Odeon

The Shape of Water

 


BBFC 15 2hrs 3mins

I was lucky enough to have seen Guillermo Del Toro’s The Shape of Water at last year’s London Film Festival (it was the hot ticket screening) and I have been thinking about it ever since. It’s a movie that can be enjoyed purely at surface level – a romantic fairy tale about a mute cleaning lady at a top-secret Government research facility who falls in love with a fish man – but it contains multitudes and the more thought I put into it the more pleasure I get from it.


Elisa (Sally Hawkins) lives a lonely, routine life in a shabby apartment above a movie theatre in Baltimore, 1962. Her best friends are Giles (Richard Jenkins), her closeted gay neighbour, and Zelda (Octavia Spencer), her chatty, brassy co-worker with whom she shares her secrets and scrapes gum from the floors of jet-engine laboratories. When a new “asset” arrives at the facility, along with its handler Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), Elisa’s natural curiosity and compassion leads to an unlikely, inter-species relationship. The asset (Doug Jones), you see, is a humanoid, amphibian creature captured from deep within the Amazon by Strickland and brought to the lab’s in the hope that unlocking its secrets will give the US the edge in the Cold War in general and in the “Space Race” specifically. When it transpires that those secrets can only be revealed via the asset’s death and dissection it is up to Elisa and her friends to help it escape the facility and release it to freedom.

Whilst The Shape of Water can be enjoyed at its most basic fairy-tale level, a quirky riff on The Little Mermaid or The Creature From the Black Lagoon, a throwaway genre romance, it is when you start to unpack its many layers and storytelling choices that it reveals its true glory. Key amongst these choices is understanding the viewpoint from which the movie is told: The movie is bookended by Giles’ lyrical narration, how you react to the much of the film (and especially the ending) relies upon whether, or not, you believe him to be a reliable narrator. A subplot involving sympathetic scientist Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg) and Soviet spies which, on first viewing, appears to be ridden with clichés and rather silly makes a lot more sense when you understand that it is coming from Giles, whom it is established is a dyed-in-the-wool romantic fantasist. Just grasping this one simple device, I think, will give you a much more enjoyable and nuanced viewing experience.

Director Guillermo Del Toro (known, not only, for his audience pleasing genre crowd pleasers like Blade II, Pacific Rim and two Hellboy movies but his more arthouse fantasies Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone) has absolutely stuffed the film with references, textures, metaphors and salutes. The Shape of Water is Del Toro’s love letter to Hollywood and, in particular, the movies that have influenced him. It is not difficult to see the spot nods to silent cinema (after all the two main protagonists, Elisa and the asset, are both mute, both silent); there’s a wonderful fantasy pastiche of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers’ “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” sequence from Follow The Fleet; there’s quiet tributes to Powell & Pressburger, Vincente Minelli and Douglas Sirk and, most obviously, Del Toro’s love of classic monster movies. This is about as close to Del Toro’s Cinema Paradiso as we’re ever likely to get to or hope for, occasionally pausing to take in moments of real Hollywood gold (such as Shirley Temple dancing with Mr. Bojangles, Bill Robinson). Everything is imbued with meaning from individual props, the choice of colours, the choice of language, even Alexandre Desplat’s beautiful score harkens back to Hollywood romanticism. And all these things are not there to be clever or smart, they are there to move the story forward and provide texture and background.

In any other year you would nail on Sally Hawkins performance to win the Best Actress Oscar (such is the quality of her fellow nominees, especially Frances McDormand in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri). There is never a single moment when you don’t know what she is thinking or feeling (emotionally), it’s a (largely) wordless performance and yet through her face and body language she says more than virtually any other actor on screen. Richard Jenkins is wonderfully sweet and affecting as the gay artist with one foot firmly in the dreams of Hollywood musicals and romantic yearnings for the guy who runs the pie shop. Octavia Spencer, always wonderful, provides the majority of the film’s humour as the sassy, vociferous and loyal Zelda. My only gripe with the film’s casting is that Michael Shannon is too perfectly cast as Strickland, we’ve seen him play similar roles too often for it ever raise a question in our minds as to who is the real monster of the piece? He’s great as a vile, entitled, toxic male who could sadly exist in 1962 or 2018, but as a subversion of the B-movie, lantern-jawed hero he’s just a wee bit too familiar.

Not forgetting Doug Jones who, with a dancer’s physique, poise and grace brings The Asset to beautiful and vibrant life.


It may seem a little strange to give The Shape of Water a Valentines Day release, but it is, ultimately, a film about love and as Guillermo Del Toro so poignantly explained, “…love is like water, it has no shape. It can take the shape of whatever you pour it into. You can fall in love with someone that is twice your age, the same gender, completely opposite religion, the completely wrong political persuasion – it just happens. And it is, like water, the most powerful and malleable element in the universe. And it goes through everything.”

Andy Oliver

Black Panther

BBFC 12A 2hrs 15mins

 

 


Ten years and seventeen (mostly enjoyable) instalments into its existence, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has introduced to a host of colourful characters; explored the far reaches of space and time and unknowable dimensions; dipped its toe into incredible technology, magic, mysticism and mythology; forged friendships and ripped them apart, created conflicts and uneasy alliances and established a blueprint upon which all prospective movie franchises aspire. If I have one problem with the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it is this: It exists within a bubble. The world/s it has created all serve the stories (and vice versa); it’s a parallel dimension upon which the real world (that is, our world) and real-world concerns never really seem to have any impact.

Until Black Panther, that is. The eighteenth instalment of the MCU creates a world that is very much based in our world, the problems our world face every day are what powers the film, move it forward and provide much food for thought long after the movie ends.

