Movie Review: MOTHER! – Darren Aronofsky returns with a terrific, polarizing, dizzying, genre-confounding tale heavy on allegory that will command your full attention.

Three people told me the same thing about this movie.  It’s super weird, and I wouldn’t like it.  Now, I’m the guy who devoured the recent Twin Peaks and enjoy things like Bottom Of The World (though admittedly, Jena Malone was the main reason I watched it!), so weird … kinda my thing, right?  I could never get a straight answer to why, though.  The other thing they told me: you need to go and see it!  So I did, partly to recover from the system shock of Kingsman: The Golden Circle!

Continue reading “Movie Review: MOTHER! – Darren Aronofsky returns with a terrific, polarizing, dizzying, genre-confounding tale heavy on allegory that will command your full attention.”

Movie Review: KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE – this time around, it’s like watching the Austin Powers sequel nobody wanted.

Back in 2015, when I watched  the original Kingsman: The Secret Service, I found a number of things to like, despite finding the story too faintly ludicrious, and, frankly, poorly written.  I greatly enjoyed the performances of both Colin Firth and then-newcomer Taron Egerton, and mostly liked Matthew Vaughn’s direction, whose style seems like a cruder version of Guy Ritchie’s.  The script, by both Vaughn and Jane Goldman failed to engage me on most of its plot points, though.  This time around, Vaughn and Goldman return with a sequel, subtitled The Golden Circle, and I ran out of patience from the first scene.  This is one of the worst sequels I’ve ever sat through.

Continue reading “Movie Review: KINGSMAN: THE GOLDEN CIRCLE – this time around, it’s like watching the Austin Powers sequel nobody wanted.”

Movie Review: KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE – Impressive debut from Taron Egerton, and Matthew Vaughn’s smart direction just about saves this James Bond parody from being a total disaster.

***Caveat: This review was written as a mere Facebook post upon viewing the movie upon its original US release, in February 2015, but I thought I’d post it here to give some kind of reference to the sequel, Kingsman: The Golden Circle.***

The clumsily-titled Kingsman: The Secret Service is Matthew Vaughn’s latest adaptation of a Mark Millar comic book, in this case, The Secret Service, by Mark, and legendary Watchmen co-creator Dave Gibbons. I never finished the actual mini series, but I read enough of it to know that this adaptation is more Wanted than Kick Ass, in terms of how faithful it cleaves to the source material.

Continue reading “Movie Review: KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE – Impressive debut from Taron Egerton, and Matthew Vaughn’s smart direction just about saves this James Bond parody from being a total disaster.”

Movie Review: IT – Very enjoyable adaptation of Stephen King’s iconic novel, but Super 8 and Stranger Things have stolen its mojo.

I read Stephen King’s seminal novel It as soon as the paperback dropped in Scotland, which would be around 1987.  I’d been on a voracious King kick ever since discovering his work in 1980, following the BBC broadcast of the Salem’s Lot miniseries.  King’s work was the perfect reading material for my teenage years, and with the exception of The Dark Tower series (which I’ve still never read), I consumed his books like fire engulfs dry wood.  I have a strong memory of being excited when I read of the then-upcoming novel.  Even the title – It – was evocative to me.  I was already well versed in the works of HP Lovecraft by the time I was 16, and the title, this one, simple little word, was something that Lovecraft would have used.  Oddly enough, as excited as I was to finally read the book, very few memories of actually reading it have remained (and I haven’t read it since), so my review of It, the 2017 movie, is probably going to sound ignorant to some of you.  🙂

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RARE CONCERT REVIEW – U2’s JOSHUA TREE 2017 TOUR AT US BANK STADIUM – mostly terrific show with faithful versions of the iconic songs

