Going against the grain: Oats Studios and experimental filmmaking

My first feature article for UK Film Review. Check it out here


Dunkirk – Review

5 Stars

Based on the events of the 1940 evacuation, Dunkirk tells the story of various British soldiers who attempted to escape France, and of the civilians coming to their aid. Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, the film has been hugely anticipated, and, for the most part, extremely well reviewed. As a big fan of both Nolan and war films, I was both excited and nervous to see whether Dunkirk would live up to the hype. Now, reflecting on the film, I can safely say it was the greatest cinematic experience I have ever had.

The word ‘experience’ is key, Dunkirk shouldn’t be viewed as a standard film that focuses on plot and character to create an engaging story. Instead these elements are left behind to create a realistic and utterly immersive and riveting film that is almost like a ride. The characters, played by a mixture of top British stars (such as Kenneth Branagh, Tom Hardy, and Mark Rylance) and relative newcomers (including Fionn Whitehead, Harry Styles, and Jack Lowden) are simply people put into this situation. There is no real characterisation, but, in this case, there doesn’t need to be. The lack of dialogue from Nolan’s shortest script lets the action be the true main character. The soldiers have little time to converse as they are thrust from one dramatic moment to another and there is little character motivation beyond survival, but this just ramps up the pace and gives that film that race against time feel. If, like me, you get swept up in it all, then this all works perfectly and it really pulls you in. However, those who failed to be fully immersed (likely through no fault of their own) will instead be looking for more a traditional film narrative and will find it lacking, hence some of the poorer reviews the film has received.

It has been said by so many people, but it needs repeating: to get the most out of Dunkrik, you must see it on the best and biggest screen available. Shot mostly on large format cameras, this film was made to be seen in IMAX. The vastness of the sea and vulnerable landscape of the beach look stunning as they take up the whole screen. Sound is also extremely important. Although Hans Zimmer has created another powerful and memorable score, it was the sound effects that really stole the show. The startling crack of gunshots and terrifying screeching of bombers making a dive are almost painfully loud and unlike anything else I’ve heard in a cinema, making you feel like you are there on the beach. I honestly think I’ll never forget the sound of the very first gunshot I heard in the opening scene.

Nolan loves playing with time and he does it again here, delivering three separate takes (land, sea, and air) of the evacuation over three separate timelines. It works well to tie the peaks of tension, faced by each seperate character, together, and it isn’t a challenge to follow. Like his previous films, Dunkirk requires your complete attention, but if you see it on the big screen it’ll be unlikely you even think about anything else for its runtime.

Although comparisons to classic war films, particularly Saving Private Ryan, are being made, Dunkirk reminded me most of BBC documentary series Our War. The series utilise real footage of combat, shot by the soldiers themselves, and it bears a striking resemblance to the depiction of battle in the film. It isn’t all guts flying everywhere and the enemy is nowhere to be seen, just heard due to the deadly gunfire. Dunkirk certainly feels like the most accurate depiction of warfare, and it helps that there is no glorification whatsoever, it is simply shown as a horrific experience.

Despite my Mum being served an almost frozen jacket potato for lunch (Picturehouse Bradford – your cinema may be state of the art, but your microwaves are clearly not), nothing could stop us from being grabbed and pulled in by Nolan’s utterly mesmerising survival thriller. If viewed as a film that is meant to deliver dramatic narrative told through engaging characters, Dunkirk does fall short. However, this is not how it should be viewed. Dunkirk is a pure cinematic experience that is meant to chuck you head first into the freezing waves and shows you first-hand what so many young men had to endure. When viewed as this immersive experience, there is simply nothing better.

Baby Driver – Review

5 Stars

A recent Forbes article compared Edgar Wright’s new heist comedy Baby Driver to the game series Grand Theft Auto. Arguably the best moments of Grand Theft Auto are when you are driving and the perfect song comes on the in-game radio and it brilliantly elevates the current moment, be it a frantic chase or slow sunset drive. This creates the ultimate buzz of thrilling escapism. This feeling is at Baby Driver’s heart and the film is non-stop perfect match of cars and music that is smart, slick, and sumptuous.

Baby (Ansel Elgort) is a young getaway driver working for Doc (Kevin Spacey) who constantly plays music to drown out his tinnitus. He meets, and soon falls for, fellow music lover Debora (Lily James), but their romance is threatened by the nature of Baby’s work. The film balances the love story and the heist thriller well, creating both heart-warming and exhilarating moments. Jon Hamm, Jamie Foxx and Eiza González all enjoy themselves as Baby’s criminal pals and with a smattering of sinister Jon Bernthal and a sprinkling of Flea from Red Hot Chilli Peppers, you have one of the best casts of 2017.

Humour has always been a key aspect of Wright’s work, and although Baby Driver is not a straight comedy, its jokes (both written and visual) always land. All the usual Edgarisms are also present; quick cuts, clever scene transitions, and a humorous use of sound (one highlight is a shootout where every shot is timed with the music). Although it appears quite different from his earlier work like Shaun of the Dead, this is very much an Edgar Wright movie.

If you know anything about Baby Driver then you’ll know music is the most important aspect of it. It is so integral to the film that at times it feels like you are watching a musical, with Baby singing along to his favourite tracks and the action sequences playing out like extreme dance numbers. As mentioned earlier, the film expertly catches the car-music buzz, but it also nails the little things, such as walking down a street, absorbed by what’s playing in your headphones.

Edgar Wright has revitalised the car film with Baby Driver and has cemented himself as one of the most inventive and consistently entertaining directors working today. Baby Driver is joyful, thrilling and leaves you wanting to recapture that song and speed buzz. Perhaps, for the safety of everyone on the road, you shouldn’t Baby Driver and drive.