It is also beautiful to look upon, provides the best “villain” of all the Marvel movies so far and is a whole heap of fun to boot.


After the death of his father (as seen in Captain America: Civil War) Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns to his homeland, the isolated African nation of Wakanda, to take up his rightful mantle of King and Protector. To Western eyes Wakanda appears just another African nation of grasslands, jungle and scrub, the kind of place a certain world leader would refer to as a “S**thole”, but Wakanda hides a secret: It is actually the most technologically advanced country on Earth, blessed with an abundance of rare natural resources, not the least of which is Vibranium (the stuff used to make Captain America’s shield and Black Panther’s super suit). Vibranium is so valuable, in fact, that to control its mines and production could provide the means to fund a whole new empire, a global superpower greater than any which exist today.

Enter Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), an exiled Wakandan who has been living in the United States, who has seen the injustices, inequalities and prejudices perpetrated against people of colour both historical and contemporary. If Killmonger can kill T’Challa and take the throne of Wakanda he could create his own new black empire and take revenge on those nations he believes responsible for his people’s oppression.

The movie pivots on this central dialectic, an argument that is impossible to ignore and creates a moral quandary very few films have the bravery to explore. On one side you have a kingdom in the largest historical sense, a kind of Land That Democracy Forgot, hiding its wealth and technology, jealously guarding its secrets for the good of its people. On the other a world ravaged by the historical inequities of forced slavery, European colonialism, poverty and prejudice, a world in which Wakanda could have easily intervened and fought for the good of a continent instead of living in a self-imposed “Wexit”. It’s a genuinely thought-provoking thesis and, to be honest, something I never thought I’d see explored in a Superhero movie.

And while your mind is being blown by dialectical conundrums your eyes are assaulted by the kind of production design that comes along once in a blood-blue-moon. Wakanda is Afrofuturism writ large, it is at once a science-fiction wonderland of flying cars and monorails and super-suits and fancy gizmojigs but everything feels organically grown from ethnocentric, culturally authentic roots. Black Panther doesn’t stop there though, the world-building is incredibly thorough and believable, and I don’t just mean the architecture, there is more to explore in Wakanda’s culture than a single movie can possibly do justice to. From the politics of power through the veneration of its female warriors; from its spiritual Gnosticism through the ideas that preserve it and so, so much more.

What director Ryan Coogler has created here is a platform to not only explore further aspects of the MCU but a film upon which it is possible to investigate black politics, feminism, exile (self-imposed or otherwise), subjugation… should I go on?

But let’s not forget that this is first and foremost a superhero movie and, as such, it works really well (for the most part, unfortunately some rather shonky and weightless CGI mars the action sequences and, occasionally, the fights are difficult to follow with regards to who’s where and how things are happening). It’s just a shame Coogler didn’t bring the visceral and hard-hitting action over from his previous effort, Creed.

There’s terrific performances from the entire cast. Chadwick Boseman is suitably regal, his face occasionally softening as the young prince not quite ready to lead his people threatens to force its way to the surface. Michael B. Jordan is righteous anger given form, his body marked with a keloid scar tally of all his fallen enemies, an angry Simba who seriously just can’t wait to be king. There’s terrific support from Forrest Whittaker, Angela Bassett, Letitia Wright, Andy Serkis, Martin Freeman and (surprise Oscar Nominee) Daniel Kaluuya but special mention has to go to Lupita Nyong’o as T’Challa’s bodyguard and all round badass Nakia (like Tessa Thompson’s Valkyrie from Thor: Ragnarok I’d happily pay good money to see her in her own spin-off movie).

Black Panther is a seriously good movie. It’s not the movie I expected just one instalment away from the culmination of where the MCU has been heading for ten years (Avengers: Infinity War Part One lands in May, if you didn’t know) and, while for some this may come as a bit of a disappointment, I really enjoyed the change of pace.

*They don’t show end credit sequences at preview screenings because, you know, spoilers, but I have been assured there is one mid credits and one at the very end so don’t leave your seat too early.

Andy Oliver

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

BBFC 12A 2hrs 32mins

 

 

Full disclosure: I have never been a Star Wars fan. I don’t own any toys; I have never read any of the extended universe novels; no posters adorn my walls; the prequels (The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and The Revenge of the Sith) didn’t upset me, only bored me; I don’t own any of the dvd’s; I even had to look up the names of the prequels just now.

This, of course, does not mean I don’t recognise their value or, that in any way, I dismiss them as fan-serving fluff. The job of a film reviewer is to try to honestly convey to the reader what they’ve seen up there on the screen, to give a completely unbiased opinion based upon a number of criteria (such as storytelling, direction, acting and technical merits), to be as informed as possible and to try not to bore said reader in the process. Oh, and avoid spoilers… yes, definitely avoid spoilers.

I tell you all of this for one simple reason. I want you to know that Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi is not just a great Star Wars movie, it is a really, really great movie in its own right: it achieves exactly what it sets out to do and does so in a way that never is boring, flabby or uninteresting; moves its characters and plot forward in a satisfying and, sometimes, moving arcs; it stays true to the series ethos and mythos whilst introducing new and interesting riffs upon them and, along the way, it corrects a course-direction that the prequels (and even The Force Awakens to some extent) managed to muddle and muddy.

Yes, The Last Jedi works… with a few caveats.

Picking up directly where Episode VII: The Force Awakens ended Rey (Daisy Ridley) has found the now reclusive Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on Ahch-To and seeks answers to not only her heritage but to her place in the universe. The Resistance, led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher), is on the run from The First Order and fiercely outnumbered. New alliances must be forged and old questions beg answers.

So far, so Empire Strikes Back.

