Recently Watched: Movie Roundup

From cult cinema to black comedy, this is a roundup of my most recently watched. Just incase you thought this might be a guide to new releases, I should probably point out it’s not. Instead, it’s a look at recent titles that have graced my small screen from various decades and directors – not new, but usually great.

The Neon Demon (2016, Dir. Nicholas Winding Refn)

Synopsis: Jesse, a young model with big dreams, moves to Los Angeles to pursue a career in the fashion industry but soon realises all is not well in the world of modelling.

Verdict: Here’s where my main issue with The Neon Demon begins: with Refn. Oh, Refn. You directed Drive, it was incomparable. You followed it up with Only God Forgives, which was moderate at best. And now this? I went into the film with limited expectations, knowing critical opinion had been mixed and aware of my own response to the director’s most recent works. I was so unengaged with the whole thing that I turned it off about 30 minutes from the final scene. This is rare. Let me explain why.

Elle Fanning in The Neon Demon

Visually, The Neon Demon is somewhat of a triumph. The L.A. setting is really quite clever too. The idea of perfection and the want to attain it is a theme throughout and the startling aesthetic does well to create a brooding tone but, beyond this, there’s little else to explore. The two characters that are semi-interesting (played by Fanning and Glusman) are lost amongst the bizarre plot changes that develop over the near two-hour runtime so we’re left with this small ensemble of actors – who are by all means incredibly talented – playing roles that we don’t care about. This is, you could argue, Refn’s intention, but it affects the film in a largely negative way.

Refn doesn’t utilise his cast correctly, either. Reeves is barely there and when he is, he’s stilted by a dry script, while Glusman is shoved out too early on. Stand-out performances do come from Fanning and Jena Malone, the latter of whom is entirely comfortable in alien stories such as these, but the plot falters and it can’t seem to be saved. It leads towards a visually repulsing finale that, if you’re still watching, feels pointless, while the barely there screenplay is average at best.

Get Out (2017, Dir. Jordan Peele)

Synopsis: In Get Out, Chris, played by Daniel Kaluuya, meets his girlfriend’s parents at their remote countryside home as cracks begin to show amongst this seemingly ‘normal’ family.

Verdict: Get Out blew a lot of minds upon its release, not only because it was a fresh take on the formulaic horror genre, but because it actively addressed racial tensions in America in a mainstream film. Director Jordan Peele is bold in his ideas, ideas which he successfully executes throughout the flick.

The originality of the film begins with the narrative. On paper it sounds straightforward, on-screen it plays out via scene after scene of enigma inducing dialogue and slow-creeping tension that lends to an ominous atmosphere and sense of impending dread. And the brilliance of it all is that, despite the dark themes, it’s also incredibly funny. Penned by Peele, the script is very, very witty in all of the right moments. At times you’re terrified and confused, in others laughing along with the films own self-awareness.

Peele’s flick isn’t just funny and scary, though. It’s socially relevant and intelligently written. Critics have agreed that it’s the lingering impact of the narrative that is the obvious victory, for small complexities are unearthed after viewing that have you thinking long into the night. Potentially Oscar-worthy, and I expect, just a small glimpse of the greatness still to come from its director.

Sam Neill and Julian Dennison in Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Hunt for the Wilderpeople (2016, Dir. Taika Waititi)

Synopsis: Ricky Baker, a young boy who is frequently removed from his foster homes, goes on an unexpected adventure when he is placed with a loving couple in the New Zealand bush.

Verdict: The brilliance of Taika Waititi’s coming-of-age comedy drama can be witnessed at every turn and in each scene. Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a genuine slice of cinematic brilliance and indie filmmaking at its beautiful best. At times a stripped-back character study, in others an adventure movie that keeps you on your toes; there’s so much depth to this oddball story, lifted by performances from Sam Neill and Julian Dennison.

The narrative is wonderfully sentimental but not emotionally manipulative, instead director Waititi takes a witty look inside the world of troubled teenager Ricky as he finds happiness in the strangest of situations. Sam Neill demonstrates how diverse he is as an actor, with years of experience under his belt this might just be his best performance yet. The whole picture is a treat, charming and enigmatic, with strange and beguiling characters that propel the story into great depths of movie magic.

