Signs

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

As I was sitting down to watch an M Night Shyamalan film, I felt fairly well prepared for to what I was about to watch. And that’s not a bad thing. Shyamalan has a knack for thrillers that is unmatched within the genre. Most thrillers are filled with unexplained twists and turns, over the top chase scenes, and a plot that grows ever the more confusing by the minute. Unlike those, Shyamalan feeds you more and more information through the film, clearing your understanding at the same pace as the main characters’.

The movie follows the Hess family, who, after finding crop circles on their farm, are forced to reconsider whether or not they are alone in their universe. They are led by patriarch Father Graham Hess, a former priest who renounced his title after his wife suddenly passed away. His younger brother, Merrill, came to live on the farm to work and to help with the children. Graham’s kids, Morgan and Bo, are struggling without their mother, and Graham’s surety of his world is entirely shaken. For a movie about alien life, Shyamalan does an excellent job at reinforcing the theme of faith, both in religion and in one another. As a thriller, most scenes are nonconfrontational, and instead rely on incredibly close shots of Mel Gibson’s face and a distant but rising global threat to build tension.

Watching this movie in a pandemic felt more disconcerting than usual. Especially scenes where Merrill, played by a young Joaquin Phoenix, sits in a closet, his eyes fixated psychotically on a television. He obsessively watches news broadcasts of the end of the world, which, if it had been set twenty years later, would undoubtedly be replaced by obsessive doom scrolling. As the end of the world draws near, each family member takes to a different obsession. Somehow, I feel that if Shyamalan had written this is 2020, Mel Gibson would be aggressively making sourdough bread.

The pièce de résistance of this film, however, just as with most M Night Shyamalan films, is the way every neatly clicks into place in the last fifteen minutes of the film. Everything that was first presented as bad omens become lifesaving, like Graham’s wife’s final words, Bo’s obsession with water glasses, Merrill’s failed baseball career, and Morgan’s crippling asthma. Unlike most thriller writers, Shyamalan understands how to make his audience feel clever. Most thrillers take pride in their obscurity and use unexplained plot holes to cover their poorly written plots. Or, on the flip side, they patronise their audience, and spoon feed the entirely unsurprising plot twists.  

Overall, this film completely itches the scratch. It’s a thriller, horror, and mystery tied into one, and Shyamalan imbues just enough humour to cut through the darkness. It is, however, more of a fun thought experiment than a fleshed-out film. Other than Graham, most characters don’t get fully realised development, and instead serves as plot points to fill up Graham’s story. Despite this, Signs is a fun and gripping watch.

I Care a Lot

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Rosamund Pike takes centre stage again as a cunning and sinister ‘lioness’ in the new thriller I Care a Lot. Pike plays Marla Grayson, a career driven woman who makes her profit from swindling the elderly and fooling the justice system. Grayson, along with her friend, a corrupt doctor, convince courts to allow Grayson full guardianship of elderly patients, citing their inability to care for themselves. Once the patients are secure in care homes, away from the protection of their family and friends, Grayson’s team empty out any valuables and assets from their victims, and pocket the money for themselves. With a dark and sinister overtone and Rosamund Pike at its centre, the movie takes on a very ‘Gone Girl’ aesthetic. Pike has proven once again that she is incredibly suited to playing these ‘lioness’ characters, and I appreciate how solidly they stuck to this characterisation.

Many of these types of female characters, written to be heartless or cold-blooded, are then either made to be ugly, or eventually find their humanity as part of some wider character development (usually involving a man). But Grayson, a sadistic lesbian with excellent fashion taste, carries the same energy as DiCaprio in the Wolf of Wall Street, but never once sacrifices her femininity or her goals. Her meticulously designed pantsuits and dresses remind you of this in every scene, and although she’s more than happy to get her hands dirty, her charisma is what makes her so successful. While I was disappointed that Grayson’s counterpart was not another tall, beautiful merciless woman, I was happy to see that it was Peter Dinklage. His contrast, even just physically, to Rosamund Pike make the duo an unexpected but well-welcomed pair on screen. Their chemistry was not exactly electric, but it did firmly hold my attention. They play what I would normally describe as a cat and mouse game, although for these two it’s more like a couple of wild barn cats running circles around one another.

The film overall is sinister and dark, but surprisingly fast paced. There are action scenes for those who want them, quick-witted court scenes for others, and, in case I haven’t made it clear thus far, many scenes of Rosamund Pike strutting around in a pastel pantsuit for everyone else. While it’s listed as a comedy, I would not say that the film is comedic so much as it has a sense of humour. There aren’t necessarily any laugh out loud moments, but more of a cheeky and self-aware tone.

