Month: March, 2017

Life

lifeThe writing duo of Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick have recently penned successful action/comedies (Deadpool, Zombieland), but Life presents their first effort at a sci-fi thriller. It seems to be a polarising genre — some are good (Event Horizon, Sunshine, Alien), some are bad (Species, Mission to Mars, Europa Report). However, Life is unique in that it is decidedly, well … ordinary.  Like its cast, my expectations for this film were floating in zero gravity when I entered the cinema.  I felt like an American watching cricket waiting for the penny to drop.  Yet, somehow Life never let a solid opinion settle, as I was met with equal measures of good and bad. So thumbs up, Life, for sitting on the fence. Not many sci-fi thrillers manage to do that.

The film is helmed by Daniel Espinosa. Who? Yes, he’s the director that bought you the wonderfully bland Child 44 and Safe House.  I thought that perhaps the enigmatically superb Jake Gyllenhaal (pictured) might spark things to life, but unfortunately all six crew members (including Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds) have been severely underwritten, leaving the cast with little scope to work with.

The plot is a simple one. Set entirely on the International Space Station orbiting Earth, the crew receive (with a bit of difficulty) a soil sample from Mars in order for them to study it and search for signs of life.  It’s not a spoiler to say that they discover an alien life form … and that professionals start making unprofessional decisions … and that people die. In a nutshell it is a contamination crisis of an alien predator, a la Alien (and a million other films since).

It’s also chamber-piece that owes a lot of its style to many that went before it. For example, the set pieces are mechanically perfect but also perfectly borrowed from the likes of Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity.  Not to take anything away from a film that takes good care of all it borrows, because Life is quite sumptuous to look at.  But unlike its alien subject it doesn’t morph into something more original or more interesting; instead it appears satisfied to occupy its duplicated space. If you haven’t been privy to many of its pioneering predecessors then my suspicion is that you will enjoy Life.  But for me, I didn’t love it, I didn’t hate it. It’s just an ok film that fell out of my brain soon after I left the theatre.

You can see the published review here.

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Loving

 

lovingJeff Nichols is a restless director and certainly not one to bed-down in any single genre. He has plumbed the depths of the psychological thriller in Take Shelter, wrangled the stars in the coming-of-age drama of Mud, and more recently pushed the envelope with the sci-fi road-film, Midnight Special. He is certainly one of the more versatile directors working today, and in his latest outing, Loving, the enigmatic auteur tackles racial injustice.

Based on a true story about an unlawful interracial marriage, Joel Edgerton and Ruth Negga bring performances that are both powerful and understated. In 1958, before America’s civil rights revolution, Richard Loving (Edgerton) married Mildred Jeter (Negga) in Washington DC, where interracial marriages were legal.  However, on their return home to Virginia where interracial marriages were not permitted, they were met with legal road-blocks as the state saw to throw them out under threat of imprisonment. Years of legal and social tumult saw their case taken all the way to the Supreme Court, where the couple’s relationship finally prompted the overturning of those laws nationwide.

Loving is a film that is surprisingly non-belligerent in tone, despite the outrageous injustice of its subject matter – America’s historical treatment of race. Instead it calmly states its case and proceeds to leave the histrionics to the viewer. It is a slow burn that is satisfyingly sure of itself. What is remarkable is the bold move to not only explore the boundaries of racial segregation but also comment on gender politics.  Typically the husband is seen as the enduring pillar of strength, fighting the good fight, while the wife plays a passively supportive role. Here, it is increasingly apparent that the real hero of Loving is Mildred as she begins to take control of their situation herself. Nichols masterfully presents this visually, as Mildred becomes more and more centred in the film’s frame (observe at the image above) and Edgerton is gently ushered to the margins. The diminutive Negga returns the favour by giving a wonderfully authentic performance that no doubt draws from her own experience as a child of mixed race (being of Ethiopian and Irish descent).

Nichols’ muse, Michael Shannon (who I could listen to read the phonebook), pops in for a cameo as a photographer for Life magazine. His big screen presence is perhaps the film’s only distraction in a story that, despite its subdued telling, is an enlightening glimpse into America’s checkered past and is well worth the watch.

Rating: 4 constitutional laws out of 5.

