Pain and Glory (2019) Review

Watch this as soon as you can…

Pedro Almodóvar, with his latest film, Pain and Glory, has crafted a deeply personal meditation on what it feels like to have passed your prime and the peak of your notoriety. Telling the story of an ageing film director who has given up on making films, feeling physically weak after an operation,  in mourning after his mother’s death, and using the past and heroin to try and find some comfort, this film attempts to evoke a kaleidoscope of emotions. In this regard, Almodóvar’s latest work is very successful, for it is so well-crafted one cannot help but be moved by the story of Salvador Mallo.

Antonio Banderas offers a fantastic performance as the ageing director who has given up on his career and life in general. The opening shot of him underwater at the bottom of a swimming pool, in complete stasis, tells you everything you need to know about Salvador Mallo. He feels overwhelmed and that his life has stagnated. Banderas captures this perfectly throughout his performance. His presence is fragile and introspective. One cannot help but relate to and be moved by Banderas’ work. It is no wonder that Banderas won the Best Actor award at Cannes. He is often depicted through close-ups with Banderas positioned at the centre of the frame, presenting him as small and insignificant to the rest of the shot, akin to how the character feels. Whilst the cinematographer, José Luis Alcane, does a lot of work to suggest how Mallo is feeling, it is Banderas’ solemn and moving performance that really captures the poignancy and sadness of Mallo’s life at this stage.

As mentioned, the work behind the camera serves to enhance Banderas’ performance and make its ability to move even more powerful. Alcane’s cinematography  gives the film vibrancy and richness. The colours have character all of their own and it is difficult to take your eyes off them. This appears to match how Mallo is feeling when he finds comfort taking drugs and reuniting with old friends and past flames. However, it also contrasts significantly with this depressed protagonist, suggesting how isolated he feels from the rest of the world. The score is often a lot more muted in comparison- graver and darker- which serves to heighten these conflicts of emotion. The emptiness inside juxtaposes with settings filled with life (production designer Antxón Gómez has done a superb job too) to create clashing emotions in the viewer.

This film also has some of the finest editing. There is a seamlessness and agility to the narrative as it bounces between past and present and through all sorts of different colour settings. The editing really makes every scene transition feel continuous and natural. The opening shot in the swimming pool is linked to the next one set at a river. Computer screens swipe into projector screens. One set of piano keys in the present melts into one from Mallo’s past. Of course, there must be cuts in this film. They are just so unnoticeable that the film feels like it is progressing naturaly through Mallo’s state of mind and the life that shaped it.

Backed up by an excellent performance, impressive cinematography and some seamless editing, Almodóvar’s latest film paints a moving portrait of an ageing filmmaker’s life during a particularly bleak period. It is hard not to feel involved, or to feel empathy, for Mallo’s story. The cinematography captures your eye, and the editing ensures you are smoothly guided through the narrative, but it is Banderas’ wistful performance, filled with great emotional depth, that makes this film so memorable.

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark (2019) Review

Watch this as soon as you can…

Stranger Things and It appear to have started a trend for horror films about children/teenagers set in the past. If either of these disappointed you, or feel overrated, then Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark is the film for you. This new film, from producer Guillermo del Toro, is miles better than It, and stronger than the second and third seasons of the Netflix hit. It features the impressive monster design you would expect from a del Toro fantasy film, but director André Øvredal also brings some truly gruesome and uncomfortable body gore to the proceedings. The screenplay by Dan and Kevin Hageman is also surprisingly more thoughtful than it needed. Once these scary stories are told, you will want to hear them again. 

By themselves, the monster designs and body gore are unsettling enough. The scene where Tommy transforms into a scarecrow sticks in the mind, just as he is now stuck in the fields. There are some well-timed jump scares in the later parts of the film, which sadly cannot be said for the opening acts, but body horror is where the true scares reside. The Pale Lady, a bloated, haunting pregnant woman, and The Jangly Man, a creature that can rebuild itself from body parts, are as inventive as any creature from Pan’s Labyrinth. The monsters are deeply troubling concepts that hit a nerve, but they are also fascinating.  The imagination behind these creatures is remarkable, and it leaves you wanting to revel in the minds behind this film even more (this film lays the groundwork for a sequel, which will get the green light). A lot is left to the imagination too in this well-crafted horror film. One of the most uncomfortable scenes involves the painful screams of Sarah as she is forced to expeirence electric shock therapy. Even with no jump scares and no gory visuals, this film still finds ways to haunt. Of course, the visual horror is the most notable aspect about this film. Whether it is a pimple growing to the size of a cricket ball or a disassembled monster rebuilding itself, this film has very powerful, horrifying imagery that will leave you feeling uncomfortable even after the story has been told.

