Category Archives: Fantasy

BFI.org.uk

LFF: Sicilian Ghost Story

FILMSNAP: A film review that is 300 words or less.

Sicilian Ghost Story is a strange take on a real-life mafia kidnapping story involving young lovebirds, weaving the supernatural with a distinct gritty realism that makes you wonder if the supernatural elements are even necessary.

It’s a delicate subject matter, and approaching it with surreal flourishes may lean towards a dangerously blasé slant in the face of child torture. Yet the method’s sparse use manages to carefully sidestep any talk of insensitivity. In doing so, it also sacrifices any room for the film to transcend the stale trappings of its slow-burn narrative.

The film’s initial imagery is bafflingly fixating, promising a much greater film than the one we end up receiving. The camera winds itself around dripping rocks, leaving us to infer the ethereal from the real. Luca Bigazzi, known for his brilliant work with Sorrentino, compliments the film’s overbearing fairy-tale quality with unnatural framing and contemplative long takes, mustering up most of the film’s magic.

Unfortunately, there isn’t enough disparity between the surreal and its harsh truth to produce the catharsis the film so desperately strives for. In blending the two, much of the juxtapositional effectiveness is lost, and its sporadic implementation doesn’t do enough to justify the presence of the supernatural.

Though perhaps Sicilian Ghost Story’s greatest problem lies in the fact that this is a tragic love story between two kids where the lead child actors aren’t actually very good. Much may be down to directors Grassadonia and Piazza, who have seemingly told his young cast to sport plastic smiles whenever in frame. With chemistry this fabricated and unconvincing, it’s difficult to latch onto the difficulties that obstruct their plight thereafter. Sadly, they’re left stranded in a dreamlike film that’s too afraid to commit to its own premise and afraid even further to support its own existence.

-Gus Edgar

FilmSnap: Endless Poetry

FILMSNAP: A film review that is 300 words or less.

Alejandro Jodorowsky’s second installment in his planned quasi-autobiographical quintet is an opulent odyssey, utilising his trademark brazen surrealism and contortion fetishism to full, nauseating effect. His younger self, played at first in his youth by Jeremias Herskovits, and then soon after by his actual son, Adan Jodorowsky, is a self-obsessed man with the ambition to become a renowned poet.

His quest sees him abandon his parents, join a group of artists, and begin an unconventional romance, but nothing his character ever says or does should be taken literally. There are strands of meaning, concealed visual cues that support and substantiate the film’s tangled narrative, but to uncover its metaphorical tenacity is like traversing treacle. The motif of passersby wearing expressionless masks that strip them of identity and signify the protagonist’s blatant solipsism is relatively easy to work out. His anarchic portrayal of a self-loathing clown pointing to his frustration with not being taken seriously as a director is manageable, but also flawed in its concept by eventually urging the audience to laugh. And the film’s monologues on the meaning of life are more often than not lazily profound babble. It’s an uneven hodgepodge of ideas that is similar to an exuberant fever dream, but the ideas are so exciting, if occasionally impenetrable, that Endless Poetry always remains at least interesting.

At 128 minutes, it also boasts the contradiction of being both overstuffed and overlong. Endless Poetry resembles the blueprints of Jodorowsky’s swan song, the veteran director cramming his film with as many ideas as possible, and exhausting his audience in the process. Yet, while it may not be quite the concentrated cinephiliac ecstasy he conjured up with his magnum opus, The Holy Mountain, Endless Poetry is nevertheless a heady and stirring delve into the mad, mad mind of Jodorowsky.   

-Gus Edgar

FilmSnap: A Monster Calls

FILMSNAP: A film review that is 300 words or less.

Here’s something refreshing: a story involving a cancer patient that doesn’t baselessly lie to its audience (Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, though I do love that film in spite of it), nor dumb down the tragedy into palatable mush (nearly every other filmic incarnation involving a patient with a terminal illness). J.A. Bayona is certainly accustomed to tearjerkers, having directed the deceptive horror-drama The Orphanage and the tsunami-weepie, The Impossible. A Monster Calls is no different, building on his penchant for sob stories with a thrillingly original perspective.

Based on Patrick Ness’ book of the same name, A Monster Calls follows Conor O’Malley (Lewis MacDougall) as he summons a beautifully-rendered Monster (Liam Neeson) in order to come to terms with his mother’s (Felicity Jones) imminent death. It’s Pan’s Labyrinth-esque escapism, though less gothic and more colourful than the 2006 fantasy. Through the animated sequences in the film, their brash, painterly styles contrasting superbly with the sedate real world, O’Malley unearths parables on morality and blame that ease him towards accepting what the Monster refers to as ‘the truth behind his nightmare’. Whether these stories firmly relate to O’Malley’s sufferings when held up to scrutiny is questionable, but if you disregard their lack of focus, these segments serve as delightful interludes to the morbidity Bayona musters up in his primary narrative.