The one real downside of I Care a Lot is the act structure. The story peaks far too early, and the film is forced to elongate the climax for a good hour of the film. While I think this is rather common for action movies, the moments of quiet between the big action scenes are not really quiet enough. Instead, we get a rather repetitive and at times tedious onslaught of events. Although the exposition and conclusion are sharp and to the point, the pace of the middle act feels forced and convoluted. Nevertheless, I Care a Lot is a fun and upbeat thrill ride well worth a watch.

Star Trek: Lower Decks

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Star Treks: Lower Decks was an unexpected gem. I’ve never been a big Star Trek fan, and I assumed it would be something like Star Wars: Clone Wars, which is much more serious, but also quite juvenile. Halfway through the pilot, I could tell that this show was so much more. Lower Decks is made of entertaining characters with interesting backgrounds, and throws them into a previously unexplored but familiar environment. The concept is, by itself, an amusing idea. Who is plumbing Spock’s toilets? Who is dry-cleaning Kirk’s uniform? Lower Decks answers these questions, and expands on the Star Trek universe.

 The USS Cerritos (which I assume is named after the comedically boring city of Cerritos, California) has the typical cast of characters; a headstrong captain, a dashing first mate, and a clever but sarcastic doctor. But these are not our main cast. Instead, the show follows the quirky adventures of Beckett Mariner, an ensign with a taste for mischief, and Brad Boimler, another ensign who is desperate to please anyone above his station. Mariner is a loveable troublemaker, who believes that the brig is the best place to be. Her character is really what makes the show compelling. She leads her crewmates, and the audience, through the world of Star Fleet, and positions the narrative from a new and exciting perspective. There are interesting points made about difficult topics, like the consequences of foreign diplomatic intervention that I absolutely did not expect from a comedic, animated show. Bradward Boimler is her perfect counterpart. The two are dissimilar in most ways, but bond over the Lower Decks traditions. In a really interesting dynamic, they both somehow play the straight man to the other’s crazy. Over the series they grow to be each other’s best friend, and provide most of the quick and witty banter. What I most appreciate about this show is its ability to walk the fine line of animated television between crudeness and childishness. The only show in recent memory that rivals this feat is Bob’s Burgers. The show is made up of fast paced action and ‘blink and you miss it’ punchlines. It has a drier humour than most television, and, importantly, does not fall into the Family Guy trap of relying on dirty lines when wit can’t be found. While I think this sets it up for a slightly younger audience, it does not by any means come across as children’s television. In fact, I think children could be traumatised by it (especially scenes like the ones where ‘Badgey’, still coming to grips with his own sentience, goes on a murderous hunting spree).

The main failing of Lower Decks is that, if you were a Star Trek fan, you could be entirely disappointed. While I think this is my favourite version of this universe, I understand that it does not carry the same atmosphere of past Star Trek content. Lower Decks is far more suited for a viewer like me, who knows enough about Star Trek to understand the jokes, but wouldn’t care if they insinuated Kirk was a Vulcan.  

Malcolm and Marie

Rating: 4 out of 5.

It’s difficult to know where to begin reviewing Malcom and Marie, especially when Malcolm spends half the movie ragging on movie critics. But the easiest way to start is to say this is a spectacular movie that is deeply personal but widely relatable. The plot follows an argument on the evening following the opening night of Malcolm’s debut film. Over the course of the night, the ties that hold him and his girlfriend Marie together completely unravel after he forgets to thank her in his speech.

Both Malcolm and Marie are strongly written, but the performances from Zendaya and John David Washington are what make these characters. They are both complex and very human. In many ways, their faults outweigh their redeeming characteristics. They are silly with one another, and certainly enjoy each other’s company, but more often than not they are the source of each other’s emotional damage. Zendaya’s performance of Marie is charming but manipulative, and John David Washington plays Malcolm as clever and egotistical. Their argument explores the complex nature of drug use, jealousy, and gratitude in a relationship. They slowly become more hurtful, and purposely target each other’s weak points. More viciously, I would say, than a normal couple, and with a serious understanding and judgment of the other’s character. Their words are meant to kill their relationship, and yet they continuously reconcile. It shows a stubborn resilience from both, who have decided that this is their person, for better or for worse.

There is an interesting use of physical space. The house contains their resentment and anger. It suffocates the two of them, and they fail to maintain a cool head while within it’s walls. Even when they try to leave, the darkness of the night ensures that they have to return, sometimes angrier than when they left. When the sun comes up, they are finally able to reconcile. An interesting metaphor, considering the nature of the pandemic. The suffocation, and danger, that many have felt during the pandemic is addressed here. While everyone is locked inside, relationships reach their make-or-break point. In this house, Malcolm and Marie take their relationship as close to the edge as they can.

