Black Mirror Season 3 Review

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Despite the move from British Channel 4 to the American Netflix, Black Mirror, as it enters its third season is still the same show many viewers and critics fell in love with. For those who are unaware, the series, created by Charlie Brooker is an anthology science-fiction series in the vein of The Twilight Zone. Each episode is a clever examination of how technology amplifies human flaws.

It’s clear from even the early moments from season three that Netflix has increased the series budget. Whereas many episodes from the Channel 4 we’re often set in just one or two locations – “Fifteen Million Merits”, “The Entire History of You” or “Be Right Back”, there is a vastness in terms of place to these new batch of entries. Perhaps, it’s down to the blend of British and American actors or the result of a multi-national production but the apparently “perfect” world of first episode, “Nosedive”, feels global and lived-in. Even the second episode, “Playtest”, which for the most part takes place in one house, begins with its central character, in montage, travelling around the world.

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Wyatt Russell in the Dan Trachtenberg directed “Playtest”

However, even with this change of locations, Brooker, for the most part, sticks to the formula that made the series a success. He takes things about society that the viewer recognises and warps them to disturbing measure. The tough but rewarding Nosedive, centring around a world where humans rate each other after human interactions, draws upon real-life apps like Hailo or Tinder. Playtest takes the developing concept of virtual reality and spins it into the stuff of nightmares. Third episode, “Shut Up and Dance”, uses growing paranoia regarding Internet surveillance as the jumping off point for its tense and thrilling hour of television.

Brooker is very good at staying ahead of his audience. He doesn’t immediately plunge viewers into his sci-fi worlds. Instead, the creator subtly and slowly doles out the relevant information. It works two-fold because this method of storytelling curbs the need for dull plot-exposition while also causing each new reveal to feel like a surprising twist.

The writer is also skilled at managing to constantly unsettle his audience. Just as one feels as if they understand what direction a story is headed, he throws out a curveball putting the viewer’s theory out of whack. Brooker isn’t afraid of occasionally pulling an M. Night Shyamalan end reveal but generally, most of the twists he employs are minor. In Shut Up and Dance, the lead character (played by a brilliant Alex Lawther – young Alan Turing in The Imitation Game) is forced by a shady network to deliver a package. As he peeks inside, the viewer expects to witness something sinister, but all the protagonist sees is a seemingly harmless cake reading “I Love You”. It’s only a small moment but it subverts the audience’s expectations, as well as also making them more curious about why the pastry is important.

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Gugu Mbatha Raw and Mackenzie Davis in “San Junipero”

Of the four episodes I’ve watched for Black Mirror’s third season (there are six), the first three play very much like the series during its Channel 4 run. This is not a criticism as Brooker’s anthological premise keeps proceedings feeling fresh. However, he is taking risks. Fourth episode “San Junipero” is a departure from anything previously seen on Black Mirror – a positive representation of technology. Starring Free State of Jones’ Gugu Mbatha Raw and Halt and Catch Fire’s Mackenzie Davis (who are both incredible) the episode plays like Todd Haynes’ Carol but with a futuristic spin. It’s intoxicating, sensual and heart-warming, something no person could ever accuse Black Mirror of being previously. It’s good to see that despite a bigger corporation funding Brooker’s vision, he continues to take artistic gambles.

Free State of Jones Review

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Free State of Jones is a perfect example of a movie that struggles to reconcile its clearly fascinating true-life subject matter with its Hollywood narrative. Matthew McConaughey stars as Newton Knight, a man who begins the film as a nurse for the Confederate Army during the American Civil War. However, he grows disillusioned upon seeing the bloodshed and his son among the dead. Knight deserts, forming a community with other deserters and runaway slaves and in response to the injustices committed by the Confederates, leads a rebellion against them.

While the opening twenty minutes of the film are excellently tense, highlighting the worst of the notoriously bloody Civil War, as Free State continues, it devolves into a cousin of Roland Emmerich’s The Patriot. This isn’t necessarily all bad. There is a joy to watching a grizzled McConaughey (the McConaissance lives on) and his compatriots outwit agents of the violent and racist Confederacy. However, in tackling such a dense period of history (which would be better suited fleshed-out in a HBO miniseries), writer-director Gary Ross (The Hunger Games) can’t prevent his movie feeling like a visually pleasing college history lecture. This becomes especially apparent in Free State’s final third – where slavery is abolished, rich white landowners discover loopholes to allow them to keep exploiting their former slaves, black people receive a right to vote and the Ku-Klux-Klan is formed – all within ten minutes. The film addresses these key moments in history without going into them in any depth.

