Film Review: In the Fade

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Director: Fatih Akin

18 | 1h 46min | Crime, Drama | 22 June 2018 (UK)

Rating: ★★★☆☆

Star Diane Kruger certainly delivers the acting goods in Fatih Akin’s In The Fade; she walked away from Cannes with the Best Actress prize last year for her turn as a woman who works as her Turkish expat husband's tax advice business partner in Hamburg’s Turkish quarter, only to suddenly have her free-spirited life collapse when said husband Nuri (NUmab Acar) and pre-teen son are killed by a nail bomb. Sadly, Kruger's performance isn't matched in quality by the rest of the film, which feels like three different films mashed into one, frequently resorts to cliched signposting, and stretches believability in the last act.

The first and second acts pack more punch, with Kruger convincingly complex and suitably wounded as she roils in the pressure cooker of grief under unimaginable circumstances. The screenplay complicates our reaction to Katja's predicament somewhat by showing how the trauma reactivates some of her past life's darker habits: namely hard drug use (her husband was a low-level dealer who she met working on his case in prison, only to marry him and help him leave the life after his parole). Both sides of her family clash with her, over both her behaviour and funeral plans. Gracefully grieving this is not. 

Then the film segues into a tense courtroom drama that actually runs for a lot longer than you might think, taking up nearly 40 minutes of screen time.  It is standard to see films criticised for having a 'saggy middle', but In the Fade's strongest section lies here. Set in a bleached-white, eerily clinical courthouse, the trial looks like it will proceed on a cut-and-dried course given the evidence against the suspects (who are Neo-Nazis), and Katja's hotshot lawyer friend Danilo ( Denis Moschitto) brings plenty of swagger at the start. But every day of the trial, thanks to a confident defence team and a row of surprise witnesses, keeps deteriorating to a nail-biting conclusion for Kaja, with her certainty of getting a conviction always left in doubt. Still, even here I found myself feeling the outcome of the trial relied on too much contrivance and unlikely decisions so we can get set for the third act, and the defence team are stereotypically slimy.

As topical as it feels to tackle the rise of the far right in Germany. as opposed to resorting to another focus on Islamic terrorism in Europe, the film really feels like it is hammering its message of 'hate begets hate' home far too heavily in its final third-act swerve into a vigilante thriller, as well as simply stretching believability into what Katja would be willing to do and be capable of accomplishing, least of all when she still has options to pursue her targets within the law.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Film review: Ocean's 8

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Director: Gary Ross:

12A | 1h 50min | ActionComedyCrime | 18 June 2018 (UK)

RATING: ★★★☆☆

Seemingly even before Ocean's 8 had been released, the narrative was shaping up that it was a mere opportunistic, sex-changed, xeroxed copy of the original Steven Soderbergh 2001 heist drama Ocean's 11 (even though that itself was a remake of a 50s movie of the same title), with The Hunger Games director Gary Ross (working with screenwriter Olivia Milch) lacking the same expressive camera moves and editing, and the deft balance of screwball comedy, romantic drama and dazzling heist mechanics, of his predecessor. Having seen the film, I can conclude that all of that criticism is, in fact, generally true. And yes, I would prefer female-driven films like this to be original creations, not umbilically tied structure, style and plot to a previous franchise that was led behind and in front of the camera by males.

But here's the thing, I've excused plenty of other male-led, team-based crime movies for most if not all of the same flaws this film showcases - a plot relying too much on contrivance, characters that barely stretch to more than their main skill- so long as they were fun overall. And Ocean's 8, dammit, is fun, for all its weaknesses. Maybe it is the fact that I am a big softie for stars Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett, who have appealing chemistry here as two old-time crook pals, and can carry off light comedy and coolly confident poise with ease. Maybe because supporting cast members Akwafina, Rihanna, Sara Paulson, Mindy Kaling, Helena Bonham Carter and Anna Hathaway all play characters who are at least charming and likeable, even if they don't showcase any realy growth or depth. Maybe because the film managed at least one or two surprises as it unravelled its multi-level heist scheme, which helped counter the fact that I never felt there was any real risk of this all-female crime gang failing in their task to grab a $150m diamond Cartier necklace (but then, did anyone ever expect George Clooney's team in the other three Soderbergh Ocean's films to go to jail?). Maybe because the film just looks so good: I mean, the whole things ends at the annual Met Ball in New York, the perfect excuse for our team to get dressed up to the nines (or should that be...to the eights?). Just go in expecting nothing more than light entertainment, and you'll be fine.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Film Review: The Happy Prince

