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Movie Reviews – 2018

Life Itself (2018)

Life Itself is a story about stories. It aspires to be a deconstruction of narrative and narration and, ultimately, fails at both.

A warning sign for any newly released film these days is if you can either simultaneously stream it and view it in cinemas, or even worse it goes straight to Netflix or Amazon or Sky Cinema. You only have to recall that calamity that was The Cloverfield Paradox last year as an example of the latter. Life Itself, written and directed by Dan Fogelman, falls into the former bracket, at least in the UK. It has been released both in cinemas and on Sky Cinema on the same weekend. This suggests Sony Pictures internationally cut a deal to maximise engagement after some dire critical responses in the United States.

This is the second picture as director by Fogelman after 2015’s Al Pacino-starring Danny Collins but by no means his first foray into screenwriting. Fogelman wrote Disney’s Cars, Cars 2 and Tangled, not to mention the surprisingly strong Crazy, Stupid, Love. Sadly, he is also responsible for dead on arrival comedy The Guilt Trip starring Barbra Streisand and Seth Rogen, plus OAP comedy Last Vegas. Historically, this suggests Fogelman is roughly a fifty-fifty talent – sometimes he scores, sometimes he misses, and badly. If this is *his* story, it’s the story of most creatives in Hollywood.

Life Itself is, demonstrably, a sizeable miss.

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Happy New Year, Colin Burstead (2018)

After two pictures that fused deliberately acerbic British filmmaking with Hollywood stardom, Ben Wheatley returns to his roots with Happy New Year, Colin Burstead.

You only have to consider what the original working title was for Wheatley’s film: ‘Colin, You Anus’. When it was announced that Wheatley was producing a brand new picture to be shot over eleven days in a stately home, critics wondered if the director was exploring Shakespeare or the historical period he had so impressed viewers by with A Field in England. Rather than continuing the one-two punch of J G. Ballard adaptation High Rise or the pulpy, Tarantino-baiting Free Fire, Colin sees a return for Wheatley back to stripped down, near documentarian theatrics, the likes of which we haven’t seen him tap for some years.

Where his previous two pictures saw Wheatley rope in Hollywood stars such as Tom Hiddleston, Armie Hammer or Brie Larson, the director here once again recruits the services of Neil Maskell, the lead in Wheatley’s dark, uncompromising and powerfully weird Kill List. Maskell is a prolific British character actor who straddles both TV and cinema but a traditional leading man he is not, and that makes him perfect for the eponymous Colin Burstead. Wheatley’s film is intentionally short, sharp, darkly acerbic and filmed with even more of a televisual, tele-play lens than even Kill List was. This is a director cutting loose and having fun.

Mary Poppins Returns (2018)

Practically perfect in every way. If there was a telling quote to sum up the nostalgic glow that radiates from Mary Poppins Returns, that would be it.

Who would even have imagined we would be here? Mary Poppins is without doubt the most popular and beloved live action Disney production of the 20th century, and its significance as a piece of family friendly culture that transcends America to the UK and beyond is unparalleled. It helped make a star of Dame Julie Andrews and netted her an Academy Award in 1965. It saw Dick van Dyke sport an English accent he has been both mocked and adored for over half a century. It featured songs, such as ‘Step In Time’ and ‘Supercalifragolisticexpialidotious’ which have been immortalised by several generations of school children and adults. Mary Poppins, for millions, represents the magic of childhood, and a childhood exposure to cinema.

The fact Robert Stevenson’s original film even exists is a curiosity of fate itself, given the author of the Mary Poppins source material, P. L. Travers, struggled with the ‘Disneyfication’ of her subject matter. If you want the story of how Walt Disney came to convince Travers of the magic in the film he wanted to produce, watch John Lee Hancock’s delightful Saving Mr. Banks, but it was a significant challenge. Disney is a problematic figure to history now in many ways, despite the pillar of joy he built his empire on, but he was right about the film Stevenson ended up making. Mary Poppins may not have been immortalised as Travers imagined her, but she became, and remained, one of the strangest and beloved female characters in the history of motion pictures.