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Mahershala Ali and Gugu Mbatha-Raw 

The characters, also, have little complexity. Surely, the most interesting part of Newton Knight’s story to a screenwriter would be his romantic relationship to the African-American Rachel (Gugu Mbatha Raw). Something reinforced by the fact that Jeff Nichols’ upcoming historical drama Loving solely focuses on the extreme controversy of an inter-racial marriage almost one-hundred years after Newton. Yet, aside from some hand-holding, the film barely addresses the two’s relationship. In fact, Knight spends more time in the film with his black friend Moses (House of Cards’ Mahershala Ali), and Rachel only pops up briefly whenever the plot demands.

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As mentioned above, the film, in condensing the history on which its based, has pacing problems. These are amplified, however, by the addition of a hokey sub-plot, whereby the movie jumps 85 years in time to the trial of Newton’s great-great-great grandson. Despite his white skin, he is technically one-eighth black and is arrested for marrying his white wife. Although, I understand the inclusion of this narrative device (it adds supposed heft to Newton and Rachel’s relationship and highlights that despite our central hero’s best efforts, racism is a still prevalent), it jars for a number of reasons. Brian Lee Franklin as Davis Knight is noticeably poor, his story (although historically accurate) has almost nothing to do with Newton’s rebellion and its placement within the narrative is messy, causing the film to feel jumbled.

Verdict: 2/4

Despite writer-director Gary Ross’ noble intentions, some decent performances and a nicely gritty, at times, authenticity, Free State feels drained of energy and vitality. Its story is undoubtedly powerful but it has become stilted in its abridgment.

Sausage Party Review

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The majority of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg’s creative output feel like ideas spawned from smoking too much marijuana. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Movies like The Interview or This is the End capture pretty endearingly the tone of being intoxicated with friends and joking about what “awesome” ideas should be in their script. However, the 16 rated Sausage Party is where the joke becomes a little old. Despite moments of charm and invention, the film displays one of the major problems associated with stoner movies – the central gag becomes old quickly.

Sausage-Party-Character-Poster-2.jpgRogen and his many cronies voice food products in a supermarket. Their dream is to be picked up by the Gods (human customers) and brought to the great beyond. However, when one item is returned and spreads a rumour that they’ll all be viciously killed once they are chosen, it leads to chaos.

To its credit, the film has some intelligence. It’s central allegory for religion, although not complex, is at times very witty and stays consistent throughout. There is an entertaining subplot in which a Jewish bagel (voiced by Edward Norton – doing a Woody Allen impression) feuds with a Muslim lavish over how close they are on their shelf.

However, the dialogue for the most part is very weak. It’s as if Rogen and co were testing how many C and F bombs they could fit in their script, which would not be a problem if there were a lot of jokes in-between the swears. Instead, there are long patches of Sausage Party which don’t even illicit a chuckle.

The movie is sort of saved by an ambitiously bonkers third act (and an even crazier meta final scene). However, it only serves to make one wish Sausage Party had been that audacious from the start. Instead the majority of the animation is puerile swearing and food puns. That may be enough for many people, but from the pen of the people who made This is the End, we should want more.

Verdict: 2/4

Why HBO’s The Night of is Essential TV

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HBO has had a rocky last few years. Although, they air, arguably, the most critically acclaimed and watched drama in the world at the minute (Game of Thrones), the TV network has suffered some serious set-backs recently. Much of their recent output – Martin Scorsese’s Vinyl (which cost a reported $100 million to produce), the Laura Dern starring Enlightened, political satire The Brink, Damon Lindelof’s Lost follow up The Leftovers, season two of critical darling True Detective and the Duplass brothers’ Togetherness – suffered from either mixed reviews or a lack of viewers (sometimes both), leading to mass cancellations. They also spent a ton of money on shows which didn’t even make it to air such as Oscar-winner Steve McQueen’s Codes of Conduct, as well as two shows by Fight Club director David Fincher. On top of this, their next series expected to fill the void of Game of Thrones, Westworld, is reported to have suffered behind-the-scenes complications, having its premiere date postponed numerous times.

