Review: Garden Party

A magnificent, if strange display of the possibilities of modern animation

Advertisements

Garden Party is a sumptuously animated if strange short by a group of French students as their graduation project. It follows a group of frogs as they explore a mansion and it’s surroundings.

The film opens with a small frog leaping into an unkempt pool and immediately we notice the incredibly photorealistic CGI. The attention to detail is exquisite with even the little ripples of the water shown. As we become introduced to more frogs we are given clues as to why the mansion is abandoned; food left to rot, bullet holes in the security camera’s and doors — there has evidently been a shootout.

Nevertheless, the frogs roam around without a care, gorging on the food and generally exploring. One frog jumps onto a control board, buttons that switch on lights, pool jets, and music. With the pool lit up an army of frogs go over, in all shapes and sizes. Suddenly and concluding the short, we see a body rise to the surface, animated in gory detail.

The short is a magnificent display of the possibilities of modern animation yet the peculiar story they chose takes away from that slightly. That final shocking moment seems unnecessary and could have perhaps been presented in a manner more in line with the rest of the short.

Review: Lou

A neat little lesson for children about bullying with the usual Pixar polish

Disney-Pixar has a long history of showing short animated films immediately before one of their major releases and Lou is no different. It was released in June 2017 alongside Cars 3 and follows the guardian of a children’s playground.

Lou, who gets his name from a ‘Lost and Found’ box with the missing letters L, O, and U, is an anthropomorphised collection of random toys and clothing children have forgotten on the playground. When the bell rings and the kids go back inside, he collects everything left behind to return later. One playtime Lou spots a bully taking away the toys from others. With each stolen toy he gets angrier and angrier until he decides to give the bully a taste of his own medicine.

As is the case with all Pixar films, the level of quality and polish is second to none, a neat lesson for children about bullying without being overt. That said, in comparison to shorts that have won the Best Animated Short category in the past for Pixar, such as Geri’s Game or For The Birds, Lou is a tier below. While enjoyable, it lacks that same innovation, that something special that separates the good from the great.

Review: Dear Basketball

Kobe Bryant’s farewell letter to basketball brought to life

On November 29th, 2015 Kobe Bryant wrote a letter for the Player’s Tribune, a media platform for professional sportsmen. It detailed his love for basketball, a love which brought him five NBA Championships and 18 NBA All-Star appearances.

Narrating the film himself, Bryant talks about his upbringing, his determination, and his challenges. About how his work ethic made him become the legendary player we admire today. Accompanying these powerful words is an awe-inspiring animation painstakingly drawn frame by frame with a pencil and then filmed in sequence. Glen Keane, a 2013 Disney Legend, directs the short and is joined by fellow cinema great John Williams who composes a subtle yet powerful score.

The short ends with Bryant saying how, although his heart and mind could play until the day he dies, his body cannot take any more, and this season will be his last. In his final game, against the Utah Jazz, he scored a season-high 60 points. A special end to a special career.

Perhaps the only disappointing aspect of this film is its length, only 5 minutes 21 seconds. Three greats of their respective fields came together to make something beautiful, with such purity and heartfelt sincereness that when the credits appeared I wished for more.

Review: The Post

“Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to “leak” into the public. Are we living in Nazi Germany” — Donald Trump, 2017

“Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to “leak” into the public. Are we living in Nazi Germany” — Donald Trump, 2017

Steven Spielberg’s latest directorial drama utilises a trope that until now has been absent from his films: relevance to current affairs. In an interview with The Guardian Spielberg recognised that fact, stating ‘the urgency to make The Post was because of Trump’s administration’, and there is no difficulty in drawing parallels between the two. However, just like the crack team of reports at The Washington Post who rushed to get the story out, this film feels equally rushed.

Liz Hannah’s original script, featured on 2016’s Blacklist, was completely rewritten in two and half months by Spotlight’s Josh Singer and suffered because of it. The opening act changes dramatically with several long and ultimately meaningless expositional scenes added, including the much-loathed flashback and flash forward. Peppered throughout the film are several bizarre scenes filmed in a ‘Peeping Tom’ manner through the window of the Oval Office.

The scenes, another addition of Singer, show the back of an ever-incensed Nixon’s head with synced up audio recorded at the time with the supposed reasoning being to give additional context to the audience. Yet they also serve no narrative purpose. In fact, it feels suspiciously like these scenes were added purely to provoke comparisons to Trump, and if so it certainly worked.

The Post’s narrative surrounds the Pentagon Papers, thousands of pages of reports detailing how the United States systematically lied about Vietnam War, including crucially that they knew from the beginning that the war was never going to be won. 58 thousand United States soldiers died for a lost cause and one government employee, Daniel Ellsberg, spent months photocopying the entire thing.

He initially approaches the New York Times who publish stories about the materials provoking public outrage. Quickly though the Nixon administration gets an injunction to stem the flow of these ugly truths, in a move that sees protests in the streets. Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), the incumbent editor of The Washington Post, manages to procure the Pentagon Papers and must decide, alongside publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep), whether to break the law and print more stories to defend a free press.

