Film in 500: Mary and the Witch’s Flower Review

Certificate: U
Directors: Hiromasa Yonebayashi, Giles New
Production: Studio Ponoc
Distributor: Altitude Film Entertainment
Platform: Viewed on TV with English Dub, and on Blu-ray with Japanese Audio
Release Date: Out Now


Such a delight of a film. Whilst straightforward in terms of plot, Mary and the Witch’s Flower shines by telling that story of magic and adventure with distinct personality and endearing characters. Adapted from the novel The Little Broomstick by Mary Stewart, it follows Mary Smith (Hana Sugisaki/Ruby Barnhill), a young, energetic, and clumsy girl living in the English countryside with her Great-Aunt Charlotte (Shinobu Ôtake/Lynda Baron) and Miss Banks (Eri Watanabe/Morwenna Banks). Mary clearly yearns for excitement, searching for ways she can contribute to activities of adults around her – with an adorable range of success.

Mary finds that excitement when she follows two cats, Tib (Ikue Ôtani) and Gib (Lynn) into the woods, discovering a glowing, mysterious plant – the Witch’s Flower itself! In picking a bunch, she sets off a chain of events; the flower grants temporary magical power, allowing Mary to reinvigorate a broomstick that, ahem, sweeps her skywards to Endor College. This magical school combines the captivating appeal of Harry Potter with the otherworldly essence of Spirited Away – Mary, caught up in the rhythm, makes questionable choices and initially doesn’t realise the underhand goings-on. Consequences drive Mary to amend the situation and help those compromised by it, such as similarly-aged Peter (Ryûnosuke Kamiki/Louis Ashborne Serkis).

Two extravagant major figures at Endor College are Madam Mumblechook (Yûki Amami/Kate Winslet) and Doctor Dee (Fumiya Kohinata/Jim Broadbent) – each is a charismatic and formidable presence. As aforementioned, the narrative is quite linear in terms of obstacles encountered and solved. Though, I found this worked well. As there aren’t many side characters, screen time is centred on those we’re most invested in; it felt as though Mary was in almost every frame! It builds a strong connection, where I was rooting for her, her family, and her friends to make it. A plot doesn’t always have to be extremely layered for a film to be compelling.

Furthermore, art and music direction is stunning. The founder of Studio Ponoc is the former Studio Ghibli lead film producer Yoshiaki Nishimura, and carry-over is keenly felt, with a different edge of contrasting clarity. Use of painterly backgrounds with more clearly defined animation on top creates effective immersion – a duality emphasising emphasises the merging of Japanese style and English setting.

In a similar vein, the music has welcoming charm, subtle yet striking – there is the air of referencing tradition and also striving for the new. Whilst mentioning audio, I must bring up the fantastic, expressive Japanese and English voice casts. I shall reiterate that Mary is the star here, with a fiery, determined approach to tackling hardships and accepting change.


Final Thoughts

So much charm is in Mary and the Witch’s Flower. The plot may not be the most complex you will ever watch, yet the spellbinding setting and likeable characters produce an adventurous spirit, compounded by joyful creativity of sight and sound. A certain marvel is in a wondrous story well told; it’s hard to ask for more when you’re having this much fun.

8.5/10

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

Film in 500: Tenet Review

Certificate: 12A
Writer/Director: Christopher Nolan
Production: Warner Bros., Syncopy
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Platform: Reviewing after watching at the cinema
Release Date: Out Now


“Don’t try to understand it,” says Barbara (Clémence Poésy), “Feel it,” she tells The Protagonist (John David Washington) – yes, that’s his name – early in Tenet, and it’s as though she’s speaking to us too. It’s a description of the time-altering properties core to the film, granting the possibility of moving backwards in time. Not quite time-travel, more reversing your temporal movement. Confused yet?

Tenet is the latest from the acclaimed director Christopher Nolan, known for subverting dimensions; particularly time, for example in Interstellar and Dunkirk. It feels as though Tenet is an evolution of that, running with the central idea to smart, layered, and occasionally over-complicated effect.

Set in nondescript modern times, Tenet opens with the rigorous infiltration of a musical performance, vividly reminding me of the opening to The Dark Knight. It kicks the film off with grounded yet heightened energy; after this excursion, The Protagonist is told of “inverted” objects making their way back from the future, and their potentially world-ending implications. What follows is James Bond-esque, world-trotting to discover and infiltrate new locations and individuals.

In the lead role, John David Washington is superb, portraying efficient proficiency – viscerally put across with an early kitchen fight – and a knowing inexperience of the luxurious, questionable lives he encounters. The Protagonist is earnestly likeable, an important quality given how character insights take a back seat to plot-focused dialogue. Take teammate-becomes-friend Ives (Robert Pattinson); I would’ve welcomed more development of their dynamic.

On the other hand, standout throughout is Kat (Elizabeth Debicki), wife of unsettling main antagonist Andrei Sator (Kenneth Branagh). She’s an in for The Protagonist, however the blackmail-fueled control Sator has over her calls priorities of multiple characters into question. In among talk of apocalypse, this emotional edge adds humanity to Tenet.

Meanwhile, the presence of inverted time signifies escalating stakes. It’s an unorthodox cinematic device – imagine certain aspects in reverse: unknown marks in a room could be from actions yet to happen; or a bullet seemingly levitating into a hand may actually be dropped the other way. Whilst Tenet infrequently overshadows itself with intricacies, it also rewards focusing on details.

Action scenes are staggering, mostly practical effects with post-production inversion. Clashing temporal directions bring new meaning to the physics of corridor fights, car chases; Tenet doesn’t hold back – the set pieces consecutively raise the bar of implementing inversion, put on-screen in polished style.

Brilliantly emphasising the experience is the score, a delicately intense mix of staggered notes playing into the time motif. It’s very reminiscent of the gradual audio build-up of Dunkirk, with added contemporary vibes comparable to Inception, to name one.


Final Thoughts

Tenet is a rough diamond; the central conceit is basis for spectacular flashpoints, yet by over-explaining itself the film loses opportunity to inform character development. The innovative filmmaking is an impressive showcase for how to surprise within a medium and genre. When Tenet focuses on the intricate and strikingly-structured story it has to offer, it’s a thriller quite different to any other.