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John Turturro and Riz Ahmed

The above are all the reasons why HBO must be delighted with the surprise success of their crime-drama The Night of, an adaptation of BBC’s Criminal Justice by director Steven Zaillian (A Civil Action) and writer Richard Price (The Wire). The show tells the story of Naz (played by terrific character actor Riz Ahmed – Nightcrawler, Jason Bourne), a college student of Pakistani descent, who takes his father’s taxi out one night in order to go to a party. On the way, he is unable to turn off the cab’s light and a mysterious woman named Andrea (Sofia Black D’Elia) enters the car. The two drink, take pills, snort coke and have sex. The next morning, Naz awakens to find Andrea brutally killed. With his DNA all over the crime scene, Naz panics and attempts to flee but is eventually reprimanded by police for driving under the influence. Discovering his link to Andrea, Detective Box (an amazing Bill Camp) charges Naz for the murder. By chance, John Stone (John Turturro), a small-time lawyer with shades of Better Call Saul’s Jimmy McGill, begins to represent the accused.

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Bill Camp as Det. Box

The Night of is a show which constantly feels more intelligent than it has any right to be. For instance, take its pilot, entitled The Beach.  At this point, how many times have viewers seen “the wrong man” plot utilised in TV and film. By now, it’s a staple of detective drama. How can somebody prove their innocence when all the evidence points to them? While, The Night of does not radically alter the format, it does interesting things with the trope. The Beach is almost as long than as a feature length movie, yet everything happens exactly as one would expect. However, the extra time is what makes the pilot so effective. One is aware the second Andrea enters Naz’s taxi that something terrible is about to happen. Yet, the show builds tension out of audience expectation, holding the camera longer at certain points, creating a sense of impending doom. Zaillian spends an agonizing amount of time focusing on Naz touching a knife (to cut limes for tequila) or on the gaze of observer of Naz and Andrea – all things which will be used against the protagonist in court at a future point. There Will Be Blood and Nightcrawler cinematographer Robert Elswit (who only worked on the pilot, laying an aesthetic groundwork for future D.O.P’s), contributes so much to the show’s menacing atmosphere. As Vikram Murthi of Vulture wrote: “he treats the frame like a shadowy Hell closing in on Naz”.

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Following the end of the pilot, in which John Turturro’s quirky lawyer character appears, The Night of develops into a more standard crime show. However, even then the series brings ingenuity to the format in spades. Richard Price, who wrote each episode of The Night of broadcast so far (four out of eight), is a crime novelist who has also worked on acclaimed dramas such as The Wire. As a result, he brings to the show a heightened authenticity in both dialogue and the events which transpire. There are little moments where the show shifts away from Naz in order to portray the real-life goings on of a police-station or of the criminal justice system, complete with realistic legislative jargon and casual bureaucratic errors.

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Also, in adapting the original British five-part series into an eight-partner, Price mutates the show into something similar to The Wire. Like the Baltimore set drama, The Night of uses its central story as a means of analysing something greater, in this case the different facets of the criminal justice system. For instance, we see the district attorney (played by Jeannie Berlin – excellent) who wants to save money by offering plea deals to avoid cases going to trial. We spend time with the detectives who are angered their suspects are receiving concessions. We get glimpses of a celebrity lawyer (played by Glenne Healy – brilliantly conniving) who takes controversial cases for free to gain exposure but cares little about ethics or about her client. Perhaps most interestingly, the show analyses the hierarchy on the other side of the law – in Rikers – New York’s main jail complex – where Naz finds himself awaiting trial. There, the richest criminal (Michael K. Williams – Omar in The Wire) bribes the guards in order to gain supplies, essentially becoming king of the prison.

While many critics have grown a little infuriated with John Stone’s subplot regarding his battle with eczema, I actually think it serves the drama well, adding levity and personality to the show. Some have argued it’s a metaphor for the justice system itself – like his feet, Stone depends on the criminal justice system to live but its infected. If I have a complaint at all, it’s that I want more of the other character’s personal struggles such as Bill Camp’s quiet, world-weary but arrogant Det. Box (he steals every scene).

