Saturday, 6 November 2021

Spencer - Review

In terms of Christmas movies, forget Shane Black setting all his films during the holiday season. Forget John McClane finding out that the same shit can happen to the same guy twice. The new festive tradition is a new Kristen Stewart movie where she is forced to spend an awkward Christmas with her partner’s family.

December, 1991. The marriage of Princess Diana and Prince Charles has long since grown cold. Though rumors of affairs and a divorce abound, peace is ordained for the Christmas festivities at the Queen's Sandringham Estate. There's eating and drinking, shooting and hunting. Diana knows the game. But this year, things will be profoundly different. Spencer is an imagining of what might have happened during those few fateful days.

The film opens with the staff preparing the food for the Royal Family’s arrival. Led by Sean Harris’ head chef, a man on a mission to present a dish that the Princess will eat and enjoy. *Trigger warning - this film does contain several scenes which show her eating disorder in graphic detail*

Soon the family are there and ready to begin the festivities but there is someone conspicuous in her absence… Diana.

Her late arrival goes for Kristen Stewart as well. Not the obvious choice for playing England’s Rose, it takes a little bit of time to acclimate to the accent and mannerisms. However she soon disappears into the role and delivers a sensational performance. A revelation to anyone who only knows her from the Twilight films. Further confirmation of her considerable talent to those who have seen her in the likes of The Clouds Of Sils Maria, Personal Shopper and her underrated comic turn in Charlie’s Angels.

Diana is a woman broken and beaten down by the impossible situation she finds herself in and Stewart showcases her fragility but also a steeliness deep underneath. She also lights up in the scenes with her sons William and Harry. There the Princess disappears and Diana emerges from her enforced literal and metaphorical prison.

Sandringham is presented by Larrain as though it is the central location in a horror film. In many ways, it is like The Overlook Hotel. Haunted by the ghosts of its former residents (indeed Diana believes she is being visited by the ghost of Anne Boleyn), it is a cold, creepy place. There even seems to be something slightly off with the staff. Timothy Spall’s Major Gregory seems to know everything that goes on within the building and feels like the Overlook’s Grady. Designed to torment Diana and push her over the edge.

Jonny Greenwood’s score feels inspired by The Shining. Long ominous tones increase the sense of dread within the Palace. This is juxtaposed with a chaotic, jazzy cues that represent Diana’s increasingly erratic and temperamental behaviour.

This is the second film of a potential trilogy where writer-director Pablo Larrain looks through a specific window of a woman thrust into the public eye. First it was Jackie, now Diana. It is not hard to see why people are suggesting Britney as the final piece in the trilogy.

Watching the way that Diana is hounded by the press in public and subject to an insidious level of control within her own family, it is comparable to what is happened to Britney Spears at the hands of the paparazzi and her conservatorship.

She is provided with a selection of pre-approved outfits to wear and is scolded when wears her Boxing Day outfit on Christmas Day. Then there is the humiliating weigh-in on arrival which is “just a bit of fun” but another agonising symbol of control.

Spencer is a rare beast. A film about the monarchy that actually has you empathising with the main character even when their life at its worst is better than others at their best. Larrain and Stewart tap into the universality in the specific and create an engaging and empowering story of escape. After all, what is more relatable than wanting to escape from your family after a few days cooped up together over the holidays?

4 stars

Spencer is in cinemas now

Eternals - Review

Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Fresh from sweeping Awards season earlier this year with Nomadland, Chloe Zhao looks to stamp her visionary style on the MCU with Eternals.

Following the events of Avengers: Endgame, an unexpected tragedy forces the Eternals, ancient aliens who have been living on Earth in secret for thousands of years, out of the shadows to reunite against mankind's most ancient enemy, the Deviants.

Zhao's film undoubtably marks a departure from the previous entries in the MCU.

First of all, it is the first Marvel film to feature a sex scene. Albeit a brief, tender and very PG-13 one. It also has a same sex couple. Yes, no just someone talking about being gay but showing the couple together, interacting and even sharing a kiss on screen.

Its scope is much grander in scale, spanning centuries. Rather than driven by action, it explores the results of inaction. Here are a group of beings who have the power of Gods. Yet they do not use that power to rule, Rather they use their gifts to give humanity a little nudge here and there.