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Director: Rupert Everett

15 | 1h 45min | Drama, History | 15 June 2018 (UK)

RATING: ★★★☆☆

I know very little about the famous writer, socialite and wit-bomb dropper Oscar Wilde, beyond the basic rise-and-fall arc of his life that takes in his rise to fame in Britain as the mind behind The Picture of Dorian Grey and The Importance of Being Earnest, through to imprisonment and social outcast status following his outing as gay. That being said, writer/director Rupert Everett's focus in The Happy Prince is on what happened after the fall, and taking a biopic into that space interested me. Perhaps unsurprisingly for an actor who has played Wilde several times on stage and screen, Everett does a fine job of presenting us with a tragically compelling Wilde who is impoverished and stricken by ill health, destitute in exile in Paris and Naples with nothing but a few street urchins to drink with and reflections on his period of success in London during the 1880s and 90s to sustain him.

Assisted by prosthetics, Everett gives us an alarmingly flabby, woozy and bedraggled figure who's remaining reserves of humour are like the last fumes of jet fuel in a plane about to crash, though flashbacks messily scattered into the narrative allow us to see a bit of the man in his prime. He more than adequate transmits the sense of a fallen icon see-sawing now between preening, panicking, and self-destructive 'fuck it' moments; and all the more tragic for it. Just occasionally, some of the magnificence of past glories shines through, but it is a ruined magnificence now. For all Wilde's still-powerful wit, this is a figure chronically dependent on the charity of friends but too self-absorbed to fully appreciate it, and too proud and reckless to make enough effort to get himself out of the hole of debt and booze. We see that, before his darkest hour arrived, he had resumed the destructive relationship with the snobby and duplicitous Bosie (Colin Morgan), which caused the termination of the tiny allowance from his humiliated ex-wife Constance (Emily Watson) and also endangered Bosie’s own income, leaving them nothing to live on. He also eventually resorts to the kind of fraudulent behaviour he used to savage others for: selling an unwritten play to three separate financial backers to keep destitution from the door.

The unflattering nature of this depiction of Wilde's fall, and the fact there was enough emotional heft in the on-screen relationships to appeal to viewers like myself without too much knowledge of the real-life story, won my respect, as did the film's willingness to acknowledge the pain Wilde caused his wife, herself in poor health, as well as the touching but imbalanced affection between Wilde and his devoted friend and lover Robbie (Edwin Thomas), one of the few companions to stick by him to the sad end. What the film lacks in giving us compelling theses about Wilde's talent and motivations it makes up for in Everett's passionate and poignant performance as a deeply human and flawed artist in decay. He was aiming for the stars, but ended up in the gutter after all.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Film Review: Hereditary

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Director: Ari Aster

15 | 2h 7min | Drama, Horror, Mystery | 15 June 2018 (UK)

Rating: ★★★★☆

Star Toni Collette is superb in director Ari Aster’s Sundance horror sensation Hereditary. The film burst out of the US festival earlier this year with the kind of favourable buzz that eased the way for The Babadook and Get Out. Comparisons to The Babadook are particularly understandable given both films centre on an unstable female protagonist who is an unreliable narrator (as well as parent), but the comparisons can be overdone. I personally found Aster’s film incredibly unsettling, one of the closest approximations to the kind of nightmares I've had that I have seen on film recently. The night terrors that have lurked in my memory are those where I wasn’t sure where the real world ended and the supernatural took over, and where waking up resulted in a flash-moment where dreamscape and the real world overlapped. Watching Hereditary recalled that to a certain extent. Those going into Hereditary should be warned that not only is this flick not entirely similar to The Babadook but the marketing materials for the film - particularly the posters that feature a miniature house lit spookily from within - might create the wrong kind of expectations. Nor is it really helpful to call this ‘the next Exorcist’. Rest assured though, despite a two-hour run time that suggests a slow-burner, the film will make you jump. You will never think about tongue clicks in the same way.

