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Film Review: Under the ShadowFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 27 Sep 2016

Here is an Iranian horror-thriller that takes many of the standard tropes of haunted-house cinema and makes a good fist of refreshing them with to its good performances, strong sense of place, and understated political commentary. Show the rest of this post…

The film is set in Tehran in the late 1980s, during the final part of the Iran-Iraq War, in an apartment building in which Shideh (Narges Rashidi) lives with her husband (Bobby Naderi) and young daughter Dorsa (Avin Manshadi). Director Babak Anvari, in his debut feature, takes his time in the first act to set up the gist of the situation: we begin as Shideh is refused re-entry to medical school because of her previous involvement in political activism. The film suggests, and we believe, that this is a harsh mistreatment. Shideh’s husband, who is a practicing doctor, is then sent to the front lines of the war, leaving her and Dorsa alone in the flat, while increasingly creepy goings on appear to be happening around them. Dorsa is convinced that something supernatural has entered the building, and one of the neighbours suggests it may be a Djinn – a creature from Arabian mythology.

What follows is a tense, if familiar, series of sequences in which things get progressively more creepy, until the point where Shideh starts to believe that there may indeed be something very wrong. Anvari’s film does use jump scares to puncture the tension he skilfully creates, and while jump scares can often feel a little cheap, the ones here are well orchestrated and used sparingly enough that the film doesn’t lose focus.

What’s more interesting about Under the Shadow is the spectre of war that always lingers in the background, be it the air raid sirens that frequently summon the protagonists to the basement of their building, or the terrifying shaking of the building when distant rockets are detonated. As in the best horror-inflected stories, the film invites us to think about the nature of the evil that is plaguing its characters, and the context in which it is happening. Although the war is kept in the background, I have no doubt it is the ‘shadow’ described in the film’s title, and there is also a subtle undercurrent of commentary on the oppression of women, which begins in the film’s opening scenes and runs beneath the surface. In one sequence, Shideh is apprehended by the police for appearing outside without her chador, even though she had little choice in the matter, while her tormentor’s appearance eerily resembles the garment.

Anvari directs the action convincingly, his camera movements becoming more hurried and inventive as the film enters its increasingly hysterical final movement. There isn’t a great deal new in here in terms of how the film deals with its barely seen antag onist, but the tension builds pretty successfully and the characters are drawn well enough that we care what happens to them, which is more than can be said of a great many chillers.

4/5

Blu-ray Review: Green RoomFan The Fire Recommends

By Martin Roberts on 16 Sep 2016

Director Jeremy Saulnier’s first feature was a little-seen horror called Murder Party, but the film that established him as a director to watch was Blue Ruin, a taut, stripped-down thriller with a stream of jet-black humour running through it. Show the rest of this post…

And that description more or less suits his follow-up, Green Room, in which a punk band become trapped in a neo-Nazi stronghold after stumbling upon a crime following a gig.

Like Blue Ruin, Green Room’s premise is simple. There isn’t a superfluity of narrative here, just a situation played out to its resolution. The members of the band – played by Anton Yelchin, Alia Shawkat, Joe Cole and Callum Turner – are variously wounded and picked off by Nazi thugs as their attempts to escape become more and more desperate. The owner of the titular green room, Darcy (played with understated menace by Patrick Stewart), dispatches his henchmen calmly and collectedly while his underling Gabe (Macon Blair, who was so good in Blue Ruin) tries his best to clean up the mess.

Saulnier orchestrates the outbursts of violence with aplomb, proving once again he has a knack for tense situations exploding into disarray. While Green Room’s narrative is perhaps a tad repetitive and the ending a little anticlimactic, it establishes its idea wholeheartedly and runs with it until there’s nowhere left to go. There isn’t a massive amount of depth in its characters , but the performances are strong and the actors inject the film with charm and tension. Green Room is a memorable thriller, and I can’t wait to see what Saulnier does next.