Under orders from the Celestials not to interfere, this leads to the central conflict between the characters. Some believe they need to do more (Druig argues he could use his mind control to end wars instantly), others feel they have done too much. In a scene taken wildly out of context on Twitter prior to the film's release, Phastos is seen mourning the devastation at Hiroshima, blaming himself for the tragedy. It should be made clear here as it is in the film, just not on social media, that he did not make or detonate the bomb. He merely has provided assistance to the human race in terms of technological advancement.

The "titular" group consists of ten characters. The ranks are filled with a cast more diverse than a 1980s United States of Benetton advert. From A-Listers like Angelina Jolie and Salma Hayek to rising stars like Korean actor Don Lee.

The nominal leads are played by heroes, and former lovers, Sersei (Gemma Chan) and Icarus (Richard Madden). Tasked with "getting the old gang back together for one final job".

Given the sheer quantity of characters to introduce, and then reintroduce, Eternals is a rather apt name for its 157 minute runtime. Despite the bloated length, the time spent on uniting everyone results in a rushed finale. All the individual actors are good in their roles yet not everyone gets their moment in the sun. Of the cast, Chan brings heart and soul as Sersei but the highlight is Kumail Nanjaini as superhero-turned-Bollywood star Kingo.

As one would from Zhao and cinematographer Ben Davis, the film looks fantastic. In fact, jarringly so. Until one realises that the initial reticene to the visual style is because it not reliant on over-production and CG enhancement. Instead using real locations and natural light where possible.

However once the film enters the third act and its contractual CGI-heavy battle, the two aesthetic styles fail to gel cohesively and the result is disappointingly generic and the effects ropier than usual.

The struggle to successfully incorporate Zhao's storytelling and visual style into the rigid and unflexible Marvel Studios mold is a sad but entirely expected state of affairs.

The issue with the Marvel Cinematic Universe now, twenty five films in, is that despite having limitless characters and storylines to draw on, narratively speaking they have backed themselves into a corner. Audiences have loved seeing their favourite characters team up to crack wise and crack skulls as the universe has expanded. However it has now reached the stage that the MCU finds itself at the pointy end of its own double edged sword.

The Eternals, by their very nature, admit to having been on Earth for 7000 years. So introducing them now, post Endgame, brings up the question from audience surrogate Dane Whitman (Kit Harington), "Why didn't you fight Thanos?". The wishy washy excuse of "We were instructed to only intervene when Deviants were involved" feels akin to The Doctor in Doctor Who rambling on about "fixed points in time".

When the Emergence begins, it is described a world-ending, extinction level event. One that bears a striking resemblance to Ego's plot in GOTG Vol. 2 by the way. It feels like the type of situation that would merit the attention of any superheroes or Avengers available at the time. Yet no sign of anyone. No Doctor Strange, no Spider-Man, no Hulk or Captain Marvel, etc.

It evokes memories of The Simpsons episode where Homer is added to the Itchy and Scratchy show as the voice of Poochie. When looking to increase his character's screen time, Homer pitches to the executives that "Every time Poochie is off screen, the other characters should be asking 'Where's Poochie?'".

Ambitious but flawed, Eternals is ultimately low to mid-tier Marvel. However that sounds harsher than it should because mid-tier Marvel movies are still a lot better than most Hollywood blockbusters... especially comic book movies. The problem is Feige et all, still haven't found that magic formula for allowing unique, distinctive directors to make their mark on the Universe.

3 stars

Eternals is in cinemas now

Wednesday, 23 June 2021

Fast & Furious 9 - Film Review

At the start of Fast & Furous 9, Dom and Letty are living the quiet life off the grid with Dom’s son Brian. You know, “family”. Their peaceful existence is interrupted when a skeleton from his closet comes back to haunt him. For a man who has preached the importance of “family”, the team and audiences alike are shocked to discover that the man plotting the end of the world is Dom’s previously unmentioned brother Jakob.

After chipping off The Rock (branching off to Hobbs & Shaw outings), they get a chip off the old block and fellow WWE superstar John Cena plays Dom’s estranged brother Jakob Torreto. I guess if you are casting a brother he doesn’t see, it makes sense to pick John Cena!

If the idea of Vin and Cena as brothers has you like “really?”, it would not be the first time the Saga has stretched the limits of believability. After all, this is a franchise that has evolved over twenty years from a Point Break remake that swapped surfboards for subarus to the world’s longest runway chase to The Rock casually changing the trajectory of a torpedo with his bare hands.

