Red Sparrow – Film Review

Following a conflicted ballerina-turned-Russian spy, it’s no wonder Marvel fans were hoping Red Sparrow could be the Black Widow origin story they’ve been longing for when it was first unveiled. But Francis Lawrence’s unflinchingly brutal thriller is not that movie. Rather, it’s a densely-plotted, punishing and often troubling watch that’s far removed from the brightly action-packed world of comic book blockbusters.

That being said, Lawrence certainly kicks-starts the action in eye-catching fashion, crisply cross-cutting between the final stage performance of gifted ballerina Dominika (Jennifer Lawrence, no relation) and CIA agent Nate Nash’s (Joel Edgerton) neatly choreographed meet with a government mole. It’s one of many slickly-paced set-pieces in a beautifully shot movie, operatically building tension towards a crushing crescendo that sees Nash scarpering to the nearest embassy while Dominika lays sprawled on the stage, her leg shattered.


Struggling to pay her crippled mother’s medical bills and facing eviction from her apartment after the destruction of her dance career, Dominika reluctantly accepts an offer from her calculating uncle Ivan to become a government operative. She’s despatched to Sparrow School, a secret training camp where elite agents are taught to weaponise their sexuality to seduce targets and extract valuable information for the government. Her first mission: gain Nash’s trust and uncover the identity of his secret informant.

Arriving in the shadow of the #MeToo movement, the idea of an intelligent young woman being forced to commoditise her body in the service of powerful men will likely prove controversial for some. Especially when considering the film’s uncomfortably graphic depiction of sexual violence in several scenes. Dominika’s first steps into the seedy world of global espionage are particularly hard to handle as she’s subjected to a dehumanising training regime, forced to strip naked and perform sexual acts in front of her classmates. In these moments, she has no agency of her own – she’s merely a chess pawn at the mercy of domineering men.


As the story develops, though, and Dominika grows coldly accustomed to her role in extracting information from willing targets, there’s a sense of her taking control, using her training to deceive both Nash and her government minders in order to survive in a cruel, unforgiving working environment. Whether such a muddy, complicated take on sexual politics can be viewed as satisfyingly empowering, will likely dictate your enjoyment of this movie.

One thing that won’t be up for debate is Lawrence’s mesmerising performance. Justin Haythe (Revolutionary Road) has adapted Jason Matthew’s novel (the first of three) into a tightly-woven, if slightly uneven, tale of double crossings and fraught alliances, but casting Lawrence in the lead role elevates an otherwise ordinary thriller into something truly compelling.


Cooly enigmatic while remaining remarkably empathetic, Lawrence throws herself into the role and is utterly convincing – hammy Russian accent aside – as she teases her shifting loyalties between her country and the CIA. Meanwhile, Edgerton brings some much needed depth to the one-note role of dependable CIA agent Nash, forming a believable chemistry with his co-star.


For the most part, Lawrence the director orchestrates proceedings with a cool detachment and clean camera work, but proves he’s more than capable of raising the pulse when required. A tense hand-over of incriminating floppy discs in a London hotel is confidently handled, while a later exchange set on a Hungarian airstrip sees Lawrence display an almost Hitchcockian mastery of suspense-building and dramatic reveals. It’s that kind of skillet that would make him an excellent choice to helm a Black Widow move… if Marvel ever gets around to making one.

Runtime: 139 min (approx.)
Director: Francis Lawrence
Screenwriter: Justin Haythe
Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling


Black Panther – Film Review

Think of Black Panther and one thing comes to mind. As the first black superhero movie, much of the noise surrounding its release has focused on the landmark statement of intent it makes for inclusivity in Hollywood. Quite rightly, too, given that, for all its recent forays into far away galaxies, quantum realms and astral planes, the MCU has remained tightly bound to its white male superstars. Yet perhaps Black Panther’s greatest achievement is that, once you’ve settled down with your popcorn and gallon-sized cup of cola, you’ll forget all about the game-changing importance of its mere existence. Instead, you’ll simply be blown away by a searingly intelligent, exhilaratingly well-crafted piece of filmmaking.