Meryl Streep’s performance as Graham was noticeably poor, although perhaps the breakneck speed of the filmmaking process allowed her little time to explore the nuances of who she was to become. Her character faces multiple moral dilemmas and adversity in the form of sexism from her all-male peers but Streep traverses these potentially powerful moments with a lightness of footing generally attributed to bull in a shop selling fine china. That didn’t stop the Academy from nominating her performance for an Acting Oscar for the 21st time, a feat unrivaled in the history of the awards.

In order to make The Post Spielberg left post-production of the upcoming Ready Player One, which happened previously during the production of Jurassic Park and Schindler’s List. Within eight months the script was rewritten, cast, filmed, edited and mixed. As a result, this is his weakest film since 1989’s Always. The timeless quality his films usually possess is missing here, and it is no coincidence that this corresponds to his first attempt at contemporary political commentary.

Review: Black Panther

Director Ryan Coogler creates a dazzling superhero movie with a deep revolutionary and racial debate

It was always going to be a risk from Marvel to produce a film surrounding a minor superhero and with an almost entirely black cast, but it is one that certainly pays off. Not only does Black Panther boldly stand shoulder to shoulder with the other films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, it feels distinct enough from those previous that it can serve as a stand-alone film.

When T’Chaka is killed in a terrorist attack, his son T’Challa inherits the throne. His nation of Wakanda is hyper-advanced by fortune of a mineral-rich meteorite hitting their land thousands of years prior. To protect themselves from the outside world they don the disguise of an impoverished third-world country. When a rebellious Wakandan tries to take the throne and through it take revenge for an age of discrimination against his race, T’Challa must risk his life to defend peace.

Whilst T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is the titular character in the film, he is surrounded by strong female characters. The key difference between the women here and in other Hollywood blockbusters though is the importance they have in the story. Lupita Nyongo’o plays the King’s most trusted spy, Letitia Wright his wickedly intelligent sister and, in arguably the best performance of them all, Danai Gurira takes on the role of Okoye, the warrior general. All three influence the direction of the plot and it was refreshing to see female leads who were well-written and not just used as flimsy love interests.

That same high quality of performance was shared amongst almost all of the cast with one major exception, Michael B. Jordan’s villain Erik. The character had a rich backstory yet, as is often the case with Marvel villains, he felt one-note and unexplored. Jordan’s character had a tough upbringing in a poor American community before entering the army and getting the nickname ‘Kilmonger’, the sheer amount of detail glossed over could have easily become a film in its own right. Nevertheless, even with this scripting disadvantage, he squeezed every drop of life from his lines to be one of the best villains yet.

Black Panther is immediately striking in its unique aesthetic. Bold and colourful, it is unlike anything we have seen in the Marvel Universe before. In the Kingdom of Wakanda, for example, there is a dazzling mesh between traditional African and contemporary culture, a style contained within Afrofuturism. With roots in the 20th century in artists such as Sun Ra, Afrofuturism lays at the heart of the artistic vision for the film. It runs deeper than just clothing and architecture though, a critique of the African and African-American experience, one that is revisited multiple times throughout the film.

Accompanying the visual delight is a soundtrack featuring that same traditional-contemporary collaboration. Hip-hop visionary Kendrick Lemar creates and curates a collection of emotionally and politically charged tracks with artists such as SZA, Schoolboy Q, and Future. Ludwig Göransson, best known for working with Donald Glover on his Childish Gambino albums, composes a complementary score containing a vast array of unorthodox sounds. In fact, Göransson spent a month in Africa to ensure he could weave these authentic African elements in a way that wasn’t intrusive. Bringing all this together and you have one of the most innovative soundtracks ever seen in mainstream cinema.

In the end, despite the new representations and artistic style, Black Panther cannot escape what it truly is, a Marvel film. Therefore it must adhere to the formula, with a CGI packed climax where our hero overcomes the villain. Thor: Ragnarok and this shows that the creative reigns are loosening but the series needs to evolve to remain dominant after Infinity War. You can dress a man in different clothes but at the end of the day, he’s still the same man. Maybe the time has come for Marvel to cast someone else.

Review: Loveless

Zvyagintsev uses a crumbling marriage as a metaphor for the country as a whole

On the surface, Andrey Zvyagintsev’s Loveless depicts the heart-wrenching disappearance of a divorcing couple’s son and their subsequent, fruitless search. As the film delves deeper however it reveals a much broader social commentary, about how the ever-increasing desire for social status and instant gratification paralyses the population and restricts them from ever achieving long-term happiness.

When 12-year-old Alexey finishes school he doesn’t run off with the other children, nor does he go straight home, instead he goes to the park and wanders around aimlessly. He is an only, lonely child, whose parents Zhenya and Boris venomously row seemingly every time they are confined to the same room. To escape the bleak and harsh environment of his family he must roam the bleak and harsh Moscow parks and abandoned buildings.

