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Spider-Man: Homecoming

December 10, 2017

Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
Director: Jon Watts
Actors: Tom Holland, Michael Keaton, Marisa Tomei

Synopsis: Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has a “Stark Scholarship” – a front for being on the radar to join the Avengers. While trying to prove his worth on the streets of New York, he becomes involved with stopping the criminal activities of a gang led by Adrian Toome (Michael Keaton).

Review: Spider-Man has always been by far my favourite superhero. He is the least portentous and most ordinary of fantasy characters, and the whole concept of Spider-Man seems to honour the “boys’ own” spirit of the superhero genre which is, after all, the essence of its inherent charm and popularity.

That said, the cynical trotting out of three separate iterations of Spider-Man in a decade (Tobey Maguire only hung his lycra up in 2007 after Spider-Man 3), has had even me sceptical and disengaged. Particularly as the Andrew Garfield/Marc Webb ‘Amazing‘ run was hugely substandard: Garfield is a decent actor per se, but his actorly faux bumbling was horrendously misjudged, and the plots were prototypical exercises in trotting out the usual superhero genre arcs.

Pleasingly, Tom Holland makes for a much more appealing Peter Parker/Spider-Man. He definitely plays up the plucky teen angle (his voice is, at times, ridiculously high-pitched, and he radiates a perpetual air of frenzy), but he is incredibly charming, and he genuinely convinces as someone who could inhabit all the different parts of the Peter Parker psyche. He is both nerd and boffin, but also has the physicality which makes his Spider-Man jaunts believable, and he has enough charisma that makes the interest from alpha-female, Liz, understandable.

Just once or twice, the sense that this genre, its connected universe and the whole Marvel brand, is slipping into tedious self-referentiality and gurning in-jokes grates, but once the story is allowed to relax into itself by about the 30-minute mark, it’s a funny and entertaining adventure with some good, but not overegged (as in other superhero movies), action sequences. Michael Keaton does a great job as the villain of the piece, and the scene where a twist about his character plays out, is actually quite gripping and well-acted by himself and Holland. (December 2017)

Manchester by the Sea

December 9, 2017

Manchester by the Sea (2016)
Director: Kenneth Lonergan
Actors: Casey Affleck, Lucas Hedges, Michelle Williams

Synopsis: Lee (Casey Affleck), a Boston janitor, is called back to his hometown of Manchester-by-the-sea when his older brother, Joe, dies from congenital heart failure. While there, Lee has to contend with managing his brother’s affairs, taking over legal guardianship of his nephew, Patrick (Lucas Hedges), and confronting a dark, repressed incident from his past.

Review: Kenneth Lonergan writes and directs with the precision of a neurosurgeon in this superlative study of a man existing in the aftermath of a cataclysmic life event. It is, in a sense, a story about a man, Lee, who has “outlived himself”, and the greatness of Lonergan’s study is not to contrive some pat redemptive arc for his protagonist, but to suggest that in his necessary involvement in the swirl of events that happen around him in this post-lapsarian state, he can at least experience little shards of cathartic radiance.

The beauty of Lonergan’s dramaturgical construct is that the film is warm, humane and compassionate – even deeply funny at times – offering a necessary counterpoint to the narrative’s weighty subtextual gravity. The early scenes depicting Lee’s routine as a Boston janitor are particularly wry. The scene where Lee purposely remains oblivious to a flirtatious women commissioning him for his toils is especially funny when she asks whether he accepts “tips” to which he purposely/innocuously replies, “what like a suggestion?” Lonergan also makes huge metaphoric import of the location of Manchester-by-the-sea being a chilled Massachusetts port in the grip of winter. This wintry feature even offers a nice subplot conceit whereby Lee has to stick around because his deceased brother cannot be buried until the churchyard ground thaws.

The film really is a work of deft narrative finesse. The use of flashbacks – often a syrupy or lazy trope – is expert from both a tonal and dramaturgical perspective. It reminded me of the skill of Arthur Miller’s mobile concurrency conceit in ‘Death of a Salesman‘, as the film frequently segues tenderly and utterly intuitively to a scene that contextualises what Lee cannot articulate in the present.

Lots of talk about Manchester by the Sea will rightly revolve around the story and Lonergan’s dramatist flourishes, but it is a work of real cinematic verve too. There is a beautiful pictorial quality at work – from the amazing vistas of the bay where Lee and Patrick take their boat rides in the past and present (symbolising the rare moments of contentment in Lee’s psyche), to the wintry canvas of Manchester-by-the-sea itself in the grip of an arctic-like tundra. It’s also cinematic because Lonergan moves deftly from intense, methody naturalism to an array of highly expressionistic, non-diegetic tropes (slo-mo and a soaring classical score during Joe’s funeral); again, this offers a necessary counterpoint to the stunted tyranny of Lee’s colossal grief.