There have been moments where Dom’s Dodge Charger has threatened to jump the shark but F9 sees the car become a cow that jumped over the moon.

Yes, the trailer have hinted at it. At this point it was a space race as to who would get there first. Fast & Furious or Mission Impossible but Tom Cruise’s running was ultimately pipped at the post by the franchise running on Diesel. This is a man who no longer lives his life by a quarter mile at a time but light years at a time. Having graduated from street racers to self-proclaimed spies and secret agents, it makes sense that they have reached their own Moonraker.

The film has a bloated runtime of 143 minutes. If the film had stuck to a fast and furious pace, it could have probably clocked in at about 90-100 minutes. The problem is that everytime the movie gains momentum with a thrilling set piece, it stalls to retcon its increasingly convoluted continuity. We must learn about Dom & Jakob’s backstory, the #JusticeForHan explanation, etc.

It is a shame because when it gets going, it is admittedly a lot of stupid fun. The action sequences, of which there are many, are slick, entertaining and as ridiculous as ever (this reviewer must have rolled his eyes at least six times in the opening 20 minutes). As long switch your brain’s gear into neutral. Particularly if you are from Edinburgh as the geography of the car chase in that is completely non-sensical.

The most intense struggle is not between Dom & Jakob but between the movie’s internal logic and your brain. Ludacris’s Tej keeps banging on about science and math to explain how they get away with some of the crazy stuff they do but other times, they rip up the rulebook and say “what the hell, it’s a movie isn’t it?”. One example of this is the use of electromagnets within the story. They are strong enough to pull a car a street away through a building but somehow do not cause the car that they are held within to collapse in on itself. If it rips a fork out of someone’s hand while they are eating, why do they not rip out metal fillings from their teeth?!

The film, and the franchise’s biggest problem is the lack of tension or threat to the characters. There is a moment following the first mission where Tyrese Gibson’s Roman questions his immortality after unbelievable survival against the odds. The rest of the team laugh it off, saying they are not superheroes. As it happens, the FF movies are close to becoming the automotive equivalent of the MCU. Not in a good way however. One of the main issues fans have with superheroes movies is a lack of consequence to the actions. The stakes are not high enough. How can one truly believe in the danger of the missions when the threat of anyone dying is inconceivable? Especially when, just like superheroes, no one ever stays dead for long. To paraphrase The Dark Knight, “You either die a hero or live long enough to become the villain who lives long enough to join the team and welcome the return of the hero miraculously back from the dead”.

Fast & Furious 9 is the cinematic equivalent of a go on the dodgems. You have a great time but there is no risk of anyone being hurt and ultimately you leave the ride slightly underwhelmed.


Fast & Furious 9 is in cinemas from Thursday 24th June

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Crawl - Review

Director Alexandre Aja makes a big splash with this year's sleeper horror hit Crawl. Like many great horrors, the title has a double meaning. Not only do the monsters crawl but the majority of the action takes place in a crawl space beneath a house... plus it makes your skin crawl!

Haley (Kaya Scodelario), a collegiate swimmer, must travel back home to check on her estranged father (Barry Pepper) during a hurricane when they both become trapped in the basement with a vicious alligator. With no one coming to their Gator-Aid, they must work together as flood waters and tensions rise around them, bringing fear and their troubled past to the surface in a race against time.

Having made his name with French horror Haute Tension aka Switchblade Romance, Aja has abandoned any notion of a twist that featured in that film that split audiences right down the middle like a gator chomping through a Floridian. This is an old school thriller that is as lean and mean as a hungry alligator during hurricane season. Also, he gives the humour present in his Piranha 3D remake a wide birth to focus on building the tension and emotion... although he still knows when to throw in an effective and gory kill to satisfy the blood lust!

Scodelario makes for a tough, resourceful scream queen whose fiercely competitive swimming background helps to level the playing field once the protagonists are underwater. At times, when drenched and vunerable, she is almost the doppelganger of Emma Stone and she will undoubtedly have audiences on her side willing her to survive.

The film does have a standard OTT premise needed for a good old-fashioned horror thrill ride but the writers make sure to ground this in as much believability as possible. Decisions made by characters feel authentic and the barriers to their escape flow naturally that you never scoff or remark "well that would never happen". Plus the tension and threat is maintained throughout to the point where no one is safe... even the dog!