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Southpaw – This Gritty Boxing Drama Just Misses The Mark

Director Antonie Fuqua has displayed diversity in his work as a filmmaker. That diversity hasn’t always hit the mark, but one constant trait is a narrative full of grit and a visual that hits you straight in the jugular. Fuqua became a name to remember with his hard-hitting cop drama Training Day, since that effort he has flirted with various other feature films and with Southpaw the director returns to genre filmmaking. The 2015 movie is not a completely rewarding effort but it tackles the sport well and will leave you satisfied.

Southpaw has the story, the leading man – and even the theme song – to please any hardcore boxing fan. Jake Gyllenhaal is an absolute triumph as 4-time lightweight world champion Billy Hope. The protagonist is hungry for the win and loyal to his family, made up of wife Maureen (Rachael McAdams in a short but poignant role) and daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). Hope grew up in the system and stands as a kind of poster child for rebellious youth made good, he rides that wave as one of the most famous sportsmen in the world. If you’ve seen the trailer you’ll know the rest for, unfortunately, there isn’t much touched upon in the full feature that goes amiss in the promotional teaser.

jake gyllenhaal and rachel mcadams in southpaw

jake gyllenhaal and rachel mcadams in southpaw

The film follows the formula of most boxing features but when done right this structure is an instant win. As an audience we see Hope go from having it all, to losing it all, to fighting (literally) to attain the former once more. The issue is the slow pace of the first half which eventually picks up once Forest Whitaker’s Tick Wills is introduced. You guessed it, Whittaker is the owner of a gym and he reluctantly becomes Hope‘s trainer. Gyllenhaal shares a touching chemistry with his co-star as together they embark on the boxers journey to emotional recovery. The leading man embodies his character appropriately and while he’s not entirely likeable his charectarisation is real and gritty as hell.

Fuqua knows how to direct his actors and because of this he prompts the best performance possible from all involved, with Laurence and McAdams both putting in stand-out supporting roles. While the ensemble is one of complete strength (and Hollywood appeal) – and a star might even have born in the shape of Oona Laurence – the story by Kurt Sutter lacks in all areas. There are several themes that could have been successfully explored, but the narrative becomes cliched and side-stories are never fully realised. The pacing is all wrong and there’s too much time spent studying a gym, rather than the people inside of it.

This is a good effort but it hasn’t got a patch on recent success story Creed.

Creed, review

What does it say about a film-maker when his second film is an inventive take on a familiar story that wins the hearts of critics and audiences, and the first was a sociopolitical feature that told the tragic story of a young man who had his life stolen from him? Unsurprisingly, it says a lot. It says that this film-maker, Ryan Coogler, is an absolute force to be reckoned with. It says he has drive, talent and a flare for contemporary cinema. It says he knows the rule-book but he’s not afraid to toss it out of the window when needed. Creed, the Rocky hit for a new generation, exemplifies the skill of Coogler as a young director who has a bright future behind the camera and a fierce bravery. Sylvester Stallone put his faith in the man, allowing him to direct, write, and develop the story almost single-handedly and it seemingly paid off.

Creed follows Adonis Johnson a.k.a Adonis Creed; the illegitimate child of Apollo, he is ready to prove his worth as a serious boxer, and relocates to Philadelphia to seek out Rocky for personal training Stallone steps up once again as the beloved Rocky Balboa, training Creed and teaching him discipline and respect. Michael B. Jordan – a firm favourite of Coogler – plays the titular boxer, and he’s good. Really good. Jordan was cemented in the minds of most film aficionados following his role in Fruitvale Station. That was an independent biopic exploring the shocking actions of Californian police, this is a blockbuster epic that takes audiences directly into the ring. In both, the actor exceeds expectations and embodies his roles appropriately. As Creed, Jordan exhibits a streak of rebellion and cockiness alongside a quiet gentleness and fragility that only present themselves at the necessary moments. Had the casting been different, the film could have gone down a precarious road.

