31 August 2017

Review: xXx

(Dir: Rob Cohen, 2002)

The one where they tried to make a Bond film for the X Games generation... This isn't a comparison, but let's quickly look at how xXx is intrinsically linked to The Fast and the Furious, which essentially laid the groundwork. xXx appeared in cinemas a year after said film as Vin Diesel was riding high off it, thus seeing him reunited with director Rob Cohen seemed a no-brainer. Xander Cage is essentially Dom Torreto, if you swap the obsession with family for daredevil grandstanding. And here we are fifteen years later where The Fast and the Furious franchise has delivered its eighth(!) film whilst remaining hugely popular, and somehow a third xXx film appeared, resurrecting this dormant franchise by bringing Diesel back to the fold after he handed the reigns of the first sequel to Ice Cube back in 2005. Knowing all this it's interesting to revisit xXx having not seen it or even really thought about it since the cinema all those years ago.

Two things quickly become clear we know Diesel has always been an engaging screen presence, but the youthful exuberance he exudes here now feels a distant memory, as with age he more frequently embodies a reluctant world-weariness. That energy and not-give-a-fuck attitude carries us through this story. Secondly, production company Revolution certainly threw some money at the film, with a plethora of overblown action sequences and stunts that aim to impress and which mostly deliver. Now let's be honest, those are (mostly) the reason people showed up for this film, but it's still a shame the story is a let down. It starts with a lot of promise, setting Cage up to join the NSA and testing his abilities. But as soon as he arrives in Prague for his mission the story immediately turns Bond-lite in a generically bland way. Martin Csokas' Yorgi is all nonsensical anarchistic rhetoric, whilst Asia Argento's Yelena is seemingly just there to tease/reward Cage​ as she tries to play the character with a depth that maybe existed on page but never made it to the screen. On top of this the story is full of the sexist tropes aimed to get teenage boys excited but which make everyone else feel uncomfortable.

One month after the release of xXx the Bond film Die Another Day was released, representing the low nadir of that series. One of it's biggest issues was how far it pushed it's credibility Bond's stunts usually (just about) stay on the right side of being too ridiculous, but surfing an Arctic tidal wave or driving an invisible car across ice were too much. Such acts feel more suited to a Xander Cage type character and though xXx offers up much that is similar snowboarding, parachuting, etc – it lacks the chops to be a convincing Bond clone. This really highlights the squandered potential of the start of the film where it could've taken things in a different, better direction. Sure it's fun, but it's that hollow, forgettable type of fun that only just survives because of Diesel's presence.

26 August 2017

Review: A History of Violence

(Dir: David Cronenberg, 2005)

*Warning - herein lie spoilers. If you've not seen the film then stop reading now as it will reduce enjoyment!*

On the surface, A History of Violence appears to be the turning point in David Cronenberg's career where he stepped away from the all out weirdness that pervades almost every film he'd made to that point. It's an almost benign seeming story, a fact the small-town Americana setting amplifies, but is the shock of violence that invades the lives of the Stall family (Viggo Mortensen, Maria Bello and Ashton Holmes) as simple as it seems? Despite being renowned as the king of body horror, Cronenberg has always been highly invested in the psychological aspect of his stories. You come for the freakishly weird visuals, but his films work away at burrowing under the skin because they have depth, revealing multiple layers through which to abhor the viewer.

A History of Violence's dicephalous approach is as simple as split personality. For the first half of the film this plays out as a mystery. Are we sure that Tom Stall really is this idealised small-town family man – practically the personification of the American dream – or does he have an insidious past as a savage killer for the mob? The guessing is fun, but this being a Cronenberg film you just know there's more to this than the mistaken identity that he pleads. When Joey is unleashed we see the disturbing effects of violence. His idyll is disturbed and he inevitably wants revenge, so we happily go along for the ride. But how do his family reconcile the knowledge that this side of him exists, even if it's for them that he's trying to put it to bed once and for all. It's not as simple as just forgetting his past, what if something else triggers Joey's emergence somewhere down the line? From what they've experienced of him they have every right to be fearful. None of this is overplayed in the film, thanks to some pretty taut direction and Mortensen's understated performance. He blends in as an everyman, and even when Joey is front and centre it's not so easy to separate out the two, which adds to the sense of unease. Ed Harris' heavily scarred Carl Fogarty enhances this feeling, as his myopic certainty forces you to question what you think you know and whether you want it to be so or not.

