Until now, Edgar Wright’s Scott Pilgrim vs. the World has been my favourite example of how to represent comics on film: snappy editing coupled with an abundance of colour, and small, satisfying visual touches like occasional text boxes. However, the use of animation allows SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE to employ these same techniques with a greater degree of freedom, even expanding on features that its live-action counterparts simply can’t. For instance, where a cinematographer may need several lighting rigs to emphasise different shades and textures, the animators instead cleverly mimic the panelled layout and screen-tone technique made famous in hand-drawn cartoons; it’ll sound cliché, but the images spring to life. Despite experimenting with multiple visual styles, it never feels like too much thanks to a strong sense of identity, which even allow its climactic action sequences to take a somewhat abstract approach that’s instantly memorable. With all due respect to The Incredibles 2 and Ant-Man and the Wasp, this is the best looking superhero film of the year.
Meanwhile, SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE’s structure makes shrewd use of its source material to subvert conventions of the superhero genre such as tedious origin stories, which I’m sure viewers who are up to date with previous Spider-Man films will appreciate. In fact, the overall message that “anyone can be Spider-Man” feels like a sly dig at the multiple big budget incarnations of the hero from the past two decades. There are more than half a dozen ‘Spider-people’ featured here, yet their introductions only last two to three minutes each, apart from protagonist Miles Morales (Shameik Moore). Before Miles is thrust into the spider-verse, as it were, his biggest worries are starting a new school and finding his identity, the latter being exacerbated once he gains his powers. Due to some interdimensional villainy too complex to explain, Miles finds his mentors in the Spider-people mentioned above, primarily a cynical and past his prime Peter Parker (Jake Johnson). However, this doesn’t revert the film to an extended training montage, as Miles is forced to learn the ropes while the others attempt to thwart Kingpin (Liev Schreiber). Each hero is given their moment to shine and has potential for a spinoff, although the highlight for me was the hilarious, Looney Tune-esque Spider-Ham (John Mulaney). Perhaps the one downside of so many heroes is the film’s occasional habit of overstating its more emotional points, though thankfully its tight pace ensures these moments aren’t dwelled on.
Ultimately, anyone wondering why we need another comic book adaptation in 2018, or another Spider-Man film in general, need look no further. SPIDER-MAN: INTO THE SPIDER-VERSE’s bold approach to a familiar character pays off brilliantly, raising the bar for the superhero genre by pushing the boundaries for what an adaptation can be. The bright colours and unapologetic amount of heart make this a perfect blockbuster for kids and adults alike, and I’m already keen to watch it again.
Plenty of films with a ‘message’ come across as melodramatic or pretentious, yet Riley’s script subverts this by smartly developing its argument over time. In fact, its first act is largely devoted to simply letting the audience warm to Cash, which feels effortless when combined with Stanfield’s performance. Although longtime Atlanta viewers will already know just how talented Stanfield is, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU is his best showcase yet: the universal nature of Cash’s early worries (getting a job, leaving a legacy) allows Stanfield’s sheer charisma to shine through, rendering him immensely likeable even when lying in a job interview or dodging his uncle’s requests for overdue rent. Eventually, Cash settles into a low-level telemarketing position at RegalView, where Riley slowly reveals his searing socioeconomic criticism.
At the same time a co-worker proposes RegalView workers unionise to fight their poor conditions, Cash discovers he’s a talented salesman and begins to climb the ranks. His former peers subsequently accuse him of selling out, and if you thought that phrase already had negative connotations, Riley makes the consequences seem even worse here. I can’t say much more without spoiling most of the film, but it does involve an enigmatic corporation promising food and housing to workers who sign “lifetime labour contracts”; don’t worry, the CEO swears it’s different to
Meanwhile, Riley and Stanfield are surrounded by an outstanding supporting cast, several of whom are impressively quick to grasp the film’s humour despite their few prior comedic roles. Thor: Ragnarok and The Lone Ranger are undeniably funny at times, yet I can’t recall Tessa Thompson or Armie Hammer ever having had to balance surrealism and deadpan wit like they do here. Similarly, Steven Yeun’s performance pleasantly surprised me, with the Walking Dead alum exuding an unexpected charm and pitch-perfect sense of timing that even matches Stanfield. Yet perhaps the most ingenious casting choice is David Cross as Cash’s “white voice”, that is, the persona he adopts to make sales. Despite Cross’ scenes amounting to merely dubbing Stanfield’s lines, the veteran comedian seems to revel in this bold self-parody and ensures it never feels like a glorified cameo. Speaking of cameos though, there are some other big names to listen out for, particularly as the film begins to unveil a bizarre sci-fi twist (check the producer credits if you’re lost). My above praise for the cast aside, Boots Riley deserves the most recognition for crafting such a singular, instantly memorable debut. As the most compelling examination of capitalism since The Big Short, as well as the year’s most unique comedy, SORRY TO BOTHER YOU is undeniably a highlight of 2018 in film.
Of course, it helps that WIDOWS boasts a phenomenal cast and crew: Gillian Flynn (of Gone Girl fame) cowrote the script with McQueen, while Viola Davis shines as Veronica Rawlings, defacto leader of the titular group. It can be tempting to simply assume sight unseen that Davis will nail any role she’s given, but her reputation is earned from WIDOWS’ first moments. The film opens with a juxtaposition of four criminals’ personal and professional lives, a compelling sequence which culminates in Veronica’s reaction upon learning the crew, including her husband (Liam Neeson), are all presumed dead. Without giving too much away, Davis’ visceral performance in this scene alone is utterly mesmerising. However, WIDOWS is far from a one-woman show; rather, its ensemble feels like a casting director’s dream come true, with each actor given an appropriate showcase. Seriously, you know a film is bursting at the seams with talent when Jacki Weaver and Robert Duvall each have around five minutes of total screen time (although they make the most of these brief appearances, as you’d expect). My personal highlight was Daniel Kaluuya’s turn as the vicious mobster Jatemme, which further proves his breakout role in Get Out was no fluke.
