Life wasn’t what I expected, but I still got a kick out of it

Life is tough: one moment you’re hanging round with Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal, the next thing you know you’re being constricted by a tentacle monster and deprived of oxygen

Trailers are an ever changing thing, they’ve gained a reputation in modern times of giving away too much of the story. They so often follow the same beats set to the same musical cues and can mislead the public into thinking a film is something it isn’t.  This is not the case with Life, a sci-fi survival thriller marketed as a clone of Alien which plays out like a clone of Alien. I saw two trailers for Life in the cinema, one which was made it look like the most generic sci fi movie ever made and another which was simply a clip taken directly from near the beginning of the film. Never before have I seen two trailers for the same film with such a chasm in quality. Having seen the generic trailer first, my expectations for Life were set extremely low.

Thankfully, I was pleasantly surprised by the film. The premise behind Life is simple; Astronauts aboard the International Space Station discover microbial alien life, the organism grows until it is big enough to kill people, and then it kills people. It’s a classic horror movie set aboard the ISS, nothing special about the story, it’s how the story is told that makes the difference.

Plot-wise the film is a pretty standard outing, it progresses in a slow pace to begin with, focusing on the science and daily work of the astronauts. It allows for basic character building before going gung-ho on the violent rampage. The characters are likeable enough for you to not want them to die, but not sympathetic enough to not warrant a cheer when they are slaughtered by a tentacle monster.

Visually it is all very bland, the space station is as cookie cutter as sci fi design can get and the cinematography is all very forgettable. The first sequence of the movie is one long shot, reminiscent of Gravity, the camera bobs and weaves in the zero-g, it seems to promise that the film will be trying to have fun with the camera. However, it amounts to nothing other than a few upside-down shots and canted angles.

The overuse of CG is rife in this film, the monster is constantly shown front and centre and in full light, which highlights its seamless skin textures and unrealistic contact with the environment. Its forgivable and not something I take gripe with because the monster is for the most part well designed and creepy. But it’s hard to shake the thought that this film is likely going to look like dated trash in five years.

An issue that Life faces is that there are no real rules to dictate the behaviour of the monster, it is clearly stated in Alien and Aliens that the Xenomorphs are afraid of fire, whereas the monster in this film is pretty much invincible until the plot dictates that it shouldn’t be. But my biggest problem is that there is little to no mystique surrounding the monster, in Alien the Xenomorph stays interesting because it creeps in the shadows, it is shown piece by piece throughout the movie. A claw here, a tail there, just out of frame, this breeds a level of tension and anticipation that Life fails to reach. It doesn’t make you crave the next sighting because you have seen it all before, every inch. You’ve literally seen it under a microscope, the film attempts to keep it interesting by changing the design of the monster as it grows, but it amounts to nothing more than more CGI tendrils and the eventual addition of a pretty laughable face.

The only thing to look forward to in Life is how the next kill is going to happen. Luckily the film manages to pull out some fantastically sadistic monster movie murders. Some well-paced, terrifying ideas are put into practice and realised in memorable ways, it saves the movie even if it does run out of ideas towards the end.

Recommendation

I could keep discussing this film in its minutia but in all honesty, it doesn’t really matter. The film is average Hollywood movie making on almost every level, it’s cinematography is uninteresting but competent, its lighting is balanced, clear and non-dramatic. The soundtrack is an assault of WAAHs and its characters are passable. What the film does offer is a crisp, clean version of the dirty, dingy Alien, chopped and changed enough to still feel new and different. The story takes some exciting turns and ends with an interesting message.

There is enough to take home with you after viewing Life. Within the film are a series of sparse moments that are vividly memorable and cinematic. It has enough interesting ideas to sustain a solid sci fi movie. It is not one of the best movies you will ever see but it is undoubtedly enjoyable.

