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Overlord

Overlord

Overlord is an immersive and evocatively bonkers film. Beginning with American paratroopers about to be dropped into Nazi-occupied France just prior to the 1944 Normandy invasion, the viewer is similarly dropped into the midst of combat as our heroes encounter superior forces, lose most of their team and grapple with moral dilemmas. Then things get crazy.  As German commandant Wafner (Pilou Asbæk) says, a thousand-year Reich needs thousand-year soldiers, and this conceit provides the fuel for fairly furious fireworks. Overlord does not skimp on the tension or gore, its set pieces include infiltration of an enemy stronghold, graphic dissection and some torture, as well as some gunfights, all of which add up to an enjoyably mad couple of hours. The central group of soldiers are an engaging bunch and director Julius Avery delivers some stylistic flair, including a bravura long take as one character fights an enemy, runs out of a building and continues the fight with new methods. It’s not likely to linger in the memory, but it is a worthy addition to the warhorror sub-genre.

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First Man

First ManThe temptation of films set in space is to present a grand scale, taking full advantage to use the large screen to present the vast expanse as a metaphor for isolation, grief or whatever the filmmaker puts in or the viewer takes out. In the case of First Man, director Damien Chazelle goes the other way. From the opening sequence of Neil Armstrong (Ryan Gosling) flying an upper atmospheric craft, First Man is intensely intimate. Close-up shots and handheld cinematography are the order of the day, as Chazelle, cinematographer Linus Sandgren and editor Tom Cross take the brilliant choreography and startling editing of Whiplash and La La Land to a wider canvas that is nonetheless exquisitely detailed. This detail is the world of Armstrong, a man internalised after the tragic death of his young daughter. Gosling is magnetic as always, his eyes speaking volumes and tiny gestures indicating his absorption. Equally impressive is Claire Foy as Janet Armstrong, left behind while Neil trains for the most dangerous and ambitious mission ever undertaken. Yet even when he is with her Neil remains distant, their connection one of deep feelings rather than external expression. This is perhaps the greatest strength of First Man: for all the historical significance of the Moon landing, it is a personal story. Other relationships such as those between Neil and his fellow astronauts as well as between Janet and the other wives are compelling and believable, while the sequences of training express not only the intensity and intimacy of space travel, but also the extraordinary perils, as the lunar module and other craft appear dangerously fragile. Despite knowing how the story works out, this personal space odyssey still takes the viewer to strange new worlds, echoing Stanley Kubrick’s masterpiece as well as the more recent Gravity and Interstellar. First Man may depict a giant leap, but the true drama here is in the small steps.

Halloween

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John Carpenter’s Halloween, to give the 1978 film its full title, has an extraordinary legacy. On its release it became the most commercially successful independent film of all time; it helped solidify the elements of the slasher sub-genre that became a staple of 80s cinema, a rite of passage for many a filmgoer and a ripe area for critical study. John Carpenter’s Halloween also spawned a franchise that has continued for forty years, through multiple sequels and remakes. Any new addition to the Halloween lineage, therefore, must strike a balance between acknowledging this legacy and declaring its own identity. David Gordon Green’s Halloween achieves this balance by narratively ignoring every film in the franchise since 1978. This frees Green and his co-writers Jeff Fradley and Danny McBride from worrying about consistency, which is a relief because Michael Myers and Laurie Strode (Jamie Lee Curtis) have been through so many transfigurations that consistency died a grisly death long ago. The new film can therefore focus on its own identity, closely tied to the iconic figures of the series. The latter is as implacable, relentless and silent as ever, as performers James Jude Courtney and Nick Castle convey the unknowable evil that Michael has always represented. It is perhaps a heavy-handed device that the viewer never sees Michael’s face, and the only sounds that we hear from him are heavy breathing, but this does not detract from the imposing Shape that lurks in the frame, his iconic white mask now battered and dirty but still unmistakably menacing. Green stages several set pieces that convey a palatable sense of fear. In one bravura sequence, captured in a single take, Michael enters the frame in the foreground and watches a woman through a window, his reflection in the glass standing in for that of the viewer. Then he moves out of shot, only to reappear in the background while the woman inside the house continues oblivious. The climax of the sequence echoes the beginning and is genuinely shocking, despite being clearly telegraphed. Other set pieces also emphasise Michael’s power and brutality, but the film’s master stroke is its presentation of Laurie. Curtis is fresh and exciting, a sympathetic embodiment of dealing with trauma. Halloween’s willingness to engage with PTSD from a female perspective is a development of the genre’s long-established trope of the Final Girl, as three generations of the Strode family – including Laurie’s daughter Karen (Judy Greer) and granddaughter Allyson (Andi Matichak) – reclaim a narrative too long held by men. Whereas the original Halloween and so many slashers since (not to mention other genres and a little thing called the real world) emphasise male subjugation of women, Halloween 2018 shows female wisdom, ingenuity, compassion and the determination to take control. It might have been even more progressive were the film been written and directed by women, but by committing to this female assertion, Green shows that challenges to patriarchy and its damaging affects, neatly represented by Michael Myers and his ilk, are the responsibility of everyone that wants monstrosity to be contained and curtailed.