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Sophia Black D’Elia as the deceased Andrea

The show, in its first four episodes, actually spends very little time on the investigation itself. However, there are one or two clues subtly placed in each episode that may hint at the true culprit for Andrea’s murder (or not if its anything like HBO’s similarly slow but hypnotic True Detective). For instance, Andrea’s step-father (House of Cards’ Paul Sparks) acts quite shady upon seeing his daughter’s slain corpse and is later seen arguing with a young man at her funeral. However, Andrea was a very enigmatic character (Naz only learned her name after being arrested) with a dark past slowly being uncovered so it is entirely possible, we haven’t met her killer yet. Either way, The Night of is the hit HBO needed (it already has three times the viewership of Vinyl) and is essential for T.V fanatics looking for the next True Detective or The Wire.

Underseen or Undervalued – Fear X

This is a feature in which I re-evaluate films which I feel did not get the critical and commercial success they deserved.

Fear X was Nicolas Winding Refn’s third film. It was the follow-up to his tremendously successful debut Pusher and his second film Bleeder, which was a huge hit in his home country of Denmark. Fear X, his first work in the English language, was his chance to break into the mainstream. It starred John Turturro (Barton Fink & O Brother, Where Art Thou?) and its script was written by Herbert Selby Jr. of Requiem for a Dream fame, an art-house film which wound up becoming a commercial and critical success. Turturro plays Harry, a security guard whose wife, Kate, is killed in a seemingly random incident. Prompted by mysterious visions, he journeys to discover the true circumstances surrounding her murder. Fear X at the time was seen as a failure. Its loss resulted in Refn’s film company Jang Go Star going into bankruptcy. The debt was so large that it forced Refn to direct two sequels to Pusher in order to break even and it wasn’t until Bronson and Drive that the director became commercially and critically acclaimed on both sides of the pond. Why did Fear X fail at the box-office and only receive middling reviews? There are numerous reasons for this which I will touch upon as I write. However, the main point of this piece is to encourage people to seek out the film, as it is, in my opinion, a genuinely interesting and unsettling film.

FearX_RedFace.jpgFor me, the film can be read as the blueprint for Refn’s signature style. Like his later work, Bronson, Valhalla Rising, Drive and Only God Forgives, there is a strong contrast between colours. The film’s exterior shots are mostly roads and fields covered in Wintry snow. However, this is then juxtaposed with a recurring dream sequence of what appears to be man trapped under bright red latex trying to escape, symbolising Harry’s anger and resentment for not being able to protect his wife. When Harry is confronted with the truth towards the end of the film, there is a sequence in which his anger is set free and manifests itself in a bright red light accompanied to a series of disturbing images. In an interview in regards to Drive, Refn explained his colour palette ‘I’m colour-blind, I can’t see mid-colours. That’s why all my films are very contrasted, if it were anything else I couldn’t see it’.

Also, Fear X’s protagonist shares similarities with many of Refn’s later central characters such Tommy in Pusher II or the unnamed driver of Drive. All three are people who at first appear stagnant or unwilling to change their ways. Yet, due to uncontrollable circumstances (Driver’s love for Irene, the news Tommy has a child, Harry’s wife’s death) undergo key changes. Refn on the topic has stated: ‘I’ve always liked characters that because of the circumstances, have to transform themselves, and in the end, it’s inevitable that what they end up becoming is what they were meant to be’ – AV Club Interview, 2012.

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While on the topic of the central character, it cannot be overstated how great Turturro’s performance is. He is absolutely heart-breaking. Harry, although smiling when talking with co-workers and family, always looks like he could break down at any second into tears. The actor, famed for playing brash and over the top characters, has never been more nuanced and more compelling.

One of the main reasons for critics and fans dissatisfaction with Fear X was the lack of resolution. Although, the audience leave the film with the knowledge of who killed Kate, the details are still very hazy and although Harry accepts that he will never truly know the full circumstances regarding the event, the audience is left with just as many questions as answers. However, Fear X can be equally read as a trojan horse of a film. Although we are, at first, attracted to the movie because we want to find out what happened to Harry’s wife, the truly intriguing aspect of the film is how it depicts a simple, kind man trying and failing to cope with such an overwhelming circumstance. Like what would probably happen in real life, Harry never truly finds the answers (there is a scene in which Harry is not present, in which the reason for Kate’s death is partially revealed).