8.5/10

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

Film in 500: Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms Review

Certificate: 15
Director: Mari Okada
Production: P.A Works
Distributor: All the Anime
Platform: Reviewing the Blu-ray Version
Release Date: Out Now


Around the time I saw A Silent Voice, I also watched Maquia: When the Promised Flower Blooms, another fantastic anime film which impresses with style and substance. So, as I did my first 500 word review on the former, I’m following up with one for Maquia!

The film opens with smart, snappily-paced world-building; in this fantastical reality, Iolph is home to the Iorph, a long-living species that maintain youthful appearances over their centuries of existence. They’re skilled weavers of Hibiol, a precious material with an abstract quality of documenting time. Sadly, there are those after these traits for their own means; invaders from Mezarte break into this wondrous locale and forcefully take Leilia (Ai Kayano). In the chaos, the young Iorph Maquia (Manaka Iwami) is unwittingly separated from the others as she evades capture.

In an unfamiliar locale, Maquia discovers a child stranded in the arms of his deceased mother. With determined spirit, she takes it upon herself to be a maternal figure for this child, named Ariel (Miyu Irino – who voices Shôya in A Silent Voice, how’s that for a coincidence?!). The following years are relatively peaceful; they’re taken in by a farmer family, providing Maquia with further human support. It’s an endearing section of the film, where we gain empathy for these characters before emotional friction arises as Maquia grows up at a visibly different pace to those around her.

The Iorph warn themselves not to get invested in human relationships, due to how the difference in lifespan shall likely cause heartbreak. For Maquia, the most evident visual change is her hair turning sunset orange/brown (see image above), but for Ariel, he is growing into a young man and dealing with conflicting thoughts about Maquia as a mother and a female; it’s handled delicately, with no scenes being unnecessarily provocative.

Elsewhere, we see how other scattered Iorph are handling themselves, as an ambitious and dramatic plan brews to save Leilia from her imprisonment. The insight into different situations and perspectives adds depth to the family themes, but I’ll that none of these dynamics are as well-developed as that of Maquia and Ariel, and the film suffers for it at points.

Visually, Maquia is very proficient, but I’d say it lacks that final edge of refinement that, say, Your Name has. It just appears a smidgen dated, but still, it’s often beautiful, especially when using the visual motif of weaving. The music is traditionally elegant, with a soft, melodic feel carried throughout.


Final Thoughts

If it isn’t clear yet, the idea of family is central to Maquia, in particular the many alternate forms it can take from generation to generation. Not all the relationships are given as much attention as that of Maquia and Ariel, which slightly limits the impact of certain plot events and their subsequent payoff later on. However, the overriding commentary on relatable relationships is interwoven with a world of magical possibility, one which sweeps you up for a journey speaking to how family goes beyond any one person.

8.5/10

Rating: 8.5 out of 10.

Film in 500: A Silent Voice Review

Certificate: 12
Director: Naoko Yamada
Production: Kyoto Animation/Pony Canyon/ABC Animation/Quaras/Shochiku/Kodansha
Distributor: All the Anime
Platform: Reviewing the Blu-ray Version
Release Date: Out Now


OK, I am trying a new format here; I have less experience reviewing films than I do games or TV shows, so to try and create some structure for myself to produce more articles on films, I am testing out my new idea for a running feature: “Film in 500”, where I review films I have seen within the extent of 500 words. It may help me getting more film reviews done, as for some reason I have previously found them a bit daunting, being unsure of how specific to be when going into the story details; with this word count, I shall be tasked with being concise!

I mean, blimey, that one paragraph was around 100 words (this isn’t counting for the review)! This could be genius, or could go wrong… ah well, let’s try it, beginning with a review for A Silent Voice: The Movie! Oh, and do let me know your opinion on this set-up for film reviews. Would be very helpful to know if this works well! 🙂

What have I gotten myself into…

In the quest through my Blu-rays, I recently viewed A Silent Voice: The Movie, a poignantly told story about events that unfold after a case of school bullying. Shoko Nishimiya (Saori Hayami) joins a new grade school in Japan, promptly informing the class of her limited hearing. Many of the students aren’t very understanding, and Shôya Ishida (Miyu Irino) particularly bullies her – verbally and physically. He’s shockingly inconsiderate and mean-spirited. Shoko keeps putting on a smile and trying to befriend classmates, but eventually moves away to another school.

From here, we see how years pass and characters grow up. Shôya harbours guilt about his actions, and is himself now isolated and lost in high school. He seeks out Shoko to try and find resolution – not necessarily forgiveness, as that isn’t his decision, and I appreciated A Silent Voice having that level of emotional awareness. The awkward, well-intentioned reunion blossoms, despite inevitable roadblocks that occur as a consequence of the past; there’s an endearing message here about how we can change, but at the same time must be responsible for our behaviour.

It’s delicately handled storytelling that is carried through to the side characters. Other students have varying life paths and individual opinions on their involvement with the bullying; there’s an explosive scene later on, where true feelings are outed, and it’s testament to the film that it feels earned. To reiterate, however, the most powerful scenes are reserved for that dynamic of Shoko and Shôya. A Silent Voice goes to very emotional and mature places, so be prepared for tears to flow!

The animation style is slightly different to any other I have seen. It’s superbly drawn; there’s a natural, handmade appearance, with fine lines and painterly colours hitting that balance of being beautiful, but not overly extravagant. For a subtle, character-focused story, it fits very well. On the audio side are similar qualities, a focus on ambient sound allowing the excellent voice acting to be at the fore. Given the trouble Shoko has hearing, sign language is prominent, and the patiently portrayed narrative gives this expressive form of communication space to shine – it’s really engaging in such a visual medium as anime!

If I had any complaint about A Silent Voice, it’s that I felt it ended ever-so-slightly too soon. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a satisfying conclusion, but it was a bit sudden, as if there could have been another scene or two to further pay off the range of character arcs. Really, though, there is no critical flaw, and I can only imagine people being put off if the premise just isn’t to their tastes.