Laurie

Venom

Venom

What do you need to pluck yourself out of a funk when your entire life has collapsed? If you’re disgraced reporter Eddie Brock (Tom Hardy), you need an extra-terrestrial symbiotic life form with super strength, near-invulnerability and a snarky sense of humour. After the (unfairly) maligned Spider-Man 3, hopes were high that a film focused on Venom would deliver on the character’s potential. Those hopes are summarily dashed with Ruben Fleischer’s chaotic take on the tentacular anti-hero. Eddie Brock is a journalist devoted to the truth, to the exclusion of his employer’s wishes and his partner’s needs. The David and Goliath set up of Eddie VS tech giant Carlton Drake (Riz Ahmed) is cliched and escalates too fast, as Eddie’s life is destroyed when he gets on the wrong side of Drake. Abandoned by his employers as well as fiancée Anne Weying (a criminally underused Michelle Williams), Eddie’s chance for redemption comes in the form of Venom, an organism that bonds with a human host and imbues that host with great power, with which comes great, stop me if you’ve heard this one. Venom follows the typical beats of the superhero genre, offering little we haven’t seen before. Interchanges between Eddie and Venom are sporadically funny but the same device was used in Avengers: Infinity War; the tentacular abilities of the squidgy aliens quickly become overused; Ant-Man and the Wasp made better use of San Francisco as a site for demolition derby. Overall, despite the impressive chompers on our titular anti-hero, Venom’s incoherence means that it lacks bite. But the mid-credits sequence suggests potential for a sequel, so I’ll probably be back for further poisoning.

The Greatest Rampage

 

The way we see a film can affect our perception of it. Ideal viewing circumstances can give us a fond memory of a mediocre piece of work. Poor viewing conditions can highlight the strengths of a film if it lets you forget where you are, or highlight the weaknesses if you do not. Such was the case with The Greatest Showman and Rampage, both of which I missed on their theatrical release and caught up with in somewhat unorthodox ways.

For the former, I attended my first Pop-Up Pictures event and saw The Greatest Showman outdoors, sitting on a deck chair with an appreciative but still respectful audience. As the evening wore on it became increasingly cold and I wished I had brought another layer. These far from ideal viewing conditions might have been overcome by a more engaging film, which proved to be the case at a Pop-Up Pictures screening of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Unfortunately at The Greatest Showman, I found myself getting uncomfortable and not involved in the film. Various dramatic opportunities are missed, such as the significance of fabric and the treatment of those designated as ‘other’, be that due to class, race or physical difference. While the songs have subsequently proved fun to listen to, as part of the film they lack weight, which is a problem with the film overall. A lot of running back and forth fails to convey dramatic importance; tensions between P. T. Barnum (Hugh Jackman), Charity Barnum (Michelle Williams) and Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) is sorely lacking; romance between Phillip Carlyle (Zac Efron) and Anne Wheeler (Zendaya) is simplistic; the various other characters seem like sketches. Meanwhile, the set design smacks of artifice, and not in a way that suggests the film is making a point about performance and theatricality. In the end, it feels hollow and fake, as The Greatest Showman proves to be far less than the greatest show.

