Going against the grain: Oats Studios and experimental filmmaking

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

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Prisoners – Review

3 Stars

The last few years for Denis Villeneuve have been exceptional. Off the back of the tremendously tense Sicario, he directed the critically acclaimed sci-fi mystery Arrival, and his next film is none other than Blade Runner 2049. Back in 2013 he directed his first English language film: Prisoners.

This (rather depressingly) dark and intense thriller tells the story of the abduction of two young girls in Pennsylvania and troubling steps one father (Hugh Jackman) decides he must take to find them. Both disturbing and powerful, this film explores thought-provoking themes and the murky grey area between good and evil.

However, despite its bold and intriguing premise, the film suffers from an overly-long runtime (one hundred and fifty-three minutes) and over complicated plotlines. Prisoners is trying to be two different films; a dark moody morality tale (like elements of Sicario) and, later, a brain teasing mystery (a bit like Arrival). A straight focus on either would have been preferred to the final mash-up of both, with the former being the best option.

The first two-thirds follow Jackman’s character as he makes questionable decisions as he tries to locate his daughter without the police’s help. It really makes you think about what you would do in the same situation. It includes some of the best, and most tense, moments of the film. Then the final third slips into the more standard mystery thriller. Had the film scrapped that element entirely, it could have been a much more focused and original piece. It could have shaved of around thirty minutes, as well as entire sub-plots and characters that felt unnecessary and baggy.

Despite these issues, I was kept engaged by the film, mostly thanks to Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal (playing the detective in charge of the case), who both offer some of their very best work. At its tensest, Prisoners is a real nail-biter, and some moments are particularly uncomfortable (in a good way). Most of the violence is kept off screen, which keeps it from being glorified, and therefore makes it more impactful.

Prisoners marks the first time Villeneuve worked with director of photography Roger Deakins (they would reunite for Sicario and Blade Runner 2049). The resulting cinematography is unsurprisingly excellent. The weather plays a big part in the most stunning shots, with a speeding car shot in heavy snow being particularly breath-taking.

Despite its flaws, Prisoners remained exciting and entertaining. It would be improved by streamlining, and it feels like Villeneuve has done this with his later work. Within its lengthy runtime is a top-notch morality thriller, which, at times, managed to reveal the talent that has made Villeneuve one of the most exciting directors working today.

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.

 

10 Cloverfield Lane – Review

4 Stars

A distant cousin of 2008’s Cloverfield, (also produced by J.J. Abrams and Bryan Burk) 10 Cloverfield Lane bears little resemblance to the found-footage horror flick. Instead it is a more subtly scary and tense mystery surrounding three characters in a claustrophobic bunker as they try to deduce each other’s motives.

The three characters in question are Michelle, Howard and Emmett, each played brilliantly by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, John Goodman and John Gallagher Jr respectively. After a car crash Michelle wakes up to find herself held captive by Howard in his underground bunker, and he informs her that the US has had some kind of attack meaning that to go outside is too dangerous. Fellow bunker member Emmett seems to agree, leaving Michelle in the precarious situation of not knowing what has really happened and whether she can trust these two odd yet helpful strangers.  As Michelle, and the viewer, are slipped small clues to whether or not an attack has happened or she is a hostage to a psychopath, the tension mounts and dynamics between the characters shift and transform. As mentioned earlier, each performance is fantastic, which really holds together the mystery as you, as a viewer, really don’t know who to trust.

This tension all comes to a head with an unexpected finale that you will either love or hate. Personally I didn’t like it but I loved the rest of 10 Cloverfield Lane so much that it didn’t bother me too much.

Go into 10 Cloverfield Lane with as little knowledge as possible about it (even this review probably says too much) and you will be rewarded with one of the most unnerving and tense psychological thrillers of recent years.

Shutter Island – Review

3 Stars

2010’s Shutter Island is a psychological thriller that saw the usual pairing of Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio unite to make something a bit ‘alright’. It is arguably their worst pairing (it has the lowest Rotten Tomatoes score of all five of their films), but these two are such masters of their craft that it does end up being good, just not good enough.

DiCaprio gives the standard, high quality and recognisable DiCaprio performance as Teddy Daniels, a US Marshal sent to the island, a prison for the criminally insane, to investigate the disappearance of one of the inmates. Based on the book of the same name, Shutter Island has an interesting premise and strings along enough twists and turns to keep you wanting to find out more. The patient has seemingly vanished into thin air and the eerily friendly Dr Cawley (Ben Kingsley) makes Daniels, and by extension the viewer, very suspicious. This set-up is developed, with obvious nods and winks from Scorsese to the noir thrillers of the past, with heavy rain and ominous music providing a chilling atmosphere. However as Daniels and his partner, Chuck (Mark Ruffalo), begin to explore this mystery, the problems stopping the film reaching its potential start to appear.

The thriller/horror set ups and atmosphere lead you to expect something thrilling and scary, but neither feelings really occur to any great extent. Tension is built well at times but there is nothing you haven’t seen before in superior psychological thrillers. One reason for this was the over-reliance on dream sequences, which added nothing to the film. All the plot points they explored were covered in exposition dialogue anyway, meaning you gained little new knowledge. Instead, they take you out of the grounded, realistic threat of the island into flaky, its-only-a-dream territory. This is an important point as I feel the film could have been much creepier had it really focused on the realistic terror Daniels faced from insanity. There is a plot device that explains these sequences but I felt they were overused and over relied on. I also can’t talk about realism without mentioning Daniels’ inexplicable cliff-scaling and paper catching abilities. All these things may well happen and work well in the book but here I just felt they hampered the progress of an otherwise engaging mystery.

The ending, without spoiling anything, is great and really makes you think. It’s a twist that makes a second viewing of the film worthwhile, if you enjoyed it the first time. The ending works because of clever set up throughout the film from Scorsese. It is an unfortunately rare glimmer of his usual brilliance.

Shutter Island is by no means a bad film, but it could have been so much better. The minds behind its creation are great, and their greatness does manage to seep through at times, but you would just expect a lot more.