Tuesday 25 January 2022

Review: Belfast

Cert: 12A / 98 mins / Dir. Kenneth Branagh / Trailer

A quasi-memoir from writer-director Kenneth Branagh, Belfast centres around 9yr old Buddy (Jude Hill), a young resident of the eponymous city at the start of the troubles in the summer of 1969*1. Living with his family, Jude has to juggle the domestic strains of urban prepubescence with a rising tide of political violence on the streets, as communities are literally torn apart in an escalating series of clashes.

Presented in high-contrast monochrome (with the exception of a largely needless present day fraction of a framing device which looks like it's gone through Instagram*2), Belfast is a fine-looking film, initially at least. While cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos captures some striking and moody imagery, it soon becomes apparent that the black-and-white filter is doing all the heavy lifting in assuring the audience that this took place In The Past. Because as meticulous as the wardrobe and set-dressing departments have been, the look of the film feels slightly exaggerated in its period detail, like an overdone cosplay or episode of Life On Mars. Not helping this is the music. Van Morrison's incidental work is fine, but there are needle-drops in every second scene, like Kenneth's got his eye on three soundtrack albums before the film even hits Netflix. A bizarre Commitments-lite moment in the third act blurs the lines of age-distorted reality.


What's more of a problem however, is the director not quite knowing what type of film he wants to make. Belfast is an uneven mix of a bittersweet, slightly mawkish childhood tale of crumbling innocence in the days before coming of age, and a socially-charged drama where there are no right answers but plenty of wrong choices. To be blunt, Branagh's not quite the filmmaker to bridge the two, and the end result is depressing without being especially gritty; heartfelt without being particularly uplifting. While he doesn't hold back on getting up-close to the era's atrocities, the 12A certificate can't quite do justice (if that's the word) to the outrage and panic the audience feel in watching the scenes of violence. They're done well but feel like they're from another film altogether, and presented as as a recurring irritant rather than a rising tide.

In terms of performance, the central figure is of course Jude Hill. While he certainly shows a lot of promise, the young actor is not yet strong enough to pull together the whole film, and although Jamie Dornan and Caitríona Balfe put in great turns as his parents, they seem to do this around Jude rather than with him. He does get a handful of great scenes with Ciarán Hinds as his grandfather though, and you suspect this is where the real heart of the film lies (certainly the wisdom), but there isn't enough of the interplay to make it a defining feature. Judi Dench is also in the film*3.

Too fluffy to be a real hand-wringing awards-nudger*5, not quirky enough to go full Yellow Poster™, Belfast is an odd and unsatisfyingly unsatisfying experience. The film's clearly been made with a lot of love, but that's not enough. The message gets lost in the confusion.

Unless that is the message..?

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 This film could have been a Bryan Adams jukebox musical instead, I'll leave you to think about that. [ BACK ]

*2 And I say this as someone who's a fan of Instagram, but still. [ BACK ]

*3 Look I love Dench as much as anybody, the very definition of A National Treasure™, but her scenes seem to have been filmed during pre-production when Judi was still trying to decide if her accent should be Belfast, Byker or Bombay*4... [ BACK ]

*4 Yes I know it's Mumbai now, but the film's set in 1969 and it was Bombay then. Plus alliteration, y'know? [ BACK ]

*5 Although I'm sure it'll pick something up. It'll probably land Best Flick at the BAFTAs now, if only to make my review look even more redundant. That's precisely the kind of thing they do over there... [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Saturday 22 January 2022

Review: Parallel Mothers / Madres Paralelas

Parallel Mothers / Madres Paralelas
Cert: 15 / 123 mins / Dir. Pedro Almodóvar / Trailer

Always something to look forward to, Parallel Mothers is the new film from writer-director Pedro Almodóvar, produced in his native Spanish. It follows successful photographer Janis (Penélope Cruz), who is trying to uncover the disappearance (ie murder) of her grandfather during the Francoist dictatorship. When she meets clinical pathologist Arturo (Israel Elejalde) who says he'd be delighted to help, the two hit it off very well and before long Janis is pregnant. In hospital she meets fellow mother-to-be Ana (Milena Smit). After the women give birth on the same day, the lives of the three remain intertwined in ways that they could not have foreseen.

Although nowhere near as Worthy™ as much of the fare pushed toward cinemas right before awards-season, it has to be said that Parallel Mothers is very much A January Film; that unusual breed of acutely interesting cinema which distributors have no real idea how to market to a mass audience. That said, the ideas it plays with are also not as tightly wound as Almodóvar's other recent work, and therein lies the quandary...