When the ‘truth behind his nightmare’ does finally reveal itself, however, these fantastical elements suddenly seem so distant. The film doesn’t need a wobbly subplot concerning bullies to conjure up the raw emotion Bayona is seeking; the film delivers on its smartly-paced buildup with its powerful, unexpected reveal, and Lewis MacDougall’s astonishingly convincing emotional release, rising above its genre’s ilk by managing to be emotionally devastating without being visibly manipulative.

-Gus Edgar

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

large_3

Fantastic Beasts’ title card may bear the same familiar font and sweeping melody of its big brother, but the film is a far cry from Harry Potter. For one, it takes place in 1920s New York; a more grimy, unromanticized version than we’re used to. This New York is saturated in a general unease with the wizarding community, rather than the embracing of magic seen in the Harry Potter franchise, and thus each wizard and witch is forced into hiding, unable to reveal themselves under the judgement of the No-Maj (America’s less-than-subtle equivalent of a Muggle). So when Newt Scamander, a magical zoologist wonderfully realised by Eddie Redmayne, inadvertently lets loose an array of creatures, or, ‘Fantastic Beasts’, to run amok in the city, you can imagine the chaos it would cause.

And sure, it does cause chaos, but to what effect? Fantastic Beasts takes a while to get going – penned by JK Rowling herself, it’s a film composed of two major plotlines: the escape and subsequent capture of Scamander’s Fantastic Beasts, and the concept of an Obscurus and its relation to the leading members of the Second Salem (an organisation keen on stamping out magic and exposing magicians). Sadly, the plotline the film adopts as its title is both the least interesting and the least relevant of the two.

The film plunges straight into action without first establishing character motivations or defining a significant threat that the protagonists face. A mole-like creature called a Niffler with an affinity for treasure, easily the film’s most memorable critter, escapes from Scamander’s case to provoke an entertaining sequence in which Scamander scurries around a bank looking for it. Here, he meets Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler), an endearingly bumbling No-Maj who’s needed as the audience’s perspective. After a brief(case) mix-up, he accidentally involves himself in the wizarding world, much to the disdain of Katherine Waterston’s Tina, a demoted Auror (investigator of crimes related to the Dark Arts). We’re not sure why Scamander’s in New York, nor the consequences of letting the Niffler loose, and so these opening few scenes lack significance if not entertainment, stripping the film of any momentum. When the main protagonists of Scamander, Tina and Kowalski involve themselves with one another, such as during a dinner scene at Tina’s residence, it comes across as unimportant – there’s simply no driving force behind it all.

We are introduced to The Second Salem, a magic-hating organisation, but it’s not made clearer until the film’s second act how exactly they’re important to the story. Bluntly put, the pacing is dreadful. It takes too long to learn how this plotline interacts with the main protagonists, and when it does, it just casts the realisation that there wasn’t much point to the ‘Fantastic Beasts’ storyline in the first place. That’s not to say that there’s no enjoyment to be had watching Eddie Redmayne attempt to woo a weird rhino-esque creature with an unorthodox mating display in order to capture it, but the scenes lack substance, and are, surprisingly, unmemorable. There’s no moments of wonder created akin to Harry’s first ride on the Hippogriff – most of the magic has seemingly died with the Potter saga.

Kowalski certainly seems taken aback, however, by his discovery of magic. His journey in Scamander’s briefcase is a highlight of the film, signalling how the divide between No-Maj and wizard needn’t be. Fantastic Beasts deals with these politics skillfully – it’s a simple oppressed-minority structure that applies to our world as much as it does the wizarding world, but is integrated well into the story and gives various scenes superb heft. Some of these scenes involve Percival Graves, played with manipulative assertion by Colin Farrell. He’s a senior Auror who works in league with Ezra Miller’s Credence, a member of the Second Salem, and his performance is brash and menacing. This contrasts well with Scamander’s inherent introversion, where Redmayne gives a certain charm to the character that would come across as cloying in the hands of a less capable actor. His performance isn’t the caricaturish loner either – he’s as introverted with humans as he is extroverted to his various creatures, supporting his affixion with the beasts. The roles in Fantastic Beasts are testament to JK Rowling’s knack for churning out interesting, believable characters – the one misstep is Tina Goldstein, her one-note, soapy characterisation wasted on Katherine Waterston’s talent.