Creed Movie Film Trailers Reviews Movieholic Hub

Creed Movie Film Trailers Reviews Movieholic Hub

Coogler is a director with an aesthetic eye, he knows what looks good and what should be where and he’s sure to work with his crew to utilise every aspect of a feature to create a finished product. Lighting is used effectively in the final fight sequence, while the score is important throughout – transcending a change in time and neighbourhood from that of the earlier Rocky films meaning Creed now stands independently (and audience-goers are likely eagerly awaiting a sequel). The film escapes genre cliches and a feeling of unwanted nostalgia by bypassing the cornier elements of 1970’s cinema perhaps seen in earlier efforts to deliver something truly contemporary. That modernism is needed in order to impress a new wave of viewers, but there’s this sense of remembrance that ties the feature together and welcomes back returning fans.

This is solid film-making that simply does not disappoint. At only 29 years old, director Coogler is one to seriously watch as he goes from strength to strength in his career as he takes his time to tell a story through his level of artistic brilliance. See it, love it.

 

Brooklyn, review

As far as film-making goes the John Crowley-directed, Nick Hornby-written Brooklyn is damn near flawless. With a wonderful screenplay, charismatic cast and envious costume design, the feature is a joy on the eyes as it transports you to another time. That time is the 1950’s, when the American Dream was a hope for many and immigration figures were tripling. We follow shy Irish girl Eilis to Brooklyn and back as she discovers herself and the life she seemingly wants to live.

John Crowley has taken a sentimental novel, written by Colm Toibin, and adapted it into a gorgeous film full of beauty and raw emotion, cleverly capturing the feeling of being young and lost and young and in love. Saorise Ronan portrays Eilis, Oscar-nominated for her role and rightfully so. If you ever had any doubts about the actress who has more than proved her on-screen talents, Crowley’s film will eradicate these surely. Ronan is sensational in her leading role, sure not to over-complicated Eilis – or more importantly, perfect her. Human like us all, the character is relatable and likeable and the transformation we see over a short 112 minutes is masterfully crafted by actress and director Crowley.

cohen and ronan in brooklyn

cohen and ronan in brooklyn

Supporting Ronan is Emory Cohen – almost unrecognisable here from his divergent role in The Place Beyond the Pines – and industry favourite Domhnall Gleeson, with added strength in the shape of Jim Broadbent and Julie Walters. The star in this exceptional ensemble is Cohen. He’s endearing as Tony, an Italian-American with more than enough personality, and even more beguiling charm than you’d expect from an actor who is slowly (but ever so surely) rising to Hollywood prominence – and his performance in Brooklyn should sure enough cement him as a force to be reckoned with. The chemistry he shares with Roman is so natural and innocent – the kind of schoolboy love that we all secretly wish we could experience. Crowley does well to translate this from page to screen without an aspect of uncomfortable cheese that is too often present in contemporary romances.

The entire cast comes together to form a full feature that is never lacking in presence or meaning. Hornby writes with a warmth film-goers have come to recognise and appreciate and he transcends a time in history without making this a boring historical feature. Brooklyn escapes the pitfalls of most romantic dramas to make this a beautiful – and timeless – piece of cinema that tugs on the heartstrings in all of the right ways. More than this, the movie shouldn’t just appeal to woman, or fans of Toibin’s novel, for it is a rounded narrative that escapes the normal ties of genre film-making, speaking from a place within us all as it explores what it is to be human as Eilis steps outside of her comfort zone for the first time.

See Brooklyn and as you do, let go of any preconceptions of what this genre is and can be, for Crowley loses them all and recreates it so effortlessly here.

Straight Outta Compton, review

You don’t have to like rap music to enjoy F. Gary Gray’s Straight Outta Compton. While an aversion to the genre might have some kind of sway on your initial choice of whether or not you should endeavour to see this film the movie, which stars an ensemble of incredible talent, isn’t just about the notorious N.W.A group. It’s about race, violence, society, and the somewhat corrupt music industry told through the lens of Gray from the perspective of three men who helped to shape rap. What those audience members didn’t previously know – at least in such intricate detail – was the impact that Eric ‘Eazy E’ Wright, Andre ‘Dr Dre’ Young, Ice Cube (and in fact the whole of N.W.A) had on how the rest of the world saw the treatment of lower-class America in the late 1980’s and 1990’s. Their songs contained profanity and explored themes of police brutality, they were met with hesitation from authorities and threats from the FBI, but N.W.A lifted the lid on life in Compton and gave others a voice, too; this is why Straight Outta Compton is so important.