Final Thoughts

A Silent Voice tells a touching story about how we make mistakes, and should be aware of them, but there is always room for us to improve as people and seek forgiveness. In doing so, we can help each other in unexpected ways. With fantastic character development and inherent quiet charm, A Silent Voice is an important story I highly recommend.

9/10

Rating: 9 out of 10.

My Top Ten Films of 2019: #5-#1

It’s happening. I’m actually getting My Top Ten Films up to date (for now) with my five favourite films of 2019 (you can click here for #10-#6!). Take a read of my opinions below! As usual, I shall clarify; this is going by UK release date, so a film such as Vice counts for 2019. Here we go…


#5: Marriage Story

At #5 is a film you have to emotionally prepare yourself to watch. Marriage Story is about the divorce of Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) and all the agonising stress it brings. As a concept, that could sound an uncomfortable situation to invest yourself into, yet the rawness of the narrative being told and the complex dynamics between characters absorb you in. The two leads do an amazing job at balancing being both endearing and infuriating, both to each other and to us. Of the two I would say the film puts slightly more of a focus on Driver, who for me should have won the Oscar for Performance by an actor in a leading role. Both Nicole and Charlie have so many factors that have led to where they are now, and Marriage Story ensures that we see both of the multi-faceted sides, ensuring it isn’t as simple as one side being completely at fault. If you have witnessed or even been involved in those horrible family arguments where honest yet unmeant remarks are thrown back and forth, you may recognise that in the scenes here; don’t underestimate how difficult it is to create that on film, the sense of people who have cared so much for each other having their relationship break down in such a way. Director Noah Baumbach accentuates this with a slightly sepia, warm, traditional appearance, visually matching the richness and intensity of the subject matter – it’s as though you haven’t time to breathe, reflecting the way this dispute is taking over their lives. Find a few hours to really sink into this film; it’s intense, but also very rewarding viewing.


#4: Joker

Joaquin Phoenix is a showstopper as Arthur Fleck in this origin story for the Joker, directed by Todd Phillips. I know I just mentioned that for me Adam Driver should have won the Oscar – an Oscar which Phoenix won for Joker – but I do slightly prefer this as an overall film. A standalone tale (at least for now) this is a powerful message about how society can affect people and turn them into beings capable of horrific acts. We follow Arthur, who lives in Gotham, as he balances being a working clown performer with his personal aspirations to be a stand-up comedian. With the world seeming to conspire to knock him down, you can empathise with him; he loses income when he is fired; he has his idol shame him on live TV; and his mother is suffering with her health. However, when he then responds in violent and unsettling ways, you can’t justify those actions, bringing a conflict to the way you view him and his changing persona. This is a film with shock value, but I disagree with a lot of the criticism about the content of the scenes – it is refreshing when a film such as this really challenges you to make your own mind up about whether you agree or disagree with that which you are watching, and that can serve as a valuable warning about the real world. In the lead role, Phoenix is undoubtedly phenomenal in reflecting that complex duality, and the Taxi Driver-esque production and themes wrap this up into a hard-hitting, masterful adaptation of the well-known character.


#3: Earthquake Bird

This film is SO underrated! Available on Netflix, I saw this film at the London Film Festival in 2019 where it was – of the films I saw there – my favourite. There is so much about it that drew me in to the story it tells (based off of the novel of the same name by Susanna Jones); a crucial factor is the brilliant Alicia Vikander in the lead role of Lucy Fly, an English woman who now works as a translator in Tokyo in 1989 after living in Japan for 5 years. Earthquake Bird begins with her being brought in for questioning about the missing Lily Bridges (Riley Keough), and then the film shows the lead-up to this – immediately a fascinating film structure. In these past events, Lucy meets the mysterious photographer Teiji Matsuda, who has an obsessive fixation on her. They form a relationship, one that is made more complex by the introduction of Lily, who is outspoken and flirtatious in contrast to the smartly-dressed, more reserved Lucy, contributing to her sense of paranoia – a sense the film emphasises with clever tricks of cinematography. A psychological thriller unlike any other that I have seen, it doesn’t delve into exaggeration, instead allowing the wonderfully understated performances and the intelligent scene compositions to create a world of irresistible intrigue. It gradually builds the noticeable under-riding tension until it reaches a boiling point at which secrets, past and present, are uncovered, unveiling sides to characters that you may or may not have suspected were there under the surface. Alicia Vikander learned Japanese for this role, and the way she masters the ability to be fluent – very important for embodying this character – is stunning. One scene in particular late on is a demonstration of this, where the camera is close-up on her for an extraordinary one-shot of her describing an event from her past. Director Wash Westmoreland has this wonderful knack for constructing a quietly poignant atmosphere in his films that makes them intriguing without shouting about it (see: Colette). With the visual wonders of the Japan setting, this goes to a new level; tranquil rural areas punctuated by the click of a camera, the enclosed Tokyo streets ferociously stricken by rain, continuing on to the soundtrack and the way Japanese style is incorporated with the delicate vocals. Earthquake Bird is enigmatic and engrossing in a way I’ve never experienced before.


#2: Little Women

Released on Boxing Day, Little Women managed to impress me so much it took the #2 spot for my 2019 list from Earthquake Bird! Greta Gerwig is an amazing talent, following up Lady Bird (#4 on my 2018 list) with this modern version of Little Women, based on the novel by Louisa May Alcott (there was another film version back in 1994). This film follows the diverging and converging paths of the female members of the March family throughout their lives, led by that of Jo March (Saoirse Ronan), and including her three sisters Amy (Florence Pugh), Meg (Emma Watson), and Beth (Eliza Scanlen). All of their separate plot and character threads are intelligently thought out, simultaneously interweaving with each other to create a really authentic feel in the detailed 19th-Century Massachusetts setting – this film deservedly won the Oscar for Achievement in costume design. I have always been someone who is drawn to stories with high quality character development, and this film supplies so much of that; the growth of the sisters, and their subsequent actions, drive the film forward, also providing an important message about equality. The interactions of Jo March and childhood friend Laurie (Timothée Chamolet) particularly stand out as a demonstration of how real life can play out away from the fairytale idea and yet be just as, if not more, happy – and the performances those two bring are rich in the complexities we have seen in the lives of those characters. There is an inherent truthfulness to how we see these lives progress, showing that we can strive for traditional ideals whilst still being our own distinct selves. This film releasing on Boxing Day was a brilliant decision, as it is a film you can wrap yourself up in. At any time of year, this is a masterpiece, and there being a film I have placed above it in this list is a testament to how incredible 2019 is for films.