Where The Force Awakens was basically A New Hope remastered, The Last Jedi shares a whole heap of DNA with The Empire Strikes Back. But, unlike its predecessor, Jedi manages to shine despite its familiarity and not because of it. It’s the difference between a Woolworth’s Top of the Pops collection and something like Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions… (the former being a cover version album, the latter taking the familiar and creating something new and exciting with it). Replace Ahch-To with the Dagobah scenes of Luke’s training; the neo-Vegas glitz of Canto Bight with Cloud City; the shock revelation of Rey’s true ancestry and cliff-hanger ending and you’ve got Empire 1.2. What writer/director Rian Johnson manages to achieve though is something always fresh, sometimes surprising and, ultimately, emotionally satisfying.

New layers have been added to familiar characters like Rey, Finn (John Boyega), Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and even Luke Skywalker. Existing characters are expanded upon giving them both motivation and weight, specifically General Hux (Domhall Gleeson), Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) – a villain so repulsive he could easily have risen to power wearing a red “Make The Galaxy Great Again” baseball cap. New characters are introduced that will immediately become fan favourites like Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), DJ (Benicio Del Toro) and purple-haired Resistance fleet Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern). There’s plenty of spectacular battles, an all-timer light sabre duel, emotional highs and devastating losses. There’s even a new shade of grey introduced into what is, essentially, a universe of black hats versus white hats that, if carried forward and expanded upon, will move the Star Wars Universe in a deeper, more nuanced direction.

I’m desperately trying not to give too much away but I have to address the elephant in the room: That The Last Jedi is the slam-bang in the middle of a three act story and, as such, it struggles to be anything but the set-up for the final chapter. This is a problem that all trilogies face and, though it is probably the best instalment since Empire, it’s difficult to judge it as its own thing. The whole Canto Bight storyline will become clearer in the context of the whole, I’m sure, but here it feels slightly crow-barred in and excessive to the needs of the story despite introducing new characters Rose and DJ and that much needed shade of grey. It’s not that the Canto Bight sequences are bad, far from it, but here they tend to feel like something you’d get in an extended edition dvd rather than an essential part of the story.

There’s also a fear that new elements of the film have been added simply for their merchandising potential than as necessary plot points. I’m thinking specifically about the Porgs (cute rabbit/penguin hybrid critters, plushie-toy-friendly creations coming to a Christmas stocking near you) which add little to the plot but potentially enormous earnings beyond the movie.

The tragic loss of Carrie Fisher hangs heavy over The Last Jedi and it would take a hard heart not to break over her final scene as Leia, a scene that even without the actress’s death would have audiences reaching for the handkerchiefs. It’s the kind of emotion we should have had in the previous episode for Han Solo but were denied through awful writing and direction, but alas.

So, did Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi make a fan of me? Only for its two and a half hour running time, but during that time I was as thrilled and invested as any fanboy. It’s a transportive experience, the kind that only great cinema can offer and, trust me, this is great cinema.

Andy Oliver

 

Justice League

(BBFC 12A 2hrs 1min)

 

Some films you want to keep forever, to cherish and pop in the dvd player whenever you need a pick-me-up or guaranteed thrill or even the comfort of something familiar. Other films are your third choice in a three-for-twenty-quid promotion because you’ve found two movies you really want, can’t find that third one and… well, it’ll do to make up the numbers.

Unfortunately, Justice League is that second kind of movie. It’s alright. You might want to watch it on a rainy afternoon or you’re just after something to stick on while you’re doing the ironing. In fact, the less attention you pay it the better it seems: ignore the gaping plot holes, the awful dialogue, the Playstation 2 era special effects, the muddy colour palette and derivative villain and you might just find something to enjoy. Though that’s a big ask, unless you’re an eight-year-old, dyed-in-the-wool DC fanboy.

The plot, such as it is, follows on from the risible Batman Vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice: Superman is dead (or is he?), the Earth has no protector (or does it?), those flashbacks and flashforwards start to make sense (or do they?) and everybody bonds over the fact that their moms are all called Martha (not really, but entirely possible). There are a bunch MacGuffins called Mother Boxes (a kind of DC version of Marvel’s Infinity Stones or Harry Potter’s Horcruxes) hidden on the planet and interdimensional baddie Steppenwolf (voiced by Ciaran Hinds) and his horde of parademons are after them. Batman/Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck) needs to bring together a team of heroes to find the Mother Boxes and save the world, so along with Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) he recruits Aquaman (Jason Momoa), Cyborg (Ray Fisher) and The Flash (Ezra Miller).


Herein lays part of the problem with the film and, whilst I don’t want to become a part of the Marvel vs. DC angry-fan narrative it is almost impossible to talk about Justice League without comparisons to its closest neighbour across the comic book divide. Whereas Marvel’s Avengers Assemble established its heroes before bringing them together (with the exception of Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye), Justice League opts for a more “wham-bang” introductions on the fly approach. Yes, this approach allows us to get to the pudding a lot quicker, but sometimes you need to deal with the Brussel sprouts before you can get to the bit everybody’s looking forward to. Despite maybe too much exposition, the three new inductees struggle to establish themselves as characters you’d like to see more of. Ezra Miller’s Flash is the quirky likeable one with the one-liners, Jason Momoa is a bit more Aqua-bro than Aquaman and Ray Fisher’s Cyborg is the mysterious, moody one. They’re all good enough, they’re just not interesting enough or fleshed out enough that you really care about them.


