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Rating History

Roman J. Israel, Esq.
4 days ago via Movies on iPhone

After his brilliantly dark urban thriller Nightcrawler in 2015, a lot of eyes were on director Dan Gilroy with an eagerness to see what he'd deliver next. Roman J. Israel, Esq promises to be just as intriguing but it lacks the dramatic drive that made Gilroys's last film such captivating viewing. That said, it boasts a strong lead performance that's enough to maintain your interest.

Plot: Roman J. Israel, Esq. (Denzel Washington) is an a idealistic defense attorney who likes to work behind the scenes. However, when his colleague dies suddenly, Roman is forced to look for other work. He's hired by another law firm who have heard of his fastidious approach to the job but by this time Roman has crossed a professional (and personal) boundary that leads to some serious implications and both his job and his life in danger.

Dan Gilroy's legal drama opens with an intriguing concept of our main character's intention to have himself disbarred from legal practise by writing a memo that proposes that he will both prosecute and defend himself due to his personal indescretions. From here on it goes on to depict Roman J. Israel Esq. as a socially awkward but very competent and meticulous individual who has a passion for civil rights. Embodying this interesting character is, of course, Denzel Washington who delivers another wonderfully realised character to his already impressive resumé. Washington has been Oscar nominated for his work here and although it's unlikely that he'll win, this is still some solid work. That said, despite his good work, he's not entirely afforded a strong enough script to warrant his commitment. There's a lot of potential here but that's probably what makes it a slightly frustrating affair as it doesn't quite have enough of a dramatic punch to get things moving and Gilroy's decision to go for a more restrained approach, somewhat, takes the wind out the film's sails. Despite its great premise it doesn't really flesh it out when it actually comes to it. It spends plenty of time on the how and why but doesn't really and keep good on its promises.

A serviceable legal thriller that has good intentions but ultimately doesn't really go anywhere. That said, it boasts a great lead performance from Denzel and strong, cutthroat support from Colin Farrell but it's just a shame that the film doesn't capitalise on these two as it's left with a script that has an air of mediocrity to it. I enjoyed this slow-moving legal drama but it needed an adrenaline shot and left me feeling that it was a missed opportunity.

Mark Walker

The Florida Project
13 days ago via Movies on iPhone
½

Sean Baker is a director that been around for a while but I think it's fair to say that it wasn't until 2015's indie drama, Tangerine, that people began to sit up and take notice. In fact, I shamefully still didn't acknowledge him and decided to overlook Tangerine. That's a decision that I now regret and must remedy forthwith. Instead, I went straight into The Florida Project having no prior knowledge of Baker's work and now that I've had a taste of his remarkable ability. this is a director I will be watching very closely and one whose back catalogue is now a priority for me.

Plot: Along with her rebellious mother Halley (Bria Vinaite), six-year-old Moonee (Brooklynn Prince) lives at a budget motel managed by Bobby (Willem Dafoe). Moonee is free-spirited young child who's happy to live a mischievous life with her friends finding all sorts of trouble to get into. However, her care-free existence comes at the cost of her financially struggling mother who has to explore more dangerous ways of providing for her daughter.

Opening to Kool and the Gang's classic disco song Celebration, you'd be forgiven for thinking that you're in for a fun filled and playful film from the offset. That's not entirely the case but don't get me wrong, there is much to enjoy here in terms of its humour, it's vibrant well-drawn characters and its colourful palette but this opening actually serves as irony to the events that take place throughout the film. First off, the title of Sean Baker's film is a very clever play on words - and his intentions. On the surface, it's the blue-collar, welfare project in Florida that the poverty stricken characters inhabit but "The Florida Project" was also the original title of the world-famous amusement park that is now commonly known as Disney World. And it's this very juxtaposition that hits hardest in Baker's astute social commentary.

After Kool and the Gang have their moment, we are introduced to the precocious Moonee as she and her friends run amok around the motel causing all sorts of havoc just to keep themselves entertained. It's apparent early on that Sean Baker is introducing us to an honest and unflinching depiction of people's lives who are living on the poverty line, or who are more commonly known as the hidden homeless. Moonee is our eyes and ears throughout this journey and Baker's decision to use a handheld approach vividly captures the moments in her life. Whenever she's onscreen, Baker regularly lowers his camera to Moonee's eye-level which only adds to her perception of her environment and her place within it. It's a hugely effective approach but he also takes time to spend with the adults within the story. Most notably Moonee's rebellious mother, Halley played by newcomer Bria Vinaite and Willem Dafoe's warm hearted motel manager, Bobby.

