Monday, 16 October 2017

Film Review: Blade Runner 2049 is as visually stunning as it is unbearably dull

The original Blade Runner, released way back in 1982, does very little for me. Beyond some nice cinematography and a few grown up sci-fi themes, I struggle to find much to enjoy in the film. Its slow pace and dreary dialogue threatened to put me to sleep, and I also must confess to really not finding the story all that interesting either. Because of this, I approached the sequel, Blade Runner 2049, with apprehension, even though director Denis Villeneuve is one of my favourites working today - Incendies and Prisoners were both terrific, while his last two efforts Sicario and Arrival were flat out masterpieces.

So it's safe to say my excitement for 2049 has been up and down like a yo-yo in the weeks leading up to its release, and it turns out I was right not to let my Villeneuve-based hype get the better of me. This is less a Villeneuve film than a Blade Runner film, which is to say it's undeniably well made, but dull beyond human comprehension. Clocking in at an unbearable 2 hours and 45 minutes, the film seems to last a lifetime in just its opening act, it dribbles and splutters through a middle act without ever landing on anything interesting, and it all builds to a finale that feels so separated from the film you've just been watching that you'll question whether the slow pace sent you to sleep and you've woken up to a different story.

Blade Runner 2049 has already fallen deep into that category of film where if you don't like it, the fans will simply tell you that you "didn't get it". I will readily hold my hands up and admit that the core concept of the Blade Runner series just doesn't work for me, its depiction of humanity's future is paradoxically both drained of life yet overbearing in colourful personality, and it's a tone and futuristic vision I simply don't get along with. I really tried to enjoy Blade Runner, and I practically begged myself to fall in love with 2049, but the matter of the fact is that there is simply no need for this film to be so long and so slow. It's been dismissed by fans as capturing the tone of the original, which is an admirable move I'll grant the film's writers, but it makes for an uncomfortable viewing experience in all the wrong ways.

I can handle slow films - 2001: A Space Odyssey, y'know the film with nothing but apes for 15 minutes and spaceships docking for another 10, is one of my all time favourites. I don't need compelling story to love a film - Boyhood, y'know the film with literally no story whatsoever, is my idea of cinematic perfection. But because I can't get on board with 2049's concept, no part of me has any desire or hope for the dreadfully slow first half to ever morph into something I'll wind up enjoying. This is a film experience dependant on a multitude of elements per viewer, and unfortunately they don't stack up very nicely for me.

That said, 2049 is breathtaking to look at. Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins add layers to this dystopia that aren't in the script, the frame bursts with beautiful colour schemes and awe inspiring framing work. It combines CGI with practical effects in borderline revolutionary ways, crafting frame after frame and image after image of simply stunning visual design. The film bored me to tears, but at least it's pretty to look at: if Deakins doesn't win that Cinematography Oscar for this, riots are inevitable and I'll be there front and centre. (Armed with a shield to protect me from the aforementioned fans who will probably be telling me I "just really didn't get it").

Ryan Gosling's performance here is solid, and Harrison Ford makes the most of his surprisingly very little screen time. The film's soundtrack is loud and off putting, but deeply effective - aside from the pacing, it could prove to be 2049's most divisive element. This is a film that will work wonders for a lot of people, and I can understand why. As a sequel to Blade Runner this is probably perfect film making, which is great for fans of the 1982 cult classic and I'm happy that, in an era of phoned in, cash grab sequels, Villeneuve has landed something that has pleased fans and critics alike. For those of us who weren't exactly bowled over by Ridley Scott's efforts some 35 years ago though? Well, there's about as little to like here as there was then.

In A Sentence

As painfully overlong as it is staggeringly beautiful, Blade Runner 2049 is an admirably fan pleasing but deeply uneven sequel that sticks to what it knows best and has little intention of trying anything new.