After a potted Wakandan history lesson, which cleverly establishes the secretive, technologically advanced nation while laying the seeds for an engaging mix of geopolitical thriller and complex family drama, we arrive in the aftermath of Captain America: Civil War. With his father murdered in a bomb-attack, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns home to be officially crowned Wakanda’s king and super-powered protector Black Panther. His rule is immediately beset by challenges, however, as rivals line up to take his crown and political tensions quietly simmer between his most trusted advisors. When his kingdom comes under threat from canon-armed weapons smuggler (a gleefully unhinged Andy Serkis) and a rogue US black-ops solider, Black Panther is forced into action to protect his throne and Ulysses Klaue stop the world from discovering Wakanda’s secrets.


What is immediately striking is writer-director Ryan Coogler’s (Creed) emphasis on eschewing reductive African stereotypes, particularly in the vivid, jaw-droppingly detailed realisation of Wakanda itself. A lively, Afro-futurist utopia, the hidden nation is a thriving metropolis, boasting advanced medicine and superior weaponry thanks to an abundance of vibranium laying beneath its lands. Coogler grounds these fantastical elements by throwing in plenty of African cultural influences, with separate languages, shirtless ritual combat and brightly-attired tribal leaders, serving to compliment a richly complex landscape that feels wholly unique, and yet entirely believable.


Such an intricate cultural backdrop allows Coogler to touch on several weighty political issues. While Wakanda has remained hidden for decades in order to protect its resources, many of its tribal leaders disagree over whether this remains the best course of action as the outer world dives deeper into turmoil. Is the country safer on its own or as part of a global community? Does it have a moral obligation to share its wealth with poorer nations? Coogler poses many difficult questions in the kind of powerfully thought-provoking drama not seen since Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy.


While its themes run deep, Black Panther offers plenty of ferociously paced, dizzyingly exhilarating action sequences to keep its Marvel rivals on their toes. From a chaotically inventive brawl in a South Korean casino, to a wildly intense car chase through neon-lit city streets, to a heart-poundingly brutal fight atop a cascading waterfall between T’Challa and Michael B Jordan’s highly-skilled Killmonger, the movie offers plenty of whizz-bang for its buck.

That latter sequence is so gut-wrenchingly tense at least in part due to the powerful, commanding presence of Jordan’s Killmonger – one of Marvel’s best villains in a long while. Although viciously monomaniacal in his intentions, there’s an understandable, deeply emotional rationale to his desire to use Wakanda’s technology to arm the world’s oppressed minorities. Jordan sells Killmonger’s unflinching commitment to his cause with a bitter, savage swagger that neatly contrasts Boseman’s poised assuredness.


As good as they are, though, there’s a number of charismatic supporting players who threaten to steal the show from underneath them. Daniel Kaluuya is quietly composed as W’Kabi, the leader of Wakanda’s Border Tribe, while Danai Gurira is confidently aggressive as Okoye, head of the all-female special forces team that protects T’Challa. Meanwhile, Letitia Wright enlivens every scene as T’Challa’s cheekily intelligent, tech-savvy little sister Shuri, who builds and develops all of Wakanda’s tech. What makes them all so compelling is that every one of them posseses an emotionally engaging throughline – W’Kabi is frustrated at his king’s failure to catch his parents’ killer, while Okoye finds herself torn between her heart and her sense of duty – and Coogler ensures everyone gets their moment to shine.


Yes, there are flaws. Some of the early action sequences are clumsily edited and the climatic battle suffers from Marvel’s usual overload of CGI gadgetry and giant creatures. But at a time when MCU movies have becoming increasingly cookie-cutter in style and tone, Black Panther dares to be different. It delivers glorious visuals, insane action sequences and an absorbing, complex story filled with rich, fully-rounded characters that elevates the superhero genre to extraordinary new heights. It’s mightily impressive.