Baker biggest achievement is in immersing us in these characters' lives with a hugely involving and genuinely authentic delivery. He captures the poverty of their lives - scraping by and just tying to survive day-to-day - all the while a stones throw from Disney World, one of the most lucrative and iconic images of western capitalism. Whether or not Baker has political intentions with his film can be debated but it's a sobering juxtaposition to depict a slice-of-life on the doorstep of the magical kingdom that's primarily aimed at kids and purports a 'dreams come true' ideology yet doesn't have a place for the kids of this movie and many, many like them in reality. Even the lush, pastel coloured backdrop of the motel is at odds and far removed from the struggles of our characters' lives and cinematographer Alexis Zabe does some wonderful work in depicting a sun-kissed Florida that has left these people in the shadows.

Athough it can be a raw and unflinching look from the sidelines, Baker imbues the film with such spirit and energy that you're swept along in their journey and while you share their struggle, you're also intoxicated with their positivity and determination and he does so by refraining from judgment or condescension. His approach is one of respect and he films with a compassion and honesty that hits on a deeply personal level.

Of course, in order to fully achieve this Baker must rely heavily on his actors and they reward him with excellent work. The child actors deliver very naturalistic performances and six-year-old Brooklynn Prince is a revelation with a lot of weight on her young shoulders. There's equally solid support from newcomer Bria Vinaite and a (deservedly Oscar nominated) soulful supporting turn from the ever reliable Willem Dafoe. It's often forgotten how heartwarming Dafoe can be and this is the epitome of his gentler side to performing. That said, I reckon Vinaite can consider herself very unlucky not to find herself among the Oscar nominees this year such is her ferocious and passionate performance. This is an actress I'm certain we'll be seeing much more of.

There's is a lot of irony, juxtaposition and contrast going on in this film but that's what makes it so multi-layered and much more than your average slice-of-life drama. In fact, it reminded me very much of an American version of the works of Ken Loach and his significant and uncanny ability to capture real life - without prejudice - and tell a story of real people facing real problems. An absolutely absorbing and bittersweet gem.

Mark Walker

The Shape of Water
16 days ago via Movies on iPhone

Guillermo del Toro has found himself to be quite the respected filmmaker over the years but, if I had to be brutally honest, I'd have to say that he's really only made a few films that could be classed as 'great' and he's not adverse to being disappointing on occasion. His latest films, Crimson Peak and Pacific Rim received a very mixed reception with the latter, in particular, being a huge misfire for me. That said, I do admire the man's imagination and I keep returning, hoping to see something of the greatness of Cronos, The Devil's Backbone and most importantly his near masterpiece of fantasy, Pan's Labyrinth. His latest, The Shape of Water doesn't quite hit the heights of the latter but that still doesn't stop in from being del Toro's best film for quite some time.

Plot: Working in a hidden, high-security government laboratory, mute cleaner Elisa (Sally Hawkins) stumbles across a secret, unknown amphibian creature (Doug Jones) which is overseen by agent Strickland (Michael Shannon). Not before long, she develops an emotional attachment to this classified experiment that the government see as an "asset". As their relationship develops, Elisa is forced take matters into her own hands which is seen as threat to national security.

The thing that's sets del Toro's fantasies apart from the rest is his ability to mesh then with other genres while also injecting a realistic element to them. The Devil's Backbone and Pan's Labyrinth benefited greatly from their political undercurrent while also tapping into horror and folklore, respectively. The Shape of Water feels very much in tune with them and on this occasion he taps into the Cold War paranoia of America while also recognising the psyche that plagued the country during the secrecy of the Roswell incident and pays homage to the old Hollywood monster movies of yesteryear.

There's a lot of care and attention went into this; from Nigel Churcher's rich art direction and Dan Lausten's beautifully rendered cinematography which compliment del Toro's vision and evocation of 1960's Americana. It's the kind of meticulous attention to detail that Todd Haynes would be proud of. But again, it's del Toro's ability to create his own niche by giving the film a very European flavour where I was reminded, on quite a few occasions, of Jean-Pierre Juenet's Amelie which is achieved through the magical score by Alexandre Desplat.

It boasts a marvellous central performance from Sally Hawkins who's entirely convincing as a mute where she's so animated and expressive that it's easy to forget that she doesn't actually speak a word (with the exception of singing a musical number) throughout the entire film. Great support too from the imposing and always reliable Michael Shannon and the hugely underrated Richard Jenkins. Jenkins, in particular, brings a much needed light-heartedness to the film and despite being better known for his dramatic chops it's often overlooked just how good his comedic timing is. Here, it's on wonderfully subtle display.