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Behind the scenes of Fear X

The filmmaker whose inspiration looms over the film is unquestionably David Lynch. The early scenes of the film in which Harry obsessively watches and re-watches security footage of the accident and the days surrounding it for clues, evoke the creeping paranoia of the surveillance scenes in Lost Highway, a film which also never reveals the reasons for the events that transpire.

 

The Anarchists [DVD Review]

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The Central Anarchists: Adele Exarchopoulos, Karim Leklou, Swann Arlaud and Tahar Rahim

MV5BMTA5NTc5MDc5ODheQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU4MDQ4NjA2NDgx._V1_UX182_CR0,0,182,268_AL_.jpgAlthough at heart, The Anarchists is the type of thriller where the protagonist goes undercover in a tight-knit community a la Point Break or Donnie Brasco or the upcoming The Infiltrator, it feels classier. This is to do with the time in which it takes place: Paris in 1899. Its story may be simple but The Anarchists’ period setting, gorgeously recreated by D.O.P David Chizallet (Mustang) with the help of some ace set and costume design, goes a long way to helping the film stand out from the pack of similarly plotted movies.

The story centres upon Jean (A Prophet’s Tahar Rahim), a former orphan, now working as a Parisian policeman. Due to his lack of family and supposed lack of political leanings, he is chosen to infiltrate a gang of anarchists. After a staged raid by police, Jean saves Elisee (Swann Arlaud), a high-ranking member of the group. Immediately taken under the wing of Elisee, despite doubts by other members (Guillaume Gouix), he becomes involved in the gang’s illegal activities – mainly robberies of graves, homes and banks in order to fund their lifestyle. However, when Jean begins an affair with Elisee’s girlfriend, Judith (Palme d’Or winner Adele Exarchopoulos, Blue is the Warmest Colour), it threatens both his mission and his ties to the anarchists.

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As mentioned in my opening paragraph the film looks terrific. Sunlight beams through the high windows of lavish French apartments and libraries, only illuminating parts of the rooms, creating an atmosphere of gloominess, mirroring Jean’s mental state.

However, while its look and setting may be the only aspect of The Anarchists that separates it from other police-infiltration thrillers, that doesn’t mean it’s the only thing worth recommending. Director and co-writer Elie Wajeman (along with Gaelle Mace) recreate the story beats of these types of movies with great aplomb. There are numerous tense set-pieces such as when Jean’s cover is almost blown by a former girlfriend or when a letter proving Jean’s involvement with the police is almost discovered by the gang.

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The film is impeccably cast. Jean’s boss tells him early on he was selected because he “inspires trust”. Tahar Rahim is perfect for the role because his entire career thus far (A Prophet, Grand Central, The Last Panthers) has been characters, trapped in tough situations, who are instantly likeable. He radiates warmth without having to say a lot. That’s not to say his Jean is a one-note hero, however. When Jean has to shift his emotions to keep up his cover, Rahim is well up to the task, as evident by the scene in which he threatens his ex.

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Adele Exarchopoulos is equally brilliant, doing a lot with her character torn by conflicting passions. Judith is a stronger and better written love interest than the norm in movies such as this. Unlike a typical gangster’s moll, she is actively involved in the anarchist’s dealings, giving impassioned speeches at secret rallies and breaking into lavish homes. Because we like the character so much, the love affair plot, traditionally the weakest in movies of this kind, is actually the most interesting. When her and Rahim are on-screen together, they add a real spark and flair to proceedings.

Verdict: 3.5/4

While it doesn’t subvert many of the tropes of the police-infiltration thriller, The Anarchists improves on the formula of the genre through its exquisite recreation of fin-de-siecle Paris, its great central performances and its strong characters.

Stranger Things Review

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strangerthingsposter.jpgNetflix’s latest original series Stranger Things literally drips 80’s nostalgia. Creators The Duffer Brothers affectionately coat every aspect of the show with homages to the period. Set in 1980s Indiana, the story possesses shades of the child-like wonder and enchantment of Steven Spielberg’s E.T (1982). However, it also features the creepiness and young characters one finds in the wave of Stephen King adaptations from that time (Christine, Silver Bullet, Stand by Me). The show’s synth score brings to mind eighties’ auteur John Carpenter (a poster for The Thing is seen in the background at one point). Also, the period’s technology – ham-radios, rotary phones and BMX’s –  is integral to Stranger Things’ plot.