Ben Affleck’s Batman is back to being Batman and not the gun-wielding angel of vengeance seen in BvS, but Affleck struggles to bring any conviction to playing him and seems uncomfortable in the part. Thankfully Gal Gadot continues to shine as Wonder Woman and brings some much-needed sanity and humanity to the film. Because his name is right up there in the opening credits I don’t think it’s a spoiler to mention that Henry Cavill returns as Superman/Clark Kent (but is this in flashback form or does he really return? Aha!). Cavill finally seems to have gotten a handle on the character despite battling some dreadful dialogue and an obviously CGI-ed out moustache (apparently, he was recalled for reshoots, had grown the upper-lip furniture for another role and was contractually obliged not to shave it off).

When writer/director Zack Snyder left the project due to a particularly tragic family incident, Warner Bros. brought Avengers Assemble director Joss Whedon onto the film to rework much of it, add additional dialogue and complete filming. Whedon is Hollywood’s go-to guy if you are looking for someone who really understands team dynamics (he has, after all, been in charge of two Avengers movies and was show-runner for television’s Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Firefly) but his lightness of touch is often at odds with Snyder’s more pop-operatic, carefully choreographed, darker action style. I can’t in all certainty say who directed which bit, but I can have a good guess and I’m betting you can too.


Justice League’s main problem is that it feels we got to it too quickly, maybe three films too early: A Flash movie, an Aquabro movie and a proper Affleck Batman movie would have helped tremendously. It doesn’t feel like this universe has paid its dues and it’s all a touch unearned. Also, much like the Marvel films, it lacks a decent villain and maybe should have gone straight in with the real big-bad rather than throw us the morsel of one of his generals (long time comics readers will know who I mean, stick around after the credits if you don’t).

Like I said, it’s not a bad movie, it’s no Suicide Squad but, then again, neither is it a Wonder Woman (which bordered on being great). It’s a bit incoherent, a bit generic and makes you wonder if the superhero genre is wearing a bit thin. Still, if you can’t get enough of CGI characters getting punched maybe you’ll love it. Stranger things have happened.

Andy Oliver

Thor: Ragnarok

(BBFC 12A 2hrs 10mins)

With Thor: Ragnarok, New Zealand director Taika Waititi (What We Do in the Shadows, Hunt for the Wilderpeople) has ditched the Shakespearean miserabilism of Kenneth Branagh’s crack at the character and the muddled/studio-interference troubles of Alan Taylor’s The Dark World. What he’s done instead is embrace the goofy fun of The Guardians of the Galaxy and the inherent silliness of the whole “Men in capes and lycra” superhero genre to produce a movie that’s garlic and Kryptonite to anyone who doesn’t like fun: a kaleidoscopic romp bursting at the seams with laugh out loud one-liners, great characters and excitingly crazy action scenes.

The plot is pretty standard comic book fare (especially if you were reading Marvel comics in the 1970’s) and won’t stretch any viewer too far, although a little familiarity with previous Marvel movies might be helpful as Thor: Ragnarok picks up a few threads from the earlier entries. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) returns to Asgard (the mythical home of the Norse gods) to discover his half-brother Loki (Tom Hiddlestone) has banished their father, Odin (Sir Anthony Hopkins), and now sits at the throne of the realm.


Unfortunately for the squabbling siblings their long-forgotten sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett), has escaped her millennia-old captivity and returned to herald the destruction of the gods and their kingdom (hence Ragnarok, The Doom of the Gods). Thor and Loki are then banished themselves, the god of thunder finding himself on the battle planet Sakaar where, to earn his freedom, hemust fight in gladiatorial games and comes up against an old rival/ally in the form of Hulk (Mark Ruffalo). With the help of allies old and new Thor must find his way back to Asgard to save the realm from his sister who wants only to destroy it.

Thor’s regular supporting cast all put in appearances including Heimdall (Idris Elba), Lady Sif (Jamie Alexander) and The Warriors Three (Ray Stephenson, Tadanobu Asano and Zachary Levi), bolstered by all new heroes and villains like Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), Hela’s henchman Skurge (Karl Urban) and a gloriously over-the-top Jeff Goldblum as The Grandmaster. Oh, and as hinted at the end of his own movie, Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) makes an appearance as well.

Chris Hemsworth has already shown a deft hand at comedy in the remakes of National Lampoon’s Vacation and Ghostbusters, but here he gets free reign to flex his considerable comedic muscle and grasps that chance with aplomb. When he and Mark Ruffalo (in both his Bruce Banner and Hulk modes) share the screen it’s like Withnail & I in space, permanently trapped on an inter-galactic holiday by mistake. Tom Hiddlestone’s Loki gets probably the best character arc of the movie and even at his most scheming he’s still a likeable presence. Cate Blanchett is clearly relishing her chance to go all-out panto villainess and Jeff Goldblum’s Grandmaster is Goldblum at his most Goldblum-iest, which is always a joy to behold. Tessa Thompson might be the breakout character though as Valkyrie, a bounty hunter who turns hero, she’s definitely the “Han Solo” of Thor: Ragnarok and Thompson is great in the role.

The baggy plot is not the reason to see Thor: Ragnarok though. It’s just the hook upon which all the fun and goofiness ultimately hangs. No, the real reason to spend your well-earned sheckles is the fun and goofiness. The movie sets out its stall right from the opening scene, in which Hemsworth spins in and out of frame as he engages in a barbed battle of “bants” with a horrifying antagonist whilst, at the same time, delivering a gloriously stylized (and hilarious) voice-over. It’s almost exhaustingly self-aware but never tips over into parody, it’s clear that everyone’s having a great time making this movie and the audience has an open invite to either jump on board or find the nearest exit.

The look of the film is obviously inspired by a thousand Heavy Metal magazine covers (as well as a thousand “heavy metal” album covers), it’s insanely vibrant and harks back to a time when legendary comic book artist Jack “King” Kirby was doing his greatest work on titles like Thor, The New Gods and The Fantastic Four.