You can check out the article mentioned here

Buried – Review

4 Stars

Buried is a film where, basically, nothing happens very intensely for 90 minutes. Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) wakes up to find that he has been buried alive in a small wooden coffin after being taken hostage in Iraq. He soon finds a mobile phone given to him as a means of communication with his kidnapper, which he then uses to try and manufacture his rescue.

Ingeniously executed by director Rodrigo Cortés and a terrific performance from Reynolds, Buried manages to be entertaining and nail bitingly tense throughout, despite being entirely set within said coffin. All the technical aspects of the film are genius. The set itself is smart and original, using several different coffins with various sizes and separate missing walls to allow a surprisingly expansive use of shots and angles, all of which create a real and terrifying sense of claustrophobia. The lighting, from the blue glow of the mobile to the flickering flame of a lighter, sells the realism and ups the terror. As the music swells, the editing gets quicker and the tension mounts and mounts. This is a truly suspenseful film.

Buried also includes some narrative heft and interesting themes. As Conroy uses the phone to contact various individuals from those he works for to the FBI, he is exposed to corporate callousness and the complexity of international politics. These narrative moments aren’t hugely deep (unlike Conroy’s coffin) but really do add to the story.

With simplistic, yet hugely impressive technical feats, a real sense of terror, and a sprinkling of black comedy, Buried is a tight, tense film that delivers on its premise and feels genuinely original.

Triple 9 – Review

2 Stars

There were few films released in 2016 that boasted quite the ensemble cast as Triple 9. The cast is riddled with talented names, yet together they are not enough to carry the heist movie out of mediocracy. There is plenty of good points about Triple 9, such as the cast, but every good point is overshadowed by bad one. The result is a mixed bag that provides an enjoyable, but quite flawed, experience.

John Hillcoat’s complex and cluttered crime thriller follows a gang of corrupt cops and ex-military criminals, led by Chiwetel Ejiofor, as they attempt to pull off an ‘impossible’ heist for Kate Winslet’s heavily (and questionably) accented Russian mob boss. A tense and visually intelligent opening caper, featuring some lovely shots of red ink billowing out of a speeding van, makes you feel you may be in for a treat. Street shootouts bring memories of Michael Mann’s Heat, but soon as the dust settles the disappointment kicks in. The viewpoint starts to shift between Ejiofor, Woody Harrelson’s clichéd and troubled detective and Casey Affleck, an incorruptible officer coincidentally paired with one of the criminals (Anthony Mackie).  Any one of these characters could of, and perhaps should have, been the clear and distinct main hero/anti-hero. Instead Hillcoat decides to regularly jump between them, never really giving them enough screen time to fully develop their characters. At the brightest moments, there are flashes of humanity, such as scenes with Mackie and Affleck that reminded me of End of Watch (a prime example of a truly believable relationship between police officers), but these moments are very rare. The result is a cluster of standard and expected character arcs that never really allow you to care about the people in question. At one point, I thought I did almost feel for one of the side characters, but the I realised I knew nothing about him and I just liked a similar, yet much more developed, character the actor had played elsewhere. Just like the three or four main characters, all the actors in supporting roles are spread too thin; Gal Gadot, the new Wonder Woman, is barely in the film for more than 5 minutes and TV superstars Norman Reedus and Aaron Paul are not much better served. All this talented is wasted just to have names on the poster and it’s a real shame.

The action sequences, such as the opening heist and a tense police raid, are well choreographed and do a good job at providing tension and excitement. They are nothing special though, merely solidly made. Some Sicario level tension could have pushed Triple 9 to greater heights, but this level is only grasped at, instead of being embraced.

Overall I had a good time with Triple 9, but I was left feeling that it could have been so much more. Perhaps the scope and complexity of the story in Hillcoat’s mind could have made a thrilling TV show, but instead too much is packed into this movie, resulting in a disappointingly predictable, if at times thrilling, crime caper.


The Raid – Review

4 Stars

A beautiful ballet of brutal violence, Indonesian action extravaganza The Raid pushes the boundaries of modern action cinema while harking back to the Hong Kong greats. The story is simple; twenty elite cops enter a huge, daunting apartment complex to take down a crime lord, but when they are discovered they must fight their way out through claustrophobic corridors against a seemingly endless array of low-life criminals.

You don’t watch The Raid for the story, yet there is actually a bit more there than you would expect. Even with limited dialogue and the plot focused on arriving at set-piece after set-piece, there is something to the characters and story (although there is a lack of real character development), which allows some quite interesting twists and keeps you reasonably engaged even when there’s not any fighting on screen. Luckily there is a lot of fighting on screen, and it is all brilliant. Gareth Evans nails the rhythm, brutality and physicality needed to make a proper fight. The action remains varied and well-paced throughout, keeping you excited and engaged. Clear and steady wide shots are used with long takes to enable you actually see the thoroughly talented actors and their perfect choreography. This is in complete contrast to the edit-heavy shaky cam fight scenes that have become the norm in unoriginal summer blockbusters. In contrast to the floaty, meaningless violence of Hollywood, The Raid delivers hard-hitting fights with real, tangible physicality that makes you squirm. Exactly how it should be.

Evans manages to build tension as well, adding to the impact of every fight. Eye flickers, use of light and darkness and heart rate raising music are all used skilfully. This build-up of tension is key to the film’s success, almost preparing the audience for the exhausting action to come.

All the breath-taking stunts and scarily realistic fights are down to the incredibly talented cast including martial arts experts Iko Uwais in the lead role and Yayan Ruhian as a tirelessly brutal henchman. These are incredibly physical actors who are brilliant at making every punch and kick feel real.

The Raid is not brilliantly original, nor is it a great piece of storytelling, but it is a simple but hugely effective template on how to make a pure action film. If you’ve ever enjoyed any moment of action in any movie ever, this is one to watch.