Runtime: 134 mins (approx.)
Director: Ryan Coogler
Screenwriters: Ryan Coogler, Joe Robert Cole
Stars: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B Jordan, Danai Gurira, Latitia Wright

The Shape of Water – Film Review

Describe The Shape of Water and it sounds creepy and perverse. The story of a mute woman who falls in love with a slimy, jagged-toothed sea monster should be the set-up to a low-budget porno-version of The Creature from the Black Lagoon rather than a front-runner for 2018’s Best Picture Oscar. Watch it, though, and you’ll be mesmerised by an emotionally absorbing story that delicately balances terror and tenderness into a heartbreaking tale of love, loss and liberation that might just be Guillermo del Toro’s best film since Pan’s Labyrinth.



Set in 1960s Baltimore, the air is thick with Cold War paranoia. Race riots are raging across the city and government spies seem to lurk around every corner while the US and the Russians bid to out-do each other in a race for military superiority. Into this bleak, clandestine world steps Sally Hawkins’ Elisa. The mute cleaner of a secret underground lab, she splits her days between absorbing the troubles of her closeted gay neighbour (Richard Jenkins) and brassy African American colleague (Octavia Spencer). It’s no wonder she needs to start the day with a bit of ‘bath-time release‘.


When Elisa learns that her superiors are keeping a newly-discovered sea monster imprisoned in a water tank, she finds herself inexplicably attracted to the creature and slowly forms a close bond with him. Their blossoming romance is threatened by the arrival of a ruthless government agent (Michael Shannon, excellent as a vile and vicious man of power) who wants to rip the creature to pieces to learn its secrets. Together with the facility’s kindly head scientist, Elisa hatches a plan to set the creature free before the government is finished with its experiments.


With such a fantastical premise, the visuals are surprisingly unpretentious. The sight of raindrops dancing in time to the glide of fingertips or an entire apartment submerged in bath water are merely whimsical flourishes to an otherwise wistfully elegant tale. Like Pan’s Labyrinth, these flights of fantasy and romance are punctured by moments of horror and violence to remind us of the cold, brutal, world that exists right outside our windows. The real monsters of this story are the power-hungry men who seek to exploit those who are weak and vulnerable in order to satisfy their own greed. Sadly, modern parallels shouldn’t be too hard to find.

Yet del Toro is in a far too hopeful a mood to let fear and oppression be the overriding emotions of his film, and The Shape of Water bursts with the deeply-felt chemistry between its two leads.


Doug Jones, as he so often does, projects great swells of pathos through the scales and gills of his ethereal creature. Meanwhile, Hawkins is utterly captivating as Elisa. Without uttering a word, she creates a complex, endearing character – one who’s quiet, intelligent and passionately forceful – through physical gestures alone. Just one subtle tweak to the muscles in her beautifully expressive face can convey more emotion and meaning than most actors can muster during an Aaron Sorkin-penned monologue. So believable is their tenderness and affection, you never once question that a woman would fall in love with a cat-eating sea monster. Their genuine bond keeps us in a thrall even as the plot plunges towards despair and destruction.


And plunge it most certainly does, as Elisa and her band of forgotten souls stage a daring escape from the facility, culminating in a gut-wrenchingly tense climax that will shake the tear ducts of even the most hardened cinemagoer. It might sound strange, but The Shape of Water has to be seen to be truly understood, in all its boundless beauty.

Runtime: 123 mins (approx.)
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Screenwriters: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor
Stars: Sally Hawkins, Doug Jones, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer

Coco – Film Review

One of the most colourful and joyfully mesmerising occasions in the world, Dia de los Muertos has provided a vibrant, otherworldly backdrop to everything from Amblin-esque TV movies to epic romances to exhilarating action thrillers. Few, if any, of those movies can claim to have brought to life Mexico’s annual celebration of the dead with as much warmth, nuance and captivating flair as Coco, though. Pixar’s latest astounding animation ambitiously and affectingly blends cultural admiration, gorgeous visuals and lively musical numbers into a heart-tugging triumph.