Monday, 9 October 2017

Film Review: Robert Pattinson is Oscar worthy in the relentless, adrenaline fuelled Good Time

If Good Time stayed as intense as its opening act is I don't think I'd have made it to the finish line still breathing. Don't get me wrong, the film, directed by Benny and Josh Safdie, is relentless - but it also demonstrates self control, knowing when to dial back and when to crank it up to eleven. Or, in Good Time's case, thirteen. A deafening soundtrack, Robert Pattinson yelling, frantic camerawork - it doesn't sound like it should add up to much. But after this truly bonkers first act, Good Time locates a narrative and starts to move with it.

Connie Nikas (Pattinson) and his mentally ill brother Nick (Benny Safdie) rob a bank together. Their relationship is hardly healthy, Connie is caring towards Nick but he's also manipulative, Nick is too well intentioned and mentally absent to understand. The escape goes wrong, Nick is arrested and sent to Rikers Island, and so Connie tries to free him. The film all takes place over one afternoon/night, not so much unfolding in real time as ploughing through hours like minutes. Good Time is a fast paced film, sometimes arguably too fast, but it's impossible not to get swept up in it all.

The Safdie brothers, who also wrote the script, retain pitch perfect control over the tone of their film. Good Time flirts with a neon aesthetic, but wisely never fully embraces it - it doesn't have the vibrant story to match. The film doesn't shy away from showing a bit of blood, but never gives in to gratuitous violence or brutality either. Benny and Josh Safdie essentially use their first act to lay out all sorts of levels the rest of the film will follow - violence levels, intensity levels, pacing, the volume of the soundtrack. It might sound bizarre, but Good Time is so full on that this first act helps you grow accustomed to what will follow. Few films are as relentlessly hectic but remarkably controlled as this one.

At the centre of it all is Pattinson, who gives the best performance by an actor I've seen all year (bested only by the actress Kristen Stewart, his former Twilight co-star, in Personal Shopper). A film like Good Time doesn't leave much room for acting yet Pattinson still delivers a full performance, adding layers to the character that aren't visible in the film's script. Pattinson is essentially acting in the face of a hurricane here, and he sells the character's chaotic mentality brilliantly. There's a constant worry on his face, a persistent exhaustion in his body language, and yet he keeps Connie going.

What makes matters even more interesting is the way the film depicts Connie as a character. He's introduced to us forcibly removing his brother from a therapy session, and rarely after that does anything done by him help any one else out. Connie is shown as a selfish individual who manipulates and mistreats not only his brother but also friends and others, too. He relies on the kindness of strangers but never gives them anything back, yet the film needs us to root for him because what he's doing involves his brother. Even when he risks slipping into antagonistic territory, Pattinson somehow keeps Connie a worthy protagonist and someone we want to follow. If I could have it my way, he'd be taking him an Oscar trophy in February.

The Safdie brothers make good use of their 101 minute runtime, leaving space to establish and develop supporting characters even in the blur of chaos that is Good Time. Taliah Webster is a scene stealer as Crystal, a helpful teenager who bites off more than she can chew with Connie. Buddy Duress is a blast as a character far too spoilery too discuss in any real detail, but he brings a handful of the film's funniest moments. Good Time explores both of these characters too, it gives them histories and ideas and motives. Connie may be a selfish character, but the film itself is far from it.

Good Time probably isn't for everyone. Mainstream audiences probably wouldn't put up with its loud soundtrack and chaotic energy, but those willing to endure an assault on the senses will be rewarded with something pretty great indeed. Pattinson is the real star of the show, but Good Time has peaked my interest in the Safdie brothers - I can comfortably say I'll be checking out more of their work in the future. Perhaps this film's ending is a tad abrupt, but it soon moves on to a scene that plays through the credits and finds a real heart to put everything you've just seen in context. It seems like Good Time places the calm after the storm rather than before it, and this might just be the best decision it makes.

In A Sentence

Turning a simple premise into a thrilling experience, Good Time is a brilliantly chaotic slice of cinema with a career defining performance from Robert Pattinson.

Monday, 18 September 2017

Film Review: Nothing can prepare you for Darren Aronofksy's delirious mother!

