Review: Lou

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

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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: 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: Daddy’s Home 2

I swear John Cena was supposed to be in this film somewhere?

2015’s Daddy’s Home felt like a cut-and-paste job from director Sean Anders. He most likely watched The Other Guys (2010), saw the chemistry between Mark Wahlberg and Will Ferrell, and thought he could do the same. So thats what he did. The exact same.

It was a functioning comedy that got enough laughs to not be totally written off — the $250 million box office return agrees with that — but Anders milked the basic concept of having an alpha and a beta male try to work together until long after the teat ran dry.

In Daddy’s Home 2, Anders did what any comedy writer with few ideas and grand aspirations would do; add even more exagerrated A-List characters in the hopes that lightening will strike the same spot twice. Like so many bad comedy films, the sequel is worse and this is no different.

After a school show where one of the children says how she doesn’t like Christmas because she can’t spend it with everyone she loves, the co-dads decide to have a big Christmas altogether. Both Brad (Will Ferrell) and Dusty’s (Mark Wahlberg) fathers are coming too. As luck would have it they will be arriving on the same day, at the same airport, at the same terminal, at the same time, and will walk down the escalator just long enough apart to have a proper introduction of one before the other. How about that!

The first to appear is Kurt, Dusty’s ladies man of a father, played by Mel Gibson. In every scene his character appears, Gibson creates a humour vacuum. It was as if every word he spoke was a drop of vitriol onto my eyes, an uncontrollably painful experience that you desperately want to end. One of the first lines for Kurt when he sees his grandchildren is a joke about dead hookers, and it doesn’t get better from there.

Brad’s father Jonah was, however, played by an ever-charasmatic John Lithgow. Even softer than Brad, he has some genuinely heartfelt scenes throughout the film, but each one is ruined by limp jokes. It briefly touches on loneliness after a long-term marriage ends, but Anders doesn’t have the ‘cahones’ to explore these ideas in any depth, which was mightily disappointing.

The biggest aspect of the film I took issue with was Mel Gibson’s character, and in particular his lines. Now I am a firm believer of separating the art from the artist. I believe that we should be able to enjoy a film for what it is and not shun it because of the actions of one out of the hundreds of people working on it. Yet Mel Gibson’s character makes a joke about violence against women and that left a sour taste in my mouth.

Previously Gibson has been in the spotlight for anti-Semitic and racist comments as well as confessing to beating his girlfriend while she was holding their baby daughter. As a result of this many people refuse to see Gibson’s films and I respect their right to do that, but it is unsurprising that he still gets cast in blockbuster movies. To watch as he jokes about the very things he did, things he still shows no remorse for, is disgusting.

The final scene sparked anger in me too, however nowhere near that same level. Both halves of the family naturally break apart and then unwittingly meet back up at a cinema on Christmas. There is an acapella group on a little stage that Brad interrupts to make a grand speech about how cinemas are the place to go with people you love and to meet new people, to rekindle his families relationships.

The speech seems to win over everyone in the lobby, making them forget about the fact not two minutes before they watched an incestuous kiss as one of the children kisses another. It wins over the cinema staff too who start handing out free chocolate and drinks. I thought I’d seen a lot of unrealistic moments in film but this really takes the cake.

Review: Murder on the Orient Express

‘My name is Hercule Poirot and I am probably the greatest detective in the world.’

‘My name is Hercule Poirot and I am probably the greatest detective in the world.’

Kenneth Branagh channels that same self confidence as he acts in and directs this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s iconic novel. Branagh aims for a pensive, if camp, take on Poirot but he falls short of that and instead it feels like watching a live-action game of Cluedo, as if another Jumanji film wasn’t enough.

This isn’t the first adventure on the Orient Express to hit out screens and it isn’t even the most star studded. Sidney Lumet directed the 1974 version featuring the likes of Albert Finney as Poirot, Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Sean Connery and Jacqueline Bisset.

Comparisons are inevitable and the difference between the two is night and day. Lumet’s got nominated for six Oscars with Bergman taking home Best Supporting Actress and I cannot foresee any category in which Branagh will get a nomination.

It is Jerusalem where the film begins in a truly bizarre opening. We get an aerial shot of some Jewish men approaching the Wailing Wall when suddenly a small child runs past and the chase is seemingly on. He is carrying something in his hands although it is obscured by a cloth.

When he reaches his destination he reveals four eggs and offers them to a shadowy figure but they are refused, so the child runs away and gets more. The shadowy figure is revealed to be Poirot who wants the perfect boiled eggs for his breakfast but the declines them once more when they aren’t to his taste.

The whole purpose of this seems to be for an anecdote a few minutes later. The Jewish, Christian and Muslim citizens of Jerusalem are up in arms about a stolen religious artefact with a Rabbi, a Priest and an Iman as the suspect.

Poirot lines the three up against the wall as an angry mob forms around them, then makes a quip about how he shares their frustration as he couldnt get the perfect boiled eggs for his breakfast, and then another about how similar the situation is to the old jokes. I’m not sure which demographic these jokes were aimed at but they felt off compared to the rest of the humour.

