Released straight to Disney+ as a result of the pandemic, Raya And The Last Dragon has since been given a cinematic release. As a result of that belated release, I was able to see it on the big screen with my daughter this morning; and boy, if you get the chance to do so, you need to take it. Raya And The Last Dragon is one of the best films of the year; a gorgeous tale of a young girl (Raya) and her quest to reunite the five warring factions of her world with the help of the last dragon, Sisu, who is supposedly hidden somewhere in Tail (one of the five provinces of the kingdom). In the opening sequence, Raya's voiceover explains the history of the kingdom, briefly showing us clips of the five very different parts of the land (Heart, Tail, Spine, Fang and Talon) and I found myself hoping that we would get to travel each of those worlds with her as they looked stunning. I was not disappointed, Raya's quest takes her through all five (Talon is especially sumptuous) and the animation and world building is astonishing, planting you into each of the worlds so effectively that you can almost inhale the atmosphere. The story is exciting and the characters even more so; each one brings their own distinct identity and several of them are very funny (especially Sisu herself, brilliantly voiced by Awkwafina). The message at the heart of the film is a good one, especially in the current climate. Despite the differences between all five tribes, the world works better when they all combine together to fight the forces of genuine evil. Whether Raya can influence her own enemies into this way of thinking is the soul of the film, and it's one of the best and most beautiful films of 2021 so far. A joy.
Before seeing the new Candyman, I was going through a list in my head of modern horror remakes, and struggling enormously to think of one that had anything to say that was of any interest. Or indeed an original so bad that it deserved a redo. Nia DaCosta's Candyman has plenty to say, but Bernard Rose's original isn't even close to being bad enough to warrant a complete redo. Which makes DaCosta's decision to make this more of a sequel very sensible (she ignores the two nineties sequels, neither of which I've seen). Let's start with the good stuff. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Anthony, the artist who conjures Candyman through his art and obsession with the myth is terrific; he continues to flourish after his excellent turn in the Watchmen TV series. DaCosta clearly has an eye, the film is thoughtfully made and it's clear that she's invested in the project, along with executive producer Jordan Peele. There is a message they want to get across, and it's applied subtly and effectively for a while, before becoming more pronounced and finally spilling over in the final act, to the point where it completely took me out of the film. It's a shame because the message(s) they attempt to demonstrate are important ones; and Jordan Peele has grasped the balance of subtlety and effectiveness in this manner before with Get Out (2017) and Us (2019). Candyman is beautifully shot by John Guleserian, and the score by Robert Aiki Aubrey Lowe is fantastic, but the film itself is desperately dull. Despite its best intentions, I didn't find it remotely chilling or engaging, and that was my main problem; you can have all the best intentions in the world but if the final product doesn't draw you in at all, the other issues stick out a whole lot more than they might have otherwise. It's almost too polished; while the original's backdrop was a gnarly and dank project block, this ones' is flashy art exhibitions and expensive apartments, taking away the jagged edged DIY aesthetic of the 1992 version, and eventually handing you its message on a plate instead of weaving it into the subtext. It will be interesting to see DaCosta's next move (I haven't seen her directorial debut Little Woods ) because there is clearly talent here, I just don't know how much of the story is hers, and it doesn't help that she's already pigeonholed somewhat by an original product. However there have been plenty of excellent reviews for Candyman, and as I say, I'm no expert in the genre, so go and see it for yourself and tell us what you think!
When people ask am I fan of horror, it's difficult to know how to respond. I wouldn't call myself a horror fan necessarily, but I can certainly appreciate a good one. A standard jump scare horror doesn't do much for me, but an atmospheric creepy tell-but-don't-show offering can sometimes garner a response. Something like Robert Eggers exquisite The Witch (2015), or Neil Marshall's claustrophobic nightmare The Descent (2005) would be two examples of very different types of horror that I think have been done superbly. Ari Aster's debut, Hereditary (2018), showed an enormous amount of promise for a first directorial feature, even if it was far from the masterpiece many seemed to claim. There were one or two truly shocking moments in it, and that alone was enough for me to await his follow up with baited breath. I thought Midsommar was one of the best films of 2019; to call it an out and out horror does the film a disservice however. Watching the directors cut this week, a near three-hour experience, took its toll on my nerves and handle on reality in all the best ways. The extra twenty minutes turn this into a near masterpiece of terror in all its subtleties and interweaving undertones, as well as being blatantly shocking throughout. Aster's masterstroke is setting the film in almost exclusively in bright daylight (in rural Sweden) at a Pagan festival that Dani (an outstanding Florence Pugh) tags along to with her dreadful boyfriend and his friends. Opening with a scene of a shocking trauma, the post credits pick up very soon after the events of the intro, as Dani is going through scenes of grief; as well as being constantly gaslighted by her boyfriend. She approaches several conversations with him to bring up a valid issue, only to exit the conversation five minutes later crying, apologising and feeling terrible after being horribly manipulated into thinking she is the one at fault. It's just the beginning of the trials and tribulations for both of them though, as they arrive at the Pagan festival. Midsommar is immersive and intoxicating; you are alternatively desperate to leave the Harga 'celebrations' but are compelled to stay a bit longer, reminiscent of the characters themselves. There's so much meaning and psychoanalytical subtexts throughout that it's impossible to fully notice or understand with one viewing of Midsommar. There are those as well who may interpret the film in completely different ways to me, and that's what makes the film so interesting, as well as its frankly menacing pacing (especially in this three hour cut) constantly keeping you on the edge of fleeing the scene; it's an almost impossible balance to achieve, and Aster, stunningly, manages it. If there is a flaw, it's that Will Poulter only graces us with his glorious presence for a handful of scenes.