The wife and I went to see U2 at US Bank Stadium (home to Superbowl 52 in 5 months) last night on their current tour, the 30th anniversary of their classic album The Joshua Tree. Although I was a huge fan of the band in the 80s and 90s, I’ve found them producing mostly uninteresting work in the 21st century.
The last time was saw them live was on their 360 tour at Soldier Field in Chicago, 2009, a show that I was not too thrilled by, and I recall trying to leave the stadium in order to get to the underground parking was a complete nightmare. I didn’t think I would ever go to another U2 show – especially given that I’ve become less interested in live performances, and the fact that the ticket selling outlets have been allowed to become legal scalpers, and do absolutely nothing to prevent scalping by predatory ticket buyers.
But when I heard this tour was going to revisit an iconic album, I was interested – but wary too. Was Bono going to spend the night “reinterpreting” the album through new arrangements and bury that album’s political texture under a barrage of newly relevant commentary? Hard to say, but I was willing to roll the dice to get a final chance to hear the songs live again.
The surprising support for this act was Beck, and true to the theme of the show, his set was mostly a highlight reel. We were directly opposite the stage, but US Bank Stadium is huge, so the performers were about the size of a grain of rice – fortunately, there was a phenomenal projection to the right of stage that was super high definition, allowing a huge, extremely clear image that looked about 30 feet tall.
I’ve liked Beck just fine over the years without ever actually becoming a fan, and I thought last night’s performance was mostly just okay – but a lot of that was due to the sound quality. This was the first time I’d been in the stadium since the Chelsea v Inter game in August 2016, and my first time for a concert, and it’s clear that while the stadium is great for the purpose it was designed for (it’s the home stadium of NFL team the Minnesota Vikings), the acoustics leave a lot to be desired. Most of Beck’s lyrics were just too indistinct and swamped by the music, which just sounded like an inadequate car stereo turned up to 11. He played most of his big singles of the 90s and early 2000s (the setlist is here), including my personal favourite, Lost Cause, and a great song I’d never heard before. Turns out it’s called Wave and I’ll look for it later today. Prior to that, he performed a cover of local (and worldwide) musical legend Prince’s Raspberry Beret, which, while the intent was sweet, seemed half hearted.
After almost an hour after Beck’s set finished, U2 took the stage and immediately launched into their own, with no introduction. After a couple of songs, it was immediately clear they had come to play The Joshua Tree the way the fans wanted to hear it, and they all sounded terrific. Bono’s voice these days is strangely higher pitched when he talks, and there’s less of the raw power of his youth, but last night, he especially seemed energized by performing these songs, and he sounded mostly terrific throughout all of the songs, very reminiscent of the live performances I’ve watched in the past. He remains as animated as ever on stage, and sure, it’s unfair to compare a band like U2 to most contemporary bands, but these days there are so few front men that possess the kind of personality, magnetism, and drive that Bono still seems to have in reserve. Last night he was nothing short of fantastic – he might not have the kind of unlimited physical energy, but what he does have, he uses it tactically. How can I get all of that from a grain of rice sized human being? Well, that’s down to the other excellent feature of the night: the MASSIVE high definition screen they played in front of.
After a few opening songs performed on a small stage in the heart of the general admission audience, the band went back to the main stage, which had just looked like a giant piece of brown cardboard that earlier had the words of various civil rights activists projected across it before the performances.
But when U2 started to play, this blank screen was transformed to an incredible ultra high definition screen that, in the early part of the show showed clips of the American southwest, probably Joshua Tree National Park.


In the second half of the show, the screen was used to incredible effect with a wide variety of different images including a Salvation Army band during Red Hill Mining Town, a young woman hand painting an American flag on the side of a barn, and best of all when they performed Bullet The Blue Sky. At this point the screen showed the live performance, at times with heavily grainy filters, other times with crystal clear black and white video. It was the kind of music video that would have slotted well into their Achtung Baby period, and for me this was the performance of the night. Sure, they’ve played this song hundreds of times over the years, and I don’t know how many times alone on this particular tour, but last night it sounded raw and fresh and vibrant, and Bono totally sold it.
Of course, we’re living in a tumultuous, politically polarized time. When U2 rose to fame, the world was at the tail end of the Cold War, and the threat of global nuclear war was a common discussion point – as well as that, the UK was grossly divided under the Thatcher government, and back then U2’s political sound wasn’t innovative in and of itself, but their massive appeal and musical ability, coupled with Bono’s growing rep as a hugely intense, articulate front man set them apart from the other huge acts at the time. These days, the kind of political environment that saw U2 thrive has come around again, and The Joshua Tree feels almost as relevant as it did 30 years ago.
Bono wisely let the politics of the lyrics speak for themselves, and the songs sounded terrific – familiar, yet also renewed for the times. It wasn’t until the encore set, and the performance of Ultraviolet that the show’s only overtly political moment happened, when Bono extolled the virtues of women and the need for greater gender equality. As the father of a young woman just venturing out into the world, and the husband of a strong woman who has made a place in the world through her own intelligence and character, it’s a message I will get behind in principle. As the song moved towards its climax, the screen behind showed a succession of images of the most visible of influential women of the last two hundred years, crossing a variety of race. It was a part of the show that would leave a bitter taste in the only the mouths of those bitter themselves, but it was wholly appropriate for these times, and for this band. In many ways, this was as much the return of the old U2 as much as the playing of The Joshua Tree was.
The only negative thing I have to say is that when the band returned for the encore set, the songs felt tacked on – unnecessary and, if I’m being honest, not performed all that well. While it was in keeping with the “greatest hits” theme of the night, this closing set felt a little uncommitted, and the performance of One , one of my favourite songs, was mostly ruined by a sloppy arrangement and rushed vocals.
All in all, an absolutely terrific performance of The Joshua tree, and as I tweeted after getting home just after midnight, it reminded me of why I loved U2 so much back in the day.
© Andrew Hope, 2017

Movie Review: IT COMES AT NIGHT – hugely underwritten script lies beneath a grimly fascinating exercise in tension

If you’ve seen this movie, maybe you felt the same way I did after watching it, maybe not.  It polarized many a watcher when it was released opposite Tom Cruise’s mostly unentertaining The Mummy on the back of a minimalist advertising campaign, because as well as minimalist, the advertising is borderline misleading.