This film’s horror comes from more than just the monsters though. The excellent cast of child actors reflect this in their performances. Their reactions to these creatures, and what is happening more broadly, are very compelling and a large part of the reason this film is so successful. Of course, the actors needed terrific set pieces and monsters to bounce off, and the filmmakers provide them with that in abundance. Their performances make these disturbing supernatural occurrences feel less like a fantasy and much more real. The work behind the camera also adds to this convincingly real sense of horror. Cinematographer Roman Osin and director Øvredal both use low-angle shots and close ups to put you in the shoes of the children themselves. Darkness and silence are also used effectively so that the audience, like the children, do not know what the hell is going on and what will happen next. When the film is not silent, the score is excellent for turning the dial up when it comes to tension, reflecting the growing fear of the characters themselves. Point of view and perspective are essential to the success of this film; the monsters would not be as scary as they are if this film were not so immersive.

Underlying this surface horror is a sense of dread and tension. The central premise of the film is that Stella and her other teenage friends find a cursed book that not so much predicts the respective demises of all the characters in the film as it writes them. This gives the narrative the drive, a rush, towards inevitability. Akin to Final Destination 3, we are told how each character will die, and we know every character will face a gruesome fate. Each character will have their own chapter in the book. It has just not been written, yet. The film is about these children trying to rewrite their own futures, which appear set in stone, recorded in this mysterious book found on Halloween. The central premise allows for a very ominous tone as we know every character is doomed, and you often find yourself looking out for the key objects and locations related to their deaths, hoping, as the characters do, foresight will be able to save them. Rather predictably, foresight is unable to save most of them, and only the two main characters make it to the end. Nevertheless, the concept of knowing your own death is a chilling and engaging one, and this film will keep you hooked, even if it does end in a rather unsurprising manner.

The central premise also allows for thoughtful meditation on the nature of stories themselves. Stella is forced, by the supernatural villain, Sarah Bellows, to live through Sarah’s mistreatment at the hands of her family, suggesting how stories can be used to create empathy for other people, and depicting this in a very literal sense. It also poses the question of how does one react to the narratives forced upon them. Stella, Ramón and the villain are all outsiders. All of them are told that they do not belong and that they are different. The villain becomes “the monster they always said you were”, but the main characters do not. These plot threads raise interesting questions about the power of stories to shape us, and our own power to resist these stories and define ourselves.

This film is a lot more considered than required, both in its meditation on storytelling, and on the politics of late 1960s America. Screenwriters Dan and Kevin Hageman have also created a story with some astute and intriguing political parallels. Televisions with Nixon play in the background, and defaced election campaign posters, are some of the subtle and rightfully attentive details this film adds to what could have been a simple horror story. The film forces the audience to ask how different the Vietnam War really was from the supernatural horrors being depicted on screen, if there were any at all. When Tommy goes missing early in the film, people speculate on whether it was a monster or whether he joined the army. Perhaps both are inherently the same. Ramón not only has to face down fictional monsters, but the monsters of racism too. This film holds no political punches, and they really add a lot of depth, and many thoughtful parallels, to what could have simply been a PG rated young horror flick.

Hopefully this film will not be overshadowed in film history by Stranger Things and It, because this film is better. It is not set in the past for nostalgia’s sake, for Øvredal has something to say about the month Nixon got re-elected. Even on the surface level, the threat feels more real (children actually die in this film) and the concepts are more disconcerting. These are scary stories one wants to go back and experience again.

Crawl (2019) Review

Wait until you can stream this…

Crawl tells the story of Haley (Kaya Scodelario) as she attempts to rescue her father from a basement filled with alligators. This is all the movie is, nothing more, nothing less. It is a remarkably simple film, but this proves a hindrance as well as a strength.

