10 Cloverfield Lane

10 cloverfield lane

In terms of marketing the Cloverfield franchise, as it is now, has been one of the most innovative of the 21st Century. When 2008’s Cloverfield trailer first dropped it was one of the cleverest and most impressive pieces of viral marketing ever produced. Using the growing success of Youtube as a launchpad and with social networking starting to consume the cyber sphere of the internet, getting people sharing the trailer through Facebook and Twitter prompted everyone to ask what is Cloverfield? Despite what you thought of the finished product the film made serious financial ‘bacon’ and in January 2016, two months before release, 10 Cloverfield Lane’s trailer dropped, the first mention of a supposed sequel and history repeated itself as people liked, shared and wondered what this new entity was.

Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) has left her husband and is driving across the country when she is involved in a traffic accident. She awakes restrained in an underground bunker and is greeted by Howard (John Goodman) who tells her there has been an apocalyptic event and he brought her to the bunker, saving her life in the process. There is another man in the shelter, Emmet (John Gallagher Jr.), but Howard says everyone else is now dead, and she cannot leave the shelter.

10 Cloverfield Lane is not connected to its predecessor, and according to J.J Abrams he hopes to turn Cloverfield into an anthology franchise telling separate stories that are linked by theme/genre but take place within separate universes. An interesting premise that takes the recognisable ‘brand’ of the Cloverfield name and applies it to original ideas to give them a wider audience appeal.

With a first time director at the helm (Dan Trachtenburg) I was surprised by the impressive use of control the film has. It utilises the cramped conditions to create tension between the characters using the claustrophobic setting to trap Michelle in a paranoia inducing space. The lack of privacy, coupled with the unknown motivations of the characters makes an intriguingly taut thriller. What really makes the film so fiercely watchable are the performances of the triumvirate of Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Gallagher Jr. and John Goodman. Winstead and Gallagher are both terrific; especially in the scenes their characters spend together. Their chemistry is fantastic, and the writing by Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken and Damien Chazelle (of Whiplash fame) allows the actors to take already great material and build upon it with a pair of hard working performances that amplifies the films unsettling atmosphere. Then there is John Goodman. Simply put, he nails it. As brilliant as the other performers are Goodman is a revelation, a pleasure to watch. A terrific actor, he manages to turn in a performance that is at times menacing, pitiable, hilarious and terrifying. Also I give a tip of the hat to Bear Mccreary for his tense and interesting musical score, after his rather uninspired work on The Boy, a welcome return to form.

The films climax may divide people with the direction it takes, however I found its final resolution highly fulfilling. 10 Cloverfield Lane takes a rather simple premise and excels beyond expectations through great direction, fine writing and storytelling and some wonderful performances by the three main players. I hope if you decide to visit 10 Cloverfield Lane, I do recommend it; that you are as entertained as I was.

**** stars out of *****

Review by Alexander Halsall

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Zootropolis

Zootopia

Zootropolis, or Zootopia as it is titled in America, an animated film in which animals take on anthropomorphic characteristics. The premise seems simplistic, and about as basic and unoriginal a filmic concept there could be. That it seems Disney animation studios are risking their current streak of success on something so ‘safe’ and seemingly ordinary by design prompted some to wonder whether Zootropolis would be the weakest film released by the studio in over a decade?

Zoo/tropolis/topia/city/town/province/Upon-Trent centres on Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) a rabbit with ambitions of being the first of her species to become a police officer. Despite making the force she is not respected by her colleagues, and is treated with disdain by her superior Chief Bogo (Idris Elba). However when a number of Zoovillages residents turn savage and vanish Judy must solve the case with the help of a street smart fox, Nick Wild (Jason Bateman), and restore natural order to the city.