Watching the film, it even seemed to veer close to that rare territory of a comitragedy (tragicomedy doesn’t feel quite right as this is, at its core, a tragedy). It certainly marks Kenneth Lonergan out as an American filmmaker of huge stature. It’s such a shame he’s only found the means to make three films in 17 years, but here’s hoping that the relative ‘breakout’ nature of this film, leads to greater funding and industrial support in the years to come. (December 2017)

Lady Macbeth

December 3, 2017

Lady Macbeth (2017)
Director: William Oldroyd
Actors: Florence Pugh, Cosmo Jarvis, Paul Hilton

Synopsis: A young woman, Katherine (Florence Pugh), is married to an older, wealthier man somewhere in the north of England in the 1800s. The marriage is loveless and sexless, but slowly Katherine begins to assert her power in the household through increasingly extreme measures…

Review: Judging by the reverence with which it’s been spoken about, Lady Macbeth is evidently a film that has conquered lots of hearts and minds. Its esteem, no doubt, has come from its proto-feminist slant, its seeming subversion of a well-worn genre (the British heritage film), and a certain painterly aesthetic.

Ironically, those very elements have the completely opposite effect. They smother the film, cultivating a narrative lacking any purpose, spontaneity or meaningful character development, due to these subtexts and, for want of a better word, pretensions, seeming to be the sole conceit of William Oldroyd’s directorial scaffolding.

The film is literally all style and no substance. Many of the frames seem to exist solely for their aesthetic purpose, and a lot of the sexual and racial politics appears ever so juvenile. This monotonous obviousness of intent comes across best in a scene where Katherine’s comically doctrinaire father-in-law makes the black maid, Anna, crawl around on all fours, when she takes the blame for Katherine’s rebellious swigging of all the estate’s wine.

In a film that’s all about character and plot, it positively necessitated an episodic, narrative-based piece. Instead it’s conceived in some sort of airless, film-school palette which drains the film of all momentum. It drags its burdensome conceit of profundity from scene to scene, and that leaden inertness hampers some of the performances too – namely Cosmo Jarvis’ “Mellors”-style farmhand lover who is the ultimately plot tool acting as the agent of Katherine’s rebellion against the patriarchy before having to finally call her out on all her muderous excesses in the film’s closing act. (December 2017)



November 25, 2017

Prevenge (2016)
Director: Alice Lowe
Actors: Alice Lowe, Kayvan Novak, Kate Dickie

Synopsis: Ruth (Alice Lowe), a heavily pregnant widow, embarks on a macabre murdering spree to punish those she deems responsible for her husband’s tragic death.

Review: There’s the germ of a good concept in Alice Lowe’s debut as writer-director, but the shoddy way she merges the different ideas and sentiments in that concept makes Prevenge something of a tonal disaster.

All at the same time, Lowe wants this to be a classic revenge drama, a mental breakdown piece, and a gallows social satire. In the end, it falls between all stools: at times, coming across as little more than a really bad sketch-show idea dragged out to feature length running time. Each of those three tonally disparate hooks undercuts the other. The fact that each of her victims is a lazily written, one-dimensional social stereotype (the sleazy store owner, the pathetic over-aged DJ, the defeminised corporate honcho, the fitness-obsessed female urbanite) leads to one or two nice jokes that would befit a cartoonish skit, but drains the film of all tension and any investment in its attempts at more serious psycho-social commentary. As a viewer, you’re always distanced by the fact you can whiff the singular conceit of the film at nearly every stage of its running time.

The best bit of the film is its decent synthesiser score, and when Lowe is confident enough to trust the darker, more atmospheric bent of the material. The montage where her character, Ruth, dresses up in Halloween regalia to embark on her final, and symbolically most important, killing, is quite chilling in the way that it taps into the more malevolent reality of her character’s psychosis.

The film ends disappointingly, with Lowe opting for a didactic end to explain the ‘Rosemary’s Baby’/mental illness hook, and a hackneyed coda on a windswept bit of coastline that reveals the end-game of her trauma. There’s clearly a talented writer in there (Lowe is also an excellent actress), but more focus on developing the scenario and perhaps recognising the need to flesh out sketch-show concepts to make them more cinematic, would be Lowe’s pointer for her next endeavour. (November 2017)

Scene Stealers: Martin Scorsese in Taxi Driver

November 18, 2017

It was Scorsese’s 75th birthday yesterday. Follow the below link to read my tribute to his incredible cameo in his own Taxi Driver.


November 12, 2017

Elle (2016)
Director: Paul Verhoeven
Actors: Isabelle Huppert, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny

Synopsis: Imperious French businesswoman, Michèle (Isabelle Huppert), is raped by a masked assailant in her own home. Over the course of the following weeks, Michèle’s personal and professional lives become increasingly fraught, with the masked assailant still on the loose, seemingly set on making another return to Michèle’s home….