4/5

Film Review: Hunt for the WilderpeopleFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Recommended, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 15 Sep 2016

New Zealand director Taika Waititi’s (Boy, What We Do in the Shadows) latest film, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, is a thoroughly likeable coming-of-age comedy drama, set in the wilds of the director’s home country, and starring Julian Dennison as Ricky Baker, a troubled kid who ends up in a new foster home with adoptive guardians Aunt Bella and Uncle Hec (Rima ti Wiata and Sam Neill). Show the rest of this post…

It hasn’t been easy to find Ricky a home, as social worker Paula (Rachel House) is all too happy to remind Aunt Bella, but Ricky and his new aunt quickly form a restrained but very touching bond. That is, until a surprise incident throws Ricky and Uncle Hec together in the wilderness, where the two must learn to get along if they are to survive.

Ricky’s infectious enthusiasm and surprising good nature come out the more we see of him, brought to life by Dennison’s charming and very funny performance. Opposite him, Sam Neill does a good job playing the familiar ‘grumpy but softhearted’ role. In many ways Waititi’s film is reminiscent of countless other entries in the coming-of-age genre, though it stands out because of its wonderful sense of place, its fantastic sense of humour, and its witty script, which Waititi wrote himself. The director divides his film into chapters and plays with montage, giving the film a freewheeling sense of fun that is maintained even when the film flirts with more serious issues.

There are perhaps a few too many montages set to music, which threaten to saddle the film’s carefree nature with a sense of treading water, and one or two instances of contrived comedy, but in general I enjoyed the film’s consistent tone and revelled in its dry, and very funny, sense of humour. Just as the film is beginning to feel a tad overstretched, the excellent Rhys Darby turns up in a cameo role to thrust the film into its joyous and lovely final movement.

The film’s musical score and lush visuals complement the performances of the leads, lending the film a unique feel in a pretty busy genre. Ricky Baker is a memorable hero and the supporting cast bring laughs where we might not expect them. Waititi himself shows up in a brief cameo as a priest in a bizarre but entertaining scene.

It’s hard to imagine anybody not being won over by this charming adventure, which I’m alre ady looking forward to watching again. Waititi’s next film will be 2017’s Thor: Ragnarok, and I’m very curious to see what he can bring to Marvel’s franchise universe.

4/5

Film Review: War Dogs

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 24 Aug 2016

War Dogs, the new film from Todd Phillips (The Hangover), is based on the real life story of AEY Inc, which became a successful arms dealing operation for the US Government in the noughties. Run by Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz (played by Jonah Hill and Miles Teller respectively), the company found quick financial success, but was soon involved in criminal activity. Show the rest of this post…

The film joins a recent wave of politically-charged dark comedies and drams which aim to portray, and pick apart, the economic and political systems that hold sway. Many of these followed in the wake of the financial crisis, most recently The Big Short, with which War Dogs shares a similarity of tone. But whereas that film was righteously angry in an endearing way, Phillips’ film feels more like it is trying to be two things at once, and not quite succeeding at either.

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But that’s not to say there isn’t much to enjoy in War Dogs. Although I felt the film was sometimes yearning to be both a Todd Phillips’ style bromance comedy and something more seriously satirical, there is more bite in this than there initially appears to be. In the first half, during which the film allows itself to veer into buddy comedy antics more often, I began to think it may be enjoying the morally dubious antics of its antiheroes a little too much, but as the film goes on, it develops more of an edge, and isn’t afraid to flirt with actual darkness. Jonah Hill’s portrayal of Efraim Diveroli, with his cracked, maniacal laughter, is darker in tone than it first appears, and both he and Teller have a good double act here. Teller is the straight guy by comparison, but the two of them work well together. There’s also a brief cameo role for a Todd Phillips regular which is satisfactorily creepy, and adds a welcome bit of shade to the antics of the main characters.

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The film deviates from the true story of Diveroli and Packouz in a number of ways, but I felt that the liberties Phillips and his co-writers took with the story were in keeping with the overall tone, and even the more extravagant flights of fancy felt believable within the context of the film. Where the film is less successful is in its structure, which devotes too much time to the antics of its leads in the first half, and too little to the breakdown of their relationship in the final act. There’s also a thinly written role for Ana de Armas as Packouz’s partner, which to her credit de Armas makes more credible than it really ought to be.