Yet her writing, in this instance, doesn’t extend to a sophisticated or restrained plot. The film juggles too much – when it works, it’s awe-inspiring. But there’s an inordinate amount of loose plotlines, all culminating in an exhaustive final battle sequence. As the latest entry in the Wizarding World, it’s a disappointment rather than a failure. There are, however, moments of intrigue and awe to be had among its plodding narrative – Fantastic Beasts is a film jam-packed with superfluous storylines, but also a film jam-packed with mature themes and exciting new characters.

Doctor Strange

large_4

Benedict Cumberbatch is an arrogant, lovable genius who solves problems against seemingly insurmountable odds. No, he’s not Sherlock, but Doctor Stephen Strange, one of the more barmy entries in Marvel Studios’ roster of superheroes. After suffering an accident due to his own arrogance, his job as a renowned neurosurgeon is put out of action. To return to work, Strange strives to restore the use of his hands, finally stumbling across a mysterious ‘cult’ based in Nepal…

There, with the aid of Tilda Swinton’s ‘The Ancient One’, an enigmatic figure with dark secrets, he trains his mind, in a rushed but intriguing 20-minute sequence. He’s arrogant and foolish, but his mentors, including Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Mordo and Benedict Wong’s, er, Wong, see his potential. Will he overcome his own hubris to achieve greatness? Do I really even need to ask that question?

Strange’s narrative arc is a familiar one – the fall, the redemption, the shortcomings, the solution – but director Scott Derrickson manages to prevent this flick from becoming another stale offering in the Marvel universe. For one, it does away with the use of technical jargon and scientific explanations, and embraces the mesmerising, nonsensical world of magic while keeping a straight face. Its opening battle, where buildings twist and turn like bloodthirsty cogs, is only a fleeting glance at the world’s potential, and each burst of psychedelic brawling thereafter are intelligently differentiated from one another. It’s a world steeped in preposterous magical concepts of mirror dimensions and astral forms, but it works, because it’s just as believable as any other film in its franchise.

Sadly, with so many otherworldly concepts to get through, Doctor Strange does become bogged down in exposition. It’s still fascinating to listen to, much owing to Tilda Swinton’s reliably excellent delivery, but results in very little time afforded to developing characters such as, say, Mads Mikkelsen’s barely-fleshed-out baddie. It’s disappointing to see his character treated that way when Marvel finally shows a real awareness to its tired formula – the film may have found a cure to third act CGI-heavy explosive showdowns, but weak villains seems to be a recurring problem in need of similar treatment.

Yet when these mind-boggling concepts are put to use, the effects are often astounding. Running up skyscrapers, hopping between continents, reversing time – its visceral, excellent cinema, unique and purposeful, with enough ingenuity to prevent drawing any unearned comparisons to Inception. Further still, there are moments of quiet brilliance that shine through amid the crazed conflicts. A scene that takes place in suspended rain, with lightning sprawling across the screen like a cracked window, is both memorable in imagery, and extremely poignant. It’s sharp, mature writing, that functions as a worthy sendoff and a way to calm the film’s prior breakneck pace.

Oddly, despite the inherent silliness of the film’s ideas, its one of the most sensible Marvel films to date. Derrickson, who has worked beforehand on various horror films such as Sinister, makes clear in the film’s opening scene that there’s a real sense of menace and danger. Tragedy, desperation, and various inner conflicts are dealt with astutely, and Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange is as complex a character as any in the Marvel universe. Perhaps this also serves as reasoning for why the film’s comedic beats aren’t quite so successful, misplaced in almost every scene to give a light-hearted spirit that isn’t needed (save for a terrific exchange between Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius and Cumberbatch’s Strange).

It may not be quite as odd as its namesake, but the film is certainly as imaginative as any Marvel film has dared so far, offering visual splendour, an impressive amount of maturity, and a great character in Doctor Stephen Strange.

 -Gus Edgar

Guardians of the Galaxy

large_2

The reaction to Marvel’s next superhero flick has been more positive than even the optimistic main actor, Chris Pratt could have hoped for. Insanely risky, even for Marvel’s standards, Guardians of the Galaxy features a talking raccoon, a green Saldana and a talking tree. To top it all off, it’s directed by James Gunn, notorious writer of both Movie 43 and Scooby-Doo 2: Monsters Unleashed. Despite all the potential for disaster (there’s plenty), the film has been hailed as an entertaining, feel-good Marvel caper that’s totally original. So then, why’s it more of the same?

There’s a prominent formula that Marvel are seemingly sticking to. An introduction of the main characters as they assemble, a good look at the central antagonist and his motives, and some partially-relevant high-action antics just before a final showdown where everything explodes and the heroes eventually prevail. The same applies to GotG, and even then it can’t clarify the villain’s motives (more on that later). It’s wrong to say that GotG is an original Marvel flick; it’s disappointingly unoriginal, glittered up with colourful aliens and a fantastic 1970s soundtrack.