There’s bad-ass women, hilarious gags, monsters, Led Zeppelin’s The Immigrant Song and a bonkers 1980’s style synth-pop score by Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh; lively and exciting characters that you want to spend the whole movie with; top-notch CGI and practical effects; Jeff Goldblum…

That’s not to say Thor: Ragnarok is not without its problems, some of the world building and lore is flubbed (probably because it wasn’t as much fun to film as making the rest of the film) and a little too much time is spent developing Karl Urban’s Skurge, whose role in the movie is obvious from his first appearance. Because the rest of the movie is so enjoyable you do start to resent the moments when it has to go “serious”, but that’s a minor quibble and there’s really only about ten minutes that it could do without.

Fans who prefer the superhero canon to be a bit more straight-laced and serious faced might well baulk at the irreverence and meta-commentary of Thor: Ragnarok. Waititi obviously doesn’t believe in sacred cows or, if he does he really enjoys hitting them in the bum, and, credit where it’s due, Marvel has been brave enough to hand him a banjo big enough to do it. It was a big risk to let the director indulge in all his favourite idiosyncrasies, but it’s a gamble that Marvel/Disney should now be able to collect on: Thor: Ragnarok manages to make “more of the same” not only feel fresh and shiny-new but provides one of the most enjoyable visits to the cinema this year.

Andy Oliver

The Snowman & The Ritual

THE SNOWMAN (BBFC 15 1hr 59mins)

 

 

There were 26 years between two of Hollywood’s most iconic chillers, Jaws (1975) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991). Any hopes that lightning might strike for a third time are fading fast as, 26 years after Hannibal Lecter’s fava bean and chianti sides, the “great white hope”, an adaptation of bestselling Norwegian author Jo Nesbø’s The Snowman, fails to deliver a single shiver.

Based on the seventh of Nesbø’s successful Harry Hole (pronounced Hool-eh, so no jokes about Michael Fassbender’s Hole, okay?) detective novels, The Snowman struggles to find anything new to bring audiences unfamiliar to the author’s work whilst also alienating his existing fanbase. When elite crime-squad detective Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender) investigates the disappearance of a young woman he begins to suspect that the elusive serial killer dubbed “The Snowman” may be on the prowl again after years of hibernation. With the help of brilliant rookie Katrine Bratt (Rebecca Ferguson), Hole has to connect his investigation to decades-old cold cases if he wants to catch the killer before he (or she) strikes again.

Various characters appear, disappear, deliver exposition and generally muddy the waters of both the investigation and the movie’s plot: J.K. Simmons plays a sinister magazine mogul trying to engineer a major winter-sports event; Charlotte Gainsbourg as Hole’s ex, Rakel, who constantly interrupts proceedings with some crisis or another involving their teenage son Oleg (Michael Yates); James D’Arcy as the hostile husband of the disappeared woman; Chloe Sevigny as identical twin chicken-farmers (one of whom is basically just a head stuck on top of a snowman); and a precariously coiffured Val Kilmer who appears in flashback scenes as the detective in charge of the original Snowman case. The audience is led up and down numerous snow-blind alleys and served up more than a barrel’s worth of pickled red herrings on their way to a finale that’s as bafflingly impractical as it is emotionally unrewarding.

Fassbender is fine as the clinical detective who is only ever really alive when he’s challenged by his work and a hopeless alcoholic when he’s not. Rebecca Ferguson is the standout as the feisty and eager Katrine, though she’s never quite handed enough by the script to really get her teeth into. The rest of the cast do the best they can with what little they’re given, although I’d like to know the reasoning behind the bizarrely bad voice-dubbing of Val Kilmer’s appearances.

The real detective work that hangs around The Snowman though, is how such a fine pedigree of talents (both in front of and behind the camera) managed to produce such a mutt? Director Thomas Alfredson, the man behind the near-impeccable Let the Right One In and the equally classy Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, seems to have not just dropped the ball but left it on the bus on his way home from the shops, a bus that subsequently burst into flames, driven off a bridge and plunged into a lake full of ball-eating piranhas. Where Jaws and Silence of the Lambs relied on a slowly building intensity and an inexorable feeling of inevitable dread, The Snowman goes straight for lurid, grisly shocks straight out of the most basic eighties slasher canon. Martin Scorsese is on board as executive producer and top-notch editors Claire Simpson (Platoon, Wall Street, The Reader) and long-time Scorsese collaborator Thelma Schoonmaker fail to pull the pieces together. Perhaps the fault lies at the feet of the writers? Peter Straughan (Frank, The Men Who Stare at Goats, Wolf Hall and the afore-mentioned Tinker, Tailor) and Hossein Amini (highs: Drive, The Wings of the Dove, lows: 47 Ronin, Snow White and the Huntsman) appear to have forgotten that what appears terrifying on the page may appear ridiculous on the screen, not the least of these being the snowmen which appear at every murder scene just come across as naughty or sad Olafs rather than signposts of evil.

Not the worst movie of the year by a long stretch but The Snowman is pretty abominable.

BONUS REVIEW

THE RITUAL (BBFC 15 1hr 34mins)

 


A bunch of chums (Rafe Spall, Arsher Ali, Sam Troughton and Robert James-Collier) go hiking in Sweden in memory of their friend Robert who was murdered in a convenience store robbery. Luke (Spall) is especially traumatised because he failed to intervene in the senseless killing and hid behind shelving unit during the crime. When one of the chums twists his ankle, a shortcut through a forest is decided upon with predictable horror movie results.

Dead animal hanging in the trees still dripping blood? Check. Creepy cabin in the woods? Check. Mysterious runes cut into trees/cabin/everything? Check.