Poirot quickly dispatches the mystery and decides to take some well earned R&R, but unsurprisingly it doesn’t last long and he is summoned to London for another case, travelling on the renowned Orient Express to get there. In the scenes leading up to the train leaving the station Branagh introduces every character in quick fire fashion, with no time to get a good look at one before the next appears on the screen.

The desire is clearly to do all character development on the train, especially after the murder happens but it would perhaps have been better to only show a selection of passengers as they board and continue the introductions on the journey.

Branagh attempts to juxtapose the claustrophobia of the train with the landscape around it by sprinkling aerial views on the snowy mountains the train passes through but the CGI work looks incredibly fake. The train’s initial departure point, Istanbul, is similarly painted with CGI and there are a lot of parallels in design to 2016’s Assassin’s Creed.

I want to be engrossed in the world he is trying to create but when the inside of the train is meticulously detailed and in high definition and the outside looks like The Polar Express I can’t help becoming detached.

The main downfall is that the intrigue and mystery about the murder on the train relies solely on the twist at the end. If you have read the book or are otherwise aware of how it ends then the glossy finish won’t mask the lack of depth, however if you were, as I, unaware of the story you’ll find enough here to entertain you for two hours.

Branagh’s vanity project suffers from just that, vanity, by trying too hard to make every moment meaningful. His intent being to proclaim as the credits roll ‘My name is Kenneth Branagh and I am probably the greatest writer and director in the world’.

Review: Blade Runner 2049

2017 seems to be the year in which Harrison Ford finally cares about his acting performances again

Throughout his directing career, Denis Villeneuve has proved that regardless of budget or genre, he can create a great piece of cinema. Blade Runner 2049 is Villeneuve’s second foray into existential science fiction, a sequel to Ridley Scott’s timeless 1982 classic, and it is truly staggering in scale.

There is a distinct step away from the original in terms of style but he continues to build upon both the world and themes that Scott developed. Similarities can be seen between the two, for instance both involve an unfathomably powerful corporation who manufacture replicants; androids who are superior to humans in almost every way, except for their lack of empathetic abilities.

In 2049, the original corporation has been bought out by another, helmed by an extraordinary looking but ironically blind Jared Leto. In preparation for the role he partially blinded himself and because of that he won’t be disappointed at how few scenes in which he appears. His intentions are sinister however most of the work beyond brooding is done by his assistant Luv (Sylvia Hoeks).

The plot centres around Ryan Gosling’s K, a replicant Blade Runner tasked, like Harrison Ford before him, to hunt down other replicants living illegally. After each ‘retiring’ of a replicant, K must endure the Voight-Kampff test, a bizarre psychological assessment to determine if his human to android balance is still correct after a traumatic experience. The sterile, emotionless nature of his employment is a product of the bleak, dystopian world he lives in. At home he is greeted by his girlfriend Joi, played by Ana De Armas, who is sumptuously attractive, albeit holographically.

A sad product of technological advancement, the waifu of today’s culture has long since been replaced by an A.I girlfriend so complex that it makes that of Spike Jonze’s Her look cheap and tacky. The main downside to a holographic significant other is the impossibility of physical intimacy. To overcome this, Joi arranges for a prostitute to come to the minuscule flat they both live and, in perhaps the strangest thing I have ever seen, have sex with K whilst she layers her holographic body over that of the prostitute, their two separate bodies flickering over one another. Even in love he can’t find a human touch.

This idea of humanity is explored throughout the film, most poignantly so towards the end. K pauses outside a building and extends his arm, snowflakes gently land upon it before quickly melting. Inside that building is a female character (Carla Juri), whose compromised immune system traps her in a large, sterile bubble where she is forced to invent her own reality. We watch as she too extends her arm, holographic snowflakes gently landing upon it before glitching out of existence. Both feel empty in their inability to experience life in its purest form.

Roger Deakins, regarded by many as the pre-eminent cinematographer of our time, nominee of thirteen Academy Awards, winner of none, will undoubtedly receive his fourteenth for his incredible work here. Few would deny his work should have earned him at least one golden statuette and this I feel, although I hesitate to make such bold predictions, should be his year. The 2049 version of Los Angeles was horrifically miserable, truly deserving of the dystopian name and when K travels to Las Vegas, he encounters a world so different yet somehow still dystopian.

That wretched, angular world which Deakins created is complemented beautifully by Hans Zimmer’s score, although beautiful is not an attribute you would easily assign. It’s harsh, disjointed and unmelodic, and unless you sat through to the end credits there would be no indication that it was indeed composed by Zimmer.

Next on the agenda for Villeneuve is Frank Herbert’s science fiction epic Dune. There have been several attempts of a big screen adaptation and all have failed. David Lynch’s version was deemed sacrilege to fans, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s version, had it received funding, would have certainly changed cinema forever, with Pink Floyd, Salvador Dali, Orson Welles, Mick Jagger and many more attached.

The seed of that film, denied the water to sprout, was so significant as simply a seed that it influenced fantasy films of the future like Ridley Scott’s Alien. Interestingly, Ridley Scott was attached to Dune for seven months before the death of his brother Frank made it too tough to continue. Now, just as he took over the reigns on Blade Runner, Villeneuve will take over the reigns on Dune, and I for one am sure we are in very capable hands.