By focusing on the brain and pushing away from the expected horrors of body dysmorphia that pervades much of Cronenberg's work, leaves a story that cares more about the connections and the impact people can and do have on each other. The setting acts as a contrast to the sudden bursts of violence which the camera happily lingers over. This is a more understated film than what he has delivered before, but the darkness and weirdness are there, you just have to dig deeper, and it's where he really started to shift focus to the brain. It's just another example of why David Cronenberg is such a revered director.

13 August 2017

Review: Personal Shopper

(Dir: Olivier Assayas, 2016)

Personal Shopper is a slight film. It's one that captures you through mood more than anything else. It's the kind of film that's bound to frustrate many viewers, but if it does capture you you're in for a treat. Kristen Stewart plays the type of character she's become rather adept at in the year's since moving on from that series. Her character Maureen is riven with sadness, frustration and an intriguing depth that also reveals a quiet hopefulness. The relative sparseness of her dialogue only serve to enhance the the character and the overall mood of the film, and she feels at home in the different worlds she inhabits, however reluctantly she's there.

How the story balances it's setting on the fringes of the Paris fashion world whilst essentially being a ghost story is one of the most enticing aspects of the film. This seeming incongruity allows for frequent stepping away from anything faintly phantasmagorical, creating a different sense of unease than being constantly immersed in an environment we should be scared of. After all, the films intention is not always to scare.

The life Maureen leads could hardly be construed as normal as her days spent as a personal shopper to a world famous model seem alien yet strangely fascinating. The story takes an initially frustrating turn about halfway through, which feels unnecessarily obvious until it slowly builds up the tension before heading somewhere unexpected. This sense of mystery is another of the films many charms, which satisfyingly extends right to the end as the film concludes on just the right note. Director Olivier Assayas does a great job making all this sit together satisfyingly. On the surface there doesn't seem to be too much to Personal Shopper, but let it quietly work on you and its moodiness and many subtleties may worm their way in leaving you surprisingly enraptured.

11 August 2017

Review: Dunkirk

(Dir: Christopher Nolan, 2017)

Christopher Nolan is one of the strongest proponents for shooting onto film rather than digitally, but also for shooting as much as he can using IMAX 65mm cameras. We've still yet to see an entire feature film shot this way as it's expensive and the equipment is cumbersome and noisy, but the footage you get looks just incredible with a more expansive framing and a stunning clarity. It should be noted that you need to see the film projected from IMAX 70mm reels to fully appreciate this. Unfortunately most modern IMAX's only project digitally onto screens that pale in comparison to the true, traditional behemoth's (the so-called Liemax's – ie where it looks like a regular cinema auditorium has been converted to put in a floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall screen, rather than building a new structure to house a screen that's at least three to four stories high!). Since The Dark Knight Nolan has been flirting with shooting select parts of his films in this format, and the vast majority of Dunkirk (over 70%, the most yet) is shot this way, so seeking out a true IMAX screen to see the film exactly as the director intended is absolutely worth it if you can  something not that easy in the UK with just three cinemas projecting it this way.

Dunkirk is relentless. It barely pauses for a breath over its 106 minute run-time, meting out an endless barrage of destruction that makes it the ideal film for the immersive and sometimes overwhelming IMAX experience. As a viewer you could do with a couple of quiet moments interspersed throughout just to catch your breathe, but this is about recreating what it was like for these men, so why should we the viewer be extended such courtesy? To that end there's an almost continual use of music and droning background noise, and the perpetual ticking that increases with the never-ending threat of attack. It's all highly effective in creating a sense of unease, amplifying the desperation of what these men were going through whilst we enjoy the comfort and warmth of our seats.