Its simple premise allows for a very lean film. No understanding of a previous film is required, like most action thrillers released this summer. You can just go in and enjoy it for what it is: a B movie thriller about alligators. It is also really short. At only 88 minutes long, this film establishes that Haley is an athletic swimmer with a less than perfect relationship with her dad, then dives straight into the alligator vs. human action. The alligators are not introduced very well: they just appear randomly with no prior foreshadowing, and are not threatening in their first couple of scenes. However, as more and more looters and rescuers are torn apart, their threat level, and the tension, grows. Time is not wasted on subplots or scenes that may slow other movies of the genre down. This film is dedicated solely to its premise of making alligators an intimidating threat.

However, this leanness is also a detriment. Other than the fact Haley is a swimmer and a bit annoyed at her dad, there is nothing notable about her. It is hard to connect with any of the characters because you are never given a chance to get to know them. You never want them to be eaten, but you’re never bothered if they do or not. Other than one clunky scene where father and daughter try to hash out their relationship issues, very little time is given to developing the characters. This is an issue bigger than the alligators themselves.

Further, the film also struggles to find new twists and to keep the audience engaged with shocking a turn of events. The characters only run (swim or crawl) from alligators. All that changes is the setting as the leads move from the titular crawl space to outside. The crawl space idea is an interesting premise, but this narrative could have benefited from either being shorter, or having more twists and turns. Despite being over an hour and a half shorter than a film like Avengers: Endgame, it feels much longer.

What the film loses from simplicity of narrative, it gains from some excellent cinematography. The gore and action is captured with an eclectic range of different shots taken from all angles. Director Alexandre Aja and cinematographer Maxime Alexandre effectively create a sense of space and sets out the confining limits of that space. You feel boxed in with the characters, and are given engaging perspectives on the bloody violence happening around them. Most of the film is presented in a grey hue akin to that of Man of Steel, constantly reminding the viewer of the storm which allowed the alligators to escape. It also allows for some interesting juxtapositions of colour, as the characters often wear bright coloured jackets, or use red flairs in their attempt to escape. The eye’s attention is never allowed to waver from the screen as a result. Some of the shots in this film look fantastic. The cinematography is where this film finds its strongest bite.

Aja and Alexandre have done a great job with directing and cinematography respectively. It makes the film a lot more interesting to watch, even if its narrative never quite holds your attention. Crawl’s narrative lacks the powerful grip of an alligator’s jaw.

Angel Has Fallen (2019) Review

Wait Until You Can Stream It…

Towards the end of Angel Has Fallen, Vice President Kirby (Tim Blake Nelson) lays out his ambition to “make America strong again”, in what appears to be a deliberate parallel to Trump. Does this make his orchestration of the rightful President’s attempted assassination (played effortlessly by Morgan Freeman) some kind of elaborate, subtle metaphor for the Trump campaign? A character using underhand tactics to gain power for himself, and taking on the presidential role after an African-American president, does parallel Trump. Perhaps this film is making a subtle suggestion that the presidency does not belong to Trump anymore than it does to the machiavellian Kirby*. Or, perhaps this reference was an attempt to remind viewers that this film was released in 2019 and not 2009. Such a reminder is desperately needed.

Everything about this film feels dated and behind the times. This is a very noughties movie released four months before 2020. Gerard Butler is in the lead role, for a start. Twice, the film uses the unoriginal trope of extremely bright lighting, muffled voices and piercing, high pitched noise to suggest a character’s disorientation. “I-Raq” is mentioned. Butler’s Mike Banning tells the villain that “‘I’ll find you” in a phone call exchange, which is taken straight from a noughties Liam Neeson movie. The president is an African-American, which was the case ten years ago. Despite this, there is a lack of diversity in this film too. Most of the cast is comprised of white male actors, as if all the efforts for greater representation in Hollywood have not happened yet. Finally, the film is filled with shots of the villains, who are chasing the protagonist, staring at computer screens in offices. This film feels like a Bourne knockoff. Why are the villains not using social media or any up to date technology, such as drones, to catch Mike? This film must have been made in 2009, before social media really became a thing.

This film is also too reliant on established tropes; everything that will happen is as easy to spot as the attack drones at the beginning of the film. The master mind behind the attempt on President Trumbull’s life talks to his henchmen through a voice modulator distorting his voice. Wade is played by Danny Huston, who has never played a trustworthy character in his career, so his shock betrayal is hardly that surprising. The twist that the Vice President is the one behind the scheme is the worst offender though- was anyone surprised by that? You could guess everything that happens in this film right at the start.