Get Out exploits horror tropes to tell an original story

Jordan Peele’s directorial debut balances mystery, humour and horror

Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key have put some serious man hours into their comedy careers over the past decade. Following the success of sketch show Key and Peele on Comedy Central the duo became highly in demand. They found guest acting roles in the likes of Bob’s Burgers, Rick and Morty and even the TV adaptation of Fargo. Key has since focused on his acting career while Jordan Peele, on the other hand, has concentrated more on behind the scenes roles. He has collected more writing credits, including the pair’s 2016 buddy comedy Keanu, a pretty decent venture that served mainly as a platform for the two to put their fantastic chemistry on screen.

Jordan Peele does, therefore have writing experience for feature films, what he did not have before making Get Out, however, is directing experience. And what comes from Get Out is some pretty stellar directing. The film’s plot is best left discovered for yourself, essentially it is the story of a black man meeting his white girlfriend’s rich parents at a family get together in the countryside. Chris Washington has reservations about he will be treated over the weekend, he is played by Daniel Kaluuya, who might be recognised from UK TV roles like Black Mirror or Psychoville.

The plot moves forward with almost no diversions or subplots, there is a central premise and mystery in the film and the script serves solely to explore that. It is a strength of the horror genre that it can afford this tunnel vision like approach to filmmaking, it makes for pleasant, to the point viewing.

Get Out has undercurrents of real life racism but they are so well melded with the detached unreal racism on the screen that it never feels too heavy handed. True, most dialogue of the film is, to an extent, open to interpretation and serving another purpose but it benefits greatly working as a story first and foremost. It follows story beats, action cues, Chekhov’s guns and plot twists; it is not merely a vehicle for racial discourse and could be enjoyed in a social vacuum. It does however add another layer of enjoyment to the film to look at it through the eye of a first-time black director with an interest in these issues.

Yet Get Out impresses with its pacing, scenes are constructed in such a concise way, to create tension and tell the story through a great mix of visuals and sound design. The first scene of Chris and therapist Missy being a particularly strong example of this. The film eases the viewers into what it calls ‘a heightened sense of suggestibility’ becoming almost hypnotic with its ebb and flow.

Like with many horror films it takes place in few locations but manages to only feel claustrophobic when it needs to be. The small cast of speaking characters are given sufficient screen time to establish themselves and the waves of extras are effectively defined by one catchall description from Milly early on in the film “it’s a very white crowd.”

The film suffers at some points from overexplaining itself and some might think that it goes a bit too far into its own ridiculousness but I thought it appropriate considering the satirical element. Certain scenes featuring the comedic relief (LilRel Howery) can seem out of place but these are cancelled out by the charisma of his performance; these are all small nit-picks to what is a highly competent, greatly crafted flick. While I do understand the need for the budget to come from somewhere in such a small film, the level of Windows product placement is slightly off putting, shots linger on Lumia screens or bing searches a little too long that it did distract for a while.

However, I am looking for criticisms in the film because there really aren’t many to make, the film is a fantastically crafted, amusing journey into a well realised world with an interesting mythology. It takes its horror cues from its visuals, its outsider status and from a surreal warped view of humanity best likened to Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Like last week’s review The VVitch, it avoids cheap tricks of most other Blumhouse pictures in favour of a more cerebral horror.

Recommendation

The film is a tight package, tied up with a neat little bow, it tells a small-scale story that hints at larger implications, it ends when it is done with the premise and resolves all possible loose ends. It is a pleasure to watch, prolonged stretches of tension and mystery are broken up with lightly comedic dialogue and a satirical remove that keeps everything light and breezy despite the subject matter.

 

Wolverine is at his most violent and vulnerable in the adventurous Logan

Logan approaches the super hero movie in a new way with varying levels of benefit

Why do people want to see Wolverine films? It always seemed strange to me that the character has had two solo films completely independent of the rest of the X-Men. The character of Wolverine is invariably a loner, but a loner thrust into the spotlight and forced to work in a team. For me as a young boy watching the X-Men animated show, I was always greatly entertained by the clashing of personalities of Wolverine and Cyclops – a dynamic leader, meticulous and measured – battling wits with a self-sufficient wild card, as skilled as he is fed up. It makes for great motivation when two people who dislike each other put aside their differences to take down future robots or ancient giants or people who are 90% head mass.

