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Film Review: Nocturnal AnimalsFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Recommended, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 3 Nov 2016

It’s been the best part of seven years since fashion designer turned writer/director Tom Ford impressed cinemagoers with A Single Man, his adaptation of Christopher Isherwood’s novel of the same name about a bereaved professor who has recently lost his partner. Ford’s second film, Nocturnal Animals, is also an adaptation of a novel: this time Tony and Susan by Austin Wright. Show the rest of this post…

The film tells the story of well-to-do artist Susan (Amy Adams) who receives a manuscript in the post from her ex-husband Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal), from whom she split many years prior to the film’s opening. As Susan reads the manuscript, which details a fictional crime involving a thinly disguised version of her and her family, we see that fiction dramatised. There are also flashbacks to Susan and Edward’s early relationship, so Ford – as writer/director – and his editor Joan Sobel, have a challenging task to make all the strands not only work individually, but to come together as a cinematic whole. This is something they have achieved with great success, and is one of the film’s key strengths.

While A Single Man was a relatively stripped down piece of work, Nocturnal Animals is much more ambitious in terms of its scope. The cast is much larger, and the film’s interweaving of narratives is something that could’ve backfired, but Ford has shown he is capable of dealing with both, and that he is very much a director to be taken seriously.

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Both lead actors are required to tackle their central roles in two separate arcs, and Gyllenhaal has the tough task of carrying the weight of the dramatised manuscript sequences which, in the hands of a lesser actor or director, could’ve overwhelmed the film. The fact that they don’t, and that all strands of the film are engaging and affecting, is a triumph that both director and performers can take great credit for. Adams and Gyllenhaal are actors at the top of their game at the moment, and can generally be relied upon to deliver strong performances, and that is very much the case here. Adams conveys the fragility of somebody who is professionally lost and trapped on an emotional plateau between two time periods (not easy when a lot of your screen time is spent reading a book) while Gyllenhaal carries the tension and weight of the novel interludes.

The film’s structure really works in portraying Susan and Edward as each other’s emotional counterweights, even though the two actors spend little actual screen time together. The story’s central arc – of a relationship that ended and the baggage both protagonists are saddled with – worked for me right up until the very well-pitched ending.

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As we expect from Ford, the film has a strong visual style which comes through via Seamus McGarvey’s excellent cinematography; in particular during the many scenes set at night, which are enveloping and atmospheric. The real achievement, though, is that the film juxtaposes the bright, gritty Texan landscapes with the cold, dark cityscapes so flawlessly. The strands are held together too by Abel Korzeniowski’s score, which is dreamlike and menacing in equal measure.

The film’s one significant misstep is the opening credits sequence, which is deliberately provocative but for me felt misjudged. You could also argue the novel sequences are a tad overlong, but to cut them would’ve meant losing some of Michael Shannon’s delicious supporting performance as a Texas lawman. A mention, too, for Aaron Taylor Johnson, who shows us his terrifying side as a sadistic citizen of West Texas, and Laura Linney, who, despite having just one short scene in the entire film, ensures it hits with the required weight.

There’s a lot to like about Nocturnal Animals, which pleasingly is a very different film to A Single Man, though equally confident an d compelling. With a cast on great form, a tricky narrative told in a confident way, and excellent technical qualities, there’s a whole lot to enjoy in Tom Ford’s second feature.

4/5

Film Review: Doctor Strange

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 25 Oct 2016

Given how ubiquitous Marvel Studios’ comic book adaptations have become, it would be easy to assume its cinematic universe is populated merely by production line, populist Blockbusters reluctant to take creative risks, but Marvel has shown that it is willing to make left field choices with its big-budget behemoth, particularly with its choices of directors, writers and cast members. Show the rest of this post…

In 2014 Marvel took arguably its biggest risk yet when it released Guardians of the Galaxy, a sci-fi epic featuring a roster of lesser-known heroes, including a talking raccoon, but that film was a hit, both critically and at the box office. Doctor Strange is a risk in a different sense, not just because it introduces us to an entirely new cast and hero in an already bloated fictional universe, but because the subject matter – sorcery and the “mystic arts” – could so easily have backfired.

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Doctor Stephen Strange, a gifted but arrogant neurosurgeon who, pretty early on, is involved in a devastating car crash which seriously damages his hands, thus throwing his career into jeopardy. Medicine appears unable to fix him, no matter how left field he goes, so Strange looks further afield, to a secretive organisation in Kathmandu headed up by The Ancient One (Tilda Swinton), where he will learn that everything is not as it seems, in particular his perception of reality.

