Film Reviews by AM

Welcome to AM's film reviews page. AM has written 4 reviews and rated 161 films.

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Black Panther

Claws For Thought

(Edit) 08/02/2021

Despite all the hype 'Black Panther' actually lives up to its reputation.  Apart from providing more onscreen representation for actors of colour (and women) than the last ten years of mainstream USA cinema put together, 'Black Panther' is a sharply written origin story that remembers the 'adventure' part of 'action adventure'. The story is actually about something, not just men in armour punching other men in armour from space/a government lab/Valhalla.  Instead of trashing New York yet again, 'Black Panther' is told mostly in the superhero's own country, with occasional James Bond style plot point visits to 'London, England' and South Korea. Having said that, early on in the story, it does look as if the film is pitching a new 007, with Chadwick Boseman strolling round an underground facility whilst Q - sorry Letitia Wright - demonstrates the latest crime fighting gadgets.  

The film's African setting lends it an individual style and presence unique on the Marvel superhero conveyor belt, but also gifts it conflict and jeopardy. Wakanda isn't a republic with a civil service, it's a monarchy, a structure that can be deftly usurped by the film's loping villian Killmonger (Michael B Jordan), so that the apparatus of the state is automatically turned against Black Panther. Other rival tribes in the the nation are antagonistic, then indifferent and must be courted for support. All of this helps to soften the familiarity when inevitably the film narrows in on two rival Black Panthers duking it out in a cave. Then again, at least in making it personal, the film avoids the CGI blizzard finales of 'X Men: Apocalypse' and 'Guardians of the Galaxy'. 

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Tale of Tales

Fair(y) and Foul (mild spoilers)

(Edit) 08/02/2021

'Tale of Tales' has a red, bloody heart that would keep beating even if ripped out. It bypasses the lace clad ‘fairy’ in ‘fairy tale’ and takes us for a wilderness trek through the dark forest that is the natural home of folk tales collected by the Grimm Brothers and the less well known Giambattista Basile.

Director Matteo Garrone combines several of Basile’s stories, to dance between the plight of three royal families: Vincent Cassel’s lecherous, dissolute king, Salma Hayek’s desperately broody queen and Toby Jones as a foolish, geeky monarch who neglects his daughter in favour of a pet flea. That's right, a flea. You won’t get far in this film if you don’t roll with some of the more fantastical plot devices. The characters in folk tales are refreshingly direct in taking action to get what they want. The object of Vincent Cassel’s affections for instance, a wizened old woman who beguiles the king with just her beautiful voice, forgoes spa treatments for an extreme version of exfoliation - asking the townsfolk to flay her alive.

The colour red stains this film regularly - blood is never far from the surface, but often counterbalanced with humour that acknowledges the extremes of love and death that drive these morality tales. It’s curious then, how ‘Tale of Tales’ never fully drags us into its fierce and beautiful world. Weaving together separate tales means it’s inevitably a bit episodic, but the direction doesn’t mine deep enough the moments of action and emotion, denying us satisfying landmarks in what becomes a rather meandering quest.  A director like Guillermo Del Toro who similarly has one foot in ‘art’ and popular cinema managed this feat with spectacular results in ‘Pan’s Labyrinth’, but here the monsters project far less threat and because of it, give the actors less to react against.

However, let’s not cast aside ‘Tale of Tales’ like an unworthy suitor for a princess: come to its bracing mix of pastoral beauty, artful design, wit and gore like you’ve stepped into a painting. Soak up the rich passages of colour and light in between the characters that are perhaps a little too sparsely placed across the composition.

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Hail, Caesar!

> [Less Than] Divine Comedy

(Edit) 08/02/2021

Set in the same fictional world as ‘Barton Fink’ (1991), ’Hail, Caesar!’ Is an amiable amble through the studio backlot, taking in the artificial worlds of each production, and the hopefully hilarious foibles of the Hollywood residents. Marketed as a laugh out loud comedy and with a cast stuffed with famous talented actors, the truth is somewhat different. Mind you, Coen comedy is a particular beast.