The film begins pre super-stardom, set in Compton where if you’re black and stood on a corner of a street you’ll (apparently) be arrested for gang-banging. The opinion the feature has of police is clearly a negative one, but, as you discover as a spectator, rightly so. The first half or so is focused on creating a clear divide between N.W.A and the law, which stems from before Ice Cube penned the now infamous track Fuck Tha Police. You quickly get on-board with the foul-mouthed song as you learn that Ice Cube, Dre and many, many more young black men were the subject of racial police prejudice. The political side of Gray’s film is prominent, but not extreme as it hovers in the background when appropriate with writers Jonathan Herman and Andrea Berloff aware of possibly alienating audiences. The script is sensational; Insightful, emotional, and surprisingly witty, Herman and Berloff provided Straight Outta Compton with a screenplay that, had it landed in the wrong hands, could of been delivered ignorant and uninteresting. Even the 147 minute run-time isn’t an issue with Gray taking his time to carefully explore all angles of the life of N.W.A from the viewpoint of all three main hitters. With enough revelations to keep its audience pleased and a perfect fusion of life as a musician to life as a friend, son and husband, the feature is one of the best biopics of the last ten years. Who woulda’ thunk it?

The score speaks for itself, too. With non-diegetic music from the likes of Funkadelic and Parliment that produce 80’s nostalgia in the early moments of the feature; and live-music scenes recreated to perfection that create this sense of total awe; to Snoop Dogg coming in on Nuthin’ but a G Thang for the first time – it’s these individual junctures that ignite delight among the watching audience who were drawn in for the music legend. The actors who play the N.W.A founders: Jason Mitchel as Eazy, Ice Cube’s own son O’Shea Jackson and Corey Hawkins as Dre, deserve undeniable acclaim. The chemistry between the trio is brimming with brotherhood in the early years and charged when the lawsuit years begin, with not a music-biopic cliche insight. Eyes are opened wide when it comes to Eazy E as you walk away with Mitchel’s performance firmly in mind and Jackson is a complete revelation, channeling raw anger alongside this streak of sensibility – expect to see his career blow-up.

The cast of Straight Outta Compton

The cast of Straight Outta Compton

When the feature was initially released there was this slight controversy around the brushing over of certain behaviour, mainly towards the treatment of women. Most critics agreed this was a detail that is totally unpleasant but that if you watch the film and truly believe these young rappers were innocent you’re highly misguided. Straight Outta Compton is first and foremost about the birth of talented musicians and the rise (and fall) of those, and while every moment in those 10 or so years isn’t seen on-screen, the director and his producers (Dre, Cube and Tomica Woods-Wright) don’t shy away from the more shocking aspects of life as an N.W.A member. From hotel orgies and an arsenal of guns on a tour bus, to gang-bangers responsible for family deaths and Suge Knight’s psychotic behaviour at Death Row Records (Which Dre apparently overlooked for some time), this isn’t a rose-tinted overview of rap super-stardom. If anything, this is a tale that constantly reminds viewers (as if the title wasn’t enough) that Wright, Young and Cube didn’t forget their heritage and the effect of Compton on young men. The feature isn’t flawless and clearly not entirely accurate, but Gray attentively portrays key events with such thought,  including Eazy E’s death and the Rodney King trial – all of the while with Compton roots in mind.

Straight Outta Compton could of become a completely fallacious biopic were Dre and Cube not attached to the making of it. Gray directs with ease and a visual edge that depicts the changing of decades appropriately while an intelligent and Oscar-worthy screenplay and an ensemble who not only look like the real deal but clearly studied their characters to the highest extent possible support him. Dre, Eazy E, Ice Cube, and their story of revolutionary rap music is done total justice.