The same goes for the action too. The gun combat and the fight choreography feels procedural and routine. Perhaps the director just told Butler to hit people and point guns, and Butler sleepwalked through it all, knowing exactly what to do automatically. Mandatory explosions make an appearance too, and they do not have any impact at all. An early chase sequence involving a truck and police cars is so slow paced that it serves as an unintentional metaphor for how this film is behind the times. The truck hardly seems to be moving at all. You do not get the sense Mike is in a high speed pursuit, trying to run for his life. The score is bland and unremarkable, which makes the action on screen even less exciting. The truck flips over at one point, in an attempt to thrill the audience, but The Dark Knight already did that, and better, way back in 2008. Perhaps the truck flipped over in 2009, and never made it into this decade.

Despite feeling dated, this film was still enjoyable. Morgan Freeman brings a smooth, effortless and cool vibe to his role. Butler is serviceable enough as Mike Banning. He works hard enough to keep you entertained, even if his character will not capture the public imagination in the same manner as John Wick. The action and fighting may feel formulaic and lack the ability to truly thrill, but it is entertaining enough. It may be an uninspired film, but it is not a bad film.

It is filled with overused tropes, the action and choreography do not feel current nor fresh, and everything about the plot screams the noughties. Yet, it was entertaining enough that the film did not drag. The one hour and fifty minute run time went quite quickly, in fact. Further, this film also created a sense of nostalgia. This was likely unintentional, but the feeling is there. It feels like a 2009 B-film action movie. If you enjoy those films, and miss them, then this is the film for you. Just do not expect anything fresh.

*This would come with a spoiler warning if the twist were not so easy to guess. It took less than half an hour for it to become obvious.

Spider Man: Far From the MCU

If only films were made for the narrative and not the money. We would not be in a situation where Tom Holland’s version of Spider Man, who has become an integral part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, is cruelly ripped out of said universe. All of this is because both Sony and Disney want more money than either of them should have. It has recently been announced that they have failed to come to a new deal, with Disney reportedly wanting a jump from 5% of the profits to 50% (to be fair, they are offering to pay for half of the costs too). It seems like this is too big a jump for Sony to stomach. Now the complex web of the MCU, with Spider Man sitting at the centre, has been ripped apart. The only brightside is that Far From Home actually proves to be a satisfying conclusion to Tom Holland’s version of Spider Man’s arc, which started in Civil War.

At first, it may seem like Far From Home is the worst possible film to end Tom Holland’s Spider Man’s story. It ends on one of the biggest cliffhangers of any MCU movie (save the infamous end to Infinity War). J. Jonah Jameson and Mysterio reveal Spider Man’s identity to the entire world! This has never been done on screen before, to the best of my knowledge. Even Aunt May finding out Spider Man’s identity at the end of Homecoming was a massive shock, for Spider Man’s identity always seemed to matter a lot more to him than most superheroes. To see the mask come off truly turns the world of Spider Man upside down. Naturally, people want to see the repercussions of this game-changing moment. This is unlikely to happen now, which will disappoint a lot of fans.

Whilst it may be unsatisfying to leave a film on an unresolved cliffhanger, this could prove to be similar to the original Italian Job and actually work out for the better. In Civil War, Spider Man is introduced as Iron Man’s Robin. Tony Stark makes the Spider Man suit for Peter Parker, and decides when and when Spider Man is needed in the operation looking to capture Captain America. To the rest of the Avengers, Spider Man is known simply as the fourteen year old kid Iron Man brought on to the team. Living in Iron Man’s shadow is what Homecoming is all about. Spider Man, famously, suffers a humiliating defeat where he is unable to stop a Ferry falling apart without Iron Man’s help. Tony Stark takes the suit away as a punishment for his recklessness, and the rest of the film is about proving that Peter can be Spider Man without the help or guidance of Tony Stark. This proves to be the case, for Spider Man does stop both Vulture and Shocker’s plans. Far From Home takes this further and places Peter in a world without Tony Stark/Iron Man. He is asked throughout the film to fill the large hole left by Iron Man’s death at the end of Avengers: Endgame. By the end, he does this successfully. He defeats Mysterio and his “avengers level threat”. This is made all the more significant by the fact Mysterio, Quentin Blake, is only a villain because of Tony Stark, who angers Quentin to the point that he wants to wreak havoc. Spider Man is not only in the city-saving role of Iron Man now, but he is also correcting some of Tony Stark’s past mistakes. The cliffhanger of Far From Home, in this context, serves to consolidate this character progression.