You can see the published review here.

A Street Cat Named Bob

 

ascnbThere seem to be plenty of films that anthropomorphise their animal subjects to a level where they might as well be a human. Obviously, some rules of nature must be bent for animal/human relationships to be expressed in cinema, not forgetting that such films also play well to the purchasing power of younger audiences.  But, when you’re dealing with the weighty topics of drug addiction and parental neglect, as in A Street Cat Named Bob, a fine line needs be traversed to make the story accessible to a wide audience.  Certainly a tricky proposal for the film’s marketing execs. Thankfully director Roger Spottiswoode (Turner & Hooch) has dipped his toes into such waters before and comes oh so close to getting the balance right.

Imagine mixing the social realism of Ken Loach (I, Daniel Blake), the musical sensibilities of John Carney (Once), and then tampering it down with the family friendly nonsense of David Frankel (Marley and Me), and you’ll arrive somewhere near A Street Cat Named Bob. Based on James Bowen’s true story and best-selling book of the same name, A Street Cat Named Bob is a simple story that avoids getting bogged down by complexities or subtexts.  James (Luke Treadaway), street busker and recovering Heroin addict, is living on the streets of London and is given one last chance by the welfare system to clean up his life. Hindered further by poverty, he is befriended by Bob, a ginger stray cat. James’s relationship with Bob provides the perfect talisman for his recovery efforts and also provides the story a fresh take on human/feline relationships.

Luke Treadaway, looking every inch the member of a prog-rock band circa 1975, does a very commendable job of portraying the recovering addict. It’s a schtick that we’ve all seen before on the big screen, but its a solid performance nonetheless.  Unfortunately, the supporting cast do not offer the same level of gravitas, succumbing to some fairly cliched moments that suggest a “made for TV” feel. However, there is genuine affection for animals and humanity alike in a film that opted to exclusively wrangle real cats (seven in all, including Bob himself) with its human counterparts rather than going down the path of digital effects — the result is a charming film that makes an admirable attempt at keeping true to its source material.

Rating: 3 miaows out of 5.

You can see the published review here.

Alone in Berlin

aib

It never ceases to amaze me the seemingly boundless supply of obscure stories from our past that bubble to the surface.  Unfortunately, many are true tales that tell of tragic circumstances, but through their telling they act as a warning beacon for humanity.  Alone in Berlin is one of those beacons.

Set during the Second World War, Alone in Berlin recounts the true story of German couple Anna and Otto Quangel (Emma Thompson and Brendan Gleeson).  After hearing the news that their only son has lost his life on Hitler’s battlefield, the couple’s despair drives them to resist the Nazi regime from within.  In a form of passive propaganda they begin to write anti-Nazi slogans on cards and randomly place them throughout Berlin city — a method similar to Arthur Stace’s “Eternity” chalkings, although with stakes a lot higher. It’s not long before their form of resistance is seen as a threat and a game of cat and mouse ensues. Criminal detective Escherich (Daniel Brühl) is deployed to track them down as the film becomes a procedural that effortlessly mixes the styles of serial crime thriller and war-time period drama.

My first concern was to put any dubious German accents to bed in order to set my suspension of disbelief at ease. Would Thompson’s clipped English accent prevail? Gleeson’s Irish brogue bubble to the surface? Or, heaven forbid, Brühl’s learned American english twang get the better of the German native?  Well, I can gladly report in this instance … all quiet on the western front. In fact, I find it odd to report that the film’s production values are remarkable for their invisibility. Really, this is a good thing for a film where Anna and Otto’s story should not be derailed by clever filmic hullabaloo.

Not without its faults, Alone in Berlin is perhaps a little trite in parts; but to its credit it gets on with telling the story in an efficient manner with very little else to bounce me out of its narrative arc. This is a credit to the tight script by Achim von Borries and fledgling director Vincent Perez (who tends to err on the melodramatic side). Daniel Brühl superbly negotiates a delicate balance between sympathy and duty, and Thompson and Gleeson produce warm and believable performances, allowing me to be carried along with their plight — the necessity of free speech to keep the wolves at bay.

Rating: 4 sneakily written notes out of 5.

You can see the published review here.