One night, when his parents think he is asleep they have a particularly vitriolic dispute, with both sides voicing their utter contempt for each other, yet both in agreement that their son Alexey is holding them back from moving on fully. Zhenya storms off to use the bathroom but as she leaves the camera lingers. The door swings open, and we track to the left with it to reveal Alexey, who horrifically heard every word. His facial expression remains in the viewer’s mind throughout the rest of the film.

Not long after, we see Alexey leave the house, run down the apartment buildings steps and into the park. His parents, so caught up in trying to live new lives with their lovers, being as presumptuous as to believe the other will take care of their child, don’t notice his disappearance for two days. Even then Boris treats it as a nuisance; he has no time to care about this, his mind busy elsewhere.

For instance, how can he divorce Zhenya and remarry his impregnated lover quickly enough that his incredibly conservative boss doesn’t notice anything is awry, for being a decent family man is one of the qualifications needed for his company. Zhenya, on the other hand, is too busy pampering herself to please her new, older, richer lover. Both spend the night having passionate sex, ignorant of the fact that their son is gone.

Cinematographer Mikhail Krichman, who has worked on all Zvyagintsev’s films, uses a wide lens to juxtapose the worn Russian landscape with the emotionless faces of the characters. There is a deep coldness to this style. The characters, although right in front of your eyes, feel miles away. The impact of this is emphasised by the lack of colour throughout the film, the Moscow landscapes are washed out, any positive emotions long gone. Primary colours exist in just two forms in Loveless; the social media of the Muscovites’ smartphones and the red jackets of the volunteer search and rescue team as they comb the park in a line, looking for a body.

Later in the film Zhenya and Boris, who eventually drop everything to try and find Alexey, get a call. A body of a young boy has been found matching their son, and they are to discern whether it is him. This scene is as devastating as the bathroom scene. When the body bag is unzipped Zhenya screams and Boris collapses in tears, the boy is not theirs, but the fact that it could have been is too much to handle. For just a moment there is genuine love between them.

Throughout the search for Alexey, the camera moves away from the face of the characters, to peer out of a frosted window as the scene unfolds, reminiscent of Taxi Driver when Robert de Niro’s character makes a difficult phone call and the camera tracks to look down the corridor instead.

In both cases, the movement functions as an escape from the anguish present in the original frame. Zhenya and Boris put up barriers to protect them from their loss and suffering in an attempt to find new happiness with their lovers, but like the buildings in Moscow those walls decay and fall down. They can jump from lover to lover but they will never escape the past, their pain will always catch them.

Review: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

After watching Martin McDonagh’s latest film, you are sure of one thing: You have just witnessed a masterpiece

Frances McDormand incarnates Mildred Hayes, rightfully vengeful but so much more than that, as she takes it upon herself to get to the bottom of her teenage daughter Angela’s unresolved rape and murder. By renting three rusty billboards on a generally empty roadside, which bluntly and plainly address Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) as to why seven months on, there are still no arrests and seemingly a decreasing interest in the case altogether.

Mildred is a powerful, quick-witted, no-bullshit woman who is past the point of weighing up the consequences of her actions. The grief has turned into anger, and to even begin to accept the death of her Angela, she needs to hang on to the search for answers, for results.

Chief Willoughby and his protégé Officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell, who brings one of the most layered performances to the film) pay a visit to the advertising company responsible for renting out these incendiary billboards in the first place. Enter the not-so-innocent Red (Caleb Landry Jones), who is smart enough to use the rulebook of capitalism against the police’s urges and threats to take the billboards down.

Although our first instinct is to muster up as much anger towards Willoughby as we can, there are a few things that cut that feeling at the root. For one, it is quite easy to see that Mildred is merely focussing her unsurmountable grief at the only people she can for now, who by not even making arrests, are not doing what they are being paid to do. More than that, Mildred and Willoughby actually share a matter-of-fact kind of bravery, in the sense that they can see a situation for what it is and take whatever course of action will suit them best, no matter the consequences.

Lucas Hedges plays Mildred’s son Robbie, and brings a similar presence to the one he brought in Kenneth Lonergan’s ‘Manchester by the Sea’. He deals with the broken pieces of his family and the backlash of his mother’s billboards with a of mixture of sarcasm, indifference, and anger (not necessarily in that order).

Martin McDonagh’s writing allows the characters to develop and act naturally, rolling with their impulses, never painting them as people to root for or hate, but framing each person’s reactions in their context. Dixon’s character development is by far the most emotionally challenging, starting of with all the elements of your stereotypical deep-south cop who thanks to his gun and badge deals out the law in his own way, to whomever displeases him, accentuated by a seemingly constant state of being ever so slightly drunk.

A stroke of genius occurs here, however, as the turn of events brings out the parts of Dixon only Willoughby saw in him, and it is truly through Dixon that McDonagh showcases his understanding of the necessary layers that make up a human being, and to what extent our personal grievances and hurt can interfere with our lives and actions.

The film is brilliant in its resistance to a classical Hollywood wrap up of the narrative, and pervades the reality and cruel randomness of life. People are always more than what they let you see, grief is never rational, and as Dixon put it himself, “It’s not so much about hope, but about getting better at English. Because you need English to be a cop. Or to be anything, really”.