The film takes place, as the title suggest, around a myriad of areas contained within the galaxy. Opening with Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) as a child stating farewell to his mother, he is quickly whisked away into space and the rest is history. The opening credits feature his attempt to steal an orb with an unknown power set to Redbone’s Come and get Your Love (fantastic), setting the scene for what I expected to be an awesome watch. After his travails, he’s swiftly captured and reluctantly teams up with the aforementioned set of characters, Rocket the Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Groot (Vin Diesel) and Drax the Destroyer (Dave Batista). Of course, they’re rough with each other at first, but then grow to like their teammates and end up as an (admittedly odd) group of buddies.

Which leads to one of my major qualms of Guardians of the Galaxy – it’s incredibly clichéd and only has a facade of quirky characters to shield criticism from most reviewers. A good portion of the characters aren’t fleshed out, generic to the point where they become caricatures. The main antagonist – Ronan (Lee Pace) has incredibly unclear motives where it’s easy to assume that he seeks world domination simply because he’s assigned as the bad guy. His villainy is exaggerated tenfold, almost to the point where it’s ridiculous. The main protagonist, Chris Pratt’s Peter Quill has nothing interesting going for him. He’s arrogant and irritating, and sure, he develops to take responsibility and becomes a better person, but I still wasn’t invested in his character. Gamora, meant to be a strong female character, is identified fairly early on as Quill’s love interest and is set aside until the end for the predictable big kiss. The only other notable female character – Nebula (Karen Gillan) has barely five minutes of screentime (though I’m sure she’ll return for the second installment). Michael Rooker’s Yondu is incredibly irritating and stalls the film whenever he’s on screen. Similarly annoying is Rocket – intended to be portrayed as the badass of the group, this intention is laid on so thick that it’s hard to resonate with him. Instead, he comes across as obnoxious and only obnoxious.

Yet it’s not just the generic characters that Guardians of the Galaxy suffers from. Most of the film’s jokes fall flat – including nearly everything that Rocket says and a running ‘I am Groot’ joke that gets increasingly more boring every time it’s uttered. Sure, wit is present, and Drax’s moments where he takes everything literally is a great example of this. So why can’t there be more moments of this comedic ingenuity?

I want to clarify – I don’t dislike GotG as much as I purport. Despite my problems with the film, it has a decent entertainment value with some admirable sequences (the prison-escape scene comes to mind) and one of the best soundtracks of any film released in 2014. It may not be as good a film as you’d expect after all the praise dished out towards it, but Guardians of the Galaxy may still be worth watching if you’re looking for an enjoyable film with little substance but plenty of action.

– Gus Edgar

Holy Motors

large_3

I’m not even going to bother trying to explain the meaning of Holy Motors, a bizarre, wonderfully eccentric film featuring a crazed performance from Leos Carax regular, Denis Lavant. That’s not to say that Lavant is the only actor that steals the show during his generous screentime; Kylie Minogue (yes, really) and Eva Mendes both make odd, hilariously puzzling appearances in what can only be described as cameos.

The film has a deceivingly simple premise: Mr.Oscar (his first name is never mentioned) has been tasked with 9 appointments that he must fulfil during the course of the day. Then things take off; ranging from becoming a family member of a house full of chimpanzees, stabbing a replica of himself and participating in stop-motion shenanigans, Lavant uses all of his acting capabilities to put on a show for the audience (often literally).

The symbolism behind Holy Motors is alluded to plenty of times, but is never really explored enough to make it seem as if it’s the film’s focal point. It’s an idea that seems clever and inventive, but when stretched over the course of 1 hour and 40 minutes, it loses its intrigue fairly quickly. A good example of this would be a scene where Mr.Oscar puts on the disguise of an elderly gentleman on his death bed. It’s an odd scene that, while making a subtle point to the audience, kills off any momentum the film has.

Nevertheless, Holy Motors looks fantastic and has many scenes of real genius (but lack importance too). A scene where Mr.Oscar runs across a graveyard terrorising citizens and munching on bouquets of flowers is a joy to watch, while Kylie Minogue’s brief appearance where she belts out a solo is moving and fascinating in equal measures.

The best way to approach the oddities of Holy Motors is to throw logic and reasoning out the door. You must accept that the occurrences of the film make sense to someone, and live with that. If you achieve that, you can experience an oddball adventure with many stunning scenes. Its ending may leave you flabbergasted, but you’ll be flabbergasted for days on end.

– Gus Edgar