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From there Derickson delivers on his promise that this will be a mind-bending experience, cutting loose on a series of trippy set pieces guided by the impressive visual effects work of Luma Pictures and Industrial Light and Magic. Strange learns how to teleport himself around the world in an instant; to separate his astral form from his body; and much more. But he also learns of a plot by a former pupil of The Ancient One, Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) to surrender the earth to “the destroyer of worlds”, an entity called Dormammu, who lives in a dark dimension outside time. Strange must decide whether to follow his own path, or to be selfless and work with his new mentors.

The film is in some ways a triumph, but as a whole lacks the cohesion and charm of some of Marvel’s other comic book adaptations. Cumberbatch is well cast as Strange, although his character arc in this film means that, for the most part, he’s a pretty unlikeable protagonist. Though there are hints of development, he comes across as a charismatic but shallow centre for the film to revolve around, which isn’t helped by the fact that most of the supporting characters are thinly drawn, in particular Karl Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Strange’s ex-girlfriend Christine (Rachel McAdams) and, unfortunately, Kaecilius, whose villainy just isn’t memorable. These are excellent actors, but the film really doesn’t use them enough. The supporting cast fares better in the form of Benedict Wong as Wong, with whom Cumberbatch has a winning, if short-lived, rapport, and Tilda Swinton, who is the best thing in the film as The Ancient One.

Derickson directs the action scenes with flair and there is some captivating stunt work in here allied to well designed visual effects which see cities collapsing in on themselves in an Inception-like way, and an arresting journey into the depths of the unknown multiverse. But while the action scenes are mostly impressive to look at, the rules of engagement here are too thinly drawn. At times its difficult to see exactly what’s going on, but more damagingly the sense of peril sometimes gets lost in the whirling special effects.

There are flashes of humour in here which work well to offset the comic book exposition that is required to get us all up to speed on what’s going on, and tonally Doctor Strange should be able to match up to the other Avengers with whom he is destined to share a universe with one day. Quite how Marvel will deal with the action stakes in forthcoming projects given the implications in this film I’m not sure, but I look forward to seeing how they do it.

I didn’t warm to Doctor Strange as quickly as I have to many of Marvel’s other heroes, but perhaps the character just needs time to settle. Cumberbatch will do better work in the role if he’s given a better story to work with – ideally a film in which the villains are more successful and the supporting cast is given more of a chance to make an impact.

3/5

 

Film Review: I, Daniel BlakeFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 21 Oct 2016

Ken Loach has been making unashamedly political, socially aware films for decades, and his latest, I, Daniel Blake, finds him dealing with the relationship between the British government and its citizens, told mainly through interactions with the bureaucratic Department for Work and Pensions (DWP). It’s a film brimming with frustration and anger told in a purposefully restrained manner. Show the rest of this post…

The film is written by regular Loach contributor Paul Laverty and focuses on two down-on-their-luck individuals: Daniel Blake, a widower who has suffered issues with his heart and is trying to claim Employment and Support Allowance until he is fit enough to return to work; and Katie, a young mother of two who is forced to move to Newcastle, where the film is set, because it’s the only place she can get a flat for her family.

A companionship develops between these two characters that highlights the importance of community – something increasingly diminished in our times. Daniel is happy to help struggling Katie because he’s a good man with social values, even despite his own increasingly worsening circumstances. On paper the character of Daniel may look too saintly to work, but that is not the case thanks to Laverty’s sharp writing and the excellent performance of Dave Johns, who brings warmth and dignity and makes Daniel feel real. The same is true of Hayley Squires’ performance as Katie – a terrifically strong and understated turn as somebody whose life is spiralling out of control but is fighting to hold it all together. In fact, Squires gets the most affecting and difficult scene in the film, in a food bank, and really makes it work.

Loach directs the film in pleasingly uncomplicated fashion, capturing honestly the sense of decent people being mistreated by the state in a system that has warped from a safety net into something punitive. The film captures brilliantly the frustration of dealing with bureaucracy and the soulless corporate ethos that sucks the humanity out of human interactions. Audiences around the UK will surely empathise with Daniel’s disbelief at the systems he comes up against, and it’s important to note that Loach and his team researched the film heavily, with input from people who were in or had been in the system, and whistleblowers from within the DWP. Most of what we see in the film reflects real life, in some instances is directly taken from it, and the film has a sense of authenticity that is not easy to capture.