That is what Wolverine is to me, however, I am not representative of the population, and the fact that Wolverine is one of the most prolific characters in comic book history shows that the character must appeal to many people for different reasons. Yet it is still strange to me to have such a primarily straightforward antihero take the lead in three films when his character is so reluctant to perform as a hero at all.

Logan is the logical conclusion to the character that Hugh Jackman embodied first over 17 years ago in X-Men (2001). This final instalment takes place in 2029 after James Howlett/ Logan considers himself finally retired and like a thousand action stars before him is thrust back into his old lifestyle for one last job. The job is an escort mission of a young girl who shares his own characteristics, sporting matching adamantium claws and a similar violent blood lust. But the years have caught up to Logan, his face is transformed to an old man, his biceps stay in his sleeves, his beard encases his face. The Wolverine’s healing factors are weakening and he’s lumbered with the responsibility of looking after an ailing Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart this time), who is beginning to suffer from a form of an issue which is causing concentrated releases of the professor’s dangerous powers.

Structurally, the film is a simple point A to B road trip movie, it’s all pretty straight forward and is enhanced by a light seasoning of dystopia. It is the visuals that first stand out about Logan, and may be what has attracted many people to the cinema to see it. Trailers for the film were everywhere and Johnny Cash’s Hurt playing over saturated images of desert landscapes was enough to reignite interest in people who were put off by the previous two solo Wolverine films, the original trailers seemed to point towards Mad Max: Fury Road as an inspiration for Logan but unfortunately this style slowly dissipates over the two hours.

That is not to say that the film is not good looking because it is. It puts more effort into aesthetics rather than flashy CGI or imagined worlds, clearly the director of photography was given free rein to play with the potential of the American landscapes that passed them by on the trail. The film takes its time to let shots breathe and takes a more measured approach to exposition than ham-handed dialogue cues.

However, this is my indulgence and I know that people watch Wolverine to see Wolverine doing what he does best so how does the action fare in Logan?

Pretty well. Pretty damn well. With the film’s new R-rating it has acquisitioned the freedom to explore the disgusting reality of Wolverine’s adamantium claws. In the original X-Men, Wolverine let loose on an army of goons in Xavier’s mansion and it was all very exciting but nevertheless exceedingly clean. There was no blood, no guttural penetration, a cacophony of snikts and tings was all that could be heard – it was all a bit too tame. Logan goes all out on the visceral reality of the weapons, allowing blood to spatter and squirt and throats to gurgle, the final product benefits from it. The action is at an all-time high for the franchise and it used just sparingly enough to still be exciting each time it happens. This is the most real Wolverine has ever been and the movie does not shy away from the dark undercurrent that every person Wolverine has ever killed with his claws has been killed in this brutal manner, it adds to the traumatised characterisation that is so central to his conflict in the film.

Once again, a marvel film has let its viewers down by churning out another run of the mill villain. Here taking the form of Richard E Grant, some guy with modern hair and a super soldier right out of the most unoriginal fan fiction ever made. All are disposable and uninteresting archetypes that offer nothing that hasn’t been seen a dozen times in the last 17 years of comic book movies.

Wolverine on cinema has often had an issue with motivation, he always needs something to force him into the story, whether it is Rogue in X-Men or leadership thrust upon him in X-Men: The Last Stand. Here the job falls to the close to senile Professor Xavier, staying in the backseat of cars whispering into Logan’s ears that he must do the right thing. This comes across as a bit too on the nose at times. However, it is preferable to the effect that the villains have at driving the plot. Logan has a lot of weaknesses, it is overlong and takes itself too serious for a movie that features dozens of claw flailing hurricanranas. The dialogue is trying to serve the long contemplative style but isn’t quite at that level where it can grip on the quality of writing alone but it is hard to hold that against it. Logan is in the minority of superhero films that attempts to incorporate new styles into the sub genre, in an era of predictability and in house style, Logan is an outlier.