#1: Eighth Grade

My Top Film of 2019 is Eighth Grade, and if I were to make a top ten films of the decade, it’d be high on that list as well (maybe I should do that list at some point)! Another film that, in comparison to other films in 2019, isn’t talked about as much (Avengers: Endgame was released the next day in the UK), this film shows the trials and emotions of that delicate adolescent part of our lives in an utterly unique and real way. Eighth Grade focuses on Kayla Day (Elsie Fisher) a teenage girl in her final year before high school; she isn’t particularly popular or unpopular, being in that position of trying to find her confidence as she weaves through the different ways you try to fit in, such as the terrifying idea of going to parties with people you don’t know well, or the joy of being invited to go to the mall. The way this film demonstrates the stress caused by these developments is varied and creative, making honest, uncomfortable scenes supremely watchable. Soundtrack and shot choices are part of this, with strikingly unique music by Anna Meredith and spectacular vision by writer/director Bo Burnham. Kayla’s father Mark (Josh Hamilton) is balancing on that tightrope of bring overbearing and caring as his daughter is growing up, and this dynamic brings incredibly emotional scenes – one in particular is an honest and heartfelt commentary on family dynamics that brought me to tears in the cinema. Even when the film could go for the more generic emotional crescendo, it instead has an impactful and natural scene of character development that is so much more satisfying. Additionally, an often ironic and self-referential sense of humour is there when appropriate to break up the scenes. I have never seen this balance of brutal honesty and endearing interaction in the coming-of-age-teen-drama genre before, and combined with the creative methods of showing the emotions of scenes, it makes for a film that has made me view other films in a different way and hold them to a higher standard. Eighth Grade is the best film of 2019!


There it is; my Top Ten for 2019. I have caught up! I did it! I have a provisional list for the year of 2020 so far, though there are several months left until that is set. Have a great day!

My Top Ten Films of 2019: #10-#6

Right; to get my annual top ten films lists up to date, it’s time to go through my choices for 2019! This list shall operate in a similar way to those of 2017 and 2018 – two articles, each going through 5 films. Furthermore, as before, I am going by UK release date, so a film such as The Favourite counts for 2019. Here’s #10-#6!


#10: Stan & Ollie

There have been a lot of musical biopic films released in recent times, which can make it hard for them to stand out from one another; however, through taking a quieter, character-driven approach to the twilight years of Laurel & Hardy, director Jon S. Baird manages to create a distinctively touching and emotional story about their final performances in 1950s Britain. Steve Coogan and John C. Reilly thoroughly embody the lead parts of Stan Laurel & Oliver Hardy respectively, without pushing their personas into exaggerated territory – that’s saved for their iconic double acts! At the same time, they make evident the professional and personal relationship between the two and the challenges they face to maintain it in a world of rapidly changing entertainment. Their partners at the time, Ida (Shirley Henderson) and Lucille (Nina Arianda) act as great foils to them, supporting the pair even if that isn’t always through making their act a priority – the dynamics are hilarious too, especially the blunt remarks of Ida. As a film about a comedic double act, you would expect a sense of humour from Stan & Ollie, and it’s very much there in a traditional, innocent way that matches their performances. Speaking of which, those scenes are marvelously entertaining, and conclude in a breathtaking final display that celebrates Laurel & Hardy and their unique friendship.


#9: Frozen II

After Frozen – back in 2013 – wonderfully broke the conventions of the traditional Princess story, a follow-up was a real test for Disney. Yet, in my eyes, Frozen II surpasses the first film, carrying on the magic and taking the characters into very mature themes. We rejoin Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel) living peacefully in Arendelle, but as a mysterious entity draws Elsa away from home, Anna, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), Sven, and Olaf (Josh Gad) follow her on an adventure that explores unexplained mysteries and also has the characters discover essential revelations about themselves. The addition of fall colours to the pristine ice animation gives the film a stunning, contrasting aesthetic that is just irresistible. Music is a key component of Frozen as a series and again Frozen II improves on its predecessor in this area; it’s where some of those aforementioned mature themes come from, especially in The Next Right Thing, a powerful commentary on grief where Kristen Bell tugs on my heartstrings. The catchy energy of Frozen music is maintained, but with new depths of emotion; overall, the entire film has less of the more superficial moments that showed up now and then in the first film. Frozen II is an incredible sequel that raises the bar for the franchise in every department.


#8: Le Mans ’66

I’m a motorsport fan, so it’s surprising to me that I took a while to sit myself down in a Picturehouse and view Le Mans ’66 (Ford v Ferrari in the States) on the silver screen – and oh, oh ho ho, am I glad I did, as this film is a visual thrill ride (pun… intended?). There have been some phenomenal motorsport films over the years, such as Senna (2010) and Rush (2013), but I was initially concerned whether Le Mans ’66 would manage to have the same level of emotion – consider me very much won over! Director James Mangold viscerally puts on screen how Ken Miles (Christian Bale) and Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon) worked with Ford to tackle the all-conquering Ferrari at the Le Mans 24 Hours. The competitive narrative keeps you on the edge of your seat throughout, yet it is that central partnership of two friends that drives (ahem) the film. It isn’t just their rivals they have to contend with; the conflict between their ambitions and the politics of Ford creates several flashpoints. Miles and Shelby don’t always see eye-to-eye either, but as shown by a hilarious expression of friendship later in the film, they are ultimately that: friends, motivated with a competitive spirit that is escalated by the budget behind them. There are a few small changes made to true events, but they serve to add emphasis and didn’t damage the messages of the story for me. Spectacular race sequences intersperse the film, culminating in an extensive finale at the 1966 Le Mans that gives the event the attention it deserves; the use of actual cars and racetracks whilst filming is so important for giving an authentic feel to the action. Also, so, the music… Wow, what a soundtrack! Composed by Marco Beltrami and Buck Saunders, the heart-pumping energy produced by the intense tracks for the races is incredible; with the incorporation of the myriad of striking sounds present in motor racing, it results in audio that shakes the soul. Incidentally, Le Mans ’66 and Donald Sylvester won an Oscar for Achievement in sound editing; furthermore, Michael McCusker and Andrew Buckland won an Oscar for Achievement in film editing. It all combines to create a momentum propelling the film on to a poignant ending.