On paper, The Shape of Water probably sounds preposterous but visually and emotionally it's a vibrant experience that manages to be sweet, suspenseful and exciting all in equal measure. Put simply, this really shouldn't work but it's credit to del Toro that it does. He masterfully balances all of these elements and combines a romantic love story and sci-fi creature fable into a very convincing adventure.

Mark Walker

Blade Runner 2049
24 days ago via Movies on iPhone

We now find ourselves in an age where the filmmaking craft is so preoccupied with making money that it hinders the art form itself and saturates the market with crowd-pleasing dross. The rise of the superhero blockbuster has played a huge part in this and, as result, the creative and artistic nature of Blade Runner 2049 has become a casualty. Like Ridley Scott's film before it, it has proven to be a box-office failure and despite the desire to provide sequels, the masses simply weren't interested in this one. But 2017 took the sequel to a whole new level. They weren't just money-spinning exercises but revisits to much loved cult classics that were intent on exploring their characters in a whole new depth: 20 years after the drug-addled exploits of Trainspotting, Danny Boyle brought a satisfying maturity to T2 while, 25 years later, David Lynch revisited the quaint logging town of Twin Peaks with The Return - a deeply surreal 18 episodes that has reinvented the way that television can be viewed. Going even further back than that, Denis Villenueve revisits Blade Runner after a 35 year hiatus and relieves my nervous disposition with the impressive completion of a 2017 hat-trick.

Plot: Former blade runner, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) has been missing for thirty years and now LAPD Officer K (Ryan Gosling), has taken over the role of "retiring" replicants that don't conform to society. When K unearths a secret that has the catastrophic potential to plunge what?s left of society into chaos, he has to find Deckard to get answers to what actually happened after he disappeared.

A lot of credit must be given to director Denis Villenueve for taking on one of the biggest gambles in filmmaking history. To take on the unenviable task of delivering a sequel to the 1982 Ridley Scott classic, Blade Runner, shows real, self-assured confidence. Villenueve took the task on simply because he thought he could do a serviceable job while fans of the original (myself included) had strong reservations about a sequel even happening in the first place. As is always the case, however, the proof is in the end result and I couldn't be more happy that Villenueve has been vindicated. His vision of Blade Runner both expands upon its predecessor while also complimenting it's narrative depth and ethereal beauty.

Villenueve's decision to open on a close-up shot of an iris is an obvious choice - with perhaps the only thing missing being a referential wink to the audience. Within seconds he goes on to depict an expansive, genetic farming land that's as desolate as it foreboding and already the opening "Hades Landscape" of the original springs to mind as Hans Zimmer creatively riffs on the iconic Vangelis score and manages that fine balance of reminiscence and originality. From here on, it's clear that we're back on Blade Runner territory and I'd be lying if I didn't say it felt good.

There are many subtle references to the original throughout the entirety of the film but Villenueve is clever enough to make this film his own without succumbing to a pastiche. His deliberate pace will ostracise many viewers but it's entirely in keeping with the films meditative themes and allows cinematographer Roger Deakins the luxury of immersing us in this dystopian, retro-future with an abundance of gorgeous imagery. There's not a single frame wasted as Deakins delivers one of the most beautiful pieces of work ever committed to the screen. This visual genius has been nominated for an Oscar 13 times and he's lost every time. If there's any justice at all, he should win on his 14th attempt with this. This truly is a remarkable artistic achievement.

Such is the visual mastery, you could be forgiven for getting lost in Deakins' sumptuous scenery and miss key elements to the plot but Villenueve, or more particularly screenwriters Hampton Fancher and Michael Green, explain things in relative layman's terms. It's not difficult to follow but sometimes can border on cliche and convenience. I didn't fully buy into some plot developments but the questions left from Deckard's past were, somewhat, unavoidable and this film provides some answers which slightly take away from the original's ambiguity. That said, it's an unavoidable line that had to be crossed and it's afforded a lot of care and respect.