War Dogs also reminded me, on occasion, of Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, another film co-starring Jonah Hill and dealing in a similar way with the profits of criminality. But while Scorsese’s film went full-on into the depths of its central character’s depravity, and in doing so ended up being quite scabrous in its indictment of the activities on show, War Dogs feels tonally  less secure. But having said that, I did find the film to have more depth than I thought it was going to, and more political bite, all gravitating around Hill’s memorable antihero.

3/5

DVD Review: Only YesterdayFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in DVDs, Film, Recommended, Reviews
By Sam Bathe on 18 Aug 2016

Re-released in theatres in celebration of its 25th anniversary, Studio Ghibli’s classic, Only Yesterday, is a beautiful film about reflection of the past, and embracing the people we become. Show the rest of this post…

Unfulfilled by life in the city, Taeko (Ridley) heads home to the country for a much-needed vacation. Looking back on childhood memories, stepping back into her old way of life, and reconnecting with her old self, Taeko wonders if she has been true to the dreams she made so long ago. With stunning hand-drawn animation that hasn’t aged a day since the film’s original 1991 release, Daisy Ridley and Dev Patel’s first ever English dub has been mastered perfectly to the original visuals. Switching between the present and the past, we follow Taeko on a journey of rediscovery; this is a slower, human Ghibli film, rather than their f antastical features like Spirited Away or Totoro. With Studio Ghibli in an indefinite haitus, we must cherish their beloved films, and this is one of the very best.

4/5

Film Review: Cosmos

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 15 Aug 2016

Here is the new film from cult Polish director Andrzej Żuławski, which sadly will also be his last. His many fans have had to wait 15 years for the curious riddle that is Cosmos – his previous effort was Fidelity, in 2000 – and I’m sure many will find much to like in it. Show the rest of this post…

The plot, in as much as there is one, is based on the novel Kosmos by Witold Gombrowicz, and concerns two young men, Witold (Jonathan Genet) and Fuchs (Johan Libéreau), who take a vacation in a country house in order to temporarily get away from their lives, and where they soon begin to notice some alarming oddities. The film begins with Witold discovering the corpse of a sparrow strung up from a pipe, which is a thing he cannot fully grasp. Who would do such a thing, and why? And how does it relate to the events in the house?

Witold becomes obsessed with the idea of how everything relates to everything else, driven to distraction by the possibility that the answer may simply be that it’s all random. He’s recently failed a law exam and disappointed his father, and is attempting to pen a novel about his experiences, which becomes increasingly tied to the heightened reactions he has on his vacation. Witold and Fuchs share some amusing dialogue – in which Witold tries to explain literature to Fuchs, who resolutely isn’t interested – while the proprietors of the house in which they’re staying (Sabine Azéma and Jean François-Balmer) indulge in their own bizarre, hysterical routines. The rest of the occupants of the house drift in and out, and include Clémentine Pons as a maid with a disfigured upper lip and Victória Guerra as Lena, both of whom inspire a sort of madness in Witold. At times this is driven by repressed sexual urges, but at others seems to come from his inability to fully comprehend anything he’s experiencing.

As an audience, we are sucked into Witold’s increasing instability by Zulawski’s determination to keep the film’s ideas at arm’s length. This is a film to be appreciated for its tone and performance, rather than a strict plot or narrative arcs. I have to say that I often found the film’s quirks  frustrating, and that at times I felt it indulged in anarchism without a great deal of result. I appreciated its madness (and indeed the intensity of Genet’s unhinged central performance), but at others felt I was being held at a distance by its unusual visual and dialogue choices.

While, as a whole, the film did not entirely work for me, there were elements to enjoy: in particular a sequence in some woods in the final act, in which the visuals and music came together with the purposefully eccentric script to produce some memorable moments; and some of Zulawski’s interesti ng camera work and visuals. There are ideas aplenty in Cosmos, many of which are compelling, but there is a lack of insight or resolution to most of it that feels frustrating.