Following upon the success of Tangled, Wreck-it-Ralph, Frozen and Big Hero 6, Zoohampton has quite the pedigree of expertise behind it. Seven different people have a story credit on Zoozealand, including Frozen co-director Jennifer Lee, Wreck-it-Ralph director Rich Moore (who also co-directs here), and Wall-e co-writer Jim Reardon amongst many other very talented individuals. Often such a roster of creativity would threaten to unbalance the film but Zooshire is a brilliantly equated film. Deftly sweeping between comedy and drama, and packing an emotional punch on numerous sombre occasions in the film. I mentioned earlier that Zooleftsandovertheroundabout seems quite a simplistic concept to a passing eye but the filmmakers utilise their world to comment upon racial, gender, and social prejudices that are cleverly manipulated for both comic and dramatic effect. At first I thought Zoo Fu Panda was an entertaining well written film with a positive thematic tone. However in the final third we are entreated with a deeper message that looks at the more entrenched fears of the characters and how our difference and upbringing can define upon us a subconscious bigotry. That we should never let our fear allow us define others as we see fit. Are they a threat, or am I just scared? This turned an already delightful feature into one that was both timely considering the current political landscape, and emotionally resonant. The casting of Ginnifer Goodwin and Jason Bateman is perfect and both deliver great performances managing to show their prowess for the comic requirements of the film, and also deliver at the integral dramatic exchanges throughout. Judy’s short monologue to Nick underneath the bridge (So I don’t spoil with anything more specific) felt sincere and powerfully expressive thanks to a combination of Goodwin’s performance and the animation of the character’s physicality.

It’s no surprise that the animation is beautifully detailed, you would expect no less. However Zoo York City is also brilliantly directed and paced perfectly. A difficult task combining the frenetic frivolity of the films action and comic sequences with a gentler tempo that manages to maintain the earnestness of the films more sensitive moments.

I had a delightful time seeing Zootropolis, the name change baffles me slightly but did allow me to display my awful sense of humour on numerous occasions. I hope if you’re reading this you have seen Zootropolis, or you plan on doing so, as I think it’s a wonderful experience for people of all ages and creeds. Except if you work for the DMV maybe? Though I think they would still have a hard time disliking Flash ‘the hundred yard dash’.

***** stars out of *****

Words conglomerated by Alexander Halsall

 

The Witch

The Witch

“Would you like to live deliciously?” This psychological horror, a debut feature of writer/director Robert Eggers, was a success at Sundance last year, winning the best directing award for a dramatic feature. Set in 17th century New England, America, in the early years of colonialism, a puritan family are banished from their plantation for vague, religion based, reasons. They move to an uninhabited area by a large forest. The family consist of William (Ralph Ineson) and Katherine (Kate Dickie), their oldest child Thomasin (Anya Taylor-Joy), son Caleb (Harvey Scrimshaw), twins Mercy and Jonas (Ellie Grainger & Lucas Dawson), and new born Samuel (I apologise to the baby/babies that played the part as I cannot find their names anywhere, my bad). When Samuel is snatched away by unseen forces the family begin to fear they are falling victim to a witch/assorted devilry.

The film manages to maintain a steady, restrained pace throughout without losing the viewer’s focus. I began feeling a haunting unease about five minutes in that barely let up until the end. Eggers control and restraint in his direction kept me gripped, along with a dazzling array of visual imagery that both enthrals and horrifies. The fiercely concise filmmaking keeps the narrative, and motivations of the characters clearly represented, and is complimented by Eggers equally precise script. The family’s unhealthy obsession with sin and their constant fear of its threat upon themselves and each other create a feeling of unease and almost inevitability of the carnage to come. Ineson and Dickie are terrific as the parents portraying the ever growing insanity of an isolated couple, whose guilt for the loss of Samuel, yet to be a baptised and therefore destined to burn in hell if not found, coupled with they’re paranoia towards their children whom they constantly suspect of sin leaves them desolate shards of ever decreasing humanity. Anya Taylor-Joy is also wonderful as Thomasin, the film as a whole portrays her with an ambiguity that Taylor-Joy’s performance compliments terrifically. Jarin Blaschke’s cinematography imbues The Witch with natural beauty, compromised by untamed landscapes. The seasonal elements of the winter reflect a mix of beauty and horror, like the witches that the family fear so much. This permeates through the mind so much more powerfully thanks to Robert Korven’s hazardous, unsubtle musical score which assaults the audience with a harsh powerful cacophony of strings.

I guess what I’m trying to say is I really enjoyed this film, and I hope you take the chance to check it out. At my screening I overheard other viewers who seemed less than impressed with what they saw, or simply confused. I feel the Witch could be a highly divisive film, which even for those who dislike it will inspire discussion through its powerfully unerring aesthetic.