Although, the narrative is fairly simple the similar weighty existential and metaphysical themes are prevalent again. Where the first film explored the nature of existence, 2049 takes it slighter further and ruminates in what it constutes to have a soul and if you're looking for a reliable lead that can convey such world-weariness then look no further than Ryan Gosling. Gosling has fast become a physical master of minimalism and, as he has already proven in Drive or Only God Forgives for example, he can convey internal struggle by practically doing nothing - which makes him absolutely perfect casting here and apparently the first (and only) choice that Villenueve had in mind. He shoulders a lot of the philosophical weight of the film and holds things together when the pace is lesuirely and there's the overhanging (and overbearing) 1 hour 40 minute wait for Deckard to even appear onscreen. It's a wait that's worth it though, as it kicks the film into another gear and brings with it Harrison Ford's best performance in years. There's also more than able support from Ana de Armas as a complex hologram that longs for emotional connection and a megalomaniac Jared Leto with delusions of godliness. In other words, Blade Runner 2049 is a remarkable refurbishment and a genuinely astounding spectacle that manages to hit the beats of the original and still find its own rhythm.

Some critics have have went as far to claim that this is an improvement over the original. Although I wouldn't go as far as that, this is still a magnificent continuation of the mythos. The only sour note is that it descends into slightly generic action material towards the end which jars with the deliberate and meditative tone that preceded it. That said, it manages to turn this around and when credits rolled, I found myself in contemplative silence, exhilarated by what I had just witnessed. Sequels that can achieve such a balance and expansion on their much loved predecessors are a rarity and, as a result, 2049 can take a bow and is fully deserving of a rapturous applause. Villenueve has only gone and made things we fans couldn't believe - a worthy sequel on the shoulders of a giant.

Mark Walker

The Snowman
The Snowman (2017)
28 days ago via Movies on iPhone
½

Michael Fassbender may be of the one of the most talented and reliable actors of his generation but the same can't always be said about some of his film choices. Assassin's Creed only added to another failed video-game adaptation and his work with Ridley Scott on Prometheus, Alien: Covenant and The Counselor also failed to impress (although, I was admittedly one of the few admirers of the latter film). My point being, though, is that he's now not quite as bankable as he once was. Over recent years, you're just as likely to catch a stinker as you are a work of quality and The Snowman doesn't do anything to remedy this issue.

Plot: Alcoholic, crime squad detective Harry Hole (Michael Fassbender) finds himself on the trail of an elusive serial killer who kills when the first snow of winter falls. With the help a new recruit (Rebecca Ferguson) he has to compare the new case with decades old ones to connect the dots and track down the a killer that's been on the loose for some time.

Originally intended as another Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio project before then having Ridley Scott attached it. Due to delays, DiCaprio walked away, Scorsese ended up as executive producer and Scott walked as well. It could've been time constraints that led to them distancing themselves or just maybe these two experienced directors seen problems ahead and made a wise choice. There are undeniable problems and if truth be told, I fell asleep on the first viewing and went back to it again thinking that I hadn't given it my full attention and may have missed something. I hadn't. The film is sleep-inducingly dull and lacks so much narrative drive that it's hard to keep your eyes open.

Put simply, it's a ridiculously lazy film with an insultingly lazy script. The sheer incoherence of it makes no difference whether you've slept through it or not. It's the quality involved that makes this a surprisingly awful endeavour though; there's Fassbender, of course, and also the usually reliable J.K. Simmons in the cast; there's Oscar nominated screenwriters in Frank's Peter Straughan and Drive's Hossien Amini penning the script to Jo Nesbř's taut crime novel and director Tomas Alfredson coming off the back of two solid critical hits in Swedish vampire film Let The Right One In and the labyrinthine adaptation of John LeCarre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. So what is the problem? The problem obviously stems from it being a rushed production. Apparently, Fassbender started shooting only two days after wrapping Assassin's Creed, and it shows. He looks absolutely exhausted; Jonny Greenwood actually created a score that ended up not getting used and Alfredson also claims that he came late to the production and that 15% of the screenplay was never actually filmed. You can tell. There are more plot holes here than you can shake a Harry Hole at and the narrative is so painfully slow that any snowmen getting built would've thawed out long before an investigation even got going.

It's such a shame that this really didn't come together as all the ingredients are in place and had some genuine potential. In fact, it's astonishing how poor it is with the quality involved and it looks like any hope of a Harry Hole franchise could already be dead in the water while Michael Fassbender best be careful if he wants to retain his reputation. To be fair, the film's problems don't particularly lie with him but he needs to seriously take stock and be bit more discerning and choose projects more worthy of his abilities. Who knows? Maybe it's no one's fault and this is just a classic casualty of production difficulties and time constraints that led to no one being able to do their jobs effectively. What could've been a suspenful thriller ends up about as thrilling as eating yellow snow.

Don't stay out in the cold too long with this one or you might catch a serious doze of incurable mediocrity. And never mind the misleading title of "The Snowman". It should've taken its name from its anatomy instead... Snow balls.

Mark Walker