Writing about about Darren Aronofksy's mother! after just one viewing is akin to trying to solve a crossword without any clues. This is a film so loaded with metaphor and allegory that its narrative scarcely makes sense without an understanding of the symbolism running through it. Further still, it's borderline impossible to translate mother!'s metaphorical work into a concrete interpretation on just one viewing. Oh no, you'll be too busy picking your jaw back up off the floor come the end of the film's utterly insane final act to even give any thought to whatever it is you've just seen.

mother! is very much not the film its trailers promoted, and while this will likely damage its box office results - and is the probable cause for its notable "F" CinemaScore grade - I can't help but marvel at how this film defies expectation. Aronofksy has crafted a story so utterly unique that I won't damage any of it by discussing plot details here, trust me when I say you don't want any of this spoiled for you. mother! is a lot to take in, and part of me is still questioning why I'm writing this review so shortly after I saw the film, but it's simultaneously the kind of cinema experience that gets your brain running at such speeds that the words just come flooding out - whether they make sense or not is another matter entirely.

I'll probably still be debating myself as to how much I like this film in a year's time, so I'll begin with the one thing I am confident about: Jennifer Lawrence is mindblowingly good here. The way she softens her voice in the film's first act to contrast her insanity in the finale is a mesmerising display in control. Lawrence demonstrates breathtaking range across mother! and, come the final act, you'll be questioning how on Earth she got herself into the right headspace to perform a handful of scenes. One grim, almost sickening sequence in particular would be a train wreck without Lawrence's committed performance, in mother!'s most vile and disturbing moments she never loses her grasp on this character. It's another sensational piece of acting from one of Hollywood's very best.

I guess I can also say that I appreciate how well crafted Aronofsky's film is. From its haunting production work to its eerie, atmosphere defining sound design, mother! forms both a visual and audio aesthetic that feels entirely unique. The film is gripping from its first frame right through to its last, even if you don't understand what you're watching or don't agree that what you're seeing should ever be shown on a cinema screen (there are a couple of moments like this, for sure) you'll find it hard to look away. mother! is so relentlessly tense that I'm fairly confident I didn't move in my seat once across its two hour runtime. 

And yet, there's something about mother! that holds it back. I can't quite figure it out yet, but amid the terrific performances and superb direction lies a film burdened with ambiguity and drama that doesn't quite feel earned. I want to love this film unequivocally, in fact I'm still jumping for joy that a film this original and boundary-pushing was even released by a major studio, but I feel as if I can't. Perhaps I need to bite the bullet and revisit mother! as soon as possible, attempt to dive further into the film's heavy biblical allegory and deeply personal metaphors to try and decipher what it is that Aronofksy is attempting to achieve here. Or maybe I don't.

When I left the cinema at the end of the film, I felt physically shaken, as if I'd been through a traumatic personal experience. mother!'s film making craft is impressive enough to induce you into feeling this way even when you don't understand what you've just seen. But, by the time I was half way home, I realised I wasn't really looking forward to reading into the film. I'm always up for a challenging narrative, I could spend hours reading theories of films that push their audiences to translate their ideas. mother!, though, combines the enigmatic with the disturbing to such an extent that reading further into the film doesn't seem like an exciting, interesting task. In mother!, I wanted to discover a film I could explore endlessly, but I think I've settled on wanting to just move on and let its questions remain unanswered. I wouldn't go as far as saying that mother! offended me, but I have no intention of understanding the film's deeper meaning.

I appreciate mother! a lot, but I don't think I actively like it yet. I'm not even sure I ever will. The film's utterly bonkers final act is almost revelational in its bravery, and Aronofsky's building of chaos is masterful, but mother! loses its way as it descends into the extreme, landing on a final sequence that feels so engineered that it borders on pretention. I'm glad it exists, and I'll forever understand those who have fallen completely in love with it, but mother! doesn't quite stick the landing for this humble reviewer. And that's a real shame, because I had it pegged for a top ten slot in my year end list. Darren Aronofsky, thank you for making something so unique, I'm just sorry it didn't work for me.

In A Sentence

Led by Jennifer Lawrence's commanding performance, the bold, boundary pushing mother! is an exercise in chaotic film making that doesn't stick the disturbing landing.