Splitting the narrative between three threads offers some variety and keeps things interesting, even when the jumping timeline jars and pulls you a little out of the story because it doesn't flow seamlessly. The journey of three men attempting to escape the beach of Dunkirk most effectively highlights the futility of war, as no matter what they do they seem doomed. The obstacles thrown in their way begins to feel like overkill, as a heavy-handed way to emphasise the difficulty of escape. The silent scenes between Fionn Whitehead and Aneurin Barnard are highly effective, which gets ruined somewhat by Harry Styles' mouthy character who feels like an unnecessary cliché. Most of the dialogue in the film comes on the boat that Mark Rylance's character captains. This is the primary emotional heart of the film. Regular citizens stepping up to make a difference, sometimes with deeper reasons for doing so, as nicely articulated by Tom Glynn-Carney late in the film. The thread of story with his friend Barry Keoghan and Cillian Murphy's character does come across as a superfluous distraction to the bigger picture though. And then there's the air, with Tom Hardy and Jack Lowden as the Spitfire pilots combating the threat from above in an always gripping manner.

Despite the decent acting throughout, the characters feel of secondary importance as Dunkirk comes across more as a technical tour de force. This is Nolan filming stunning aerial combat sequences over the sea, sinking a plethora of ships and corralling a cast of thousands. The instinct of the film is survival, the act of saving and how that all came to pass. It's an effective recreation of the hell and desperation that is war (without most of us ever having to know for sure) and the impact that has on a person. Nolan has stated that his desire was to create a film that takes the dynamics of a dramatic third act and sustains it for the entire duration of the picture, and it mostly works in the context of this story/subject, but it also means something is sacrificed in the cohesiveness of the storytelling and how it wears the viewer down. Thus it lacks that special something that comes across in most of his other films, but lest we forget he has previously set the bar very high. Nonetheless Dunkirk is a fascinating experiment and a superbly crafted film. If you can't see it projected via IMAX 70mm then see it on the biggest screen you can find.

5 August 2017

Review: Moonlight

(Dir: Barry Jenkins, 2016)

Sometimes you're left trying to understand why praise is being lavished on a film. Usually the film in question is decent, but for whatever reason you are left ambivalent to its charms, or at least don't subscribe to the view that it is doing something so seemingly special. That here is the case with Moonlight. It's been the buzz film since the festival's of Autumn 2016, culminating in the infamy of this year's Oscar's. A sensible viewer would try not to put too much stock in any of that because raising expectations too high frequently proves to be a fools errand, yet sometimes that's easier said than done.

By splitting the story into three parts that each focus on a different stage of Chiron's youth/life, it allows three different actors to shine – Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders and Trevante Rhodes. Each put in very good performances and we start to get just a little more from the character as he grows, learns more about himself and as the dialogue he utters/mutters increases ever so incrementally. Likewise, how his life intersects with a small pool of people across each stage anchors the story together, with more fine performances from the rest of the cast.

There's something to be said for subtlety and nuances of emotion in a story, but in Moonlight it's simultaneously too slight and too heavy-handed. For most of the film we continuously see why Chiron's life is so shit his terrible mother, the bullying, the loneliness it's all layered on so thickly. So the unsurprising act that ends stage two and the quietly affecting realisation and revelation that ends the film, all seem like too little for what's come before, lacking the full emotional payoff you expect / need. In some regard that's fitting for a character who struggles to grasp who he is, thus making small realisations about himself, or any type of change, a big deal, but you're still left wanting more because of what's had to be endured. It doesn't help that Chiron's life position in the final third feels like cliché. There is a logic as to why that's so, but the first two parts leave you expecting more from the character, making it harder to empathise with him at this point.

Those niggles aside, Moonlight is a good film, thanks very much to the acting and especially the direction. The way the camera moves and focuses creates an almost dreamlike quality at times, whilst feeling intimate throughout. This gives it it's own personality, which is important. Yet it never seems like the great revelation that the buzz and awards suggest, as you can't help but think you've seen this done many times before, frequently better. But lest we forget, films of this nature reach and affect everyone in different ways, so check your expectations at the door and find out for yourself.