3/5

Film Review: Wiener-Dog

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 8 Aug 2016

Wiener-Dog, the latest from director Todd Solondz, brings together four stories loosely joined by the itinerant presence of a dachshund. It’s a blackly comic drama dealing with the issue of futility, with a cynical edge that Solondz fans will be familiar with. Show the rest of this post…

The four stories, which share thematic elements but rarely characters, are well-observed and spiky in tone. We begin with a child in a dysfunctional household being given the titular dog as a gift, then move into three other narratives, probably the most successful of which involves Danny DeVito as a struggling and disillusioned screenwriter.

It’s one of those films that is well made and performed, sharply written and intermittently funny, but which never really comes together as a successful whole. Each story feels like it would work pretty well as a short, but put together like this, the film feels unable to settle on much of an idea or throughline beyond simply being cynical, or portraying disfunction. Those elements are periodically interesting, but the film ultimately left me a little cold. The first story, which includes the most barbed speech in the film, is unfortunately the weakest, leaving a vacuum that the rest of the film tries to fill.

There are, however, plenty of unexpected quirks to enjoy along the way, which I won’t spoil here, and some  of the diversions the individual narratives take are rewarding and, on occasion, touching.  I just wish the film as a whole had been as engaging. The dog, incidentally, is adorable.

3/5

Film Review: Star Trek Beyond

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 22 Jul 2016

After director JJ Abrams successfully rebooted Star Trek but then left the franchise to work on Star Wars The Force Awakens, it wasn’t immediately clear who would take his place, or indeed what film they would be making. Show the rest of this post…

Eventually, Simon Pegg (who plays Scotty), stepped into to write the script alongside Doug Jung, and Justin Lin, best known for his work on the long-running Fast and Furious franchise, was installed in the director’s chair.

We now have the result, Star Trek Beyond, which feels like a intentional shift towards a slightly more freewheeling, lighter version of Star Trek, perhaps closer in tone to the feel of the original series (which, I confess, I am not deeply familiar with). Although this film’s predecessor, Star Trek Into Darkness, was generally well received by critics (including this one), it also took decisions with tone and narrative that some core fans took issue with. A clear effort has been made here to reintegrate the sidelined members of the series’ prodigious ensemble back into the fold, and tell a romping, perhaps slightly more old-fashioned adventure.

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In many ways, this has been successful. The plot, which revolves around an attack on the Enterprise (and, by extension, Starfleet) by a mysterious alien called Krall (Idris Elba), sees the crew of the Enterprise stranded on a distant planet, cut off from reinforcement. Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto) and the others must find a way to recover their lost crew members and get off the planet while stopping whatever scheme Krall has cooking. The plot forcibly separates the main cast into small groups, encouraging interactions between characters who did not necessarily share a huge amount of screen time up until now; so, for example, Spock crash lands with Bones, the ship’s chief medical officer (Karl Urban), Sulu and Uhura find themselves trapped together and Kirk must cook up a plan with Chekov (played by the late Anton Yeltchin, in one of his last appearances).

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In general, these divisions work, and as somebody who bemoaned the lack of screen time for many of the characters in the last film, I was happy to see more of them. The negative side is that the film has a weaker narrative thrust then the previous one, so while the cast members have more to do, what they’re doing doesn’t always feel essential or exciting. The previous film thrived on the relationship between Kirk and Spock, and this film only fleetingly revisits that. Obviously not all Trek films can continue to focus on that, but this film lacks a similarly engaging screen partnership or character depth. New cast member Sofia Boutella (Kingsman) as Jaylah, bring charm and some laughs, but not enough to bridge that gap. Nor does new bad guy Krall offer enough to give the narrative the necessary oomph; Idris Elba actually makes a strong impression when he’s given the chance, but Krall spends too much of the film as a bland villain to be completely saved by a strong final act.

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As new director, Justin Lin helms the film with assurance, putting his own stamp on things and ensuring this doesn’t feel like a second-rate JJ Abrams impression. He stages his conflicts well, and the sense of place (particularly in a new Starfleet megastation) is occasionally spectacular. There’s also a brief, touching tribute to the late Leonard Nimoy (who portrayed the original Spock, and has appeared in this series), cleverly woven into the plot of the film. Where the film is oddly lacking is in its close-combat action sequences, which are filmed in a fast-cutting, hyper-kinetic style that rendered many of the fights difficult to follow. Intentional, perhaps, but not to my taste.