There are one or two moments when I felt the script was a little too forthright in its emoting, and some elements of the drama feel a tad sidelined because of the structure, in particular Katie’s third-act attempt to make money and the film’s powerful but brief den ouement, but overall I found I, Daniel Blake to be a powerful, important piece of work that sheds light on the treatment of decent people by an increasingly dehumanised state.

4/5

Film Review: In Pursuit of SilenceFan The Fire Recommends

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 20 Oct 2016

Patrick Shen’s documentary In Pursuit of Silence is a captivating investigation into what silence really is, and why humans might seek it out, or even require it. Show the rest of this post…

Shen begins his documentary with an ode to John Cage’s 4’33”, using a montage of images with only ambient sounds captured, which serves a compelling introduction, not least of which because John Cage is clearly an important figure in the film, in terms of both his presence in it and his ideas. We then see a series of talking heads, interspersed with Shen’s arresting imagery, from a wide range of professions and cultures, talking about what silence can mean and why it is important.

The most involving part of the documentary juxtaposes the potential benefits of silence and silent contemplation alongside the helter-skelter of modern day life, the cumulative noise of which, Shen and his contributors argue, is having a number of negative effects on us. This is the heart of the film, and Shen makes a compelling argument that noise has become a pervasive influence in our lives.

The film is technically impressive, not just in its vivid imagery, but in its use of sound and sound mixing, as well as talking heads, to put forward its argument. The way the film is edited, we’re invited to experience the kind of calm that Shen is telling us is so important, and it’s difficult not to see sense in the film’s ideas. Compelling interviews, combined with visual artistry and a very considered soundscape, give the film a persuasive through line that actually reminding me of the way Patricio Guzman’s film Nostalgia for the Light presented its ideas.

The film spends a little too much of its runti me indulging in imagery and soundscapes – time it could’ve spent delving deeper into the ideas it puts forward – but this remains a thought-provoking and well made documentary.

4/5

Film Review: Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

Posted in Film, Reviews
By Martin Roberts on 19 Oct 2016

Christopher McQuarrie’s Jack Reacher film came out the best part of four years ago, and given that film was a solid, but not spectacular, financial success, it was not always guaranteed that we’d see Tom Cruise back as Lee Child’s titular drifter. Show the rest of this post…

But here we are with Never Go Back, which is based on Child’s 2013 novel of the same name, and directed by Edward Zwick, who has done good work with Cruise before in The Last Samurai.

The 2012 film was an unremarkable if better-than-you-might-expect detective thriller, and that’s a description that can be applied with equal validity to this sequel, which sees Reacher attempting to visit a military contact (Cobie Smulders) before finding out she’s been taken into custody accused of serious crimes. The plot initially seems only tangentially connected to the lead character, meaning the first act has to work a bit to get us involved, but the film does give Reacher a personal connection to the case fairly early on, which works as a not entirely original but well played side plot – namely, there is a young girl involved in things who may or may not be Reacher’s daughter.

Never Go Back functions as a sequel to the 2012 film only in as much as Tom Cruise is back as Jack Reacher, because in all other respects the film is standalone. This was perhaps a wise decision as the first film, though it did adequately at the box office, was not widely seen. The first act tries a little too hard to build a legend around its central character (also a minor problem in the first film) but once the plot settles down it’s an enjoyable watch all told, even despite the odd bit of ropey and unintentionally funny dialogue.

Reacher is a charismatic drifter with kick-ass combat skills, i.e. not much of a stretch for Cruise; but that’s fine, because although Cruise can play this kind of thing in his sleep, he’s still good at it. The interest is more in the supporting performances. Smulders, tougher than we’ve seen her before, does a good job of portraying a strong, smart military type who is more than capable of looking after herself, and Danika Yarosh does good work as the kid thrust into Reacher’s care.

Where the film lets itself down is in the plotting. The mystery behind everything ultimately relies too much on characters who have little or no actual involvement in the film, or on schemes we haven’t been allowed to care much about, meaning the narrative revelations tend to be underwhelming. There’s also a charisma gap as far as the villains are concerned. Patrick Heusinger is actually perfectly good as the nameless, relentless figure hunting Reacher and his companions, but the character is entirely one-note. The film lacks a charismatic figure like Werner Herzog, who was so good in the first one, despite being on screen for about five minutes.

Never Go Back is at its best when Cruise, Smulders and Yarosh are doing their dysfunctional fugitive family routine, or in the crunchy confrontations between Cruise and a succession of faceless  henchmen. Like the previous film, there’s enough in here to recommend a viewing if you’re after a relatively old-fashioned thriller; it just won’t stick with you for too long.

3/5

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 dramas 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

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