The plot surrounding Janis's grandfather and Spain's Association For The Recovery Of National Memory is where the real social bite of the film lies, as anger and grief carry on nationwide over entire generations. It's a storyline which is larger than any one character here, and is indeed shown to be so. As someone bimbling along in the UK I had little idea of the issues raised in the film and none at all that it's such a cultural raw nerve. Pedro Almodóvar's ability in raising awareness of this in such a human way is where his skills lie as a storyteller.

The other strand, the one which covers the idea of parallel mothers in a more literal sense, is also involving on an intellectual level; happy to raise ethical conundrums and show how the characters react to them, while largely refraining from judgement. Without going too far into spoiler territory, this involves infants being inadvertently swapped at birth (it goes far deeper, but that's for the film itself to unravel). And without wanting to be too immediately damning, this half of the film feels a bit like a daytime soap opera*1, a farce without any jokes. It's probably the best looking soap I've ever seen, but still. This (lengthy) section is a great character study looking for somewhere to actually go. When the tension finally breaks, it does so with restraint and no definite sense of closure, which might be the director's best touch for it.


The film is, as noted, beautifully photographed by José Luis Alcaine, with vibrant colours throughout and an array of small interior scenes which only feel claustrophobic when they're intended to. Alberto Iglesias' score is well crafted but comes off as slightly intrusive, gliding with Hitchcockian menace over even the most incidental conversations, to the point where it loses some impact in scenes of genuine intrigue. And of course under this director's eye the performances are flawless, with Cruz and Smit carrying the film effortlessly, but supported by a cast who add depth without overcrowding the screenplay.

The problem is that the two narrative halves aren't parallel. They're barely even mixed. And me calling them halves implies they're around the same size. Janis' family history is introduced in the first act (since it's how she meets Arturo, this is necessary), and is then barely mentioned until the last 25 minutes of the movie. At which point, the preceding hour-and-a-half is essentially forgotten about (despite involving the same three characters still coming down from what should be one of the most emotionally turbulent times of their lives) as all hands go toward hoisting the other set of sails. For a film which does both things relatively well in isolation, this feels infuriatingly sloppy, like two separate paintings joined with gaffer tape.

Almodóvar's films, with their upfront examination of distinctly Spanish topics, can initially feel a little alienating for viewers in other countries, but his work in bringing these to international audiences in such a crystallised way is to be admired. It's just a shame that this film hadn't been wholly based on the broader topic, which is clearly so important. It certainly seems that the dominant, more domestic storyline could have been covered more completely (if probably more mawkishly) by many other directors.

After the boldly introspective Pain & Glory, perhaps I'd expected a film with a stronger central focus. But then, who can focus properly in 2022? But hey, Pedro is the writer and the director here, this is definitely the film he wanted to make and I respect that.

Madres Paralelas is never less than inherently watchable, I just wish I'd enjoyed it more...

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Exacerbating this further is the combination of melodramatic stare-offs throughout the drama, combined with the rapid-fire Spanish dialogue which punctuates them. We don't even get Spanish telenovellas in this country (and this is set in actual-Spain, not Mexico), but that's what it began to seem like. Admittedly this says more about my own perceptions than it does the film, but the feeling remains. [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Saturday 15 January 2022

Review: Scream (2022)

Scream (2022)
Cert: 18 / 114 mins / Dir. Matt Bettinelli-Olpin & Tyler Gillett / Trailer

It is, it has to be said, not a particularly great time for fans of the picture-house. Not withstanding (understandable) audience reticence and the tug-of-war between theatrical distribution and streaming services, a glance at the scheduling for this weekend reveals Boss Baby 2, The 355, The King's Man, The Matrix Resurrections, Spider-Man: No Way Home, Clifford The Big Red Dog and West Side Story. Or, to put it another way: sequel, straight-to-video genre bilge, prequel, sequel, sequel, cinematic reboot and remake. And as satisfying as some of these are, it's hard to get excited when the message from the industry seems to be 'follow the easy money; give them what they think they want, not what cinema needs'.

Oh yeah, and another Scream movie opens as well...

Old scores become ripe for settling as a figure in a notorious mask begins a new killing spree in Woodsboro, sparking fears that a decade-long cycle is just about to tick over. And as this implies, the film is very much aware of the gap between its fourth and fifth installments*1, determined to work it into the mythology as a feature rather than a bug. And it's this knowing raise of an eyebrow which sees the new entry teetering between self-referential homage and shameless retread throughout.