It is not without its faults, however. Each time the two seemingly reconcile, it is mere minutes until they are at each other’s throats. The first two peaks and troughs feel like they follow the natural course of an argument, but the recurring pattern becomes almost farcical after the third. The movie also falls into a trope I like to call the La La Land Complex, where Hollywood movies love to talk about how difficult it is being in the spotlight. Malcolm believes that he is entirely misunderstood, and that he alone truly understands the old classics. He is a reflection of the narcissistic nature of the film scene. While it’s not an uninteresting story, we have seen it hundreds of times over, even in just the past few years. Oscar nominations and wins went to films like Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, A Star is Born, and Judy. Even the age difference between the two could be seen as more evidence of the self-reflective nature on Hollywood and filmmaking. Or, as I think is more likely, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. By making a comment on age gaps between Hollywood stars and their partners, it hires two actors who play right into that complex. This otherwise interesting comment on the nature of relationships and self-destruction instead became a self-indulgent comment on the film industry.  

Regardless of this self-indulgent nature, the film is still a fantastic film about relationships and what we mean to one another.

Detective Pikachu

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Picture this:

The movie takes place in a futuristic city, where new technology, created by one large tech company, has allowed for a new way of life. Humans now coexist with other creatures, who help them do their jobs and assist them in everyday life. A young man, our protagonist, has a dislike of the creatures, due to a traumatising incident in his past. When the creatures begin to act strangely, it is up to him to solve the case. He goes on an adventure where, along with a young woman, he discovers that not everything is as it seems, and he comes to befriend one of the creatures, who teaches him an important life lesson. In the end, it is revealed that the head of the tech company was behind all of it. Now, am I describing Detective Pikachu, or am I describing I, Robot?

As I watched this film, the similarities between the two movies were obvious, and Detective Pikachu really does feel like a toned down, children’s take on the classic sci-fi. I found that you don’t really need to know anything about robots to enjoy I, Robot, and the same goes for this movie. I know next to nothing about Pokémon, and I’m sure I missed some easter eggs, but I still thought this silly family movie was a fun watch. It is a blockbuster film, and, as such, is filled with overly dramatic moments and larger than life characters, but nevertheless, I was extremely impressed at the dedication this film had to the characterisation of the Pokémon.

Each creature, even those in the background, had excellent texture animations and stylistic design. Pikachu felt alive and real, and, somehow, did embody Ryan Reynolds (I was especially impressed by the texture animation when his fur was wet). In comparison to movies like Jurassic World, the animators took care to ensure the Pokémon looked as grounded as possible. I assume that setting of the film in the dark was a design choice, one that helped to disguise any faults in the rendering of the Pokémon. And their aesthetic design besides, the actual expression and movements of the characters felt real. One thing I do know about Pokémon is that each creature makes the sounds of their name, and I was impressed by how realistic they made these voices sound. I was also unsurprised to discover that the same team who had worked on Detective Pikachu also designed creatures for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. In both films, the creatures have distinct and charming character design. 

At the end of the day, though, this is a blockbuster movie. It does not rank as one of my favourites by far, but this movie certainly passes as a film that the family can enjoy together. I can dream about an R-rated, ‘Deadpool’ style version of this movie as much as I want, but I understand the market that this movie had. It was whimsical and silly but did manage to pull some real laughs from me (mostly just because Ryan Reynolds could read me a takeout menu and I’d find it hilarious). Overall, Detective Pikachu was simply a cute film.

Lupin

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Lupin stole my heart. I don’t even care if this show doesn’t deserve 4.5 stars (it does; it’s fantastic) I will still award them happily. Lupin, in short, is a more complex, French James Bond. His character, with all his oddities, strengths and weaknesses, makes 007 look like a primped and plucked doll, although I suppose it is unfair to compare the two, given that Lupin is both 007 and M put together (although there is still a wiry, frizzy haired best friend if that’s important to you).