The film stages several set pieces in celebration of golden age Hollywood - a water spectacular with Scarlett Johannsen’s knocked up mermaid, a rollicking tap number featuring a closeted gay Communist dancer and a Roy Rogers Western. These sequences succeed on their own terms as spectacle, but they aren’t satirised or made comedic in any way and disrupt the film’s tempo. The showstoppers elbow aside the plot which then has to be delivered with straight-faced efficiency. The two funniest sequences show studio fixer Eddie Mannix seeking the approval of a panel of religious leaders for the studio’s Biblical epic ‘Hail, Caesar!’ and getting back what sounds suspiciously like internet reviewer snark. Then there’s debonair director Lawrence Laurenz struggling to mould Obie Doyle’s rodeo drawl into the dry muttering of drawing room farce. The latter was the centre piece of the trailers, but while they work on their own, they don’t build into a climax. Plus reading a description it comes over potentially much funnier than it actually is.

A gradual change in the brothers’ filmmaking may be to blame. Since ‘Fargo’, the Coens have developed an aesthetic based on space, stillness and eloquent silence, bracketed by moments of fierce action. This flowered in particular on ‘No Country For Old Men’. Contrast this with the omni-present and detailed soundtrack and whip tight editing of ‘Barton Fink’. The characters in ‘Barton Fink’ are intense and explosive like Warner Brothers cartoons, bouncing off the walls and hurtling into canyons. Lacking the nervous intensity of that film, ‘Hail Caesar!’ also lacks proper zingers, there are no lines that explode a laugh. Whitlock swapping Hollywood gossip with a communist’s lecture on dialectic should be hilarious, but the lines don’t land. The Coens seem reluctant to get their hands stuck into the dirty business of mining for laughs.

Another problem is that Mannix is really a dramatic character in a comedy story world. Calm and hard-boiled for most of the time, urbane and pleasant when he needs to be, Mannix is the still, silent hub around which the wheel of Capitol Pictures rotates. A comic lead is usually the most flawed and un-self aware person in the whole film: a walking catastrophe struggling uncomprehendingly against the forces of nature that trip him time and time again. Instead, Mannix is often just an observer of events, never really risking anything of his own to solve them. This breaking of the screenwriting convention that your main character must resolve the action seems to be a result of another Coen tradition: using characters as a greek chorus to observe human folly, whether that’s tragic or farcical. In Fargo, Marge Gundersson and her husband discuss police work before bed. Tommy Lee Jones’ Sherriff is usually a few steps behind the action in ‘No Country For Old Men’, shaking his head and pondering approaching mortality and the temporary insanity of greed that drives the characters. It’s the wrong approach for a knockabout comedy or screwball farce. There’s still a base line of quality filmmaking to be enjoyed here, but don’t expect to be rolling on the floor in fits of laughter.  

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XTRO

Son, that alien's poisoned you against me

(Edit) 08/02/2021

This is the definition of a 'cult' film, despite it doing good business at the time of its release. Made by an eccentric, idiosyncratic director, it's an eccentric, idiosyncratic SF/horror unlike anything else at the time or perhaps since. It's not a ruthlessly efficient shocker in the manner of 'Alien', but instead a wildly perplexing and surprising film that has dropped off the radar and then reacquired a following on home video over years. 

A family is torn apart when the young son witnesses his father being abducted by a UFO, and three years later he appears to return to them. The emotional dynamics of a broken family are at the centre of the film, and particularly the boy, who is basically caught in a triangle between parents and the alien of the title. 

I'll avoid spoilers here and recommend you don't look up the best bits on YouTube (other tubes are available) because if you come to this film unspoiled it will be more fun. The production team apparently responded to an American backer's notes that the film needed to be 'off the wall' with a series of moments that deliver just that. There's also an atmosphere that is always at a tangent to standard horror storytelling. and a slightly homemade feeling that plays into its cult reputation. This includes the ending, which has been changed several times for theatrical and home video releases. The bluray gives you the chance to watch the film with all of them, and contributes to a feeling of the film being slightly unfinished or unresolved. There's also a 'director's version' for the disc, but this perhaps proves that archives should be left alone after a while, as it doesn't really improve significantly on the original. 

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