#7: Green Book

Similarly to Le Mans ’66 and Stan & Ollie, Green Book (which won the 2019 Best Picture Oscar) is a film about two men and the relationship they have. However, the circumstances of Green Book (based on a real friendship) are very different from either of those films. When pianist Dr. Donald Shirley (Mahershala Ali) decides to go on a tour of Southern USA in the 1960s, this means facing racial inequality and abuse, and he hires Tony Lip (Viggo Mortensen) to be his driver – Tony is out of a job as a bouncer, and takes the role on despite it meaning he has to leave his family until Christmas. Dr. Shirley is a well-mannered, proud man who takes his art seriously, very different to the blunt, unhygienic Tony. As the film progresses, Tony witnesses the talent of Dr. Shirley but also the mistreatment he faces, having to get involved on multiple occasions. Green Book is exceptionally smart in how it portrays the views of each of the two, and how they both learn from the other. For example, Dr. Shirley helps Tony write better, more affectionate letters back home to his wife Dolores (Linda Cardellini) and in the other direction Tony supports Dr. Shirley in combining his pride with a more social and open attitude to life. It isn’t as simple as one learning from the other; it goes both ways, as relationships and culture should do. Scene to scene there is a range of tones, the film skillfully switching from light-hearted to dramatic and vice-versa multiple times, further showing different sides to the world and how the horror of racism can suddenly intrude on a life. Green Book has had controversy around it that I disagree with, as to me the whole point of this film is that these are two people with vastly different experiences who learn from each other, instead of just saying one culture is entirely right or wrong.


#6: Pain & Glory

Acclaimed Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar reaches a new peak with Pain & Glory, a delicate character study inspired by his own life. Antonio Banderas is exceptional in the lead role as the emotionally raw Salvador Mallo, a writer who is now suffering from less of a passion for his craft and numerous health issues – as showcased by a vivid animated sequence early on. We follow Salvador as he reunites with loved ones; meanwhile, the actor Alberto Crespo (Asier Etxeandia) tries to persuade him to put his writing to stage once again. The film is punctuated by memories of his childhood spent with mother Jacinta (Penélope Cruz), where we witness key moments that made him into who he is now. This film is wonderfully delicate, a retrospective and introspective life story which draws you in and keeps you engrossed until the end. It’s starkly honest in the story told, and as ever, Almodóvar brings his enchanting direction and intelligent dialogue treatment. Pain & Glory is currently my favourite Almodóvar film; a magic spell of a film told with care, love, and a flourish.


The second part of this list, going through my picks for #5-#1, is on the way, so stay tuned to this website!

My Top Ten Films of 2018: #5-#1

Following on from the first part of this list, now I am going to list my top 5 films of 2018. As mentioned in the post with my picks for 10-6, this is by the UK release date – for example, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri counts for 2018.


5: First Man

First Man 2

Several Hollywood stars have launched themselves into cinematic space in previous years, but First Man may be the film that most emphatically portrays the harshness of the endeavor Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) undertook – both on the journey and on Earth. The process of making it possible is there, and viscerally told – the accidents and training being brutal to view – but perhaps the focus of the film is the personal life of Neil Armstrong, and how the venture impacts him and those closest. The loss of their child Karen to a brain tumor is shown early on in the film, and the feeling of loss is devastating – Ryan Gosling puts this on film in a delicately engrossing way, without ever overdoing an aspect of his performance. Claire Foy is phenomenal as Janet Shearon (previously Janet Armstrong, his wife), portraying the struggle of keeping their family a priority as Neil isolates himself in his mission. At first, this film may seem quite a course change for director Damien Chazelle after the musical Whiplash and La La Land, but in this film he has a very different type of audio experience to work with. The sequences within craft are often claustrophobic with plenty of sounds to make you anxious as you ride with Neil. It results in a sequence on the Moon (spoilers!) that uses audio in a very different, and beautiful, way – and a scene on Earth that shows the costs of making it there.


4: Lady Bird

Lady Bird

An utter delight from director Greta Gerwig, this. Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) lives in Sacramento, on the “wrong side of the tracks” as she says, with few friends, a family relatively low on money, and dreams of escaping and making a life outside of the town she lives in. The film is endearingly authentic in showing the many trials that stage of life can bring, with relationships, friendships, and reputation all in flux; though, the overriding dynamic is between Lady Bird and her mother, Marian (Laurie Metcalf), who is strict but clearly loving as she works to create a life for her daughter. There is a distinct difference between each of them, as Lady Bird dreams of escape and Marian works to create the realistic life she can envisage, even if that isn’t one her daughter is drawn to. Side characters are well-developed and draw empathy, with a diverse range of the problems different people face on their individual, yet intersecting, paths. The Sacramento setting has a certain uniqueness to it, with a cool summer tone to the direction of the film that matches and elevates the genuineness of the story being told. In addition, an undertone of quiet humour adds a certain energy to the film, and is part of making the film very rewatchable. Endearing, emotional, and rewarding, Lady Bird is joyous filmmaking.


3: A Quiet Place

A Quiet Place

Wife and husband duo (in real life and the film!) Emily Blunt and John Krasinski both star in the Krasinski-directed A Quiet Place, a horror/thriller with an absorbing main premise and, better yet, plenty of intelligence to back it up. A post-apocalyptic world with invaders that can track sound means silence from characters for much of the film; we follow the Abbott family, who use tactics such as walking on sand to prevent themselves being hunted down. However, when Evelyn (Blunt) is pregnant, a lot of preparation is needed to try and keep themselves safe, and there are moments when it doesn’t go to plan. Keeping this an isolated story focused on the family is smart, with A Quiet Place never drifting into excessive action even as events escalate. The younger members of the cast are fantastic, and the inclusion of the deaf Regan (Millicent Simmonds, who herself is deaf) is well done; the use of sign language makes a lot of sense. With a lack of dialogue, the soundtrack is crucial, and the subtle ambience it creates keeps you on edge throughout. A Quiet Place has an air of precision to it – every scene has distinct purpose in establishing and developing both the world and the characters. Just, y’know, be quiet when watching this film, yeah?