Our hero is Miguel (Gonzalez), a 12-year-old boy who yearns to sing and play the guitar like his idol Ernesto de la Cruz (Bratt). The only problem is that his family has been forbidden to enjoy or play music ever since Miguel’s great-great-grandmother was left heartbroken when her musician husband abandoned her to pursue his passion.

Determined not to remain trapped in this mariachi Footloose, Miguel plans to run away with the stolen guitar of his musical hero but instead winds up trapped in the Land of the Dead. Unable to return home until a deceased ancestor gives him a blessing, Miguel teams up with boney hustler Hector (Bernal) to find his relative and make it back to the world of the living before he’s forgotten by his family.


Throughout, Coco is a loving tribute to Mexican culture, with references to local foods and customs bursting out of every scene. Ofrendas (shrines to passed family members) are a pivotal thematic touchstone, while Alebrijes (folk art sculptures of mythical creatures) are turned into fantastically entertaining characters. Even the entire voice cast has South America heritage – with the natural exception of Pixar mainstay John Ratzenberger – such is the commitment to breathing Mexican traditions into every sinew of this story.

It’s exquisitely animated, too, the kaleidoscopic city of the dead and the floating bridges of shimmering marigolds being the most obviously spectacular showpieces. Yet it’s the smaller details that truly take your breath away: the weathered skin of elderly relatives, worn and etched with memories; the warm glow of a melting candle; or the scuffed cobbled streets of Santa Cecilia, so authentic that it requires a double take when you see a cartoon boy racing across them.


Such beauty will help to keep you captivated when the bum notes are inevitably struck. The middle chunk of the movie falls flat as Miguel and Hector become trapped in a mechanical series of underwhelming hijinks, lurching across the city in search of Miguel’s ancestors. It’s telling that this lull comes when Coco adheres closest to formula, hitting all the usual beats with familiar a timing and rhythm. Suddenly, there’s less energy and charming authenticity, and the pace drags as a result.

Yet when every thing is played in tune, Coco is a lively, breezily entertaining adventure filled with clever gags, endearing characters and some exceptionally ear-worming songs curtesy of Frozen’s Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez. At it’s very core, though, is a complex, thoughtful story about a young boy coming to terms with death and learning to cherish his loved ones. And when it gently eases into its touchingly tender resolution, everyone watching will need to wipe a tear from their eye… even a skeleton.

Runtime: 105 mins (prox.)
Director: Lee Unkrich
Screenwriters: Adrian Molina, Matthew Aldrich
Stars: Anthony Gonzalez, Gael Garcia Bernal, Benjamin Bratt, Alanna Ubach

The Post – Film review

“We can’t have an administration dictating to us our coverage just because they don’t like what we print about them in our newspaper,” growls Tom Hanks’ grizzled newspaper guy Ben Bradlee in this 70s-set thriller about the leaked Pentagon Papers. It’s a statement you can picture modern-day newspaper editors the world over muttering, arriving as this film does in an era when Donald Trump’s White House brands every unfavourable story as ‘fake news’. You get the sense that Steven Spielberg knows it, too. In fact, so keenly aware is he of The Post’s pertinence and prescience, his story often trips over its own self-importance, undermining an otherwise compelling, finely crafted film.


For those unfamiliar, the Pentagon Papers were a 7,000 page report on the United States’ involvement in Vietnam between 1945 and 1967. The key finding within the damning documents claimed the US government knew they couldn’t win the war, yet continued to send troops into battle rather than admit an embarrassing defeat. Needless to say, officials were not keen for the report to be made public. So when the papers got their hands on them, the Nixon government issued a ban on publication, kicking-off a legal challenge that went all the way to the Supreme Court.

The Post focuses mostly on The Washington Post’s role in the eventual publication of the papers. Namely, the internal wrangling between Bradlee and his publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) over whether to risk bankruptcy and possible prison by running the story or to suppress the findings and allow the government to get away with one of the greatest scandals in American political history.


