in a complicated situation. He’s just found out that his Dad isn’t his biological dad, his daughter is pregnant and doesn’t want to find the father of her baby, and the man who might be his real father is also the father of a woman he’s just started seeing. Trust the French to make a romantic comedy that not only displays such dysfunctional relationships, but also uses them to get to the core of what it means to be a parent, to connect with one another, and love selflessly.

Just to Be Sure is a charming story that brings a sense of whimsy to its deeply human and emotional themes. It’s a simple film, with director Carine Tardieu allowing the strength of the characters and wonderful performances to speak for themselves. François Damiens displays a kind heart and protective spirit as Erwan, who left his previous job as an officer to work in bomb disposal in order to look after his daughter after the death of his wife. Erwan’s job was a playful touch on behalf of the screenwriters, as I don’t think I’ve ever seen a romantic comedy with as many explosions as this one. It’s also a nice metaphor for Erwan’s situation, as he spends much of the first act wandering around somewhat shell-shocked after receiving the bombshell reveal that Bastien Gourmelon (Guy Marchand) isn’t his real father. Instead he hires a private detective to find Joseph Levkine (André Wilms), the most likely option to be Erwan’s biological father. The scenes between Erwan and his two Dads were, for me, the strongest moments of Just to Be Sure. Marchand is heartbreakingly innocent as Bastien, unaware as to why his son seems to be pulling away from him yet still deeply proud of Erwan. As Joseph, André Wilms presents an affable man aware of his declining years and surrounded by loss, so seeking companionship wherever he can find it. When Erwan begins showing an interest in him, he’s delighted to find someone to spend time with – even before he figures out why. The theme of fatherhood purveys throughout the film, as Erwan encourages his daughter Juliette (Alice de Lencquesaing) to let the father of her unborn baby into his child’s life, and by doing so has to come to terms with what being a father really means. Is it just the biological connection, as may be the case with Joseph, or is the emotional support provided by Bastien over the years?

This exploration of what it means to be a parent is so effective that I found the romantic subplot between Erwan and Doctor Anna Levkine somewhat disconnected from the main themes. Shortly after Erwan and Anna’s disastrous first meeting they run into each other again and he asks her out, only to discover almost immediately that she is the daughter of Joseph and, possibly, his half-sister. Cécile De France is screen stealing as the confident, no-nonsense Anna, but the connection between her and Erwan was never quite believable. He is understandably hesitant to pursue the relationship after realising who she is, and I couldn’t find a reason for her to become infatuated with a man who becomes so clearly disinterested with her. The uncomfortable nature of their relationship does provide some of the best jokes in the film, but that doesn’t stop it from being, well, uncomfortable in an otherwise wholesome film.

Just to Be Sure is a light, fun movie that uses the dysfunctional and often cartoonish characters to explore universal truths about family and parenting, demonstrating the strength of French cinema to bring together the quirky and the important moments of life.

3 and a half stars.

“Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” Review

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I’m going to open this review with a controversial statement: The original Jumanji isn’t that good. It’s a fun enough blockbuster with at-the-time revolutionary special effects and a typically likable performance from Robin Williams, but hardly a classic. In that regard Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle succeeds as a sequel by being a fun enough blockbuster with entertaining action scenes, likable performances from Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan, and Jack Black, and not much actual substance.

This time around the famous Jumanji board game has been transformed into a video game through the fairly flimsy excuse of ‘magic’ and ‘no-one plays board games any more’. After a brief prologue in 1996 to explain the game’s transformation, we jump to the present day as Jumanji is found by a group of teenagers in detention. There’s Spencer Gilpin, the nerd; Bethany Walker, the pretty popular girl; Anthony ‘Fridge’ Johnson, the jock; and Martha Kaply, the outsider. It’s noticeable that the film’s depiction of teenagers has barely developed beyond the character types from The Breakfast Club, though admittedly the script does try to make them more relevant by throwing in tired jokes about how teenagers sure do love being on their phones. Fortunately when they get sucked into the world of Jumanji and become their video game avatars the film’s pace and humour picks up considerably, and begins playing with the clichéd characterisations it’s just established. Spencer becomes the muscular Dr. Smolder Bravestone, Fridge becomes short-statured zoologist Franklin ‘Mouse’ Finbar, Martha becomes martial-arts expert and scantily clad bombshell Ruby Roundhouse, and Bethany becomes the portly (male) academic Professor Sheldon Oberon. Having Kevin Hart as a macho jock trying to bully a timid nerd in the body of The Rock, while Jack Black teaches supermodel Karen Gillan how to properly flirt, provides some great character comedy and easiest the best jokes in the film.

Indeed the entire video game premise, while met with criticisms from die-hard fans of the first Jumanji, brings to the movie some refreshingly original concepts and scenarios. I was particularly impressed with how the life-system was utilised, with each character having three lives before Game Over. This provides opportunities to have the leads dying in surprising and occasionally hilarious moments while effectively raising the stakes for when they each start getting down to their final lives. Having the main cast playing stereotypical teens in the bodies of video game avatars enables them to play off their public personas, with Johnson in particular milking his famous smoulder for all it’s worth. He and Kevin Hart recreate the easy chemistry they had in 2016’s Central Intelligence, and Karen Gillan utilises her overly expressive face and knack for physical comedy in scenes where Martha tries and fails to act as the seductive Ruby Roundhouse. And who would have thought Jack Black’s best performance in years would be as a teenage girl? The four leads work off each other so well that the other characters end up feeling flat and unnecessary. Nick Jonas is largely forgettable as another player stuck in the game for twenty years, with none of the quirks that make the other four interesting and introduced too late in the film to make me actually invested in his predicament. Bobby Cannavale as the villainous Van Pelt displays some initial potential, with a threatening presence and the interesting hook of being able to control all the animals in Jumanji, but is ultimately underused and ineffective. Even at the end, when the characters return to the real world and their original forms, I couldn’t help but hope there would be still be some final scene of Johnson, Black, Hart, and Gillan.

It took over twenty years for the first Jumanji film to get a sequel. Time will only tell if it takes Columbia pictures that long to release a new instalment and make this a franchise, but nothing about Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle had me feeling like it would be remotely necessary. It was a fun enough experience, but I can’t see myself wanting to return to the jungle any time soon.

3 and a half stars.