So as you can tell by this point, Tyler Gillett and Matt Bettinelli-Olpin's debut into this sporadic franchise is potentially problematic for viewers who are seeking entertainment which refreshes with something new and inventive, rather than comforts with familiarity (or as close to 'comfort' as a slasher flick can get, anyhow). But of course, how much bristling originality can a viewer really want or expect five movies into a series?

Older (Legacy™) characters return to the fray having moved on just enough to make their inclusion feel natural, while the new young protagonists drive the story through familiar streets (literally). James Vanderbilt and Guy Busick's script pushes the same buttons as its cinematic predecessors and, it's thankful to note, largely gets results thanks to the commitment of its cast. Sure, everyone's having fun, but they're taking that fun seriously. In addition to the in-universe meta references, there are of course a plethora of more subtle (ie not literally described) homages and winks to fans of the genre at large. And bonus points have to be awarded for what is probably the finest unofficial callback to Once Upon A Time In Hollywood that we'll ever see.


But the main hurdle that the film struggles to clear is that Slasher Film Deconstruction™ has been going on for so long now (and started, specifically, by Scream) that a generation of cinemagoers have grown up with it as their default watching-mode. It's 2022 so naturally this film seems to spend longer explaining what it's going to do than actually just doing it. One almost imagines it snagged that 18 certificate for Extended Scenes Of Structural Exposition*2...

So given that dialogued references to 4Chan and the state of Re-quel™ cinema aren't quite cutting it as unique insight, what can a new chapter really bring to the table in 2022? The snark and faux-lecturing about toxic fandom and worn-out franchising is all well and good, but don't come across as particularly clever if the smart-ass characters are just verbalising what the audience is thinking at that moment anyway. But hey, as much as Scream is clearly in love with its own aura, the film at least doesn't take itself as seriously as the likes of Halloween.

And as the minutes tick along to an almost frustratingly ouroboric ending, the suspicion grows that ultimately this is just More Of The Same. Although to be fair, when The Same is done as solidly as this, things could certainly be far worse.

And yet for all the chin-stroking cynicism from me and indeed the screenplay itself, the film finally reaches its bloody crescendo of righteous retaliation and everything clicks into place. The real trick was distraction. And it worked. Because as adrenaline surges and the audience feels itself inwardly cheering along with every climactic blow, slash, stab and gunshot, they realise they've been hooked. And it's revealed that Scream has in fact worked perfectly in fulfilling its only true remit: being - against all odds - a pretty fucking great Scream movie.

The problems exist but they aren't a bug, they're a feature.

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 Oh what, so you're happy to market "SCRE4M" but you draw the line at 5CREAM? Fucking cowards...
(I jest obviously, to be fair there wasn't a SCR3AM in this series, either) [ BACK ]

*2 I know I'm labouring the point, but so does the film. It really feels like Scream makes a good companion-piece with The Matrix Resurrections, just for blatantly repeating things while telling the audience that's clever rather than lazy.[ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Thursday 13 January 2022

Review: The 355

The 355
Cert: 12A / 123m mins / Dir. Simon Kinberg / Trailer

Let's cut straight to the chase. After all, that's what Simon Kinberg's done: Assembling the high-profile stars of Zero Dark Thirty, Inglorious Basterds, Pain And Glory and Us in order to make The 355 is like getting your hands on an F40 and using it to drive to Tesco. Perfectly serviceable for anyone with no imagination, and a complete waste of resources.

Jessica Chastain plays Mace, a CIA agent whose partner Nick (Sebastian Stan) is killed while the pair are on a mission to recover a piece of priceless tech hardware/weaponry which mustn't fall into the wrong hands (at which point it falls conveniently into the wrong hands). When her superiors claim they're powerless to take the case further, Mace decides to go rogue and recruits German BND operative Marie (Diane Kruger), MI6 hacker Khadijah (Lupita Nyong'o) and psychologist from the Mexican secret service Graciela (Penelope Cruz) to form a team of kick-ass bee-atches who might just save the ruddy world!

Now at this point you're either thinking The 355 sounds fantastic or utterly dreadful. Don't worry, it's neither. The film is staggeringly ordinary.


Evoking such superficially passable cinematic filler as Jason Bourne, Unlocked and 21 Bridges, Simon Kinberg and Theresa Rebeck have crafted a sassy cyber thriller where the audience will not fully understand The Threat because the writers themselves do not fully understand The Threat, and are therefore incapable of actually explaining The Threat in any level of credible detail. Look, the macguffin is basically an iPhone-sized device which can make planes fall out of the sky and money fall out of banks at the same time or something. It's like watching a visual representation of the Daily Mail's internal thought processes when someone mentions bitcoin. You know this gadget's important because Jason Flemyng's international bad guy Elijah really wants it despite being the kind of man who has to keep asking his secretary what his password is, and cool-computer-expert Khadijah spouts a full thirty seconds of awed gibberish while looking at a vector graphic display which is supposed to be the user interface. To be fair, at least nobody talks about Unleashing The Hashtags...