The show revolves around the two interlocking stories. After spending the day with his friends Mike (Finn Wolfhard), Dustin (Glenn Matarazzo) and Lucas (Caleb McLaughin), young boy Will Byers (Noah Schnapp) disappears after being chased by a mysterious monster. His divorced mother, Joyce (Winona Ryder), with the help of alcoholic, disillusioned police chief, Jim Hopper (David Harbour, not playing a total jerk for once), attempts to find him. Meanwhile, Will’s friends, conducting their own investigation into the disappearance, stumble upon a mysterious young girl (Millie Bobby Brown), branded with the number eleven, who has escaped a shady government facility.

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David Harbour and Winona Ryder

From the two episodes I’ve seen, Stranger Things succeeds in entertaining the viewer by fully embracing its influences. It’s certainly derivative and seems to exist solely as a throwback to a different time in film. However, as a cinefile, it’s fun to spot the references to 80’s culture and The Duffer Brothers seem to understand what made movies like E.T and Stand by Me classics, harnessing these elements into their own show. Stranger Things, like these older films, features extremely likable characters (the kids, thankfully, are less annoying than typical movie children), witty banter between both the child characters and Joyce and Jim, as well some nicely tense set-pieces. Also, its central mystery, despite various elements being plucked from previous movies, is intriguing and will have viewers curious to see where the season will go over its eight episode run.

Ghostbusters Review

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Mellissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon, Kristin Wiig, Leslie Jones

As much as I would rather ignore it, it’s impossible to discuss Bridesmaids and Spy director Paul Feig’s reboot of Ghostbusters without referencing the controversy it has provoked. The news that the Bill Murray starring franchise was to be updated with female leads became a sounding board for male chauvinists to spew vitriol at the opposite gender. The film’s IMDB page became flooded with one-star reviews from illiterate men, who can barely string a sentence or a concrete opinion together, referring to the movie as “a man-hating mess”, “Ghostbuster tampons” and “reverse sexism” (all from the first three reviews I saw on the site). This hate was then fuelled by a widely accepted poorly cut trailer, giving these men’s rights activists in waiting ammunition.

ghostbusters-poster-kate-mckinnon.jpegWhen this type of phenomena happens, one wants the film to be enjoyable and profitable in order to prove that it is possible for women to headline in the male-dominated blockbuster market (where is Marvel’s Black Widow movie?). What a pleasure to report that, despite some flaws, the reboot is an overall success.

The film begins with Silicon Valley’s Zach Woods (always a welcome presence) as a tour guide in a luxurious haunted house featuring a “face-bidet” and an “anti-Irish fence”. He is spooked by a spectral entity and inquires for the help of Erin (Kristin Wiig), a college professor and former ghost enthusiast. Erin, who has struggled to be taken seriously in academic circles due to her past obsession with paranormal activity, is angered when the book she wrote: Ghosts from the Past: Both Literally and Figuratively – has found its way to Amazon. She tracks down the book’s co-writer Abby Yates (Mellissa McCarthy) and through a series of events, has her belief in ghosts restored. The two, as well as Abby’s new partner Holtzmann (Kate McKinnon) and Patty (Leslie Jones), a witness to the ghostly antics, begin to investigate the reason for the ghoulish resurgences.

While the film suffers from the lack of belly-laughs associated with previous Feig/McCarthy collaborations, it does deliver in terms of quick zingers and memorable one-liners (one in particular addressing the sexism controversy is very funny). Feig and co-writer Katie Dippold (Parks and Recreation, The Heat) manage to earn a lot of mileage out of the casts obvious chemistry (the four have all worked on SNL together, either hosting or performing). I’ve always thought that Wiig and McCarthy are far funnier toned down and Ghostbusters wisely places them as straight-women to Jones and McKinnon’s more OTT performances. The whole cast, particularly McKinnon and Chris Hemsworth (as the group’s dim-witted secretary), look as if there having a lot of fun and that adds a warmth to the viewer’s experience.