Hanks is magnetic as Bradlee, perfectly encapsulating the legendary editor’s swagger as he prowls through the newsroom, energised by the burr of breaking news and the clacking of typewriter keys. It’s an infatuation with old school journalism that’s clearly shared by Spielberg, who drools over the age-old practicalities of newspaper journalism, turning the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of operating a printing press into a beautifully soothing display of operatic craftsmanship. The director also brings plenty of visual panache to proceedings, using inventive angles and motifs to enliven otherwise drab scenes of journalists and businessmen debating in boardrooms, bedrooms and huddled over payphones.


It’s Streep’s Graham who is the emotional fulcrum of the story, though. The United States’ first female newspaper publisher, Graham is initially lost in a male-dominated environment: walking unnoticed into boardrooms, spoken over in meetings, undermined by her colleagues when they think she’s out of earshot. Streep affectingly and compellingly portrays Graham’s struggle for respect, turning fumbling hand gestures into a steely grasp as she gradually finds her voice and takes charge of the decision over wether to publish the papers.


If only Spielberg could resist the urge to over-egg the resonance of the film’s themes and ideals. All too often, potentially powerful moments are bludgeoned by cheap cinematic tricks that serve to detract rather than enhance the drama. One scene, which sees Graham striding out of court to meet a crowd of empowered, independent women, strives for poignancy but comes across as a hackneyed attempt to curry favour with Oscar voters.

Nevertheless, The Post is a timely reminder of the value of a free press – one that “serves the governed, not the governors” and warns those in charge that an abuse of power will not go unchecked. And that’s an important, moving and powerful message with which everyone can resonate. No tricks required.

Runtime: 116 mins (approx.)
Director: Steven Spielberg
Screenwriters: Liz Hannah, Josh Singer
Stars: Tom Hank, Meryl Streep, Bob Odenkirk, Matthew Rhys


Darkest Hour – Film Review

Of all the actors who’ve portrayed Sir Winston Churchill, few castings have caused the turning of heads quite like Gary Oldman. A career spent lending his lean, sinewy frame to such rebellious outcasts as Sid Vicious and Lee Harvey Oswald is hardly ideal preparation for playing the jowly, growly titan of British politics, after all. Yet what Oldman lacks in physique, he more than compensates with energy and physicality, superbly capturing the dogged determination of his often larger-than-life subject with greater nuance, depth and, yes, weight than ever before. If only Darkest Hour provided a similarly compelling film to match his absorbing performance.


Scripted by A Theory of Everythings Anthony McCarten, Darkest Hour is focused on Churchill’s remarkable skills as an orator, pivoting around three crucial speeches he gave over a four-week period in 1940. With Hitler’s forces rampant and Western Europe on the brink, the newly-installed PM comes under pressure to strike a peace deal with the Nazi regime. Refusing to submit to the tyranny of a vicious dictator, Churchill resolves to fight on, placing him in opposition with the King, his political enemies and his own conscience.


It’s striking to see how convincingly Oldman captures the eccentricity and blustering energy of the notoriously theatrical Churchill. Complimented by considerable, though not overbearing, prosthetics, Oldman’s Churchill barrels through the halls of Westminster, swivels on his heels at the despatch box, and barks orders to his amiable secretary (a spirited Lily James) while sloshing about in the tub or “sealed within the privy”. It’s no wonder many of Churchill’s peers considered him to be an embarrassing liability.


His performance is no mere caricature, though, exploring Churchill’s fears and flaws with affecting subtlety and empathy. As the situation in Dunkirk becomes more desperate and his adversaries, led by Foreign Secretary Lord Halifax (Stephen Dillane), try to steer him towards opening peace talks with Germany, Churchill becomes beset by doubt, plunging into a ‘black dog’ depression as he questions his thinking. Is the war already lost? Is he needlessly sending young men to die? Is his risking the lives of the British people by refusing to negotiate?


So much of this plays out exactly as you’d expect – hushed meetings in gloomily-lit corridors, cigar-chomping ruminations over war maps, an unexpected arrival to rouse Churchill when all seems lost. And that’s the problem with Darkest Hour: it’s a decent story, engagingly told and with compelling performances, but it lacks an emotive spark to truly make an impact. While director Joe Wright imbues scenes with plenty of visual flair – one stunning motif sees Churchill frequently boxed in by inky-black darkness, everything hinges on Oldman’s powerhouse performance. The pace noticeably dips whenever he’s off screen.