Can you see where this is heading?

There’s good, solid performances by all but The Ritual is more of a trudge than a brisk hike. There’s nothing here you haven’t seen before, in fact there’s probably less. Sometimes you need a creepy local to say, “Stay out of the woods, lads” just to add a bit of context, which is something this movie sorely needs. It’s all a bit dull and you’ve seen it all before (unless this is your first horror movie, in which case you might experience minor goose-pimpling). It’s a calorie free rice cake of a movie, which is fine I suppose, I just like my calorie free rice cakes to be dipped in chocolate and smarties and served between two cream buns.

Andy Oliver

 

Blade Runner 2049

 

 

(BBFC 15 2hrs 43mins)


I’ve already booked a ticket to see Denis Villeneuve’s Blade Runner 2049 again.

Not because I loved it, at least not yet. I want to see it again to cement in my mind whether it’s a truly great movie or merely a mediocre picture draped in a hallucinatory coat of many colours; whether, or not, there is actually anything resembling life in its sterility or just an affectation of life; whether there is substance in its style or whether it’s an empty, albeit beautifully crafted, vessel. Or, maybe, the truth lies in all these things.

Set thirty years after the events of Ridley Scott’s original, Blade Runner 2049’s central character is K (Ryan Gosling), a limited-life replicant working as a detective (or Blade Runner) for the LAPD, tracking down the first-generation models who can live as long as, and live as, humans. During a routine mission to apprehend/eliminate one of those rogue replicants K stumbles upon a secret that, if given the oxygen of publicity, could destroy the delicate sense of order that exists between humans and the now million strong sub-caste of androids. Ordered by his police chief Lt. Joshi (Robin Wright) to forget what he has learned, K disobeys and begins an investigation that takes him to the ruins of Las Vegas and directly to Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) who is hiding therein. Meanwhile creepy oligarch Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who now owns the replicant manufacturing corporation, Tyrell, has his own bizarre and ruthless interest in K.


Gosling is back in zero-emotion, Drive/Only God Forgives mode, doing a fine job of channelling Le Samourai era Alain Delon, both enigmatic and unreadable. Harrison Ford is great as the haggard misanthrope Deckard (not really a stretch, I guess, but still…). I’m still not convinced by Jared Leto, he will forever be the poor man’s Daniel Day-Lewis to me, he’s not terrible but he does seem to suck the oxygen out of his every scene. A terrific, and overwhelmingly female, supporting cast is led by Robin Wright as the stern and severe Lt. Joshi, but there’s more than a few performances that one would struggle to describe as other than breakthrough: Sylvia Hoeks as the ruthless Luv, Ana de Armas as K’s designed for pleasure hologram Joi and watch out for an all too brief, but impactful, appearance by In Syria’s Hiam Abbas.

If you’ve seen this year’s earlier entrants in the unofficial competition to melt the audience’s eyeballs, Ghost in the Shell and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets you’ll have some idea of the colourful visual flair on display, but Blade Runner 2049 possesses some things neither of those earlier two seemed to understand: Composition. Through the eye of cinematographer Roger Deakins’ camera lens (director of photography on such classics as Fargo, The Assassination of Jesse James, The Shawshank Redemption, Skyfall amongst many, many others) the images have depth, context, a sense of the surreal, a sense of the monolithic and, above all, an understanding of stillness and beauty. Seriously, virtually every frame is breath-taking, see it on a big screen and take in every inch of neon-lit artistry as you would the work of a great master in a gallery.


Director Denis Villeneuve returns to two of his favourite themes, two recurrent ideas that power all his films: How does man fight monsters without becoming a monster and the inherent hopefulness of female nature. He’s a director whose opus tends toward the exhaustingly tense (Incendies, Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival), so why, many might ask, is Blade Runner 2049 so slow and (I hesitate to say it, but) boring? I think it’s an interesting choice to slow everything down to a crawl, to allow time for the audience to really think about the film as it unfolds, in many ways it’s an imitation of the work of Andrei Tarkovsky (Solaris, Stalker, Andrei Rublev). It’s deliberate, thoughtful and packed but it’s very, very long. People with short attention spans or who hate having to put any thought into a movie might want to avoid and sit at home with their Explody-Robots IV dvd. If you enjoy sci-fi as allegory, fill your boots, there’s plenty to tuck into here.


Despite its undisputed influence on not only movies but upon design and culture, I’ve never really been much of a fan of the original Blade Runner. It’s just too full of holes, lacks a believable through-line, it’s an exercise in design over content and chucks in things because they look or sound cool rather than having any importance. There are multiple versions out there and it took Scott five attempts at recutting it before he actually understood what he was trying to say. Blade Runner 2049 builds upon the aesthetics of Scott’s original, cherry picking the best ideas and expanding upon them to reach a natural conclusion. It’s much closer to Phillip K. Dick’s dystopian vision, in its existential ponderings if nothing else. In fact, the less familiar you are with the original the better, I think it works best if you are not wedded to the mythology of Blade Runner and everything that has been written about it.

Like I say, I’m genuinely torn by Blade Runner 2049 and maybe I should have written this after that second viewing. I think it might be one of the greatest sci-fi movies ever made, but I’m not sure.

Andy Oliver

 

Mother!

Anywhere between

 

and

 

(BBFC 18 2Hrs 1Min)


If you were anticipating my review of Mother! I’m afraid I have to disappoint: Although I tried many times to write a spoiler-free review, I have failed miserably. All I offer here is a kind of steer, a warning to the unwary, a softly whispered piece of advice in the ear of the hopelessly intrigued. In fact, I’m not sure this movie is even reviewable, it is possible to read it on so many levels, all of them right, most of them wrong, very few of them unworthy of friendship destroying argument.

Nominally, Mother! concerns a couple (Jennifer Lawrence and Javier Bardem) renovating the man’s childhood home (none of the characters have names, by the way, so this might get confusing), when a stranger (Ed Harris) appears on their doorstep, closely followed by his wife (Michelle Pfeiffer). Bardem’s character invites the strangers in and Lawrence’s character begins to doubt her sanity (and their relationship) as more and more people come to the house and Bardem welcomes them all in and offers them free lodging. Where it goes from here is all spoiler territory into which I shall not tread, suffice it to say that the plot spirals into ever more horrific psychological and, eventually, physically violent acts which are not sexual but definitely gender-specific.

Be aware that if you’re handing over your hard-earned money for a ticket it may well be for something you will absolutely hate, I suspect more people will loathe Mother! than love it. It is one of the most divisive movies I’ve ever seen. I’m talking Anti-Christ/Eternal Sunshine/Only God Forgives/Spring Breakers/ Neon Demon level divisiveness. If you think you’re going to see a horror movie, you’re wrong. If you think you’re going to see a marital drama, you’re wrong. If you think everything will be wrapped up with a neat bow or Shyamalan-esque twist, guess what? You’re wrong.

Is it a thesis on toxic masculinity and misogyny? A religious parable? A satire in the mould of Luis Bunuel’s The Exterminating Angel (albeit one with a 180⁰ shift)? A damning critique of celebrity relationships? An environmental warning? A puzzle akin to Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad? An anthropological study of solitude versus tribal responsibilities? It’s all these things and more… or some of these things and less… or all of these things and none of them. Listen, how you respond to Mother! will depend exclusively upon you and what you take from it and how much you’re willing to put into it.

Written and directed by Darren Aronofsky (Requiem for a Dream, Noah, Black Swan), everything about Mother! is next level: beautifully shot, designed and lit; incredible performances from everyone in the cast, Lawrence remarkably manages to up her already “A” game and Bardem, Harris and Pfeiffer are nothing if not magnetic, to mention but four of this astonishing ensemble.

I’ve tried to help here but, honestly, nothing can prepare you for Mother! You will love it or you will hate it with venom. Caveat Emptor, my friends, Caveat Emptor. Maybe ask yourself would you watch this if it wasn’t a Jennifer Lawrence movie?

Me? Predictably, I loved it.

Andy Oliver

It

 

IT (BBFC 15, 2hrs 15mins)


It may not be the best adaptation of a Stephen King novel to make it to the screen but it is certainly the most Stephen King adaptation to make it to the screen. It really feels like a Stephen King novel, it understands what it is that makes his novels so readable and, whilst it is not a direct lift of page to screen, it manages to deliver everything that any fan could want (unless you actually want a direct lift of page to screen, that is). King knows that time spent with characters is as important (if not more) as the moments of horror they have to endure or succumb to, we have to know them and empathise with them for the scares to hit home, and It understands this as well: there are as many scenes that will have you laughing and/or crying as there are sequences that will have watching between your fingers. It’s proper scary as well as being lump-in-your-throat inducingly moving.

Something evil stalks the streets of Derry, Maine. Something that eats children and bathes in their fear. Something that haunts the town every twenty-seven years. When little Georgie Denbrough (Jackson Robert Scott) seemingly vanishes into thin air, his brother Bill (Jaeden Liebeher) and six pals (collectively known as The Losers Club) decide that only they can solve the mystery of a town with a disturbingly high rate of child disappearances. What begins as a Hardy Boys Mystery adventure for the kids soon becomes a battle for their very lives as they uncover the terrifying truth: Derry is the home of an ancient evil, an evil that can shapeshift and become the manifestation of a child’s deepest fear, but most often it appears as uber-creepy clown Pennywise (Bill Skarsgård).


Director Andy Muschietti plays the horror of Derry on two fronts, there’s Pennywise, of course, but there’s also something about the town that breeds bullying, abuse racism and violence, there’s not only supernatural horror but everyday horror that dwells here. The first half of King’s novel placed The Losers Club’s investigation in the late 1950’s, here Muschietti (along with screenwriters Chase Palmer, Gary Dauberman and Cary Fukunaga) has transposed the action to the late 1980’s and replaced the kids’ fears of The Wolfman and The Mummy with things drawn directly from their psyche to give the film a more contemporary, not to mention relatable, feel. How these fears manifest themselves via Pennywise and his shape changing ability are at once strange and horrifying and pant-wettingly scary, one example *SPOILER*: the sole female member of the gang, Beverly (Sophia Lillis), has a fear of puberty and menstruation, there will be blood. And lots of it.


The young cast are very good indeed, along with the afore mentioned Scott, Liebeher and Lillis there are some great performances from Jeremy Ray Taylor as the chubby nerd Ben, Chosen Jacobs as Mike, Jack Dylan Fraser as germ phobic Eddie, Wyatt Olef as Stanley and, best of all Finn Wolfhard as bespectacled smart aleck Richie. But it’s Pennywise you’ve really come to see and Bill Skarsgård and the make-up and effects department don’t let you down. Although his appearances are kept to a minimum he’s the movie monster that will have grown men sleeping with the lights on. He’s all weird angles, distressing stillness and a fast-forward effect so chilling it gives you goose-bumps in even your warmest of places. Even if you’ve never suffered Coulrophobia (a fear of clowns) there is a distinct possibility you’ll have it in spades after watching It.