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“Which one makes me look more like a doctor?” – Chris Hemsworth proves he is adept at comedy

Feig also stages some stylish and creepy set-pieces. A scene in which a ghost possesses a mannequin garners as much as spook as possible out of its uncanny valley inducing premise. Also, when the finale of one’s film involving an inter-dimensional rescue evokes memories of Guillermo Del Toro’s Pacific Rim, the filmmakers are doing something right.

The only major gripe I have with the film is the character of Patty. While Leslie Jones is very good in the lead role, her character is essentially a collection of black female stereotypes. There is certainly a feeling that Feig and Dippold are trying to counter this problem by making her a very necessary and important contributor to the ghostbusting team (she has an extensive knowledge of New York the others do not). However, when comparing her to black actor Ernie Hudson’s role in the original (where his ethnicity was never played for laughs), Patty feels like a step-back in terms of race politics.

Verdict: 3/4

The new Ghostbusters skates by on its’ lead actresses winning charisma and is far from the failure Internet trolls and sexists desired. That said, it’s not as hilarious as Feig and McCarthy’s previous collaborations and the character of Patty is problematic.

The Neon Demon Review

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The opening shot of Elle Fanning in The Neon Demon

The-Neon-Demon-poster-3-620x886.jpgThe Neon Demon, the latest from Danish director and provocateur Nicholas Winding Refn (Bronson, Drive, Only God Forgives), has incited both praise and scorn from critics and audiences alike. Various conflicting articles have been written about the film’s Cannes premiere. According to Deadline, it received a seventeen-minute standing ovation. Meanwhile, Indiewire reports the movie was greeted with boos and walkouts – “The Neon Demon heckler yelled ‘trash” in Spanish”. It’s been called everything from “an absurd jerk-off Lolita fantasy” to, in a five-star review, a “depraved, delicious nightmare”. I, myself saw the film with three other movie fans. One loathed it and the other two remain unsure of its merit.

The Neon Demon is not a character, but the movie’s setting – L.A. To Refn, it’s bright lights corrupt those who enter. Our window to the world is the sixteen-year-old Jesse (Elle Fanning), an aspiring model, who on the strength of some amateur Grand Guignol style headshots, moves to the city and is recruited by an agent (Christina Hendricks). She is urged to lie about her age, claiming she is nineteen because “eighteen is too on the nose”. Due to her natural beauty, the young woman takes the fashion world by storm, inciting rage from her fellow, more artificially stunning, models Gigi (Bella Heathcote) and Sarah (Abbey Lee), as well as her make-up artist Ruby (Jena Malone). However, Jesse does not realise her trinity of enemies may be more than just jealous women.

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Although there are problems with The Neon Demon, I find myself on the positive side of its divisive reception. For one thing, it’s stunning on a stylish, visceral and immersive level. In a review for the A.V Club, A.A. Dowd wrote that “Style doesn’t triumph over substance in The Neon Demon. It devours it”. This is an entirely accurate statement. Between Cliff Martinez’s twinkly but pounding electronic score (imagine John Carpenter meets Todd Terje), Refn’s trademark use of neon and D.P Natasha Braier’s shimmering and hypnotic cinematography (part fairytale/part art-instillation), the film on a sense-level is overwhelming. Martinez, Refn and Braier offer enough to the viewer aesthetically to overlook the script’s simplistic message and hokier elements.

Refn has explored masculinity quite well in some of his earlier work (most notably, toxic masculinity in Pusher II). However, in turning his attention to the opposite gender, he doesn’t bring much depth to the issues raised, despite hiring female playwrights Mary Law and Polly Stenham to write on the script. L.A corrupts young girls, women will do anything to stay beautiful – these are common ideas expressed just as well in the lyrics for Californication by the Red Hot Chilli Peppers.  However, in the place of an intelligent exploration of femininity, what Law, Refn and Stenham bring to the table is some wickedly dark, gallows humour.  These laughs are constant throughout, particularly from Heathcote’s character delivering biting insults masked with a Mean Girls-style over-the-top fake kindness. Also, the movie’s closing scene is hilarious. The trio of writers comically push the limits of what models, whose self-worth depends on their looks and the comments of sleazy male photographers, will do to stay young into the levels of absurdity and horror.