Recommendation

It focuses on the character of Logan in a nice way while still allowing for the best Wolverine action ever put on film. The near future is incredibly realised and lived in and performances on all parts do the characters proud. The film is a faithful send off to a prolific character.

Logan uses the extended universe of the X-Men as flavour to enhance the drama of the story instead of abusing aspects to allow for tie-ins, sequels or prequels. Despite it being the ninth Wolverine film, Logan is far and away the most unique, stand alone movie of the bunch.

John Wick Chapter 2 is action cinema at its very best

Chapter 2 unveils a little more of everything that made the first great

Three years on after the original murderfest, Chad Stahelski’s John Wick is back to turn up the volume and pile up the bodies. The overhanging threat of action movie sequels is that they will either re-tread the same old ground, remaking old scenes with an inflated budget or they will use that new budget to spend on cars to chase and crash/ explode. There is always a danger of losing the magic of the first film by upping the stakes too much.

The first scene of John Wick 2 features a car chase with several close ups, quick cuts and crane shots. Immediately it seems as if the style of film would be different. The views are fleeting, the camera does all the moving. Maybe the directors misunderstood what was so enjoyable about the first. Maybe studio pressure has created a more homogenised vision. Maybe this won’t be filmed like the original. Then out of nowhere the car chase ends and the next time we visit John in his Mustang the camera hangs about in the front seat, it lingers and lets the action unfold in the best way possible, the way that made John Wick so special. It’s as refreshing as ever with its take on choreography and camera placement.

John Wick introduced the hidden world of assassins, a New York based hotel called The Continental where assassins hold a mutually beneficial armistice, managed by Ian McShane’s delightfully cheesy Winston. The sequel introduces us to the international world of assassins. The filmmakers continue to have as much fun with this concept that they can, clearly, they held back in the first because they throw so much ideas at the screen that it’s hard to keep up. Three scenes are spliced together to what amounts to a frantic shopping montage where John shops for equipment. The scene is brilliantly whimsical and may as well be taking place in Diagon Alley, as Peter Serafinowicz’s Sommelier delicately recommends Mr. Wick new and improved firepower.

In all honesty, the film is an ode to the professional and this scene shows it. It is a film to admire the handicraft of a master tradesman, even if your trade is tailoring suits, engineering guns or shooting people in the head. This second chapter features much more members of John Wick’s professional circle, he is no longer dealing with low down gangsters, he is up against pros. He faces more difficulty in one on one battles and needs to prepare a lot more than before. He certainly gets more lucky in this outing, with a few guards failing to shoot him from feet away. However, the advent of a bulletproof Italian suit makes for highly effective plot armour.

The film does not appear to have lost any of giddiness over choreography and seems to have doubled down on its tongue in cheek attitude, with the sequel containing much more laughs without ever going overboard. The lighting was something that stood out in the first and here they appear to stick to a similar formula, using intense blue and green filters for the majority of the film. It is broken up by scenes of vibrant lighting, culminating in a shoot-out in what is essentially a hall of mirrors.

Once again, however, it is Keanu Reeves who is worthy of the praise, he puts his body on the line through some fantastic choreography and dedicated stunt work all while maintaining John Wick’s sullen equilibrium aided in multiple scenes by the ever intimidating Common and Ruby Rose. Matrix partner Laurence Fishburne makes a reappearance next to Neo and brings a great energy to the film with his booming vocals and heavy duty laugh. After witnessing the upsetting dullness of his performance in Passengers it was a great relief to see him letting loose in a film that doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Recommendation

John Wick Chapter 2 is what the most extreme optimist should have expected from a John Wick sequel. It remains as inescapably driven and hardcore as the last and increases the extremes on every angle, it constantly adds seasoning to its intensely realised world and the direction and style remains as fresh as the first. The film is the action genre at its very best.