***** out of *****

Review by Alexander Halsall

Kung Fu Panda 3

Kung Fu Panda 3

We re-join China’s premier fighting panda for the third film of the Kung Fu Panda series, now eight years old and a billion dollar franchise covering multiple media platforms (not too shabby by any Panda’s standards). Po (Jack Black) is reunited with his real father (Bryan Cranston) however his joy is short lived as Kai (J.K Simmons) a supernatural kung fu warrior has escaped from the spirit realm by stealing the Chi of deceased warriors, including Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) our favourite, possibly stoned, turtle, outside of Finding Nemo. To defeat this new opponent Po must master his own chi with the help of his father, his adoptive father, Master Shifu, the furious five, a village full of various pandas, and a large selection of various anthropomorphic kung fu masters, including my favourite, Master Chicken (whose wisdom I bow to).

With a lot of plot going on, and a running time of only 95 minutes the film moves along at a brisk pace, keeping the narrative and conflict simple as to maintain cohesion within the story. Jack Black’s high energy performance style has always been perfectly suited to the martial arts loving panda, and even as he continues to learn, and discover new abilities and skills, at his core he is a fan, and his enormous enthusiasm for kung fu is highly infectious and difficult to dislike. With a large ensemble there is not much breathing room for a lot of the characters to make an impact, the furious five, Tigress aside, do little more than cameo. Whilst Bryan Cranston is both heartfelt and amusing as Po’s long lost father. J.K Simmons brings as much to the part of Kai as he can, and is a powerful presence for Po to try and overcome. The surprise of the film was the amount of time given to Po’s adoptive father Mr. Ping (James Hong), who I assumed would take a back seat in the narrative, but refuses to let the return of Po’s father get in way of their paternal bond. This leads to a few hit and miss gags between the rival fathers, but culminates in some worthwhile dramatic moments later in the film and James Hong’s vocal performance was a highlight of the feature.

The animation is delightfully colourful, with a rich texture to the backgrounds, the ‘Spirit World’ being a vibrantly designed arena full of splendorous colour. Hans Zimmer’s score complements the visuals with a heady mix of western and eastern influences, the fusion of strings and percussion in the action sequences is perfectly suited to the fast paced direction, and slick, amusing fight choreography. Zimmer co-scored the previous two Kung Fu Panda films with John Powell, but this time rides solo, and does a fabulous job of supplying the film with an excess of urgency and boisterous energy.

Po’s enthusiasm makes him an enjoyable screen presence and there are enough amusing jokes, pulsating action sequences, and highly talented animators working behind the scenes to make it an enjoyable time. Dreamworks CEO Jeff Katzenberg has hinted in the past that he envisions Kung Fu Panda as a minimum six film series so we may yet see more of Po & co. I only hope that if they do decide to continue the series that they can maintain the standard they have set with this enjoyable trilogy of pandamonium. I’m sorry, I couldn’t resist. I’ll just go sit in the corner.

*** out of *****

Review by Alexander Halsall

Hail Caesar

Hail Caesar

Baird Whitlock delivering a dramatic monologue, pretty much all he’s good for.

Hail, Caesar – Review

The Coen Brothers are amongst the most critically acclaimed filmmakers of the last three decades having worked in a range of genre, whilst their films maintain a unique identity that categorises their individuality as artists. They are regarded as a pair of western cinemas most highly skilled writers and directors, and as such have garnered massive success. So it is hardly a surprise to see Hail, Caesar packed with A – list talent throughout the entire ensemble, attracted to performing in the work of modern American cinema’s finest creators.

Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin) is a producer/fixer for Capitol pictures, a top studio in Hollywood, and is caught up in a conspiracy when Baird Whitlock (George Clooney), the star of Capitol’s latest biblical epic Hail, Caesar, is kidnapped. Mannix needs to retrieve his big name star whilst also dealing with the problems of everyone else at his studio from directors and actors, to gossip columnists, and manic editors.

To say the plot strays in Hail, Caesar would be inaccurate, as it more often intrudes on the fascinating madcap misdeeds of the populace of capitol pictures. The narrative is swept aside so that we can be entreated to aquatic symphony sequences with DeeAnna Moran (Scarlett Johansson), a song and dance number featuring Hobie Doyle (Channing Tatum), and watch as acclaimed thespian director Laurence Laurentz (Ralph Fiennes) attempts to draw a nuanced acting display from western star Hobie Doyle (Alden Ehrenreich), the results of which left me in a fit of laughter I could aptly describe as painful. These entertaining interludes are the highlight of the film both satirising and paying homage to the golden age of Hollywood. The films setting at the beginning of the 1950s allows it to analyse the declining years of the studio system, and the effect this caused on Hollywood produced cinema. As well as poke fun at the media frenzy surrounding taboo subjects of the time such as homosexuality, pregnancy outside of wedlock, and communist sympathisers, with Tilda Swinton pulling double duty portraying a pair of twins, who happen to be rival journalists.