Ending with the public revelation of Spider Man’s identity puts Spider Man in Tony Stark’s shoes. Everyone knew that Tony Stark and Iron Man are one and the same: “the suit and I are one”. “I am Iron Man”, he proudly declares to the world. Spider Man’s mask and hidden identity was the last barrier separating Iron Man and Spider Man’s journeys. This  does make for a promising set up to a third film, for Scorpion could have made a return now knowing the wall-crawler’s identity after Vulture refused to divulge this secret. However, it also works as a standalone ending. Despite having the foundations of his entire career taken away from him, Spider Man has developed to a point where he is able to cope with it. We do not need to see what happens after this ending because Spider Man will be fine. He has grown and matured to the point where he can handle anything, despite the seismic shock. Read in the context of being the last MCU Spider Man film, Far From Home’s cliffhanger can be read quite optimistically.

Further, the relationship between MJ and Peter is given a hopeful ending. Mysterio/Quentin Blake, also frames Spider Man for his death and for all of his crimes, whilst revealing his identity. J. Jonah Jameson has now started a savage media campaign against the webslinger. Will MJ believe these lies? Does she trust Peter enough to know Jameson is spouting fake news in a fashion not too dissimilar from Alex Jones? We know she will. Their relationship is strong.  Peter has gained MJ’s love, affection and trust. We do not need to see how she will react to this revelation because their relationship is strong enough to survive it. Again, Far From Home being the cut off point for this story makes for an affirmative ending.

It would actually be quite depressing if there were to be a Spider Man 3 (with the word “home in the title, no doubt) and it began with MJ dumping Peter, or with Peter crumbling under the pressure of everyone knowing his identity. Allowing Far From Home to be the ending of his story creates an optimistic message: Spider Man and Peter Parker can now handle anything that is thrown at him. Whilst it is sad that this story is now likely to be over, unless Disney and Sony finally put narrative before cash, at least Spider Man’s time in the MCU ended on a positive and satisfying note.

Retrospective Reviews: Apocalypse Now (1979)

Watch this as soon as you can…

Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam War masterpiece, is being rereleased in cinemas for its 40th Anniversary. There are many reasons to re-watch this classic piece of cinema.

This has to be seen on the big screen, even if you have seen it countless times before. Its cinematic scope is one of the widest in any film. Every possible shot. from extreme close ups of Willard’s (Martin Sheen’s) eyes to grand, sweeping shots of the helicopters flying across the sky, is taken. The use of lighting, particularly in the scene introducing Kurtz (Marlon Brando), is some of the most effective and memorable. Considering the bleak subject matter, and the title of the source material, Heart of Darkness, the fact this film is so colourful and eclectic in its choice of hues is ironic. It is also a pleasure for the eye, contrasting heavily with the horrors this film depicts. There is a visual magnificence to this film that is best appreciated on the big screen. Apocalypse Now is a film cinema still exists for.

Going to the cinema is also important for appreciating the impressive audio work of Apocalypse Now. Willard’s 1940s film noir inspired narration is perfectly delivered by Martin Sheen. It is utterly captivating to hear. There is a grave solemnity and weariness to his voice that brings great significance to every word said. The intimidating blades of the helicopter turning into the relaxing rotation of the ceiling fan, then back again, is one of the smartest examples of sound editing in a film. The film is also accompanied by an excellent soundtrack, which swings from Wagner to The Doors. Along with a score that enhances the growing tension of the film, every song in the soundtrack feels like a perfect fit for the scene in which it is played. Listening to this film, without seeing it, would be a powerful experience in itself. Accompanied by the impressive visuals, this film is going to dig deep into your memory.

Such visual and audio spectacle is well-suited to an ambitious narrative. It depicts the journey taken by Captain Willard into the jungle of Cambodia to “terminate” the insane Colonel Kurtz. Below the surface of this seemingly simple plot lies a horrifying representation of the craziness of war. Its depiction of war is one of blurred lines, paradoxes and ironies. The journey into the jungle is highly symbolic, but of what? The film has confidence in the viewer’s ability to decide for themselves. Whilst some sequences feel tangential, toilet breaks on a car journey preventing us from reaching the haunting and captivating conclusion, these faults can be forgiven. The narrative is so ambitious and compelling that you forget this film is over three hours long.

Visually breath-taking and marvellous with regards to sound, this grand and ambitious narrative is told magnificently. It was meant to be seen on the big screen and waiting for its arrival on Netflix will not do it justice. Go see it in the cinema!