What about those weird miniature houses though? Well, they are naturally a handy metaphor for how we can be shrunk down to irrelevant size by the loss of control, and the vulnerability of a family unit to menacing forces peering in from outside.  Aster actually opens the film with a striking zoom onto what appears to be a miniature of a bedroom, only for the entrance of a character into the room to break the spell and reveal this is a real place. But the miniatures are also fascinating, real objects within the film; the life work of Toni Collette’s character. Collette plays Annie Graham, an American artist who is famed for creating miniaturist houses, which mostly are based on scenes from her own life; tiny lit rooms with Lilliputian human figures, fixtures and fittings all fabricated with a frankly eerie level of detail and care (there is a real-life American artist Narcissa Thorne who’s work is similar, and she may be an inspiration). It is, of course, tempting to read into this a form of deep-rooted control freakery or some kind of pathology (or curse?), and given that when we first see Annie when she is giving a very bleak reading at her mother’s funeral, we also start to sense that the Grahams might be a family with deep roots of damage. Annie’s mother, we learn, was elderly, secretive and abusive, and only died after years of dementia. Right away, we wonder how this mysterious matriarch affected not just Annie, but her steady-the-ship husband Steve (Gabriel Byrne) and their teen children Peter (Alex Wolff) and Charlie (Milly Shapiro). As Annie hisses through her teeth during the funeral, her grandma insisted on taking Charlie under her wing, and even though she is dead, she fear her ‘hooks’ are still in her child.

It is difficult to talk about what happens over the next two hours without spoiling, but suffice it to say that Aster crafts the downfall of the Graham family, and reveals the shadow they live under, with real craftsmanship. It really starts with loner teenage granddaughter Charlie (a great performance from Milly Shapiro, who has fascinating gaze that really conveys the sense of seeing something beyond), who starts catching visions of her grandmother outside her school, before graduating on to dissecting animals and unsettling her family with strange, sudden tongue clicks. Then a truly gruesome and bizarre tragedy strikes, and the domestic turmoil this unleashed is so effectively conveyed by the cast, particularly Collette, that Hereditary could actually have just stopped right there with the supernatural elements and carried on as a great character study of grief. One dinner scene, conducted in the family’s gloomily-lit and oddly doll-like house (the rooms just feel too neat to seem lived in), sees Collette’s character escalate to such a frightening level of savage accusation that the film reaches an almost hysterical pitch of unease. This happens many other times, with Annie’s uncontrollable outbursts against her hapless son Peter (Alex Wolff really nails the look of a person exhausted by the process of falling apart), who was involved in the aforementioned tragedy and thus has twisted the family’s response to it even more, revealing such deeply-buried and unspeakable truths that you night find yourself emitting a guffaw of shock. This grounding really helps the film, as few things are more terrifying that seeing bad things happen to believably frail people.

But it is not over for the Grahams, not by a long shot. Aster’s script, the production design, editing and a precise nerve-jangling score from Colin Stetson all work in slick tandem to ratchet up the feeling of delirious dread as the family members increasingly isolate themselves, and thus fall further prey to the forces trying to get at them. I particularly liked the film’s trick of snapping from day or night in exterior shots in a single beat, like switching the lights in a doll’s house on or off with a switch. Grace Yun’s production design and Pawel Pogorzelski’s cinematography for the outdoor scenes make the Graham residence look like another miniature house in a totally isolated space, cut off from any help, which is complimented by the aforementioned square-on compositions that make the interiors look uncannily like replicas with live occupants. Interspersed with all this are a few jump scares so well-constructed that it overrides the fact some are straight out of the oldest playbook in existence. By the time you get to the WTF ending (which, despite my ambiguous feelings about it, doesn’t diminish my appreciation), you will probably be wanting to steer clear of doll’s houses for a good few months.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.

Film Review: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

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Director: J.A. Bayona

12A | 2h 8min | Action, Adventure, Sci-Fi | 6 June 2018 (UK)

Rating: ★★☆☆☆

Like the very genetically engineered dinosaurs that populate the plots, the Jurassic Park series refuses to bow to extinction, returning with a follow-up to 2015’s smash-hit, franchise-restarter Jurassic World. Colin Trevorrow has bowed out of direction duties in favour of J.A Bayona (The Impossible), but Jurassic World’s main duo of Raptor trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt) and former Park Director Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard) are back for another session of gawping at CGI creations off-screen left, and running away from pursuing monsters towards camera. Sadly, although this film’s tag line is “Life Finds a Way”, what definitely got lost along the way was a decent screenplay (writers Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connolly), let alone any sense of the majesty and wonder of the original 1993 Spielberg movie. Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom is so riddled with logic gaps, dumb character decisions and simple confusion about how we should view the entire conceit, that the actual genetic recreation of dinosaurs from 65 million years ago starts looking believable in comparison.