Mary Poppins Returns, then, is a challenge on multiple fronts. How do you replicate a film so resolutely of its time while equally outside of it? How do you replace Andrews or Van Dyke? How do you beat the quirkiness of a picture which blended live action with animation, musical show stoppers, and a thematic reach balancing childhood, social mobility and capitalism (not to mention the looming spectre of war)? Mary Poppins Returns has the answer, and it’s really quite simple.

You don’t.

First Man (2018)

For a film about a historical event which looks ahead to a future where we move past partisan politics into a world of discovery, First Man has turned out to be surprisingly political and controversial.

Perhaps this was inevitable. Very little that emerges, culturally, from the American sphere right now isn’t loaded with some level of subtext, be it a coded sideswipe at the alt-right or pointed rejection of the liberal left. Everything has to be ‘relevant’. You almost want First Man to run and hide from such analysis.

Mission Impossible: Fallout (2018)

Given the stature and prowess of the Mission Impossible franchise, the sixth movie is not likely to bring the curtain down on this series, but were Fallout to be the swansong for Tom Cruise as Ethan Hunt, it would quite honestly be a perfect way to bow out.

Everything about Fallout has the sense of an ending. Christopher McQuarrie’s second film as writer/director does numerous things. It fully transforms Mission Impossible, in its twilight years, into his personal baby, on which he stamps his mark in a way not seen since Brian De Palma’s original 1996 adaptation of the 1960’s original TV show. Fallout is not just a direct sequel to Rogue Nation, despite being the first Mission Impossible film to pick up where the previous one left off, but it also works to tie together from a storytelling perspective every film from Mission Impossible III onwards, while thematically reaching back to John Woo’s derided Mission Impossible II. It teaches a film like James Bond movie Spectre, which retroactively attempted to link Daniel Craig’s 007 into a string of continuity, how it’s done.

Mission Impossible: Fallout might just also boast some of the most intense, robust and powerful sequences of the entire franchise. This is doubly surprising given just how much of it doesn’t even feel like a Mission Impossible film at all.

Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

Say what you like about Avengers: Infinity War but nobody can deny one thing: it is breaking new cinematic ground. For decades there have been sequels. For decades there have been franchises. For decades we have seen continuing universes on both the big and small screens, sometimes overlapping, develop characters and storylines. Marvel Studios differ in their approach. This is the first time anyone has, over a ten-year period, created and structured a cinematic franchise in the narrative style of a ‘season’ of television.

This is something I have discussed when talking about the Marvel Cinematic Universe before because it has cast a shadow over the mainstream cinematic landscape which is likely to stay for years, perhaps even decades, to come. Kevin Feige, producer supremo, has been the constant here; ever since 2008’s Iron Man turned Robert Downey. Jr from disgraced character actor into the biggest movie star in the world, Infinity War has been the goal. While undoubtedly tides have changed, production realities have emerged, and details have altered, Marvel have been working to a decade-long plan to unite the Avengers against Thanos, the Mad Titan, and his plan to wipe out half the universe with the combined Infinity Stones.

Funny Cow (2018)

Funny Cow isn’t really about comedy. Laughter is the prism through which this bleak fable spins a tale of escape and identity. To make the story of the titular, unnamed ‘Funny Cow’, about the rise of a comedy superstar would be to miss the point. Adrian Shergold’s movie is a strangely oblique, fourth wall breaking self-biography, dominated by the immense talent of Maxine Peake.

I won’t be the first person to say this, but I would go on record to suggest Peake might well be the finest British actress of her generation working today. It is rare to find an actress with the kind of extraordinary range she employs as Funny Cow, an incredibly scattershot and difficult to pin down role as written by Tony Pitts (who also plays her vile, abusive husband Bob). By turns, Peake has to be downtrodden, attractive, quirky, demure, flirtatious and more than a little mentally scarred by decades of abuse, and she manages it with aplomb. Shergold understands the picture lives and dies on the actress in every frame, who holds the central role, and you genuinely cannot imagine anyone embodying Funny Cow as well as Peake. She is magnetic, as she almost always is.