Ostensibly billed as a horror movie, it essentially gives away all of its salient images and lines of dialogue in the trailer, as well as adding a somewhat leading blurb about turning “men into monsters”.  Hand in hand with the title, the goal was clearly to lead people into the cinema feeling as if they were getting the kind of horror movie promised by the trailer and eerie posters – some kind of apocalyptic story about retreating to the winderness to escape … something.

I’ll be honest, I expected a tired old alt-zombie story, and I was only half interested and uninspired by the trailer.  I’m not a huge fan of Joel Edgerton, but he’s a watchable enough actor, and I enjoyed The Gift just fine.  But I never intended to see this one in the cinema, and this was bolstered by mediocre headlines, and a lukewarm response from my daughter, who did see it during its limited theatrical release.  Having now seen it, my critical reaction to it matches my prior expectations, even though the actual movie turned out to be far different than what I imagined.

Edgerton plays Paul, the head of a three person, multiracial family living in a large house deep within a thickly forested region of the USA – it looks like Oregon or Washington.  The house is boarded up, and Paul, who (if I’m remembering correctly) was a CPA prior to the current, mysterious situation, keeps the house so buttoned down that there’s only one exit/entrance door, and he keeps the only set of keys on a string around his neck.  This early on in the movie, it suddenly struck me that I could be in for a lot of underwriting.  Paul is the only white character in the beginning scenes, and I couldn’t readily accept that Kelvin Harris’s Travis was the actual biological son of Paul.  There’s nothing about this actor that looks remotely biracial, so I’m choosing to assume that Paul is actually a stepfather – this is a big deal to me when I consider the script to have been underwritten, because the movie is, essentially, one long exercise in tension, yet there is none of the inherent conflict one would reasonably expect between a young man and an assertive stepfather, in light of the situation.  Travis is a bewilderingly passive character throughout, even though much of what little plot there is revolves around him.  The characterization is one of the few things I genuinely liked about the movie, unfortunately, even this aspect is underdeveloped.  Does Travis have a crush on Kim?  Not enough to fuel any following scenes with the sexual tension one might expect would naturally arise from that kind of seclusion – though in fairness, Travis is written with the emotional maturity of someone aged eight, not seventeen.  Carmen Ejogo, who plays Travis’s mother is barely sketched in, and Riley Keogh’s Kim gets better service from writer/director Trey Edward Shults but fails to be anything other than a moderately developed character.  Christopher Abbott plays Will, the other father figure, and there’s always the feeling of inevitable conflict between both men, but Act 2 does very little to ratchet that up.  It isn’t until the Act 3 conclusion where this happens, but not enough foundation was built on which to let this play out, and it felt hollow to me.  I didn’t feel any great sense of either building cameraderie between the men during Act 2, and there’s not enough ambiguity created in the Act that tries to justify Paul’s mild, internalized paranoia.

Kim is the wife of Will and mother to their young son Andrew, and after a tense confrontation toward the end of Act 1, both families come to share the big house in the forest.  Act 2 is full of dramatic moments for sure, but there is very little actual story to be found here.  Aside from some nightmares experienced by Travis and one overtly mysterious happening, there is just not a lot of material here, and watching it I was reminded of another seemingly-post-apocalyptic drama, Z Is For Zachariah.  In fact, it’s fair to say that both movies could easily take place in the exact same situation, but while Z unfolds as a pastoral, slow moving tale of loneliness, It Comes At Night is the flipside, where almost every minute drips with tension.  This is VASTLY helped by Brian McOmber’s stunning score, because without that particular element I feel the movie would be very flat indeed.

I’ve more or less mentioned the positive things I took from the movie, but the negatives are very big.  For one, the story exists almost out of context.  We know something happened outside of the forest, and it involves people getting sick – but at no point do any of the characters speculate as to what is happening, or how widespread it is, or indeed why it’s so bad that fleeing the cities seems the only viable option for survival.  No need to spoonfeed plot, but Shults seems determined to pry mystery from the omission of something so simple as logical human interaction.  At no point in the movie does the greater context come into play, and I found that to be baffling from a writing point of view.  I read a brief interview with Schults that revealed this as being a choice of his, knowing that some audience members would feel “frustrated” – I was only frustrated by the end result being unexplained and mysterious only because of omissions like this, not because of what was actively written.  Just because a movie has no answers, doesn’t mean the questions the audience asks are not valid, and I felt that some of the questions I had were due to things being vague and unclear, sometimes breaking the movie’s own sense of internal logic.  If Paul has the only set of keys, for example, and the small group are tensely debating how, at a major plot point, the only door was opened, placing them ALL in danger, Paul is never asked by anyone if he opened the door.  That’s bad writing that springs from the Deus Ex Machina school of drama.  There are plenty of badly written movies out there, and It Comes At Night never scrapes any barrels, but the underdeveloped plot elements are striking.  In fact, when there ARE so many good elements (the movie is very well directed, and looks terrific, and the dialogue was pretty sharp and naturalistic), the only thing that left me with a profound sense of mystery at the end was why on Earth Shults made the writing choices that he did.


© Andrew Hope, 2017