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Bella Heathcote and Abbey Lee

I understand that Refn had intended to make a divisive cult movie entirely for himself (The Neon Demon, despite homages to Dario Argento and David Lynch, feels singular). However, like many cult-films, the numerous plot-threads of The Neon Demon are interesting but they don’t often jell together. For instance, Keanu Reeves (who contributes a lot to the film’s black humour) appears as a sleazy possibly voyeuristic manager at the motel where Jesse is staying. Jesse in a key scene has a premonition, warning her of his incredibly disturbing intent and leaves the motel. Yet this is never mentioned or brought up again. Also, the blend between a satire of the modelling world and a supernatural horror never entirely works because Refn makes the latter element so minimalist. He never establishes precise rules or abilities, which distracts. A film like Paul Schrader’s Cat People perfectly merges its central monsters with an allegory for burgeoning sexuality. Let the Right One in uses vampirism (a life forever young) to discuss loneliness. The Neon Demon’s horror reveal, which is heavily signposted early on and appears in the trailer, feels weirdly ambiguous and oddly left-field, not entirely fitting with the movie’s overall main drama on the cat-walk.

Verdict:  3/4

The Neon Demon will split audiences. Some will find it simplistic and under-written. However, some like me will forgive these flaws and marvel in its style and humour.

Independence Day: Resurgence Review

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Jeff Goldblum and Liam Hemsworth

Independence Day: Resurgence, the sequel to 1996’s classic, has many problems. One of which is highlighted when one tries to explain, as accurately and as succinctly as possible, the plot and it takes a large paragraph. In its messy script, filled with too many bland and uninteresting characters, numerous stories interlink in the chaos of Earth’s invasion by the aliens of the original. Firstly, there is Jake Morrison (Liam Hemsworth), a talented but rebellious pilot serving The U.S on their new Moon base. He is in a conflict with Dylan Hillier (Jessie Usher), son of Will Smith’s character from the first movie. Morrison is also engaged to Patricia Whitmore (Maika Monroe), daughter to the former U.S President Thomas J. Whitmore (Bill Pullman), who is now experiencing a form of PTSD from the previous invasion. Secondly, there is returning scientist David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) and his new love interest Dr. Catherine Marceaux (Charlotte Gainsbourg) investigating abnormalities which hint the aliens are returning. Thirdly, Dr. Brakish Okun (Brent Spiner), seemingly killed in the first film, reawakens from a twenty-year coma drawing strange alien symbols on the walls of his hospital room.

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Talented actress Maika Monroe (The Guest, It Follows) saddled in a boring love interest role.

As well as lacking a hero as charismatic as Will Smith’s Steven Hillier (who is dead in this film), Independence Day: Resurgence is fiercely derivative, rehashing ideas seen in popular movies such Close Encounters of the Third Kind (humans receiving telepathic messages from aliens), Top Gun (rivalry between jet fighters), Interstellar/Event Horizon (space-crafts travelling through wormholes) and District 9 (African warlords with alien guns). Like, the recent Jurassic World, ID:R’s script feels like it was written by a committee (technically it was with five credited writers) designed on maximising profits by adding a story-beat from every successful blockbuster ever. As a result, the film, especially in its first half, feels very generic with few moments as memorable as anything in the original.

images.jpgThat said, as the movie enters its second half and the alien’s invasion and subsequent destruction begins, ID:R builds a pace which momentarily distracts from the film’s blandness and poor dialogue (so many intended jokes do not land). Emmerich has built a career out of cinema goers’ fondness for Earth’s potential end (2012, The Day After Tomorrow, Godzilla). He understands the cathartic pleasure viewers experience from witnessing humanity’s greatest fear take place, while their safe and sound munching away on popcorn. Entire cities and countries get wiped out in some great montages which benefit from flawless special effects.

Also, ID:R has a pretty bonkers and exciting third act, whereby Levinson attempts to lure the alien’s “Queen” into Area 51, hoping to destroy it with a bomb. Meanwhile, a bus full of children, driven by Levinson’s father (Judd Hirsch), is caught amongst the carnage. This energetic final battle occurs in the last act of the film and as a result, viewers will leave the cinema somewhat satisfied. However, in the days after, fans of the original will come to the realisation that the film is just a passingly entertaining but forgettable, unnecessary sequel.

Verdict: 2.5/4

Not the failure it could have been, but nothing to be excited for, Independence Day: Resurgence is as bland and generic as its title.