film review

REVIEW: The Death of Stalin (2017)

After Stalin dies, the regime is thrown into chaos as members of the Committee struggle to take power.

The Death of Stalin is completely bonkers and stupidly funny. The situations these men find themselves in are hard to believe, and even more so when you remember the film is somewhat based on real life events.

The main conflict is between spymaster Lavrentiy Beria (Simon Russell Beale) and politician Nikita Khrushchev (Steve Buscemi), both of them trying to be one step ahead and to get as many other allies as possible. The conversations between the two of them are full of double-meanings and it’s clear to see how clever both men are, especially compared to men like Stalin’s Deputy, Georgy Malenkov (Jeffrey Tambor).

The whole cast is brilliant to be honest but got to have a couple of honourable mentions. Firstly, Jason Isaacs, who as soon as he appears on screen as General Georgy Zhukov, steals just about every scene he’s in, and Rupert Friend as Stalin’s son Vasily – he doesn’t have a clue as to what’s going on but has some of the best lines.

The Death of Stalin is farcical and funny but then it does have this weird unsettling edge to it, where you think, “Should I be laughing at this?” It’s based on true events where people were sent to the gulags or shot or put on lists, and once you’re on that list who knows what could happen to you. People lived this fear and tyranny and while the officials were squabbling amongst themselves people were dying. Perhaps it’s because the cast all use their native American or British accents (or a more exaggerated versions of them) that it helps make it all seem a bit surreal and adds a bit of distance to the reality of the real life situation.

It’s thanks to a witty script and story that roars along at a pace that while watching it you tend to forget about the historical context. The Death of Stalin is absurd and if you like the humour and incompetence of the characters in The Thick of It and In The Loop, you’ll probably enjoy The Death of Stalin a lot. 4/5.

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REVIEW: Downsizing (2017)

The world is suffering from overpopulation but some Norwegian scientists have found a solution – shrinking people to five inches tall. When Paul (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to change their lives and become small, things don’t go the way they expect.

Downsizing has a solid first act. The concept of shrinking people down so they don’t use as much resources or produce as much waste is fascinating and it was really cool to see how the process worked and what it meant for society – both for those who became small (an irreversible process) and those who stayed normal size. Seeing small people (and things), in a normal sized persons world is weird but enjoyable because it’s so unusual.

The premise is an interesting one, with what it tries to say about the environment, poverty, and society as a whole but unfortunately it seems to try and say too many things so it ends up saying nothing of real substance.

This is the unfortunate thing about Downsizing, the premise and the set up is great but it never really lives up to that. After the first act, the film, much like Paul himself, meanders along, and things just happen to Paul without him really being that proactive. The film doesn’t go where you think it might but if anything, that makes it worse as it seems almost aimless, and you feel the just over two hours running time.

Damon is fine in his role but Christoph Waltz as Paul’s neighbour Dusan is the most fun and engaging character. He lives life to the full and has some of the funniest lines. With the character of Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau) a Vietnamese revolutionary, it seemed the film wanted you to laugh at her. She often seemed like a racist caricature and again the film didn’t really seem to know what to do with her.

Downsizing is supposed to be a comedy, and at times it is. Other times though it feels like the concept was stretched out to more than it could be, losing humour and any real character development on the way. 2/5.

REVIEW: The Prince of Nothingwood (2017)

A documentary following Salim Shaheen, Afghanistan’s most popular actor, director and producer, with 110 films under his belt as he travels the country to shoot his latest film.

The Prince of Nothingwood is a brilliant documentary that’s both funny and fascinating. You get to see what life in Afghanistan is like for these men who are a part of Salim Shaheen’s films. Shaheen was in the military and even then, he was making films with the soldiers. They tell a story of how a missile went through a window, injuring and killing many of them and they used the footage of the aftermath in a film.

The film is directed by French journalist Sonia Kronlund and the interactions between her and Shaheen are one of the highlights of the film. Their conversations are funny because he’s such a big personality in comparison to her. Kronlund is well aware of the dangers of being a foreigner in Afghanistan but travelling with Shaheen, the rules don’t really apply to him. Everyone loves him and wants to shake his hand or have a selfie with him, including security personnel, the police and even the army.

Throughout The Prince of Nothingwood you get to see extracts of Shaheen’s films. They are over the top and for Western audiences probably considered pretty bad but they are quite inventive when you consider, as Shaheen says, there “is no money” to make films. Hence why he calls Afghan cinema Nothingwood. Shaheen’s films capture Afghan audiences though and they appear to get a lot of joy from them.

Kronlund not only talks to Shaheen but to the actors who have been a part of many of his films as well as his family. Admittedly it’s only his sons, she’s not able to talk to his two wives nor his daughters. It’s interesting to hear what other people think of Shaheen and his love of films.

The Prince of Nothingwood is a documentary about a man who loves films, both watching them and making them, and that love along with his larger than life personality shines through. The situations he and his film team get into often seem a bit farcical but there’s almost an air of innocence about it all. They all know what it’s like to live with the fear of death over them, there’s often mentions of what life was like under the Taliban, so they all embrace life and filmmaking and appear to have a great time while doing it. 4/5.

REVIEW: The Rider (2017)

After suffering from a near fatal head injury from the rodeo, young cowboy Brady (Brady Jandreau) tries to find a new identity for himself when he is not able to do what he’s always known and loved.

The Rider is interesting as it blurs the line between documentary and drama. Jandreau plays a version of himself, it’s his real-life head injury you see at the start of the film, staples in his head and all. This realisation that this story is so close to home for all the cast involved makes it even more touching and brilliant.