Good Boys (2019) Review

Wait until you can stream it…

Coming of age comedies have been filling the 2019 movie schedule so far. Following Eighth Grade and Booksmart, Good Boys is the story of three 12-years-old boys who are invited to their very first “kissing party”. Feeling woefully unprepared, they spend the day trying to learn how to kiss in time for the party. This leads to more than a few crazy incidents involving an expensive sex doll and a broken drone. Whilst this film is certainly sweet and charming, it is neither particularly original or funny.

This film is much softer and charming than the advertising suggests. What appeared to be a raunchy and offensive comedy turns out to be quite a sweet tale about three innocent, “good”, twelve year old boys. We are constantly reminded of the naivety of the three leads, such as near the beginning, when the word “kissing” is accompanied by a dramatic piece of music, emphasising the enormity of the act in the eyes of these young boys. Their definition of the word “nymphomaniac” is wrong but you can see how they are mistaken, which is cute. They threaten the shopkeeper who sold the drone with “zombies”- of course they do! The three leads are adorable and really likeable; the casting director has done a great job of finding young actors who do not grate or annoy. The sweetness of this film will certainly leave a smile on your face.

However, this is supposed to be a comedy; in this regard, Good Boys is a mixed bag. A lot of the “humour” comes from the juxtaposition of the innocence of the three leads and the raunchy items they come across, such as the sex doll. Some of the jokes land and do make one laugh hard. For every Stephen Merchant cameo or the good boys’ response to porn- “is this what happens when you get a step mum?” is a hilarious line within the context of the film- there are equally many jokes that just feel lazy. Just getting twelve year olds to say and rude things or talk about drugs is not enough to make the audience burst with laughter. This sweet film is like a box of Celebrations. Yes, there are some Maltesers in there, but there are some Bountys too.

This film suffers from a lack of originality too. All the way through the feeling of familiarity, that sense one has seen this before, just cannot be shaken off. The drone belongs to Max’s Dad. When it is broken, it carries the same significance as Cameron crashing his Dad’s car in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. The film is set in one day and about three boys preparing for a party, much like the film advertisers want us to associate with Good Boys: Superbad. Max getting nearly getting caught masturbating comes straight from an episode of The Inbetweeners. The trope of being called a “dork” for having a passion or caring about school was recently subverted in Booksmart earlier this year; sadly, this film chooses not to subvert this trope, relying on it heavily early on in the film. Borrowing from previous movies is not a problem if one does something new and exciting with it. Unfortunately, this film just uses these same tropes, and does not do it nearly as well as the comedies being copied.

This is a serviceable film. It will make you smile with its well-cast, adorable leads. Some of the jokes do land too, and will make you laugh in places. However, it lacks originality, and, too frequently, the jokes fall flat. Watching this film, you are constantly left feeling like you have seen this all before, and that you have seen it done better.

Dora and the Lost City of Gold (2019) Review

Watch this as soon as you can…

Dora and the Lost City of Gold’s title does not feel particularly inspired. Surely someone could have picked a better, more creative name for the eponymous lost city. Fortunately, the creativity and excitement went into the film itself. This is a solid example of how to adapt something seemingly unadaptable, and a pleasant surprise.

James Bobins (The Muppets) proves himself a superb adapter. He maintains the energy and high spirits of the original television series, but has found a way to translate this vitality so that it works in the new medium of film. The pacing is snappy and not bogged down by the fourth wall didacticism or the repetition of the series. The jokes and humour is not just aimed at children. This film will make you chuckle no matter your age. The film pays homage to the singing map and the talking bag, but does not dwell on them, knowing that what works in a Nickelodeon cartoon does not necessarily work in film.

The best translation from cartoon to film comes with regards to character; the film is extremely well-cast. Isabela Moner is perfect as Dora. She portrays the character as optimistic, innocent and filled with awe. She dazzles on screen, and it would not be a surprise to see her cast in more movies in the future. Her excitement and desire to explore is infectious, and a large part of the reason why this movie works. Even all the side characters, played by the likes of Michael Peña and Eva Longoria, are well-suited to the roles assigned to them. Despite the fact this movie is an adaptation of a cartoon, all of the characters feel refreshingly real.