1001 Movies: Requiem for a Dream

Before we get started, a few little things to fill you in on:

I won’t be doing this series of reviews and articles in any kind of chronology, mainly due to the fact that the majority of the older movies I will need to buy and watch for the first time. Instead, I will kick off with a few from various decades that are all considered greats of cinema. These titles come from a book published in 2007, which is revised every year so I will, of course, be taking a gander at the revised versions to see which contemporary movies made the grade. And finally, every article will have a ‘Two Best Scenes’ section at the end to inspire you to give it a watch if you haven’t already.

I begin with a controversial film, one that I don’t actually particularly enjoy. It’s deep and dark, it portrays drug addiction in a brutal and uncomfortable way, but it’s a necessary watch for any film aficionado. Requiem for a Dream is directed by the eclectic film maker Darren Aronofsky and features a small ensemble of four: Jared Leto, Jennifer Connelly, Marlon Wayans and Ellen Burstyn. There are, of course, other characters, but they are minimally featured and not so important to the story. It is mother Sara, son Harry, girlfriend Marion and friend Tyrone who dominate this story with their downward spiral into recreational drug use to full-time junkie-dom. It was voted Empire magazines number one depressing movie of all time and it’s not surprising. But it’s pivotal and poignant (especially in a generation where drug addiction is so prevalent within the media).

connelly and leto in requiem for a dream

connelly and leto in requiem for a dream

Released in 2000, Aranofksy adapted the movie from the cult novel of the same name penned by Hubert Selby, Jr. With an 18 rating and painfully long run-time of 101 minutes of noir-ish visuals and hallucinogenic scenes, Requiem for a Dream is not a film you can enjoy. It is a film you can appreciate for its cinematic value and its promise to stay with you long after the final moments. Those final moments, in which we see four characters in the fetal position following imprisonment, limb amputation, and prostitution – all of which are the after effect of consistent drug use – are haunting. Played out alongside the spine-tingling instrumentals of Clint Mansell’s Summer Overture (which has been used many times since but doesn’t have the effect in which it does here), as a viewer you are left exhausted; emotionally and mentally. What have we just seen? Are these people going to be OK? They are characters in a fictional story, yet the tragic effect of drug abuse is so real and Aronofsky drums that into us during the feature.

While addiction is the focus theme there are myriad topics covered. From how Harry and co’ measure their lives based on the material objects they attain, to what success truly is and how it differs from one person to the next. Old women sit and commentate on the world that they see from their curb, Sara idolises her son and won’t let these observers forget it. We witness four relatively stable people go from the early stages of their want for drugs to the height of their need as it destroys them each in individual ways. Each character seeks a contentment, a true happiness, for they all have a demon and a void to contend with; whether that’s a dangerous issue with self-esteem or a woeful disposition towards love, director Aronofsky explores this through a scene-by-scene exploration of human behaviour. The fulfillment they each seek is attained through their high and lost through their sobriety.

Requiem for a Dream is fascinating in its unhinged exploration of what addiction truly is, and that lends to an uncomfortable watch. But, it’s naive to think this would be a rough ride finished with a rainbows and butterflies ‘they all got clean’ finale; this is Aronofksy and Selby, Jr’s outlook on life through the eyes of unstable, vulnerable people who have been sucked in and spat out by the consumerist world they live in. Get past that, and you’ll relish the film.

This is a must-see for any film fan, sixteen years old but as relevant now as it was upon release. Many believed, back in ol’ 2000, it should be screened in schools to warn young people of the effect of drug use, and if there’s any feature to do it, it would be this. Hard-hitting, undeniably moving and sickeningly real, Requiem for a Dream is one of a kind.

Two Best Scenes:

Ellen Burstyn as amphetamine-dependent widow Sara Goldfarb hallucinates as her fridge attacks her. Jumpy and canted camera work and an Oscar-worthy performance from Burstyn makes this scene emotional and distressing as the relentless fridge torments a lonely and addicted woman.