2: Leave No Trace

Leave No Trace

A gem that is perhaps less-known than other films, Leave No Trace is a breakout film for Thomasin Harcourt McKenzie in the role of Tom; it tells the story of her and her father, Will (Ben Foster), living amongst the trees in Portland, Oregon. Their lives are not completely cut off, as we see them go shopping early in the film before returning to their rural home. They have impressive survival skills, and seem content in their lives. When they are discovered, though, they are pushed into integrating into modern society; this proves more difficult for Will – who is affected by PTSD – than for Tom. This is a complex, emotional situation, with both trying to help the other into a life they are happy with. The two leads are absolutely phenomenal, the characters on screen having a connection where they don’t even need to speak for the care for each other to be evident. Part of this is the patient direction from writer/director Debra Granik, letting you be in the situation with them as the delicate soundtrack encourages your empathy. There are lush, green environments and authentic urban settings as the two succeed and fail in different ways to tackle the changes in their lives. In the end, compromise and love aren’t exclusive ideas.


1: I, Tonya

I, Tonya

Stylish, impactful and hilarious, I, Tonya uses the medium of film to brilliant effect in telling the story of Tonya Harding, a figure skater who had a career of astonishing talent and infamous controversy. Recreated versions of real tape recordings are interspersed throughout the film for context and as questioning of us, the audience. The cast are astounding, with Margot Robbie utterly magnetic in the lead role as Tonya. The range Robbie shows here is emphatic, with one scene towards the end of the film especially standing out as the mix of emotions public attention can bring are let out on screen. Jeff (Sebastian Stan), her on-and-off partner, is at times caring yet often abusive and damaging to her; Shawn (Paul Walter Hauser) is both scary and hilarious in his contribution to events that severely impact Tonya’s life; and Allison Janney won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in the role of LaVona, Tonya’s mother, who is both shockingly abusive and also emotionally unavailable to Tonya. The nature of the relationships Tonya has are unfairly used against her in her sport, and this idea of how we make opinions on the public images of people we don’t really know is one we each need to really consider about ourselves. In addition, I, Tonya uses music and the camera to great effect. Soundtrack choices establish the setting and also connect to the scenes in which they are incorporated in smart ways, and a variety of shot styles create an absorbing energy that pulls you into scenes. In the film, there is perhaps no better example than in one of the skating performances, when she performs that triple axel; there is so much happening around Tonya, yet when she leaves the ice, the ground, for that shining moment? It falls away, and the magical potential of life, of talent, of achievement, is there, even if all the messier parts of her life are awaiting her. I, Tonya manages to represent all of that in a magnificent, artistic way and even manages to question both itself and the audience on the way. Stunning.


There it is; my top ten for 2018! If you have thoughts to share about my list, let me know in the comments! Also, to keep track of my latest posts, you can follow this site!

My Top Ten Films of 2018: #10-#6

Been a while, eh? It’s been some time since I last posted on this blog, but in this decade, I hope to start writing on here regularly again. To kick that off, I am – like for 2017 – listing my top ten films of both 2018 and 2019 – oh yes, even if they weren’t published, those lists were very much being made in the background.

These are ranked with both quality and my personal enjoyment in mind; also, I am mainly going by UK release date, so a film such as The Shape of Water would count as a 2018 release. Let’s go!


#10 – Aquaman

Aquaman 1

Spectacular, captivating and flawed, Aquaman is an ocean epic from James Wan that embraces the comic book source material and is earnestly enjoyable because of it. Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa) is born of human and Atlantean descent, and this duality is at the heart of the film. With his brother Orm (Patrick Wilson) declaring war on the surface, Arthur ends up on a quest to prevent battle between two societies. Helping him is Mera (Amber Heard) who often steals the scene with her telekinetic water abilities; on the other hand, Arthur also makes an enemy out of the formidable Black Manta (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), so his path to success isn’t an easy one. Action and locales are a feast for the senses throughout the film – both on land and underwater – with incredible visual effects throughout. There is meaning to the thrills though; a sequence in Sicily is a standout example of emotion and action combining to put emphasis on the heroic aspect of the film. Some sequences, especially toward the end of the film, feel like excess that isn’t necessary, but this is a film that benefits overall from pulling out all the stops, rather than *ahem* reining it in.


9: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before

To All the Boys I've Loved Before

A Netflix surprise, this school-set romantic comedy sets itself apart in an at-times saturated genre. Lana Condor (Lara Jean) writes letters to her crushes that she keeps rather than sending – perhaps a harmless act, at least until one day her mischievous sister Kitty (Anna Cathcart) decides to release them all. This leads to disaster control, but for one of the recipients – Peter (Noah Centineo) – it results in a deal; in exchange for silence, Lana will fake being his girlfriend in order to try and attract the eyes of Gen (Emilija Baranac). Where this could have been played as a one-note, shallow comedy, instead this film presents the complex emotions that come from the evolving situation, as the two unexpected friends perhaps realise they aren’t faking interest in each other. A diverse cast provides an engaging range of performances to show how rarely matters of the heart go as you plan – and the film manages to do this without losing a sense of fun, with plenty of feel-good moments. For fans of coming-of-age, high-school, and/or romantic comedies, this is a hidden gem – hopefully the sequels can keep the high quality going!