Overall this is a solid entry in a franchise which, I hope, will continue to explore th e vastness of space for some time. The crew has been well cast, and although this may not be their most memorable adventure, it’s still a cut above your average action blockbuster.

3/5

Film Review: The Hard StopFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Recommended, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 13 Jul 2016

British readers will certainly remember the case of young Tottenham resident Mark Duggan, who was shot and killed by police in a ‘hard stop’ manoeuvre in 2011 – a hugely controversial incident that sparked anger in local communities about the treatment of black citizens, and is seen as one of the sparks that may have ignited the London riots. Show the rest of this post…

George Amponsah’s thoughtful documentary retells this story through the eyes of two of Mark’s peers, Marcus Knox Hook and Kurtis Henville.

Amponsah keeps the documentary at ground level, in the communities, mostly shirking news footage, and in this way the film becomes not just the story of Mark Duggan, but a portrayal of the deprived neighbourhoods of London (and indeed the UK) and the racial tensions therein. Hook is facing jail time for his role in, allegedly, catalysing the riots, while we see Henville looking for work and trying to provide for his family.

The film remains honest throughout. Our two protagonists come across as likeable, well-meaning guys whose previous lives of crime have been thrown into sharp relief by what they believe to be the unlawful killing of a close friend. Their hatred of police is palpable, and the film helps provide some context for that. The success of the film’s interactions with these two is that they provide an insight not just into Duggan himself, but the tribulations of communities who are getting a raw deal.

Shot mainly around the streets of Tottenham, the film has a genuine sense of place and mood, backed up by the use of music. There are interesting details in here about the shooting of Mark Duggan, which most viewers will remember, but also poignant moments of family, friendship and community. It doesn’t look directly at any aspect of the riots beyond the racial one, but in portraying the lives of struggling, everyday people, Amponsah’s film does more than it initially suggests. It’ s a film that reminds us about the inequality that persists in our country; about the racial tensions that shamefully still hold sway; and how community can provide hope and comfort.

4/5

Film Review: Maggie’s PlanFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Recommended, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 7 Jul 2016

In Maggie’s Plan, the new film written and directed by Rebecca Miller, Greta Gerwig stars as Maggie, a smart young woman who decides that she is ready to have a baby. Show the rest of this post…

The only problem is that she doesn’t have a boyfriend, so she attempts to artificially inseminate herself using a donation from an old acquaintance, Guy (Travis Fimmel).

Things are complicated by a chance meeting with John, a “ficto-critical anthropologist” (Ethan Hawke), whose marriage to Georgette (Julianne Moore) is creaking at the seams. Maggie and John quickly begin to enjoy each others’ company, to the point that Maggie’s plan starts to change. We then jump forward a couple of years to see how all the characters are getting on.

The triumph of Miller’s film comes from the meeting of a great cast with a sensitive, clever script that treats them all with remarkable even-handedness. There are no heroes or villains here; Miller is happy to let her characters fumble through their lives without singling any of them out for special treatment. So Maggie is smart and determined, but also controlling and afraid of imbalance; John is a borderline genius but has issues with self-absorption, and so on. Even Georgette, who initially appears to be the comic relief, is formulated by Moore into a rounded and likeable character. There’s also some lovely support from Bill Hader and Maya Rudolph as a bickering but loving couple who Maggie frequently turns to for advice.

In the first act, the film comes across as a little too quirky too quickly, but settles into itself. There are plenty of laughs along the way courtesy of the witty script, and by the end I found myself thoroughly enjoying the company of this cast – at times, its gentle warmth reminded me of a Woody Allen film. Gerwig, in particular, is on great form as Maggie, an d carries the film through its occasionally bitty narrative. The very last shot of the film is perhaps a tad too fairytale, but it’s not much of a bum note and still draws a smile.

4/5

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