The story opens on a jewellery heist. A washed-up janitor, down on his luck, has decided to steal a necklace from the Louvre to cover his debts. But as I found with all of Lupin’s hijinks, nothing is really as it seems. The show takes us speeding and sneaking around the streets of Paris, and tugs at our heartstrings along the way. While there was nothing particularly interesting to be said about the cinematography, it is brilliant writing and fantastic acting that brings this show to life. Omar Sy, who I am ashamed to say I didn’t know before this, is a well accomplished actor. He plays Lupin as suave and too clever for his own good, but doesn’t hesitate to show us that Lupin, unlike Bond, has serious weaknesses. He struggles with fatherhood and his own parental past, and despite his practically photographic memory, still manages to forget to spend time with his son. The people who surround him (half of whom want to kill him, and the rest want to kiss him) are also fully realised characters in their own right, perhaps unlike the Bond girls we are used to seeing. When these well written characters are thrown into layers of conspiracy and corruption… well, what’s not to love.

While generally I don’t believe that knowing the plot to a story ruins the experience (it’s the journey, not the destination) I hope it has been noted that I am trying my best not to spoil anything. Unlike with other films and television I’ve reviewed, it is important to me that you experience Lupin as it happens. The twists, turns, and witty punchlines are worth seeing first-hand. It also introduced me to French television, which, for some reason in my head, I felt must be similar to black-and-white silent films.  While of course this has the Netflix spin, the fact that I didn’t know Omar Sy before this baffles me. This show, once again, confirms what Bong Joon-Ho said when he received Best Picture, “Once you overcome the one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.”

The main weakness of this show is that there is not more of it. That, and the often-outrageous plot lines. There are some moments where I have to admit, I thought, ‘Even Lupin couldn’t pull that off.’ But I suppose, if we are willing to believe that James Bond throws himself onto trains and out of cars, that we should forgive Lupin for this as well.  

Spree

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Maybe I’ve been out of the loop, but I had not heard a peep about this movie until it showed up on my Netflix home screen. I hadn’t intended to choose a satirical horror movie that night, but as the trailer automatically played, I found myself instantly intrigued by the creativity in both idea and execution. The funniest (and also scariest) concept in this movie is that we have all met a guy like Kurt Kunkle, who is so obviously deeply damaged, but is also convinced that he is special, or unique, and is outraged that the world does not agree.

The story follows a young man as he tries to livestream his way to success, filming his day working for a ride-share app. Obsessive about his viewing numbers, Kurt attempts to gain the respect of Bobby, a boy he used to babysit who has made it big on the internet. Though Kurt does not initially seem altogether unhinged, he almost immediately sets to killing his passengers in an attempt to garner views. The first few passengers he kills by poisoning water bottles in the back, and originally, you are sympathetic to his journey (or as sympathetic as you can be with a serial killer) because each of his passengers is ruder than the last. When comedian and semi-celebrity Jessie Adams gets into his car, however, the tables turn. Sitting in Kurt’s backseat is someone with access to thousands of fans. He quickly tries to promote himself on her livestream, but Jessie is entirely underwhelmed by him, and quickly ends her ride. Later, after more murders that get increasingly more gruesome, Kurt winds up at Jessie Adams’s show, and listens to her criticise his obsession with fame, before delivering a phony speech about removing herself from social media. Fooled by her speech, Kurt decides that he and Jessie must be soulmates, and traps her in his car. The casting of Kurt as a young, white man, with serious social disillusionments about his place in the world, and juxtaposing that against a successful, confident black woman, feels right for, as the review from Collider puts it, ‘” American Psycho” for the digital age’. While the second act is perhaps dragged out, the third act is filled with just the right amount of gore for a horror movie of this style, and the satire of the entire film feels very grounded, especially with the vlog film style.

This film does not come without its pitfalls, however. While the film is already fairly short, with a runtime of only 93 minutes, about 30 minutes of it is wasted time that did nothing to advance the storyline, the character, or even, really, the suspense. There is also a loose storyline of Kurt’s father, a washed up DJ, which is not fully realised or satisfactorily concluded. While the core storylines and characters are intriguing, it felt as though there was a struggle to even meet the hour and a half mark, and Spree probably would have fared far better as a short film.

The Hunt

Rating: 4 out of 5.