A Quiet Place (2018)

I went to see A Quiet Place at Cineworld Birmingham Broad Street on April 5th at the 16.40pm showing. This may seem a strange way to begin the piece but I type this in some vain hope that the two people sitting directly next to me, who didn’t stop nattering to each other for the entire duration of the film (when not checking their phone or crunching popcorn), might end up reading this. The irony of having to tell people off for talking during a film all about the absence and power of sound is not lost on me. So if you are reading this, guys, thanks. For nothing.

The reason I bring this up is precisely because John Krasinski’s impressive third feature suggests that we are living in a world where, as a society, we have lost touch with the amount of noise we collectively make. People blast out music on buses with no regard for anyone around them, or in their cars for effect as they travel around; they shout at one another with little self-awareness of those around them; they talk during cinema screenings, as mentioned above, in what would be a serious code violation in the eyes of the gentlemen of Wittertainment (if not *the* biggest violation). Noise, and the pollution of it, is something we take for granted. Quiet or silence is at a premium in the modern world, hence why it’s such an original idea for Krasinski and co-writers Bryan Woods & Scott Beck to ask – what would happen if noise became deadly?

Ready Player One (2018)

Ready Player One really does feel like the pop-culture culmination of modern entertainment since the advent of Star Wars. Festooned with references, characters and trademarks from dozens of well-known properties from everything cinematic through to the video game world, Steven Spielberg delivers the ultimate expression of why we digest media, and possibly a glimpse into a world we could all be heading towards.

Ernest Cline delivered a remarkable confection of a novel back in 2011, certainly in pop-culture terms. Ready Player One crammed almost every single reference point since the late 1970’s across half a dozen mediums into a novel which, ultimately, told a fairly relatable David vs Goliath story set in a near-futuristic dystopia. It was a piece of work which seemed to operate like Marmite; for everyone taken in by its wide-eyed engagement with particularly 1980’s geek and nerd culture, someone else would respond that Cline’s prose was awful and the novel was a mess of winks, references and incohesive plotting which worked more like a gimmick than a piece of fiction. Wherever you stood on the spectrum, Ready Player One seems to have always been a polarising experience.

Which made the idea of a film adaptation even more intriguing, especially given Cline’s novel swiftly arrived in the hands of Spielberg. In many respects, this brought Cline’s work full circle, as Spielberg alongside filmmakers such as George Lucas and Robert Zemeckis, essentially created not just the cinematic blockbuster but the combination of pop-culture escapism and mainstream entertainment that drove the core of Cline’s novel. 

Films such as Star Wars or Raiders of the Lost Ark, not to mention Back to the Future, which especially factors into Ready Player One on several levels, all remain the key cultural touchstones for Western audiences thirty or forty years on. Spielberg has arguably been the most successful purveyor of family escapism in cinema, blending skilled craft and an innate understanding of what audiences will connect to. And connections, ultimately, are what drive his adaptation of Ready Player One.

Ghost Stories (2018)

Adaptations of successful stage experiences to the silver screen are not always adept at capturing the magic of what drew people to the piece in a theatrical setting. The Woman in Black is probably the best example; widely regarded across the world as one of the most terrifying experiences an audience can have in a theatre, both of its cinematic versions retained for many a sense of atmosphere but lacked the potent dread and fear. The jury will be out as to whether the same is true of Ghost Stories.

Having never seen Jeremy Dyson & Andy Nyman’s original play performed on the West End stage, I shall refrain from drawing comparisons between the source material and its adaptation. That can be left for others who have had both experiences. As a piece of cinema, Ghost Stories does manage to capture a level of creeping, dreamlike enigma, shot through with not a little dash of the kind of jet black comedy Dyson added as part of The League of Gentlemen foursome – he was their Terry Gilliam, the unseen on screen writing partner, aside from a cameo – indeed you may spot him in Ghost Stories in a similar function if you’re eagle eyed. Ghost Stories is by no means as broad as the BBC comedy, and is first and foremost a dramatic tale, but there is an undercurrent of gallows humour to the piece which at times grounds it in a sense of normality, as it ventures into strange waters.