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RampageI watched on a train on a tablet, and enjoyed it immensely. This is despite the small viewing device, headphones and regular glare on the screen. Whereas The Greatest Showmanhas pretensions of grandeur that it never successfully meets, Rampageis exactly that – a non-stop, rollicking rampage in which giant animals break things. That is what it says on the tin and that is what you get in spades. I laughed, I cheered (quietly), I applauded (inside). The creature design is effective, director Brad Peyton balances action, plot and humour. All the performers play their roles exactly right, from the boo-hiss villains Claire and Brett Wyden (Malin Ackerman and Jake Lacey) to the maverick federal agent Harvey Russell (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). Playing the scientist who knows what’s going on, Dr Kate Caldwell, Naomie Harris keeps a commendably straight face throughout. As Davis Okoye, Dwayne Johnson balances his trademark wit, charm and charisma with genuine befuddlement over the increasingly ludicrous scenarios and a touching sense of friendship in his interactions with gorilla George (Jason Liles), that Davis talks to through sign language, and seeks to save even as George becomes larger and more destructive. This is the great strength of Rampagethat is sorely lacking in The Greatest Showman: have all the razzle-dazzle you like, but even CGI extravaganzas need a beating heart.

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The House With A Clock In Its Walls

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Any film that features a child learning magic draws comparisons with Harry Potter. Eli Roth’s adaptation of John Bellairs’ novel – that predates J. K. Rowling’s behemoth – stakes out its own territory with a 1950s period setting, sorcery in locations adjacent to rather than separated from the non-magic world, and a young protagonist who is more precocious than Chosen. As Lewis Barnavelt, Owen Vaccaro is an engaging lead, given the right blend of social awkwardness and forthright courage. Jack Black and Cate Blanchett offer decent support as Lewis’ Uncle Jonathan and his neighbour Florence Zimmerman. One of the film’s most enjoyable elements is the amusing banter between Jonathan and Florence, every insult laced with affection. Lewis’ growing pains at school are relatable, and there is a pleasing diversity among the performers, avoiding a whitewashed American history. Several of the set pieces are thrilling and there are laughs, the loudest involving a topiary griffin. Yet despite the promising elements, overall the film proves less than the sum of its parts. The visual style is rather flat and the different pieces fit together with heavy tocks rather than efficient ticks. Roth made his name with grisly horror, and he seems uncomfortable with family fair that wobbles unsteadily from sentimentality to grand scale danger to slapstick comedy. The House With A Clock In Its Walls makes for a half-decent visit, but spend any longer there and you may start to notice the time.

Mile 22

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Viewers care about character in films. Character can be a route into the film’s world, but somewhat controversially this reviewer believes there are other routes and ‘caring about the characters’ is not essential. Indeed, in the case of Mile 22, characterisation is a distraction. In this latest collaboration between Mark Wahlberg and Peter Berg after Deepwater Horizon, Lone Survivor and Patriots Day, Wahlberg plays James Silva, a US special ops agent who is over-characterized. After an opening scene that establishes the remit and lethal abilities of strike team Overwatch, we are treated to a credit sequence that details Silva’s history: identified as ‘gifted’ (which quickly becomes synonymous with ‘troubled’ and ‘mentally abnormal’), his military service, exceptional skills, special forces, recruited to Overwatch, and the rubber band that he snaps on his wrist when his thoughts are too fast for the everyday world. As the film progresses, this rubber band snaps many times, while Silva delivers verbal barrages at his teammates as a form of motivation. The excessive characterisation distracts from the otherwise fairly stripped-down story. Overwatch must transport cop Li Norr (Iko Uwais) through Jakarta to a landing strip 22 miles away (hence the title) so that he can provide vital data about terrorist activity. Along the way they encounter resistance which leads to intense violence, violence that extends into the fabric of the film as well as the narrative. Director Berg mixes multiple formats, from handheld cameras to satellite, drone and security footage, while the present day story flashes forward to a debriefing session. For the most part, this unsteady chronicling effectively conveys a disorientating sense of danger, although it unfortunately obscures Uwais’ martial artistry at several points. A sequence in a tower block with our heroes facing multiple adversaries recalls The Raid, but Mile 22 has a different sort of onslaught. The bombardment of visual information quickly becomes confusing, but this confusion is itself part of the action. In a technologised world of globalisation where US covert ops, Indonesian police and state intelligence, other espionage agencies and civilians violently interact, what can be trusted or depended upon? The double and triple-crossing of the narrative, combined with the disorientating visual grammar, adds up an action thriller that is overwrought and overdone. Nonetheless, Mile 22 is a gripping couple of hours, and an effective product of our troubled and confusing times. Pity about that pesky characterisation.