Jared Leto as the sweet but naive Harry gets doped-up in a green-lit den with pal Tyrone (Marlon Wayans). The camera sits unmoved in the corner of the room in a high-angle shot suggesting these two characters as lost young men during their journey to a drug-induce haze. Accompanied by Party, the scene explores the false happiness both Harry and Tyrone experience in this moment.

Let me know your take on this film in the comments box below!

2016: Five Films To Look Forward To

2016 is just around the corner and with it comes a fresh new batch of movies. Below are just a few of many that will grace our big and small screens in the New Year in a super speedy round-up of what to look out for. Watch out for an indie version coming soon!

And kind folks of the interwebs, this is based on UK release dates.

jordan and stallone in creed

jordan and stallone in creed

Creed – Director: Ryan Coogler, Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Tompson

2016 appears to be the year for filmic revivals, Creed being a spin-off of the much loved Rocky series. There are myriad reasons in which to get excited for this early-year release, including the direction of Ryan Coogler; the presence of his Fruitvale Station collaborator Michael B. Jordan; a return to the world of boxing, as seen through the tinted eye glass of Mr Sylvester Stallone, and a contemporary spin on a series that was becoming tired after six installments.

Suicide Squad – Director: David Ayer, Cast: EVERYBODY..Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Jai Courtney, Cara Delevingne 

David Ayer meets DC? Surely that’s a quick winner in itself. It’s a long wait until August to see this supervillain film which boasts the best in Hollywood acting talent, but if the trailer is anything to go by, Ayer’s portrayal of an America brimming with ‘gifted’ bad-guys is going to change the game for comic-book adaptations. With a Watchmen aura to it and an ensemble cast to please any cinephile, Suicide Squad and its team of anti-hero’s could just be the one to sway naysayers of the genre. Watch this space.

X-Men: Apocalypse – Director: Bryan Singer, Cast: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Nicholas Hoult

The new reboot of X-Men, in which Matthew Vaughn revitalised the old-hat series alongside a fresh-faced young cast of men and women was initially really pretty good. It all changed with the second installment which saw original director Bryan Singer come back on board. But, we can forgive the faux-pauses of Days of Future Past and gleefully welcome Apocalypse. Why, you ask? As briefly as it can be:

  • Tye Sheridan, Sophie Smith and Evan Peters are just three of many new actors joining the already beloved ensemble, with Apocalypse shaping up to be a satisfying entry into the series.
  • Apocalypse himself, played by Ex_Machina‘s shining star Oscar Isaac, looks like one of the most malevolent antagonists the franchise has had (and that’s really saying something).
  • The presence of Rose McGowan is always welcomed. Clearly.
russell and jackson in the hateful eight

russell and jackson in the hateful eight

The Hateful Eight – Director: Quentin Tarantino, Cast: Kurt Russell, Samuel L. Jackson, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen

Quentin Tarantino’s latest foray into the Western might seem like an obvious choice, but the auteur always surprises his audience with one or two tricks. He also always manages to nab a bloody fantastic cast of veteran actors who you kind of forgot about but who’s acting abilities are drawn out through the magic of the Tarantino vision. Django Unchained was universally loved and it wasn’t anywhere close to the directors best efforts (yes, Jackie Brown could just be the best) so its likely that The Hateful Eight will be on a similar par. A return from Reservoir Dogs co-stars Tim Roth and Michael Madsen will no doubt bring about nostalgia for long-standing fans of the enigma of a director, and it’s always Tarantino himself who audiences are so beguiled by.

Chi-Raq – Director: Spike Lee, Cast: Samuel L. Jackson, Nick Cannon, Wesley Snipes, Angela Bassett

Spike Lee’s latest cinematic effort is already out, but I figured it would probably take most us until the New Year to make the effort in viewing it. In a joint partnership with Amazon Studios, Lee brings back his urgent thematic content surrounding race and America with Chi-Raq, a film that – if it’s anything like its trailer portrays it to be – is unsure of its genre. It’s all a little up in the air thus far, with critical consensus being positive but public response drawing controversies from Lee’s portrayal of a contemporary Chicago swarmed in gun crime. Either way, Lee is back on our radar and his material is generally a winner – make this one to see.