However, there are a few structural problems with the film, for example each of the kids’ encounters with their fears/Pennywise feel somewhat disjointed and episodic (an effect that is heightened by the interstices between each that tonally and dramatically give this portion of the film a kind of stop/start momentum). The dialogue tends to get rather heavy-handed and clunky whenever there’s a whiff of exposition and it tends to lean into its 1980’s references a little too heavily. There’s also a lot of connective tissue between It and the Netflix serial Stranger Things, not least being the appearance of Finn Wolfhard in both, and it’s a shame because this might be detrimental to some viewers, but if you can put these qualms to one side you’re in for a fun and scary ride (if a film about child murdering can be fun).

Now, people who’ve read the novel or seen the 1990 mini-series adaptation (you know, the one with John Boy Walton and Tim Curry) might wonder why I haven’t mentioned the second half of the story, the half where The Losers Club come together again as adults to continue the fight. Well, there’s a good reason for that, you see this is only Chapter One, the second (and final) chapter hasn’t even started filming yet so don’t expect it for at least another 18-24 months. Having said that, It stands alone pretty well and there’s a satisfying conclusion to this part that is definitely no lead balloon. So, until Chapter Two comes out you’ll just have to float along on the waves of expectation and anticipation… We all float down here.

Andy Oliver

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

 

(BBFC 12A 2Hrs 17Mins)


Imagine a big empty cardboard box. Now imagine that box wrapped in the most astonishing paper, ribbons, bows and gift tags. Got it? Okay, now imagine that the box and wrapping cost the best part of £200 million and you’ll come close to understanding the experience of watching director Luc Besson’s latest sci-fi extravaganza, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (hereafter just referred to as Valerian in this review for the sake of time and word count). It’s a sprawling epic that blasts beyond the screen with eye-popping visuals and aesthetics but, beyond that, it’s a bit like a bubble-headed Love Island contestant, “… full of sound and fury, signifying nothing”, as Lady MacBeth once decried.

Alpha, the “City” of the extended title, is an ever-expanding space station, a repository of the collected knowledge and information of a plethora of CGI and practical effects alien races. Into this neon-infused, candy-crush coloured diaspora arrive Special Agents Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevingne), a couple in all but name, squabbling and babbling inanely, spreading their own unique brand of “banter” as they try to solve I’m not sure what because I’m not sure why. I didn’t really understand what was going on and I suspect nobody involved in the movie did either, the plot has something to do with a Pokemon dinosaur that poops marbles and the destruction of some kind of “Ibiza” inspired planet full of lithe, pale supermodels and an infection/dead zone spreading through the city/space station. None of it makes any sense and there’s over two hours of it.


But what Valerian lacks in plot, characters or plausibility it more than makes up for in its visuals, every frame is crammed full of invention and mind-bending colour. If you’ve ever wanted to know what Aldous Huxley, John Lennon or Doctor Timothy Leary experienced without the hassle and expense of consciousness expanding drugs? Look no further: Memory consuming jellyfish; a bazaar that exists simultaneously on multiple dimensional levels; Cara Delevingne wearing the Universe’s biggest hat; fat-bottomed frogs; fish in spacesuits… you’ll want to check that bucket of popcorn you’re inhaling to make sure it hadn’t been inadvertently switched out with a huge tub of mescaline.


I’ll be honest here and admit that I’ve never truly been aboard the Luc Besson train, his movies leave me cold, he’s a director whose ideas are vacuous and, whilst almost always visually impressive, as a storyteller he has all the panache and craft of Monty Python’s Mister Creosote forcing a last “wafer thin mint” between his bloated, gluttonous lips: yes, there’s a huge explosion of colour on the screen but ultimately his bacchanalian greed leads to disappointment and emptiness. People may leap to his defence citing The Fifth Element (loopy fairy-tale powered by cliché) or Leon The Professional (amoral and smarmy in its Hollywood excess) or The Big Blue (free divers squabble when not holding their breath, tedious), but even they would have a tough time denying the indulgence and sheer lack of soul in Valerian. For a director steeped in self-indulgence, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets surely represents the pinnacle of his achievements.

There are moments of dizzying invention, for instance a chase scene that crashes through multiple dimensions, but it is dazzling empty spectacle and, unfortunately, nothing more.


Both DeHaan and Delevingne struggle to bring anything based in reality to their characters, neither has the charisma or joie de vivre necessary to carry the film or imbue it with any sense of fun. Dane DeHaan is best known for his moody “outsider” roles such as Chronicle (moody teen become moody teen with super-powers), The Amazing Spider-Man (moody, rich teen becomes moody, rich teen with super-powers) and The Cure For Wellness (moody banker becomes moodier banker but with added incest and eels), Valerian should be a crazy, thrill-ride of a character; as quick with his thoughts, actions and quips as he is with his trigger finger; DeHaan, with his permanently furrowed-brow and slow delivery only manages to convey a sense of fatigue. Cara Delevingne, all pouts and eyebrows, is best known for being a coat hanger and for being easily the most appalling thing in the appalling Suicide Squad; like a personality vacuum, she manages to suck all the life from practically every scene she’s in. Valerian and Laureline sound like ingredients in the latest, miracle shampoo but that’s where any analogy to chemistry ends; they bicker like a couple who’ve been together too long, a pair you’d spend two weeks trying to avoid on your holidays, which makes it all the more bewildering when a “Will they, won’t they…” story thread is introduced. Like I said, “NONE OF THIS MAKES SENSE”.

Oh, and Rihanna, Ethan Hawke and Clive Owen turn up as well. Mostly briefly, mostly looking bewildered.

If, like a toddler who delights in the wrapping paper more than the present, there’s probably plenty to enjoy here. Valerian, for the rest of us is just that big old empty box.

“Out, out brief candle”, indeed.

Andy Oliver