“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

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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

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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.

“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.

“Tomb Raider” Review

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No matter how many attempts are made, it seems increasingly unlikely that there will ever be a truly great movie based on a video game. The best of them are, at most, good. Tomb Raider is…fine.

It’s not surprising that studios continue to push Lara Croft onto the big screen, as she’s arguably the most logical choice for a movie franchise. The character is iconic enough to be recognisable, has a clearly defined personality, and her adventures are vague enough to give screenwriters ample room to create their own story while still fitting into the formula of the games. Oscar-winner Alicia Vikander takes the role of Lara Croft from Angelina Jolie, who last played it in 2003, and her casting is easily the strongest element of Roar Uthaug’s film. The early scenes of Lara in London enable Vikander to display a tremendous amount of charm and humour, even if these qualities don’t get as much focus once her actual adventure begins. In fact, I’ll confess that I actually preferred these establishing scenes more than the main plot, as Geneva Robertson-Dworet and Alastair Siddons’s script sets up a fast-paced world with interesting characters for Lara to interact with before quickly abandoning them. Once Lara finds documents revealing where her missing father (Dominic West) went seven years ago she quickly joins up with captain Lu Ren (Daniel Wu) to sail across to the dangerous island where the legendary Queen Himiko is rumoured to be buried. Unsurprisingly the ship crashes, stranding her with the sinister Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins) – part of an equally sinister team who seek to unearth Himiko due to her rumoured destructive powers.

Tomb Raider undoubtedly favours its action-packed set pieces over plot, and there are admittedly quite a few impressive ones. Lara struggling to escape a crashed plane dangling precariously over a waterfall and a high-speed bike race through the streets of London are two standout sequences, particularly for how Uthaug seems to prefer practical stunt-work to give each jump, thud, and scrape a physical impact. I did start to lose interest once they get into the tomb at the end, as the trials they face feel a bit too much like video game puzzles, but the script does manage a nice balance between the supernatural mysticism of the games and the more realistic focus of the film. I was frustrated by the decision to lose Lara’s background as an extraordinarily intelligent and educated archaeologist from the games, as while I recognise that this is an origin story more than anything it does leave Lara primarily reacting to other people’s actions or work. Given the blatant sequel hook the film ends on, though, it’s possible they’re working up to that element.

Ultimately, though, nothing in Tomb Raider really felt fully developed. Walton Goggins, who was so effectively sleazy in 2015’s The Hateful Eight, has almost no personality as Vogel. Despite Vikander’s charisma Lara borders on being bratty and entitled at certain points, and the script relies far too heavily on characters happening to run into each other when the plot needs them to. Add in a number of plot holes and unnecessary flashbacks that spell out the obvious twists and one gets the sense that the studios didn’t expect anyone watching this to be using an ounce of mental energy. Which is appropriate, as Tomb Raider is a film best enjoyed with the brain fully switched off.

2 and a half stars.

“A Fantastic Woman” Review

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Films like A Fantastic Woman, which are so centred on a specific character and their unique experience, just can’t work without the right actor in the part. Fortunately director Sebastian Lelio had the insight to give Daniela Vega, who was originally hired as a script consultant, the lead role – and it’s the performance of a lifetime. As a trans woman struggling to deal with both the unexpected death of her partner and the judgement of his family, Vega’s character Marina accepts the abuse thrown at her with an unflinching demeanour and quiet strength. It’s through Lelio’s direction and the cinematography of Benjamin Echazarreta that we see her frustration and the toll it’s taking on her. One brief moment features Marina walking down the street against the wind, the force getting stronger and stronger until it’s nearly blowing her off her feet. Throughout it all Marina holds strong and pushes through. It’s a wonderfully symbolic and understated moment that demonstrates A Fantastic Woman’s strength for drawing upon the audience’s empathy without feeling as though it had to force a message. It simply didn’t matter how different the life experience of a Chilean transgender woman may be from my own – we connect to her so deeply on a purely human-to-human level as an audience that all I wanted was for her to succeed.

As Marina’s partner, Orlando, Francisco Reyes makes the most of his limited screen-time to ensure that his presence is felt throughout the entire film. The relationship between the two is quickly and efficiently established as one of mutual love and acceptance, and I appreciated how Lelio depicts the opening scenes through Orlando’s perspective to create an immediate connection with the character before his sudden death. His presence or lack thereof is keenly felt throughout the rest of the film as Marina attempts to mourn him despite his family’s objections, occasionally appearing as either a memory or spectre to offer guidance and support. Unfortunately few of the other people Marina encounters are as accommodating, yet Lelio and Gonzalo Maza’s screenplay finely balances both the blatant aggression with more subtle forms of discrimination. Orlando’s ex-wife Sonia (Aline Küppenheim) weakly prefaces her insults with “no offence” as she refuses to accept Marina’s identity, and even a detective (Amparo Noguera) who claims to be an ally assumes that Orlando’s relationship with Marina must have involved abuse of some kind. It demonstrates how while general public awareness and acceptance of trans people has come a long way, there’s still a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done. Fortunately films like A Fantastic Woman are a good start, marking the first film lead by a transgender character to win “Best Foreign Film” at the recent Academy Awards as well as giving Daniela Vega the honour of being the first openly transgender woman to present.

Throughout A Fantastic Woman both Lelio and Vega are able to find moments of honesty and heart, no matter what trials Marina faces. Without giving anything away the film ends on a moment of serene beauty, with Marina in a state of almost serenity. It was a wonderful scene to leave this character on, demonstrating how this genuinely fantastic woman is strong enough to rise above all those who can’t understand her.

4 and a half 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.