Back at the business-end, pursuits and melees (of which there are many) are rendered through fast-cut, closeup montages, while a surprising number of people get shot at point-blank range considering nobody takes a bullet on-camera and you've seen more claret at a vegetarian barbecue. To say the film lacks the courage of its convictions is putting it mildly (hey, they've somehow made a 12A about murderers), and the industrial sequel-baiting in its final moments comes off as a cute joke rather than a tantalising promise or even threat. We shouldn't hold our collective breath for The 356*1.


Most successful actors knock out An Average Payday a few times in their career, and that's okay. But to have this many great performers all being this average and all at the same time is criminal. The 355 will be at the top of nobody's CV. There's definitely a feeling that from a marketing point-of-view, it's waving a flag for "Hey look, The Girls™ can do action thrillers too!!!". To which the only sensible response is "Okay, but why?". This just means there are more grindingly average punching-films but now with ladies in them. That's just adding to the problem, not fixing it.

Don't get me wrong, the film is technically fine as a two-hour chase sequence dumped out in January, and that in itself is also fine. But at some point in its development The 355 was doing something differently, and now this is all that's left; an absolute staple in the £4 Gift Ideas For Father's Day display in a supermarket.

Is this what 2022 is going to be..?

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 It's okay, I know that's not why it's called that. That's the joke. Cool. [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Wednesday 5 January 2022

Catchup Review: Censor

Cert: 15 / 84 mins / Dir. Prano Bailey-Bond / Trailer

Not every anticipated release gets to shine on the big screen (especially in the current maelstrom of UK distribution), but then some movies seem purposely designed to be watched at home...

As a slightly uptight London film examiner for the BBFC at the height of the early 1980s video nasty scare, Enid (Naimh Algar) is shaken by a piece which should be run of the gory-mill but instead seems to raise suppressed memories of the unsolved disappearance of her sister Nina when they were both children. Is there a chance that Nina is still alive? And what will it mean for her world if that's the case?


What's immediately pleasing about director and co-writer Prano Bailey-Bond's Censor is that it's a feature debut, and what a great way to start. Not only does she have an understatedly brilliant players in Algar, Nicholas Burns, Vincent Franklin, Clare Holman, Felicity Montagu and Michael Smiley, but they're directed with the focus of a veteran. The commitment of the cast is a key factor of course, with the only over-playing being reserved for the roles where that's intentional.

Annika Summerson's cinematography is quietly assured in setting mood and tone while keeping even the darkest scenes visible (where they're supposed to be)*1, and the use of sets masquerading as outdoor locations adds to the claustrophobia and sense of shifted reality. Meanwhile, Emilie Levienaise-Farrouch's haunting score is the perfect companion piece in its own right to the visuals. The script, co-penned with Anthony Fletcher, feels a little on-the-nose in places; never unforgivably so, but this seems to be a casualty of the brisk pacing. That said, it also leads to some fantastic moments of show-don't-tell where lesser filmmakers would have shoehorned in a paragraph of exposition instead.


Thematically, Bailey-Bond is on intriguing ground. Dealing with guilt and trauma head-on, there's a deeper exploration of psychological regression which only begins to be uncovered. And an interesting use of aspect-ratio helps reality break down through layers in several places which would, despite my opening gambit above, work at maximum effect on a cinema screen.

Although it's tempting to compare the film to Saint Maud, this is probably closer in tone to a British version of Mandy. High praise, either way.

The lean 84 minute run-time seems perfectly in keeping with the protagonist's linear descent into psychosis, although with those two aspects combined this often feels like a film playing with ideas rather than presenting them as fully formed. It's either the perfect length or needs to be an hour longer, nothing between.

Censor's dream-like unravelling invites further viewings, while resolutely refusing to promise clearer conclusions. But isn't that what the rewind button is for..?

And if I HAD to put a number on it…

*1 And fair play to Prano Bailey-Bond and the costume and make-up departments in at least attempting to pull off their greatest noble failure: trying to make Naimh Algar look Dowdy™. This is the UK equivalent of putting glasses on Kat Dennings. No one's buying it mate, but points for the effort. [ BACK ]

• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.