The films narrative is somewhat unimportant in the grand scheme, with Mannix’s personal guilt being a somewhat amusing side note but is also seemingly arbitrary, and against the ludicrous insanity of the ensemble uninteresting. Brolin’s performance is entertaining, showing nice comic touches, and his efforts in displaying Mannix’s weariness and guilt are impressive, if not supremely effective in the narrative. The ensemble as a whole are ferociously energetic, and the rhythm of the scenes is always flawless, a credit to the cast and the work of the Coen’s direction, writing and editing.

Hail, Caesar is effectively a collection of entertaining scenes recalling a dubiously fascinating period in Hollywood’s history, the majority of which are consistently hilarious. That Hail, Caesar never really rises above this is, I suppose, a criticism, though I do still enjoy the film for its entertaining asides and splendidly presented humour. Carter Burwell’s music adds texture to the period setting, without being uniquely splendid, whilst Roger Deakins cinematography captures the various tones of the era beautifully to deliver a visually pleasing tribute of the golden age. I heartily recommend Hail, Caesar as a consistently entertaining comedy buoyed by great performances by Brolin, Johansson, Tatum, Fiennes, and Ehrenreich, and a sharp witted script, that, despite its unfocussed narrative, will entertain you as much as it did me.

*** STARS out of *****

Review by Alexander Halsall

Deadpool

Deadpool – A review

The latest superhero film from 20th Century fox, directed by Tim Miller, starring Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, Ed Skrein, and TJ Miller, has been a long time in the making. Deadpool’s ascent to the big screen has been a long, slippy, road and has taken years of development and passionate appraisal from Miller and Reynolds to finally get released (with the help of some ‘leaked footage’ a couple of years ago). Having been in limbo for some years it’s impossible not to relish the critical and commercial success that has come Deadpool’s way in the preceding couple of weeks.

Wade Wilson (Reynolds) is a former Special Forces operative, now acting as a freelance mercenary, when he meets Vanessa (Baccarin) and the pair begin a relationship, with some lewd, hilarious laughs along the way. However their happiness is cut short when Wade is diagnosed with terminal cancer. In desperation to be cured he offers himself up for experimentation by the mysterious Ajax (Skrein) and his accomplice Angel (MMA fighter Gina Carano), however something goes horribly wrong and now Wilson is out for vengeance.

Tim Miller does a fine job balancing the, shall we say, extreme humour with the dramatic scenes and manages to maintain the tone of the comic with its profane shock humour making it a stand out cinematic treat amongst the numerous superhero films released this year. The dialogue is, for the most part, satisfyingly voracious, and well delivered by the entire ensemble. Reynolds own the film, and is perfectly cast as the abhorrent non-hero with plenty of enthusiasm and gallows humour like wit, and is clearly having the time of his life bringing something that has now become a passion project to the screen. Baccarin matches Reynolds energy step for step as Vanessa a role that originally seems quite vibrant and well rounded, but does fall into the same superhero’s girlfriend clichés that we’ve come to expect as the film goes on. However Baccarin works round the scripts limits brilliantly and is a pleasure, especially in the scenes where Vanessa is allowed to let her own lascivious humour loose. Ed Skrein’s Ajax is appropriately sinister, and interestingly cast. You would usually expect an older actor in the role. Skrein does perhaps lack the charisma and gravitas of a more experienced hand, but as the focus of Deadpool’s obsession he delivers an unapologetically rotten character with as much disdain as he can. Miller’s direction is fast paced, quickly edited, but concise and focussed at the same time so the action is frenetic, whilst maintaining clarity. The films limited budget does keep the set piece locations somewhat isolated and sparse, such as abandoned warehouses and scrap yards. So I do believe that a sequel with a larger budget, an inevitability following the financial success of the film, would be something to look forward too.

In a calendar year littered with high profile superhero films Deadpool has thrown down the gauntlet with a uniquely carnivorous sense of humour, and a meta-cinematic inimitability which I enjoyed tremendously. This Merc with a mouth gets a firm recommendation from me for his first big screen outing and I look forward to seeing him back in the future with a replenished arsenal of crass, ballistic mayhem to entertain us in the years to come.

**** stars out of *****

Review by Alexander Halsall