The film opens some four years since theme park and luxury resort Jurassic World was destroyed by the dinosaurs breaking out of containment (again). Given the amount of time that has passed, it actually seems, finally, corporate humanity has accepted that opening a theme park based on genetically-recreated dinosaurs might not be a good idea. And in case we were still in any doubt, we see a short scene in the film’s opening minutes where Jurassic Park survivor, chaotician, and legendary ladies’ man Dr Ian Malcolm (original star Jeff Goldblum) addresses a US Senate Committee who are debating whether or not to evacuate some of the dinosaurs to spare them from an impending volcano that is erupting on the island. Malcolm’s advice: Do not go back to the island. Do not try to rescue these dinosaurs. Bringing any of them back to the US, or putting them anywhere ‘secure’, is a bad idea. It sounds cruel, but one of the problems Jurassic World never conquers is the confusion it displays over whether we should align with Malcolm’s idea or not. Frankly at this point, with the last movie seeing a death toll reach hundreds, it feels hard to argue with the guy, not least when he describes the terrible implications of genetic engineering in terms that seem to link it to the instability of the Trump era.

Yet accepting Malcolm’s arguments would mean, of course, ending the franchise. Thus Owen and Claire, who barely survived the last movie, end up looking both reckless and of questionable intelligence by being won over in about five minutes into going back to the island as part of a covert corporate campaign run by JP founder John Hammond’s former partner Lockwood (James Cromwell) and his slimy executive Eli Mills (Rafe Spall with villain haircut) to rescue the remaining dinosaurs from the extinction-level event and bring them to a new sanctuary. Owen is driven to find Blue, his lead raptor who's still missing in the wild, and Claire has grown a respect for these creatures she now makes her mission, even if they nearly killed her about a dozen times. That this mission doesn’t have the approval of either the US or Costa Rican governments (the Costa Ricans, who presumably have jurisdiction over Isla Nublar given it was only leased by Hammond, are never even mentioned) and therefore might land them in jail, doesn’t come up. Nor do they ever guess it might be a corporate double-cross, which, of course, it is. How a huge number of quite large dinosaurs could be shipped around the world with no one noticing is not explained either, although admittedly at this point in the franchise it is hard to say which company or persons really owns these animals and where the line between corporate and government authority ends and begins.

Necessary plot moves made, we are whisked back to Isla Nublar, which now sits abandoned by humans while the surviving dinosaurs fend for themselves in the jungles. The island's dormant volcano is already roaring to life, which creates a ticking clock. But already by now my interest in this film was flagging, with the rehashed prodding-annoyed dynamics between Claire and Owen offering nothing fresh and new characters Zia and Franklin feeling rote and underwritten (they are, of course, the useful medic and hacker types). I found myself watching these characters crawl through the ruins of the old Jurassic Park/World and thinking about how this serves as an unintentional metaphor for how Fallen Kingdom is treading over the bones of better iterations of this franchise. Though Bayona occasionally slows the film down to let the characters marvel at a huge dinosaur passing through, the thrill and majesty of seeing Spielberg use modern CGI to recreate extinct animals is a hard trick to repeat (Spielberg’s film really did land at the right time, showcasing the technological hurdles that had fallen thanks to digital, as much as the animals themselves). Given cloned dinosaurs have been a reality in this world now for years, it is difficult to believe anyone WOULD be gawping any more anyway. And when the action moves off the island towards a confrontation that could see the dinosaurs escape into the populated world (something the franchise has always held, as in the Alien series, as a final barrier that must be kept up) we are back dealing with mutated dinosaurs as the main threat again, which begs the question if these are even dinosaurs anymore? And why, in a world of cruise missiles and satellites, would non-bulletproof and intellectually-inferior mutant dinosaurs be in any way a worthwhile military-focused project? 

Bayona no doubt hoped seeing the dinosaurs in an incongruous setting (charging through the corridors and glass roof of a rural mansion) would refresh the franchise’s standard playbook of run-and-hide, but the oomph of last act near-escapes is constantly being undercut by the lazy screenplay, one that sees supposedly experienced military figures actually climb into cages of dinosaurs that they have been told are lethal, and even resorts to the cheap trick of passing off the most egregious bad decisions - the really dumb ones that have to be made in order to get the franchise to the next instalment - onto younger and more naive characters. How the kingdom of Jurassic Park has fallen.

Comment

Owen Van Spall

Greetings. I am a Film History MA graduate from Birkbeck University of London and a trained NCTJ qualified journalist. Apart from a long history of film and news writing for this site and various other publications, I am also a trained photographer with my own camera kit. I write mostly every day. Along the way I have picked up work experience at Sight & Sound, The Guardian, The Independent, The FT, The New Statesman, and more. I have written hard news stories, features, arranged and conducted interviews with celebrities, film directors and other major cultural figures, arranged photo shoots, and covered film festivals, conferences and events in the UK and abroad. If you wish to commission me or enquire about full-time opportunities please find my CV and contact details below. A physical portfolio of print only cuttings can also be provided.