The Rider is about the American heartland and what it means to be a modern cowboy. The dangers these young men face and the difficulty of finding another purpose in life when the rodeo is all they’ve known. Brady is an amazing rider and horse trainer, seeing him with the animals, their connection is clear, so watching him struggle when he can’t do that anymore is tough to watch. Jandreau gives a subtle yet brilliant performance, he’s often quiet and controlled so when the tears or frustration appear it’s even more powerful.

The Rider is just a beautiful film in every way. A beautiful story, stunning cinematography of a gorgeous landscape and haunting music. You don’t need to love horses to fall in love with this film – I certainly don’t. The performances and characters and the subtleties of this film stick with you. It’s a brilliant film about a group of people and a career that seems to be dying out, a very different kind of Western. 5/5.

REVIEW: Columbus (2017)

When Jin’s (John Cho) father becomes seriously ill, he travels from Seoul, Korea to Columbus, Indiana to wait to se if he recovers. There he befriends Casey (Haley Lu Richardson), a young woman who loves the city and its architecture.

I will start this reviewing by being honest and telling you that I did miss a bit of this film due to nodding off in the cinema. I’m not sure how much I missed, maybe about 15 minutes in the middle, as I felt my eyes drooping and waking myself up by my head suddenly falling forward. While I the fact I had a snooze might not make Columbus a bad film, I think it was a sign it’s a film that wasn’t for me. Now onto the review proper.

Columbus is a very slow film, focused on two different people who find someone to talk to. Jin doesn’t want to be stuck in this town as he waits for his father to either get better or die, he mostly stays because Eleanor (Parker Posey), his father’s friend, says he should. Casey loves her town, her job in a library with her friend Gabe (Rory Culkin) and while she’s smart and everyone says she should go away to college, she’s reluctant to leave her mother (Michelle Forbes). Cho and Richardson both give great performances and they do feel like an unlikely friendship.

Columbus does some really interesting things with how it frames its characters and the landscape, with buildings and sculptures often getting more space on the screen than the people. There’s one scene where you are seeing the characters through their reflection in mirrors rather than face on. This makes a layer of distance between the viewer and the characters. This along with the fact that important conversations or character moments are often unfinished or seem to happen off screen makes it difficult to connect with the characters and what they are going through.

Columbus is a beautiful looking film with a calm, soothing soundtrack, but not a lot really happens. While everyone gives good performances, there’s not enough to pull you in and become attached to any of them. If you like interesting architecture, with characters walking and talking about architecture, Columbus might be for you. 2/5.

REVIEW: My Friend Dahmer (2017)

Jeffrey Dahmer (Ross Lynch) struggles with a difficult family life with a manic mother (Anne Heche) and a father (Dallas Roberts) who doesn’t understand him. As he tries to navigate high school and his teenage years, it solely becomes clear he doesn’t fit in with his peers.

My Friend Dahmer is a study of the teenage Jeffrey Dahmer, before he became one of America’s most notorious serial killers. Lynch gives a great performance as the shy yet unnerving young Dahmer. From his mannerisms to how he moves, everything about him seems not quite right. Add his fascination with disintegrating roadkill with acid and poor social skills it’s a captivating yet unsettling performance.

Dahmer is a loner and doesn’t have any friends until Derf (Alex Wolff), Mike (Harrison Holzer) and Neil (Tommy Nelson) start to include him and make a Jeffrey Dahmer Fan Club. Though can they really be called friends when they seem to manipulate him and like the infamy of being associated with him brings rather than who he is? With his so called friends and his parents who don’t take a real interest in him, the film offers a kind of nature vs nurture debate.

My Friend Dahmer blends the weird, creepy and darkly comedic incredibly well. It’s unsettling as you see Dahmer become more and more distant and angry as he tries to deal with his life, but then there’s sudden moments of humour, with situations that you probably really shouldn’t be laughing at.

My Friend Dahmer is a chilling insight into the life of a young killer. Lynch gives a captivating performance and with its blend of dark humour and suspense, it is definitely worth watching. 4/5.

REVIEW: Journey’s End (2017)

Set in the trenches in Aisne in March 1918, the story focusses on C Company and it’s officers, led by the young Captain Stanhope (Sam Claflin), as they wait for the German offensive they’ve been warned is imminent.

Journey’s End is a claustrophobic and tense film. The way it’s shot makes you feel like you’re in the trenches beside these young men. This is achieved by a lot of close ups and the fact you as the viewer only see as much as the characters do. Like them, you get no warning when there’s sniper fire or a barrage of bombs, you have the same information as the characters do and this increasingly racks up the tension.

The majority of the film is set in the trenches and in the officer’s dug out. The dynamics between the five officers, Stanhope, Osborne (Paul Bettany), Trotter (Stephen Graham), Hibbert (Tom Sturridge) and Raleigh (Asa Butterfield), switch between camaraderie to violence and anger as the pressures of their situations rest heavily on their shoulders. All actors give brilliant performances but Claflin was the standout. I’ve never thought he was a bad actor, but he never made much of an impact on me before, in Journey’s End he’s magnificent. The fear, anger and frustration was clear to see as he struggled to look out for his men when it seems like there’s no hope at all. He turns to drink to get him through but that in no way stops him being a good Captain, even as it’s clear to see his mental state is deteriorating.

While Journey’s End is a bleak film, there’s still moments of humour, most of them coming from the officer’s interactions with the cook Mason (Toby Jones). It’s often gallows humour but they are trying to make the most of their terrible situation. These moments of humour help flesh out all the characters as you get to see their personalities when they’re not just focused on what’s a few hundred metres across no man’s land.

Journey’s End is a powerful and gripping film. Everything comes together, the costume and set design, the simple yet haunting music, and the great performances, to make this a great war film. 4/5.