You sense Wright knows as much, which is why he wisely keeps the camera in lockstep with Churchill’s hustle, prowling alongside him as Oldman drives the drama forward through sheer force of will. It’s telling, then, that when looking for a climactic event, Wright chooses to avoid the more obviously cinematic evacuation of Dunkirk. Instead, he once again draws in on Oldman’s Churchill, stripping everything else away as he delivers a final, soaringly evocative speech to rouse not only his fellow politicians, but an entire nation of fight on in the face of terrible adversity. Gary Oldman playing Winston Churchill? Turns out they’re a perfect match.

Runtime: 125 mins (approx.)
Director: Joe Wright
Screenwriter: Anthony McCarten
Stars: Gary Oldman, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Kristin Scott Thomas

Molly’s Game – Film Review

In Molly’s Game, Aaron Sorkin may have found the Sorkiniest of material with which to make his directorial debut. Based on the eponymous memoir, the tale of Molly Bloom’s journey from wealthy poker hostess to the centre of an FBI money laundering investigation is a dense, dramatic, exceedingly talky affair that bristles with murky morals, corrupt officials, legal machinations and a sleazy tabloid media – all told through the glitzy prism of celebrity poker. It’s also Sorkin’s most progressive and surprisingly feminist piece work to date, celebrating the courageous resolve of one talented woman who repeatedly suffers at the hands of powerful men and keeps pulling herself back up.


Jessica Chastain is Bloom, a former competitive skier who, following a devastating knee injury, heads to Los Angeles in search of a fresh start. There she winds up working for a Hollywood slimeball who puts her in charge of running his weekly celebrity poker game. Though wildly successful, Bloom quickly grows frustrated with the unbalanced power differential and decides to strike out on her own. Soon she’s running the hottest game in the world and living lavishly off the extravagant tips of her high-rolling clients, which include movie stars, athletes, business tycoons and members of the Russian mafia. And that’s when the FBI come calling…


What unfolds is 140-minutes of slick, compulsively absorbing courtroom drama as Bloom battles the competing threats of the FBI, a public smear campaign and pressure from her own lawyer to spill the beans on her clients in order to avoid serving jail time. Working behind the camera for the first time, Sorkin keeps things simple, restricting the action to drab, windowless rooms that lock in the tension, allowing his snappy screenplay take centre stage. Every scene crackles with Sorkin’s familiar rat-a-tat-tat rhythm and rapid-fire dialogue, which more than compensate for the lack of visual panache.


It also doesn’t hurt to have an actor as utterly compelling as Chastain in the lead role. While her co-stars perform effectively in entertaining, if largely one-note roles, Chastain is sensational as the resilient, beleaguered Bloom. Far from the trashy party-girl depicted in the tabloids, the movie reveals Bloom to be a richly complex character. She’s incredibly intelligent, hard-working and fiercely ambitious, having built a multi-million dollar business using little more than her wits; yet she’s also an aggressive, antagonist alcoholic who sought to profit off the addictions of others. Chastain plays these hidden depths superbly, lending pathos and emotional strength to someone who has been misrepresented, mistreated and mistrusted by everyone around her and yet remains true to her moral convictions.


It’s Molly’s defiance that will likely prove difficult for viewers to accept, especially in the wake of the recent sexual misconduct allegations that have swept Hollywood. While her determination to defend her reputation is understandable, the fact that this requires her to protect the misdeeds and abuses of powerful men makes her stance feel less admirable. More uncomfortable still is a late hint at a possible redemption for these men. In the end, Molly is saved not by her own talents and intelligence, but by the benevolence of a group of old men who take pity on her. How audiences react to that will determine whether Molly’s Game possesses a winning hand or a busted flush.

Runtime: 140 mins (approx.)
Screenwriter/director: Aaron Sorkin
Stars: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera