The Handmaiden

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Just go. Go and see The Handmaiden. To describe the film in any detail could temper it for you. This is a film that benefits from knowing as little about it as possible. So stop reading this review, go to the website for your local moving picture venue and find a suitable time to see it.

Still here? Alright, what CAN I tell you? In the vaguest terms possible, Park Chan-Wook’s latest film is an exquisite, sumptuous, erotic portrayal of an intriguing, labyrinthine tale. Set during the Japanese occupation of Korea, Park’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith explores (among other things) identity, friendship, love and sexuality, through gorgeous production design and an intricate visual pattern that demonstrates an intensely intelligent use of cinema. Jae-bum Kim and Sang-beom Kim’s edits are carefully spaced to reveal key pieces of information, Chung-Hoon Chung’s cinematography precisely explores Seong-hie Ryu’s beautiful sets, while the performances of the whole cast are note perfect, balancing inner turmoil with outer expression. Park balances multiple tones across the film, including excitement and sorrow, narrative wit and slapstick humour, erotic intrigue and outright horror. Do yourself a favour and make a point of seeing what is likely to be one of this year’s best films. Come on, what are you waiting for?

Get Out

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Imagine if Ben Stiller had encountered hypnotism and brain surgery when he went to Meet The Parents. That is a fair description of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, a gripping, thrilling and at times shocking horror film about social attitudes and the power of privilege. Writer-director Peele structures the film carefully, as an opening sequence is conducted almost entirely in a wide angled, single long take, that echoes Halloween and the more recent It Follows. Such composition sets the scene of menace and danger as part of the overall picture if not seen immediately. The viewer is then introduced to likeable couple Chris Washington (David Kaluuya) and Rose Armitage (Allison Williams), taking a weekend trip to Rose’s parents Dean (Bradley Whitford, whose character echoes his from The Cabin in the Woods) and Missy (Catherine Keener, turning her usual comforting presence to more sinister ends). Chris is concerned about the Armitages’ attitude towards his race, but despite Rose’s assurances a sense of unease rapidly develops as the family sees too clean cut and their African-American servants are clearly strange. As other guests arrive for a party their racial attitudes shift from initially grating to increasingly creepy. Past traumas and emotional vulnerability are exploited as things become ever more sinister, with scenes of direct mental manipulation proving especially unnerving. In its final act the film moves away from psychological scares to more physical ones, becoming increasingly hysterical and ultimately less effective. Although a potentially devastating plot twist is avoided, Get Out contains more than enough atmosphere and dread to leave one feeling shaken and disturbed.

Ghost in the Shell

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Rupert Sanders’ remake of Mamoru Oshii’s seminal anime, itself an adaptation of Shirow Madamune’s manga, plays like Blade Runner crossed with The Fifth Element on steroids. Set in a future where cybernetic ‘enhancements’ are commonplace, the eye-scorching Ghost in the Shell focuses on Major (Scarlett Johansson), a special agent of Section 9 that tracks a mysterious cyber-terrorist known only as Kuze (Michael Pitt). Sanders’ film creates a visually arresting vision of the future, with huge buildings sharing the skyline of (presumably) Tokyo with giant holograms advertising the latest technology from the ubiquitous company Hanka. Shots capture the city in the background while the officers of Section 9 perform superhuman feats, the cumulative effect hinting at the uncanny nature of this world, like and unlike our own, while other startling images include Kuze connected to a dense mesh of cables that imply infinite connection. Unfortunately, the film lacks faith in these visuals, often resorting to telling rather than showing with an over-reliance on exposition and laboured storytelling. A more fluid directorial style might have helped, such as that of Luc Besson or the Wachowskis, or indeed the original anime. Further comparisons with the earlier film hurt this one also, as Johansson’s Major forgoes the cynicism of Atsuko Tanaka’s Motoko Kusanagi and the film as a whole lacks the nihilism of Madamune’s version. In the earlier film, cybernetic enhancement is a given and the questions posed look ahead to explore new understandings of life consciousness. This screenplay, by Jamie Moss, William Wheeler and Ehren Kruger, looks backward as Major attempts to piece together her past. Glitches in Major’s perception hint at this past in cumbersome ways, Sanders’ style often buffering the content rather than delivering a steady data stream of plot, theme, character and world-building. Slo-mo and lingering shots of bodies have their place, but here they emphasise artifice rather than express the fusion of biology and technology. While the film does raise many interesting ideas about memory and identity, especially in relation to the controversial ‘whitewashing‘, the end result is a case of too much shell, not enough ghost.

Life

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Life is an original film that lacks original ideas. While it is not based on any previously published material, its narrative and themes are familiar to any fan of science fiction or horror. Obvious references are Alien and Gravity: the initial shots of space and the slow appearance of the International Space Station seem to deliberately echo the credits of Ridley Scott’s classic, while the opening action set piece is conducted in a single shot, reminiscent of Alfonso Cuarón’s award magnet. Xenomorph references continue as the appropriately diverse crew members of ISS have a close encounter of the dangerous kind with a single-celled organism brought back from Mars. Nicknamed ‘Calvin’, experiments with this globular entity quickly turn grisly and gruesome. But Life‘s lack of originality does not stop it being an entertaining ninety minutes, as director Daniel Espinosa delivers a gripping romp, making smart use of the zero-gravity environment and the classic dangers of space. Depleted oxygen, dropping temperatures and loss of communication with Mission Control are all handled with aplomb, with the added tensions of medical drama, as Dr Miranda North (Rebecca Ferguson) reminds us of the various safeguards to prevent alien contamination of Earth. Calvin itself is commendably intriguing and revolting in equal measure and the different responses of Rory Adams (Ryan Reynolds), Hugh Derry (Ariyon Bakare) and David Jordan (Jake Gyllenhaal) provide an effective progression through the drama. There are plenty of jumps and a good dose of tension, and part of the fun is predicting who will die, when and how. However familiar it may be, Life ticks all the boxes for an enjoyable orbital journey.

Beauty and the Beast

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Here’s a wild thought – Bill Condon’s remake of Disney’s animated classic, that arrives complete with songs, talking candelabra, clock and tea pot, not to mention a mo-capped Beast (Dan Stevens) as well as Belle (Emma Watson) in the expected attire, is a parable about Donald Trump’s America. Wait, come back! Condon devotes a good portion of the film to the Beast’s enchanted castle, surrounded by perpetual winter and occupied by all manner of eccentric characters, but equal attention is paid to the ‘provincial town’ where Belle and her father Maurice (Kevin Kline) reside. The villagers are a varied bunch, but share narrow beliefs and easily thralled by Gaston (Luke Evans), a charismatic local celebrity with great force of personality, who is self-centred and conceited, contemptuous of women and expects everyone to adulate him. Sound familiar? More tellingly, the villagers are easily swayed by Gaston’s charisma to (spoiler alert) go after someone different. The Beast is the most obvious example, but Belle herself is a social pariah while Gaston easily convinces the townsfolk that Maurice is mad, while the minor yet significant character Agatha (Hattie Morahan) is similarly ostracised for not adhering to social mores that Gaston exploits and epitomises. And yet it is these different people, those who are ‘Other’, that display the humane qualities of empathy, kindness and compassion. While the overall story arc is of course about love, a central conceit of not judging by appearances and instead accepting and embracing difference pervades the film. Beauty and the Beast therefore continues Disney’s progressive streak that includes Zootopia and Queen of Katwe. Long may the House of Mouse continue this open door policy.

Kong: Skull Island

 

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Sometimes the most unexpected aspects of a film are the most enjoyable. In the case of Kong: Skull Island, which I enjoyed for multiple reasons, the most delightful aspect was the film’s relation to another film, a relation that is far from accidental and makes KSI an expansion of an established cinematic universe. The question therefore is whether Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ film works on its own or if spends too much time being referential. The answer is most assuredly the former, as Vogt-Roberts crafts an immersive thrill ride with a motley crew of adventurers journeying to the titular island, only to find more than they bargained for. This crew are diverse in terms of gender, race and personality, with tracker James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston), photographer Mason Weaver (Brie Larson), disgruntled US army colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L. Jackson) and visionary Bill Randa (John Goodman), who provides the main link to another film, as well as various other characters that have just enough background to make them more than faceless beast fodder. The 1973 setting, during the US withdrawal from Vietnam, establishes a conceit of humans’ non-superiority in relation to nature. The film explores this premise as several of the characters develop a new appreciation of the environment and their relationship with it. The most important aspect of this is of course Kong himself (played in performance capture by Toby Kebbell, who also plays soldier Jack Chapman), a massive presence who looms over the film even when off screen. Unlike other versions of the big ape, KSI does not overplay a Beauty and the Beast angle, as Weaver is far more capable than Ann Darrow and Kong remains unequivocally wild. This wild otherness gives the film its engrossing atmosphere, which is enhanced by other creatures and never lets up, Vogt-Roberts’ dynamic visual style conveying the thrills and spills of our heroes. With a post-credits scene setting up future developments, this is one island I’ll be keen to revisit.

Logan

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X marks the spot and, by all accounts, the end. James Mangold’s Logan concludes Hugh Jackman’s seventeen years playing the Wolverine, and it serves as a fitting finale to the hirsute one’s cinematic adventures. Shot through with bitterness, regret and melancholia, Mangold’s film in a bold, mature character study that balances pathos and dark wit with more grounded and gritty action sequences than we have seen previously in this franchise. Dispensing with world-shattering events, Logan follows the eponymous mutant along with fellow long-term player Sir Patrick Stewart as Professor Charles Xavier, and newcomer Laura (Dafne Keen), as they attempt to escape from armed men working for a mysterious company. There is little in the way of super-powered battles, as the action consists of physical fracas of fists, feet and claws, as well as bullets and bombs. The adult rating is well deserved as F-bombs and claret fly with wild abandon, and the bloodletting especially demonstrates how sanitised the earlier X-Men films were. Here, limbs are severed, heads are pierced, bodies erupt and blister. The violence is far from gratuitous, however, as pain and injury is not restricted to the faceless adversaries of our heroes. Logan is at his most vulnerable, bearing scars and wounds, coughing throughout the film and easing his pain with a near-constant flow of alcohol. Charles is worse, suffering from a degenerative disease that causes telepathic seizures. Both men are also deeply troubled by their pasts, some of which we know from previous films but others are only referred to in passing. The fruity language is integral to this burnt-out masculinity, since Logan and Charles have largely given up caring. Mangold maintains the conceit of world-weariness throughout the film, with a measured visual style that often captures the characters in wide shots of the unsympathetic landscape, making the film more like a western than a standard superhero movie (although the Shane references are a bit too neat). Perhaps most bleakly, there is little sense of redemption in the film, as animosity and prejudice remain prevalent, but crucially are not located in any single evildoer. The X-Men series has always been interested in prejudice and difference, but this was simply reiterated in recent entries. Logan reinforces that prejudice and fear of the different are systemic issues deeply imbricated in society, despite supposed progress. This makes Logan not only a fitting farewell to a beloved character, but a highlighting of contemporary issues that demand attention and the effort for change.