With a trip to the cinema to see the new version/sequel/reimagining of Candyman planned for this week, I thought it an appropriate time to finally sit down and watch Bernard Rose's original. A story transplanted from its original source location of Liverpool to the projects of Chicago, Candyman's focal point is Helen (Virginia Madsen), a budding journalist and grad student from the local university, who wants to write her thesis on the local legend of the candyman, a seemingly mythical figure with a hook for a hand who slaughters (supposedly) innocent people when summoned. Helen mentions early on that she doesn't want to pigeonhole the black community with a story of a monster living amongst a supposedly crime filled location, she wants the truth of the candyman; and it's a journey that leads her to apparent insanity by the films' conclusion. The story of candyman's origins that Helen is told during the film is laced with injustice, something that clearly speaks louder today in a social media world and can be heard by more people. It's certainly a focus that Nia DaCosta's reboot addresses (more on that below) but it's difficult to accurately identify the true nature of the originals' aims almost twenty years on; applying social and historical context is not as easy as just claiming a film is discussing something that it very easily may not have been twenty years ago. Rose's Candyman plays like a scratchy slasher, without ever fully becoming one; the story of Helen is one we become engaged in and follow with interest for two thirds of the film. Candyman runs out of steam dramatically in its final third, Helen's repeated visions/reality clash one too many times for us to keep caring or indeed on the edge of our seats. It's gory without being remotely scary but it's not a bad film at all. There are plenty of interesting ideas and Tony Todd is excellent as the iconic villain of the piece, it's just a shame it can't hold its own to the conclusion.
How many reviews of Tenet have you read that quote the phrase "Don't try to understand it. Feel it" directly from the film? Well, add this one to your list. Christopher Nolan's Tenet, dubbed by many to be the 'saviour of cinema' as the first major cinema release post-lockdown (part I) understandably did no business at all in comparison to a blockbuster release in times of normality, but the question really is how well would it have done against previous Nolan releases? Many have suggested that you need to see Tenet at least twice to understand it, and that this was always Nolan's intention. I'm not sure I agree with that. This was my third viewing of Tenet, and I enjoyed it the first time (it was the first time I'd been to the cinema in a long, long time), I unpicked more from it on a rewatch, and on this viewing I didn't really get much more from it. Tenet isn't all that complicated really; it follows a singular concept wrapped around a good vs. bad plot, and moves at such a breakneck pace that it probably feels more complicated than it is because you're grasping to keep up with the speed but misplacing that struggle as a convoluted plot. Tenet is presented at this pace because it without doubt keeps you gripped and enthralled, but it does also allow you to swiftly forget any questions you had about questionable plot holes. I've heard people argue that Tenet isn't palindromic, but I actually believe the opposite, Nolan works it full circle fairly well and both halves of the film mirror each other to a certain extent. Whether I'm right in that reading is up for debate, but that appears to be one of Tenet's strengths in that it seems to have people disagreeing over it and offering differing opinions. The problem is that I'm not sure it should be; I don't think it's a complicated concept, when things are moving backwards and forwards at the same time it's shot superbly so it's easy enough to keep up (the set pieces are outstanding), and, well, it is what it is. And the next question is, is that enough? Nolan's back catalogue forces you to ask this question, and his previous films throw up as many posers as they do answers, and they also give you time to breathe during their runtime because there are things to think about. Tenet doesn't really give you those brainteasers, it just might fool you into thinking they're there, and that's both a compliment to its gripping spectacle, and a criticism of its frustrating hollowness.