While certainly not contending for movie of the year. The Hunt turned out to be an undemanding, dark comedy that had me on the edge of my seat. This movie deserves a solid 4 stars, if for no other reason than the delivery of the line, ‘I don’t think they believe you, Gary’. I enjoyed the familiar trope flipped on its head and appreciated that I had a genuine distaste for every one of the characters. The victims were ‘deplorables’ (according to both the movie, and, apparently, Hillary Clinton), and the hunters, despite appearing to be left wing Samaritans, were also bloodthirsty millionaires. I loved to hate them all. Our heroine is affectionately nicknamed ‘Snowball’ by her captors – a reference to a little known, niche piece of literature named Animal Farm (I’m joking of course, although the writers didn’t seem to be). However, if the Hunt had ended about 40 minutes before it actually did, this film would be 4.5 stars at least. It is greatly let down by the third act, wherein Snowball decides it is not enough to have merely killed the majority of the hunters; she must now track down and murder Athena Stone herself. Not only did this raise more questions than it answered, but it also led to a rather unconvincing climax to the film. After a dramatic fight to the death (which I believe does deserve credit for staying far away from the ‘two sexy women claw at each other’ cliché) Snowball is stabbed by the blade of a food processor. As a last-ditch attempt, however, she manages to hug Athena close enough to her body to kill her opponent. While ridiculous in of itself, the scene is further let down when Snowball pulls the blade out of her stomach and appears perfectly fine as she pulls on one of Athena’s dresses, slaps on some makeup, and catwalks down to the awaiting private jet. While I am not one to complain about watching Betty Gilpin strut down a runway in a flowing black dress, I did feel as though I wanted more from her character. There was barely a whiff of a backstory as to why she was there, or, for that matter, why any of the hunters were there either. I can appreciate that a despairing and deranged millionaire like Athena Stone may be inclined to trap a group of right-wing fanatics and hunt them down, but it was unconvincing that her friends would follow her down this serial killer route. All in all, I expected about 10 more minutes of explanation of who on earth Snowball was and why she felt a desperate need to hunt down Athena. Perhaps this is a set up for a sequel, although I don’t know what that would be. But, if you’re sat with some friends and some beers one night, slap on the Hunt, and get ready to laugh at some truly horrendous characters and gory, blood-heavy fight scenes.

The Midnight Sky

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

The Midnight Sky is a barely interesting story about family and survival that comes in at a middling 3 stars. Set in the harsh frozen landscape of a post-apocalyptic North Pole, the movie opens with our hero, Augustine, refusing to leave his planet behind. As a terminally ill patient, he decides that death on Earth is better than a short life on a spaceship. Simultaneously, we follow the quirky but well-bonded crew aboard the spaceship ‘Aether’, who are returning home after an exploration to K-23, one of Jupiter’s moons and the hopeful second home to mankind. For the majority of the film, nothing remotely engaging happens to the crew, but instead we are shown scenes after scene of the crew chatting, whether about the strange radio silence from Earth, or deciding a name for the unborn child of a crewmember, who we know as Dr. Sullivan.  Back on Earth, however, things are getting slightly more chilling. Augustine, who we realise is not only terminally ill but also deeply alcoholic, has discovered a young, mute girl still stuck inside the space station, forgotten in the frantic attempt to evacuate. We are then launched into the ‘begrudging, grumpy man cares for small child’ trope that we quickly realise stems from Augustine’s own guilt over abandoning his young daughter and her mother years before. This relationship is by far the most compelling part of the story; Clooney’s performance is understated but well developed, and I found myself genuinely caring about the fate of the unlikely.

The acting aboard the Aether, however, is not as well realised. The characters are one dimensional, and hollow. While I can appreciate this movie is an adaptation of the novel, and perhaps the book contained more insight for these characters, the translation to the big screen is not made well. In fact, it appears that without two of the five crew members, the plot would have developed in nearly the exact same way. Their story is only saved by a single scene, where the young scientist Maya is struck by shrapnel and eventually bleeds out. Even this scene is only made so interesting by the cinematography – Maya’s blood floats around her in drops, weightless, while she struggles to breathe.

Back on Earth, George Clooney is also dying; his blood transfusion kit (necessary for him to survive) has been lost, and it is now a race against time to contact Aether and warn them of the uninhabitable state of their planet. When he does finally contact the crew, there is flat and unconvincing storyline of two characters that decide to return to Earth, despite knowing they will likely perish practically upon arrival. Their explanations seemed half-hearted, and as I mentioned before, the development of the plot and the starring characters is entirely unchanged by their decisions. Quickly after the two depart the Aether, there is an emotional reveal that the pregnant crewmember, Dr. Sullivan is actually Augustine’s daughter. We realise that the young girl Augustine has been fighting so hard to protect was, in fact, a fantasy of his daughter. It is implied that his decision to try and save the young girl was, in fact, a desperate attempt to save his real daughter, whether this was planned or not. Now, maybe I am just not someone who expects there to be a twist ending, because I very rarely see them coming, and this was no different. It retroactively amended previously unimportant plotlines, and, if only vaguely, brought the story to a full circle. Overall, while I can appreciate that there was an attempt at portraying recurring symbolism of family and survival, the Midnight Sky was an only a partially successful sci-fi, where the only real thought I had as the credits rolled was, ‘Well, now that’s over’.