8: Tomb Raider

Tomb Raider

Video game movies haven’t always turned out very well in the past – this may be changing, though, with a case in point being the latest cinematic adaptation of iconic gaming heroine Lara Croft. Casting Academy Award-winner Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft is a central reason to why the movie works; this incarnation of the character is based off of the (brilliant) recent trilogy of games, with inspiration particularly coming from the 2013 reboot that started said trilogy. In this film, we meet a younger Lara who is finding her place in the world, taking part in various risky ventures to get by – such as a thrilling and creative bicycle pursuit that kicks off the film in energetic fashion. She is following the trail of her missing father Richard Croft (Dominic West), who disappeared on an expedition to the island Yamatai. Her determination to follow this path results in many surprises and crucial lessons, as well as plenty of impressive action set pieces. One in particular, which tracks Lara as she works her way through an area of hostiles, vividly portrays the games in cinematic fashion. Alicia’s stubborn yet earnest Lara is the focus, but the supporting cast provides a great foil to her performance; this includes Walter Goggins as antagonist Mathias Vogel, Daniel Wu as the friendly Lu Ren, as well as Kristin Scott Thomas and Sir Derek Jacobi in supporting roles as Ana Miller and Mr. Yaffe respectively. Ultimately, this film portrays the key reasons why the game reboot of Lara is such an interesting and layered character. With Alicia Vikander on board for a sequel – directed by Ben Wheatley, fascinatingly – this story isn’t done yet, either (oh, and the second game of the trilogy this is based on? The best of the three… )


7: The Post

The Post

Not long after the exceptional Spotlight (2015) comes The Post from Steven Spielberg, another film about the ability and responsibility of journalism to tackle wrongs in the world. The 1970s-set film portrays the story of attempts by The Washington Post to publish the Pentagon Papers, and the battles against political and competitive pressure in order to do so. Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) has additional pressures to face as a female newspaper publisher in a male-dominated industry; the way in which the film shows her journey throughout this time is delicate and powerful. She has more conflicting sides to consider than executive editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), who provides the journalistic passion that adds drive to many scenes. Tonally, The Post has a slightly washed-out, authoritatively authentic look and feel, firmly placing you into that uncertain time. The film doesn’t quite hit the dramatic stomach-punch levels of Spotlight, but has a distinct importance of its own – and in a time where influence and fake news is talked about so much, The Post allows us another chance to witness a key battle in earning that free speech to begin with.


6: Darkest Hour

Darkest Hour

From director Joe Wright (Atonement, Hanna), Darkest Hour tells the story of how Sir Winston Churchill got to the position of power from which his influence was so decisively felt during the Second World War. By putting focus on the people around him and why he was so motivated to make his mark in the way that he did, the film is very personal and emotional. Gary Oldman is undoubtedly the star turn here, really delving into his personification of Sir Winston Churchill; his performance is magnetic and riveting, even in the moments when the character is not as likeable. He anchors the film throughout, with the quietly superb supporting cast backing him up. To mention just one, Kristin Scott Thomas – in a relatively short amount of screen time – effectively portrays the personal sacrifice of being the wife to a man who puts so much of his time and effort into helping other people. Situations such as Dunkirk that happen during the crucial time that the film is set in mean that the film has a sense of urgency throughout, even whilst most of the scenes are set in political battlefields rather than the more literally deadly ones. Darkest Hour is a poignant reminder of the effort it takes to stand up and really fight for the justice you believe in.


Part 2 of this list is coming soon!

The Cloverfield Paradox Review

Director: Julius Onah
Writers: Doug Jung, Oren Uziel
Platform: Streaming – Netflix
Release Date: Out Now


Yeah, they totally got me. When the Super Bowl trailer for Netflix film The Cloverfield Paradox revealed it’d be coming that same night, it was a mind-blowing moment. Paradigm-shifting for the film industry, even, in terms of distribution – yet, the level of impact was always going to be determined by the quality of the film. On that front, Paradox stumbles a little. This is a firm step down from the brilliantly tense 10 Cloverfield Lane, but still keeps the intrigue of the anthology-esque Cloverfield series going.

Paradox starts in a very promising way, with a gripping plot set-up. The events of the film take place in 2028, 20 years after a monster was unleashed upon the Earth in the initial Cloverfield film. Almost all of Paradox is set in space, on Cloverfield Station, where a crew has been tasked with using an on-board particle accelerator to create a sustainable energy source for the Earth. Civilisation on our planet is close to a tipping point as resources dwindle, making this mission crucial – but around two years in, no success has occurred. With one of the final attempts possible, the collision is achieved, but overloads – with bad, bad repercussions.

Cloverfield 2

The most immediate issue is that the Earth has vanished from their sight. Have they moved, or has the planet? It’s a really neat story point that send shivers up the spine in a more layered way than your regular monster jump scares. Imagine feeling that lost in space, while also possibly carrying the responsibility for wiping out the Earth? Without their home in the windows, space seems much more empty. This is emphasised with striking shots of space at this point of the film, letting the vast gaps to any other stars soak in. Unlike the emptiness used in the cinematography of Alfonso Cuarón film Gravity, the distance to home is what gets the mind racing here.

It’s after this initial set-up that Paradox loses its way and goes a bit flat. The overload of the accelerator causes a bunch of wacky sci-fi horror side effects, such as a detached, animate arm, worms being displaced into a body, a human discovered mangled in the piping, and more. They’re all briefly entertaining but ultimately inconsequential, and the explanation for them is never developed beyond being a result of the accelerator accident. Similarly, the film never really commits to a story thread, hoping to distract with occasional shocks but never fully pulling us into the central journey back to Earth. Even with a bunch of side plots going on, it all just drifts suitably aimlessly towards the conclusion.

A big part of this is the characters, coming from various places of the Earth – they’re all serviceable, and the strong cast (including Daniel Brühl (Rush) and Chris O’Dowd (Bridesmaids)) do what they can with the material they are given, but they never form the chemistry you feel was intended. Hamilton, the lead woman played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw (Beauty and the Beast), is the only one to get any sort of backstory and emotional investment, but it is is nothing compared to the time and care put into making the characters of 10 Cloverfield Lane stick in the memory.

Cloverfield 1

See, events in Paradox are very rarely surprising. Given that the film is set in the inherently unpredictable Cloverfield series, that is a major flaw. The crew generally have things happen to them rather than actively making things happen. Compare that to Michelle (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead) in 10 Cloverfield Lane, an underrated female lead who shows her resourceful personality through the actions she takes. She also had scenes with other characters like Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) and even Howard (John Goodman) that really fleshed out and developed her character. No one gets that sort of growth in Paradox, or even very much beyond the very basic realisation that they screwed up. As a result, there isn’t an emotional centre to keep us invested in the moment-to-moment of the film.