As do the settings. Production designer Dan Hennah, who worked on Thor: Ragnarok, has created some impressive and, most importantly, fun sets. The child actors running around on these sets must have had an absolute blast. Hennah appears to have been inspired by other movies set in lost settlements in the jungle, such as Raiders of the Lost Ark or Jumanji. Most of the budget must have went into them and it really shows. Whilst this means the CGI is not the most impressive ever to hit the screen, it is perfectly satisfactory. It does its job of bringing the evil fox to life, for example, without feeling distractingly inauthentic, even it is not the most impressive use of effects. At least the sets impress.

A television cartoon, aimed at under eight year olds, that relies heavily on fourth wall breaking, didacticism, singing and a lot of repetition, should be difficult to translate into a film that works. Whilst Dora and the Lost City of Gold is hardly the most impressive children’s film ever made, it is a solid effort that proves anything can be adapted, so long as the life of the original is translated creatively using tools from the new medium. Dora does that wonderfully. The director, production designer, and the cast really make this a surprising delight that kids of all ages can enjoy.

Playmobil: The Movie (2019) Review

Do not watch this…

Toy adverts have recently become feature length and over ninety minutes in length. At least with the Lego Movie series, there is an attempt to be creative and original. At least the rules of the world are firmly established and there is a logic underlying the narrative. It is a shame the same cannot be said for the Playmobil film.

This film is derivative and unoriginal to the highest degree. The opening line of the film is “once upon a time”. Was there ever a point when this phrase was considered an original way to open a story? The lead female character is also inspired by Amelia Earhart, as if Amelia Earhart is the only woman worthy of being idolised. It is just laziness. This laziness creates a constant feeling for the viewer that one has seen this all before. Two human siblings frame the story, just like the Lego Movie. Characters frequently burst into song, just like the Lego Movie. This film was clearly made to milk the profound success of the Lego Movie, and is attempting to use its formula for easy cash. It would have been appreciated if the filmmakers had the grace to attempt to hide it. They did not. Everything in this film is stolen from elsewhere. The character designs are ripped from other movies: the monster at the end looks like a dinosaur from Pixar’s The Good Dinosaur, for example. The plot itself is your generic “rediscovering your childhood” narrative. It is difficult to believe the filmmakers are not being sued for copyright infringement.

Little thought went into setting up the story world and setting. Details such as how or why this Playmobil world exists, and the rules of the world, are not included. Marla (Taylor-Joy) and Charlie (Bateman) are human one minute and then a noseless toy the next, and there is no given reason. The Lego Movie world exists within the imagination of the children. Nobody bothered to tell us what created the playmobil world, why the characters are suddenly there, and the rules are not made clear. It is clear that Playmobil just wanted to create a movie that showcases all their toy ranges. How we get there does not matter, so long as the world exists to sell toys. It is utterly shameless commercialism.

This is a film created to sell Playmobil toys and its various ranges, and this is reflected in the cluttered plot. There are so many characters and none of them are given the time to breathe. Every character introduction feels like a tick on a checklist of toys to sell, and it is a very long list indeed. They do not have personalities other than their occupation. The spy is just a spy. (Apparently Daniel Radcliffe played the spy, but he is given no time to make the role unique or interesting.) The pirates are stereotypical pirates. The robot is not anthropomorphised at all. There is no time to give them personalities because the writers had to whizz through as many toys as they could.

Whilst there is a lot of promise in a world made up of different, clashing cultures (Vikings living alongside people from the future alongside cowboys etc.). There is just too much, though. None of these settings are given time to be fully explored. The writers clearly had a quota and tried to fit in as many Playmobil ranges as possible. One minute Marla’s companion is a man with a truck. The next companion is a spy. The next one is a robot. Why? Do these characters teach her anything about herself? Do they serve as foils for Marla? No. Playmobil sells these toys. They are included for this reason and this reason alone.