John Wick increases his body count from 77 in the first to 128 this time round. That should tell you all you need to know.

 

Split is Shyamalan at his best with traces of him at his worst

McAvoy is a joy to watch in this fascnating B-movie venture

M Night Shyamalan has had a fascinating career. Having found success with the release of The Sixth Sense in 1999, he went on to make a procession of big budget movies with severely diminishing returns. This came to a head with the release of The Last Airbender and After Earth, where his filmmaking ability and reputation crashed into a pit of internet comments and despair and in recent years he has become a punchline. So, what does a filmmaker do when his creditability is destroyed?

Apparently, the answer is to make a horror film about murderous grandparents because it seems as if his foray into cheesy B-movie horror, The Visit has allowed him to embrace his roots. Leading to his latest release, Split, an abduction thriller about a man with 23 distinct personalities. Which embraces its B-movie influences with open arms to great effect. James McAvoy carries the film as Kevin, a man with Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) who kidnaps three young girls. One of the girls, Casey, is troubled, detached and not well liked and she provides the emotional weight of the film while the other two girls are vapid horror movie fodder. Betty Buckley plays Dr Fletcher, Kevin’s psychiatrist who gets wind of what’s happening. The psychological aspect, limited locations and investigatory element all lend the film a Hitchcockian vibe.

The film is not sensitive, reproachful or probing, it is not a look into the mind of a killer, it is not ambiguous, it is an exploitation flick in all the right ways. Subtlety is hit with a sledgehammer and thrown in the lake. The film takes less than ten minutes for the central abduction to occur and starts showing us James McAvoy doing different voices because it knows that is what we are there to see. The film has 3 locations and less than a dozen speaking roles because it doesn’t need any more than that. The premise of a villain with 23 personalities is loaded with the possibility of so much fun that it needn’t divert from that.

Where Split fails is in the dialogue, which suffers when Kevin is not on the screen, the film is a well of pop psychology and over exposition, with characters detailing exactly what is happening and what will happen next a little too often. Shyamalan does well to establish the rules of the universe in the early part of the film yet he insists on constantly adding new rules on top of that and reiterating old ones. It’s a little tiring and eventually your eyes glaze over until McAvoy is back on screen. McAvoy is fantastic in this, Kevin has no distinguishing features, he is a mannequin to play with. His clothes indicate which personality is in control and when that option is not available McAvoy does well to embody different characters within the same body, it’s an admirable, odd and humorous thing to behold.

The film struggles to create empathy for Casey, our emotional ballast, who is silent and miserable even before her abduction. The film settles for multiple close-ups of her eyes and lips as a replacement for characterisation and it falls mostly flat. Yet there is an effort to create drama through a series of massively uninteresting flashbacks to her childhood, which only take away from the film and do nothing to enhance Casey’s character. That is until the last flashback, where we are given information that does not impact the story but rather Casey’s character, the question must be asked that if there was characterisation to be had, why wasn’t it at the beginning when we were establishing who Casey was in our minds?

It leads to a larger problem with Shyamalan’s filmmaking about saving information till the end which I have went into detail about here.

Recommendation

All the ingredients are there for a great little movie, a late night guilty pleasure. Small scale with a great focus, it’s a film that knows itself. Superficially the film looks great, the directing is effective and the ambient soundtrack creates a great uneasy tension.

The film is fun, held together by a multi-faceted but ultimately simple villain. Not by any stretch of the imagination is it a quality film but it is pure enjoyment, cinematic and endlessly interesting. People may be turned off by the final third of the movie and that is understandable but I believe it’s worth a watch. Split is exactly the type of film that Shyamalan should always have been making and I hope he continues embracing the beauty of the schlocky B-movie.