McQueen and Flynn pack WIDOWS’ script with an incredible amount of ideas and largely succeed at balancing these with the tonal demands of an action-thriller. Unsurprisingly, the film has plenty to say about both race and gender, keeping these topics at its forefront throughout; look out for a flashback involving Veronica’s teenage son and prepare to be devastated. Yet as the title should suggest, this is emphatically a film about grief. Veronica, Linda (Michelle Rodriguez) and Alice’s (Elizabeth Debicki) overwhelming sense of loss extends even to WIDOWS’ technical aspects: shots of them alone are composed with the women off-centre to draw attention to their missing ‘halves’, with McQueen and editor Joe Walker allowing these moments to linger slightly longer than I expected. Some viewers might be disappointed that the actual heist doesn’t occur until the third act, but McQueen’s mastery of suspense makes sure this brilliantly-paced sequence pays off. In fact, I would argue the stakes feel especially high here because of how much time is dedicated to ensuring the widows’ emotions are portrayed honestly. Having characters move between story beats without so much as a pause is basically an action genre trope at this point, which makes WIDOWS feel particularly refreshing in comparison.
I’m sure WIDOWS’ genre-defying approach won’t please everyone; honestly, McQueen’s unusual choice to wait until the final 40-minutes to showcase its thrills leads to the film feeling a little slow at times. However, not only is the action worth the wait, there’s plenty of captivating drama to be found beforehand. Although these elements don’t combine as well as McQueen perhaps intended, it’s incredible that a single film delivers them both so well.
It has been adapted from a series of award-winning books, of which there are nine, and while the story might have leaped off the page and gripped its readers, it translates terribly to film and makes for a cringe-worthy and embarrassing reproduction.
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So you can imagine my relief when At Eternity's Gate turned out to be a thoroughly engaging and surprisingly entertaining film. It is not like the typical artist bio-pics that grind my gears, but rather it is a unique and fascinating examination of an icon, whose legacy is insurmountable.
The film stars Willem Dafoe as Vincent van Gough, and it follows the later years of his life and chronicles his creative processes as well as his insecurities, connection to nature and failing mental health. The story begins with an exhibition of his being rejected by a publican. When his work is deemed to be puerile and inane van Gogh seeks guidance by a fellow artist Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac) whose own modernist work influenced the French avant-garde. While they subscribe to different methods and ideals they both adhere to non-conformity and influence each others vision. On advice from Gauguin, van Gough heads to the south of France and immerses himself in nature.
From there the film documents his thinking process (or lack thereof) and follows him as he encounters criticism and personal attacks from those who misunderstand him. Director Julian Schnabel comes full circle from his 1996 debut Basquiat (a biographical film about the post-modernist artist) and takes an experimental approach to telling his story. A variety of techniques are employed to represent various moments and mental states of van Gough's journey; from random monologue musings over a black screen, to shaky hand-held point-of-view camera angles and surreal horizontal multifocal split-screen. It is a strange and wonderful method of storytelling, which examines the various stages on his work, and remains humble without being heavy-handed or pretentious.
Dafoe is outstanding (as always) and offers one of his most delicate and emotionally fractured performances to date. He bares a striking resemblance to his real-life counterpart and connects to van Gough's fragile state of mind as earnestly as history describes it to be. The film is by no means an accurate historical account (it's more of a romanticised vision of his life) but it successfully dispels the myth that he was a raving madman. Instead is treats his mental illness with sincerity and compassion, depicting him as a sympathetic and passionate man. His ever-loyal brother – who was also an art-dealer – is also portrayed beautifully with Rupert Friend adding further weight to the story. In addition to Osaac and Friend the supporting cast includes Mads Mikkelsen, Vincent Perez and Matthieu Amelric, who are all good. Mikkelsen's role as a priest tasked with evaluating van Gough in the mental institution provides one of the films highlights and offers the one of its most lighthearted, yet telling, qualities.
At Eternity's Gate will test many people's patience with its slow plodding and meandering exposition, but for those who enjoy skewed structures and obtuse techniques it will stir the imagination and inspire creative streaks within. It is a richly textured exploration of a renegade whose worth was never appreciated at the time, but who would become one of the most celebrated and influential figures in the history of Western art.
At Eternity's Gate will be released theatrically in Australian on 14/02/2019.
I will begin my review of Ralph Breaks the Internet with a glaring observation of the title and the missed opportunity to call it Ralph Wrecks the Internet… after all Ralph is a wrecker, not a breaker. But… so be it. 6 years after the original movie Ralph (John C. Reilly) is back, along with his best friend Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman) and a slew of characters, new and old. When the owner of the ‘Litwak’s Family Fun Centre & Arcade’ installs Wi-Fi the characters inside the games are perplexed by its strange and seemingly irrelevant existence, however when Vanellope’s game is damaged and put up for sale, Ralph decides to venture into the Internet to visit eBay to purchase the missing piece that will restore the game and save the characters within it. Vanellope travels alongside him and discovers a new and exciting game called Slaughter Race.
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