Nearly all films are made to make some kind of profit. Nobody invests money into a film without hope of a return; filmmakers would go bust almost immediately. Most films at least strive for meaning, originality and creativity. They attempt to disguise the fact they are a product to make it easier to swallow. This film is shameless in its commercialism. Don’t waste your time watching this movie. Watch a Playmobil advert on the television. You’d gain the same amount from that.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019) Review

Watch this as soon as you can…

Blurring the lines between cinema and reality, Tarantino’s 9th (possibly penultimate) film is a glorious celebration of 1960s L.A. and Hollywood films from the same period. If Tarantino was attempting to capture the mood and feel of living in that decade in a film reel, then he is completely successful. If that vibe appeals to you, then you will love this movie, despite the fact the film has a very loose plot.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has been criticised for having a very little plot or narrative. The film is mostly set in the day of a life of Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), an actor who is struggling to come to terms with the fact he is a “has-been”, and his best friend and stuntman, Cliff Booth. draws you into a convincing and immersive world that. The film is essentially a hangout movie involving these two characters. Their bromance and banter are easily the film’s biggest draw- who cares if they are not involved in some carefully structured plot? The film also tracks Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie) as she spends the day in L.A. too. Everything that happens is circumstantial. Events do not lead into the next one akin to a series of falling dominoes. It feels like Tarantino has gone back in time and recorded the events of a day in the life of these three characters. Sometimes it is absolutely hilarious (this film is easily Tarantino’s funniest), sometimes it is bittersweet and moving. Sometimes it is incredibly tense. It all depends on the particular event being shown at the time. What holds what is essentially a random series of vignettes together is the mood and atmosphere. It is the sense that Tarantino has recreated an authentic 1960s L.A., and that we, the viewer, have been granted special access.

Robbie Richardson’s cinematography is an essential part of this feeling. The film is stunning to look at. Richardson’s cinematography endows this film with summery hues and a natural brilliance. The sets are also impeccable. At times, it can be hard to believe that this is a recreation. This is a film with an impressive attention to detail. Everything from the posters on the wall to the songs on the radio just screams 1960s L.A. If you want to immerse yourself in this world, for reality to bleed into cinema and vice versa, then this is the film for you.

Tarantino is also as inventive, and is having as much fun, as ever with his directing, and this helps with erasing the lines between reality and cinema. The film smoothly transitions between the movie Rick Dalton is filming, and the real life world of the set, and then back again. This allows for a lot of humour when Rick forgets his lines. Leonardo DiCaprio’s acting is so compelling as both Rick and the characters he plays that you often forget you are watching a film within a film. When Rick suddenly forgets his lines and the illusion of cinema is broken by someone reading the script back to him, it is hilarious. Many of the scenes are recreations of old-style filmmaking, such as action sequences that remind one of films like The Italian Job and The Great Escape, or authentic black and white television interviews with the stars of the film. Sometimes a television is placed right in the centre of the frame and we just watch the film being played alongside the characters (Cliff Booth’s running commentary is as entertaining as the film itself). Even the old-style film posters are allowed to dominate some frames in the film, allowing the audience to explore them in all their rich colours and detail. The frames, tones and aspect ratios are constantly changing. Not only does this keep your eye interested, but it also helps with the immersion.

Two of the best scenes in the movie blur the lines between reality and cinema even further. Cliff Booth visits Spahn Ranch to find it overrun by squatting hippies (with the benefit of hindsight, we know these are the Mansons). He wants to see George, the owner of the ranch, but the Manson girls are reluctant. When he forces his way up to George’s house, Tarantino recreates a suspenseful western-style stand-off. It is incredibly tense. You are constantly left wondering what Cliff is going to find in that house, and whether he will get out alive or not. The fact that this scenes feels like it came from a western is another example of cinema and reality bleeding into one another. The film’s closing sequence is already controversial for its darkly comic tone and its historical revisionism. When you look at the bigger picture of what Tarantino is trying to do, you find it makes complete sense, though. Cinema and reality are merging throughout the film. Of course it ends with the most fanciful and fictional sequence.  The Mansons are symbolic of a dark cloud of ominous change, what Rick Dalton has been fearing throughout the film. As they steadily approach the top of Cielo Drive, the expectation that something explosive is about to happen keeps one utterly captivated. The sequence does not follow history with any accuracy whatsoever, though. Cliff Booth saves the day in some of the most darkly comic violence of Tarantino’s career. It is complete fantasy. No one was really able to stop the Mansons murdering Sharon Tate and her friends. Tarantino takes liberty with historical accuracy because it is the natural culmination of the mixing of cinema and reality taking place throughout the film.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is an ode to both 1960s L.A. and the films being made there at the time. In its quest to celebrate both, the lines between them blur and cease to matter. This allows for a visually immersive film that impresses with a lot of sensory detail. It also allows for a showcase in how to create mood and atmosphere. The film creates a feeling so strong and arresting that the plot matters very little. You will never lose interest in this ultimate fairy-tale of Hollywood.