Review: Elle‘s opening moments clue the viewer in almost immediately to Paul Verhoeven’s clear symbolic intent with this cinematic morality play, as well as thematising the extremely wry perspective he will shroud all the unfolding action in. Snatched sounds of a woman struggling (could it be love-making or the fending off of a violent act?) are kept tantalisingly just out of the frame’s perspective as an imperious cat watches dispassionately on. When we eventually capture the climax and aftermath to what was clearly a sexual assault, this opening coda is not a prelude to a police procedural or even a conventional whodunnit, but more its slipperiness encodes the riotous and almost amoral journey to catharsis and liberation its protagonist is about to embark on.

To even use the term protagonist to describe Isabelle Huppert’s Michèle is problematic when Verhoeven’s sly non-omniscient narration casts her, at times, as almost the piece’s villain or, at the very least, its antagonist. She cuts such a ruthless swathe through the people around her: she belittles her hapless son, she sleeps with the husband of her closest friend, and – best yet – she continually condescends her cliché of a dishevelled academic ex-husband by accidentally blinding him with pepper spray and knocking the bumper off his car due to her casual attitude to parallel parking.

Although, as mentioned earlier, it’s not a whodunnit in the conventional sense as the masked stalker is essentially a metaphoric representation of a grotesque patriarchal need to violate strong women, Verhoeven’s direction makes this a cracking genre film. His tongue is too firmly in cheek at most stages of the narrative to perhaps take this too much at face value as a genuinely taut thriller, but the sheer barrage of dramas and crises that Michèle undergoes – car crashes, attempted work coups, would-be financial interlopers into her wealthy family domain, plus the big biograpical conceit that she’s the daughter of a notorious mass murderer – conveys almost through its sheer relentlessness Michèle’s primal ability to endure and, even, thrive in spite of those ‘assaults’.

Even if, ultimately, it all descends into an absurd psychoanalytical extravaganza, it doesn’t negate the skill that Verhoeven and Huppert possess in taking us on that journey. It’s also one of the year’s funniest films. The farcical Christmas party that props up the middle section of the film features one of the wittiest jokes about bankers I’ve heard in a long time. Incidentally, is it just me, or does Verhoeven’s choice of a banker as the piece’s ‘bogeyman’ lend the film a clear political, as well as feminist, perspective as well? (November 2017)

La La Land

November 12, 2017

La La Land (2016)
Director: Damian Chazelle
Actors: Ryan Gosling, Emma Stone, John Legend

Synopsis: Aspiring musician meets aspiring actress in modern day LA.

Review: La La Land falls ironically foul of the dialectic it is trying so ardently to dramatise. The moral of its story is so blithe and obvious – the search for originality and truth amid two fields, movies and music, awash with commercialism, cynicism and wannabe starlets – yet Damian Chazelle’s direction is so calibrated and manufactured in the way that it cannibalises these ideas and genres of true artistic expression (classic technicolour musicals and the golden age of jazz) for the sum end-product of an elongated Gap advert.

As with his previous film much more closely immersed in the world of music, Whiplash, Chazelle is such an earnest dramatist that his need to communicate all the machinations, references, inspirations and subtexts of his films strangulates them of any nuance. Characters become mere mouthpieces, and everything is rhetorically obvious, especially the conceit that the Hollywood factory is superficial, impersonal and a wrecker of dreams. Some enervating motifs that explore this include the dozens of prototypical redheads being auditioned at the same time as Emma Stone’s Mia, and the girl on the phone in the background of Mia’s emotive audition interrupting it with some banal question about the lunch order.

Chazelle films jazz and music in such a boring way too. His camera and cutting literalises everything (Whiplash had a similar rhetorical attack), and Emma Stone’s supposedly cathartic audition song was eminently predictable and just really, really visually obvious. It seems an unfair comparison to make, but at almost every stage of its running time, La La Land makes for such an inferior reminder of the thematically linked Mulholland Drive which takes, in some respects, an extremely similar scenario to much more fertile, transcendent places.

Amid its cacophony of unoriginal set pieces – it’s like a musical for people who can say “it’s like the old Hollywood musicals” when they’ve really only seen one or two of them – there are a couple of nice things going on. The simple, recurring aural motif of Gosling’s character Seb’s spartan piano chords contains more power than Chazelle’s higher-concept concoctions. In sum though, La La Land just isn’t very moving or romantic: the bogus third act relationship break-up to affect the strived-for poignant ending is just a transparent narrative device and it doesn’t make any organic sense to the story’s continuity too.

For a much more interesting, whimsical confection about misfits falling in and out of love in a magical LA, I can heartily recommend Mike Mills’ Beginners – a film with much more heart and originality than this marketing man’s wet dream. (November 2017)