Final Thoughts

Just like the first Cloverfield movie, the failings of Paradox are – at least slightly – saved by it being in this franchise; the most intriguing parts of the film are what we don’t see, or might see in future films. News reports and climactic revelations do at least give us more clues as to how the Cloverfield universe works, and it is enough to keep the series interesting. Looked at as a single film, The Cloverfield Paradox is pretty unspectacular science-fiction, and hard to recommend amongst all the quality films available nowadays. On the other hand, for fans – or prospective fans – of the Cloverfield films, it’s worth a watch just to learn a little bit more about this enigmatic series.

6.5/10

Rating: 6.5 out of 10.

My Top Ten Films of 2017: #5-#1

Here we are, at the pointy end of the list. These are my personal top 5 films of 2017, mixing my personal tastes with my critical opinion. Just like the first part of this list, I am counting films by their UK release date; films such as Hacksaw Ridge, which was part of the first half of my list, count. Right then, with no further ado…


#5 – La La Land

La La Land

Whilst not my favourite film of 2017, I would describe La La Land as the most magical; a two-hour experience of sight and sound, director Damien Chazelle (Whiplash) whisks us away to the world that Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) live in. Amongst the beautiful musical numbers, this is ultimately the story of two people deciding what lives they desire – does following their dreams mean sacrificing their relationship? The final act, in particular, is a striking moment of compromise – this isn’t just song and dance, but a deep story that we can all relate to. A strong opening and stunning conclusion only serve to show up a comparatively flat middle act, but the high points carry La La Land to its crescendo.


#4 – Moonlight

Moonlight

No errors here – Moonlight just edges it over La La Land for me! Moonlight is a very unique film, and not just because of the subject matter, but also the way it is presented. Focusing on the life of Chiron, the director Barry Jenkins shows the life of this black LGBT child from infant, to adolescent, to adult – each section forms around a third of the film, jumping in time with Nolan-esque confidence. The biggest strength of Moonlight is how believable it is, depicting the life of Chiron with harrowing results at times. As Chiron discovers himself and his sexuality, Moonlight brings in a phenomenal supporting cast including Mahershala Ali as Juan, a likeable guardian character who is ripped away after a third of the film like a safety net being removed. In addition, parallel to Chiron is his best friend Kevin, and seeing how their complex relationship develops is the lifeblood of the film. Perhaps in an effort to show the realism of the film, Moonlight seems to end slightly too quickly, and left me looking for a little more payoff – still, this is a groundbreaking film in both how it was produced and the groups it gives attention to.


#3 – Gifted

Gifted

This is a moving, heartbreaking, yet uplifting film that did not receive enough attention in 2017. Gifted revolves around the character of Mary Adler (McKenna Grace), a seven-year-old girl who has a remarkable proficiency for mathematics. Her mother, Diane, took her life when Mary was not even 1 year old; Mary is now in the care of her uncle, Frank (Chris Evans). The main push-and-pull of Gifted comes via grandmother Evelyn (Lindsay Duncan), who is desperate to see foster care arranged for Mary. Frank, however, is adamant that she would have a better life in public school – even if the challenge is far below her. Gifted is a human drama at heart, and the familial agendas at play are all too real. Under the direction of Marc Webb, the film pulls you into the relationship between Mary and Frank without trying to hide their flaws. This serves to make their choices and situations significantly more compelling and all too tear-jerking towards the climax. Although similar in tone to a film like Wonder (#9), Gifted does a better job at producing a fulfilling conclusion, too – few films have produced emotions from me like this one did in the cinema.


#2 – Logan

Logan.png

Did filmmakers all play The Last of Us before producing films last year, or something? The father-daughter dynamic popped up quite a few times, not that I’m complaining – whether it was Gifted or Logan, audiences are the winners out of it; Logan is the first film in the last decade that has realistically challenged The Dark Knight as the best of the superhero genre. For Logan, the last Hugh Jackman Wolverine movie, Fox let director James Mangold off the leash to create a fitting, R-rated send-off for the beloved portrayal of the character. Woah boy, did they deliver – set far after any other X-Men film so far, we see a bruised and battered Logan caring for Professor Xavier; Patrick Stewart delivers a wonderful final performance, with a striking depiction of the deterioration of a loved one. The introduction of Dafne Keen as Laura (X-23) forces Logan into action, and how he ends up caring for her certainly brings The Last of Us vibes in many great ways. Logan nails the emotional payoffs after nearly 20 years of these characters, with suitably visceral action backing it up. That whole last woods sequence is the way to send Hugh Jackman off. Now, can Jackman resist that Disney truck full of money being reversed up his drive?


#1 – Baby Driver

Baby Driver.png

I’ll confess that I’m a huge Edgar Wright fan. The Cornetto Trilogy and Scott Pilgrim are super stylish films that don’t sacrifice characters in favour of said style, but Baby Driver goes one further – here, style itself becomes a character. The use of music throughout this film is incredible and crucial to the overall feeling of Baby Driver, with scenes expertly orchestrated to the tracks Wright carefully chose. Take the opening heist, timed to Bellbottoms, which immediately sets the film off at an energetic pace. Or, perhaps, the sprawling and dynamic chase scene timed to Hocus Pocus. These two examples both showcase Edgar Wright using music to compose and elevate scenes beyond what they may have been otherwise. Driving extraordinaire Baby (Ansel Elgort) is our focal point throughout, as he tries to cut his ties to the criminal lead Doc (Kevin Spacey). He meets Debora (Lily James) soon after, and their youthful chemistry is a joy to watch; yet, inevitably, escaping the darker side of his life is harder than he thinks. With a charismatic supporting cast including Eiza González, Jon Hamm, and Jamie Foxx, this film stylishly barrels forward without ever losing sight of the characters keeping us invested. Baby Driver is unique, thrilling, and gloriously enjoyable – it is, in my eyes, the best film of 2017.


Do you agree with my list? What would your picks be? You can leave your thoughts in the comments!