A genre cross between Jaws and Hard Rain, Crawl is a gripping horror with bite that will once again make you afraid to go back in the water and is the most thrilling way to spend 87 minutes in Florida until Galaxy's Edge opens later this year!

4 stars

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Spider-Man: Far From Home - review

Spider-Man: Far From Home is the 23rd film in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and it finds itself in a similar situation to the Ant-Man films. After the overwhelming intensity and drama of the Avengers movies, the stakes for Spider-Man's European Vacation (or Magical Mysterio Tour) are smaller, the tone needs to be lighter and more hopeful but it also must nail the superhero landing and bring Phase 3 to a close whilst simultaneously addressing "The Blip".
The Blip is canonically what the MCU is calling the second snap which brought back half of the world's population following Thanos's original snap... although why they didn't call it "The Snappening" we will never know.
To be fair, Far From Home hits the ground running with a poignant but amusing high school news video bringing everyone quickly up to date with how those teenagers who disappeared would fit back into school... in short they must take their midterms again but get rewarded with a trip to Europe for a science holiday. Conveniently, all the main characters from Homecoming all got snapped at the same time so the gang is all here.
Peter is having the hardest time adjusting. Aunt May seems to be flirting with Happy Hogan. He is dealing with burgeoning feelings for MJ and he is struggling to cope the loss of Tony with the pressure of being the hero as the world looks to someone to take over the mantle of Iron Man.
That hero could just be Quentin Beck, a mysterious superhero dubbed Mysterio by a mispronunciation on Italian TV. With armour that looks like Thor, mystical green powers like Doctor Strange and the flight capabilities of Vision, he is the Avengers all rolled into one... well, at least the ones who like to wear capes!
Not only can he fill the shoes of Iron Man but he could fill the role of surrogate father that Peter has struggled to replace following the deaths of his father, Uncle Ben and now Tony.
Tom Holland has continued to grow into the role since Civil War and is now the definitive on-screen Peter Parker and Spider-Man... and Night Monkey. He is able to go from comedic one-liners to tearing your heart out at the flick of a web shooter and will undoubtedly be the heart of the MCU going forward into Phase 4.
Newcomer Gyllenhaal is excellent as Beck/Mysterio and the film truly comes alive in the second half of the film once Gyllenhaal goes, as I like to dub, "full Okja" which leads to a sequence that easily tops Doctor Strange's trippy visuals as Mysterio's demonstrates the full extent of his powers.
To discuss much more would stray too close to the deadly spoiler realm so... spider-lips are sealed.
Director Jon Watts has so far taken Spider-Man from New York to Washington in Homecoming and now on European Vacation in Far From Home so I expect the next logical step is to complete his trilogy and have the next film set at Christmas.
Phase 3 may have come to an end but the two incredible post-credit scenes, it is far to say, have flipped everything upside down and it will be very interesting and exciting to see where Spider-Man and the MCU are headed.

3 stars

Monday, 17 June 2019

The A24 Project - Episode 19 - De Palma & Swiss Army Man

Brian De Palma is the subject of A24's second documentary De Palma as he shares experiences and insight into a career that has spanned over fifty years and in Swiss Army Man Paul Dano is a suicidal young man who encounters a farting corpse played by Daniel Radcliffe in one of their most original films.

In A24 Hour News, Dallas and Lee discuss the breaking news that Robert Pattinson is dropping out of The Souvenir Part II and look at the hype machine for the upcoming Midsommar.

Alternatively, you can download or stream The A24 Project on Apple Podcasts, GooglePlay, Spreaker and Spotify.

Monday, 3 June 2019

The A24 Project - Episode 18 - Green Room & The Lobster

What's your desert island band and if you were to be transformed into an animal what would it be?

Lee Hutchison and Dallas King look at Green Room, about a punk rock band who are forced to fight for survival after witnessing a murder at a neo-Nazi skinhead bar. The film stars the late Anton Yelchin who died tragically after the film was released, we celebrate his short but special career. We also discuss The Lobster directed by Yorgos Lanthimos, one of the most original films in the A24 catalogue, it's set in a dystopian near future, where single people, according to the laws of The City, are taken to The Hotel, where they are obliged to find a romantic partner in forty-five days or are transformed into beasts and sent off into The Woods.

In A24 Hour News, we look at the success of The Lighthouse at the Cannes Film Festival.

Listen to the episode online here -

Alternatively, you can download or stream The A24 Project on Apple Podcasts, GooglePlay, Spreaker and Spotify.