Sunday, 13 September 2020

Film Review: "The Social Dilemma" (2020).


"The technology that connects also controls us." This is The Social Dilemma. This docudrama film directed by Jeff Orlowski and written by Orlowski, Davis Coombe, and Vickie Curtis. Set in the dark underbelly of Silicon Valley, this film hybrid fuses investigative documentary with enlightening narrative drama. Expert testimony from tech whistle-blowers exposes our disturbing predicament: the services Big Tech provides-search engines, networks, instant information, etc.-are merely the candy that lures us to bite. Once we're hooked and coming back for more, the real commodity they sell is their prowess to influence and manipulate us.

In addition to exploring the rise of social media and the damage it has caused to society, it focuses on its exploitation of its users for financial gain through surveillance capitalism and data mining, how its design is meant to nurture an addiction, its use in politics, its effect on mental health (including the mental health of adolescents and rising teen suicide rates), and its role in spreading conspiracy theories such as Pizzagate and aiding groups such as flat-earthers. The film features interviews with former Google design ethicist and Center for Humane Technology co-founder Tristan Harris, his fellow Center for Humane Technology co-founder Aza Raskin, Asana co-founder and Facebook like button co-creator Justin Rosenstein, Harvard University professor Shoshana Zuboff, former Pinterest president Tim Kendall, AI Now director of policy research Rashida Richardson, Yonder director of research Renee DiResta, Stanford University Addiction Medicine Fellowship program director Anna Lembke, and virtual reality pioneer Jaron Lanier. 

Orlowski's suspenseful and thought-provoking documentary focuses on the ethical and existential crisis of technology. The film makes you feel vaguely sick, especially when it explains how the destruction of moral ethics could lead to the existential destruction of humanity. A story of passionate pioneers and experts who are concerned about technology's moral ambiguity becomes a clarion call for change and one of the year's most essential movies. The film is a remarkable experience, one that teeters between overwhelming the viewer with the scope of humanity's ruin and inspiring them to find ways to help. I strongly recommend watching the film, after which I urge you to please reconsider your social media accounts. Because seriously, folks, you will never see them in the same way again. The urgency of this problem requires people to become informed about the issues, starting with seeing the film either at the IFC or on Netflix. This cautionary tale is far more grand than social media, and once we realize as much, perhaps we can reverse the consequences before it is too late. By film's end, you'll not only see your social media differently but also as nightmares in which they will be no escape if you allow it to control you. The film makes a powerful case less through argument than by using cinema's most basic tool: visual proof. The message will stay with you, but so will the nagging sense that you can't really do anything unless you happen to be a world leader.

Simon says The Social Dilemma receives:



Also, see my review for Chasing Coral.

Tuesday, 8 September 2020

Film Review: "Bill & Ted Face the Music" (2020).


"The future awaits" in Bill & Ted Face the Music. This science fiction comedy film directed by Dean Parisot and written by Chris Matheson and Ed Solomon. It is the third film in the Bill & Ted series, and the sequel to Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey (1991). The ruler of the future tells best friends Bill and Ted they must compose a new song to save life as we know it. But instead of writing it, they decide to travel through time to steal it from their older selves. Meanwhile, their young daughters devise their own musical scheme to help their fathers bring harmony to the universe.

After the release and success of Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, there were no immediate plans for a sequel. Around 2005, Keanu Reeves was asked if he had any interest in playing Ted again, to which he responded positively. Around 2008, conceptualization for a third film began. In September 2010, Alex Winter confirmed that they had come onto an idea for a plot that they felt appropriate with Matheson and Solomon beginning to work on the script with significant input from Reeves and Winter. By April 2011, the first draft of the script had been completed. By August 2012, Parisot was hired to direct. While Reeves and Winter were both eager to return to their roles, but there was little interest in the script from any studios. Around 2014, the filmmakers began trying to appeal to fans. In September 2014, after the release of John Wick, the film's outlook changed. David Haring and Patrick Dugan, came in to provide the financial backing for the film, and by the end of September 2014, rewrites on the film begun while efforts were made to find a studio. Even with initial funding, it still took several years for them to make necessary deals for the actual production. During this time, the script was mostly finalized and entitled as Bill & Ted Face the Music. The filmmakers then approached MGM to secure distribution, prior to its relaunch of Orion Pictures in September 2017. MGM accepted the offer. In early May 2018, the film was formally greenlit. In late March 2019, Winter and Reeves affirmed that production was ready to commence, and that they had secured an August 21, 2020 release date. By early July, Winter, Reeves, and William Sadler were confirmed to reprise their roles, with Kristen Schaal, Samara Weaving, Brigette Lundy-Paine, Anthony Carrigan, Erinn Hayes, Jayma Mays, Holland Taylor, Kid Cudi, and Jillian Bell. At the same time, principal photography commenced and wrapped in late August. Filming took place throughout California and New Orleans. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the film was moved to August 14, 2020 before then being delayed to August 28, 2020As further complications from the pandemic continued to threaten movie theater openings, it was announced in late July that the film would be released in a combined theatrical and Premium VOD premiere on September 1, 2020. Then, in early August, Winter announced that the film had been moved back to its August 28 slot.

The cast, especially Reeves and Winter, are clearly having a wonderful time. The enthusiasm is contagious.

Though not as strong as its predecessors, this is a better threequel than expected, and it's well worth an hour and a half of your time.

Simon says Bill & Ted Face the Music receives:



Also, see my review for RED 2.

Sunday, 6 September 2020

Film Review: "I'm Thinking of Ending Things" (2020).


"I'm thinking of ending things. Once this thought arrives, it stays. It sticks, it lingers, it dominates. There's not much I can do about it, trust me. It doesn't go away. It's there whether I like it or not. It's there when I eat, when I go to bed. It's there when I sleep. It's there when I wake up. It's always there. Always." This is I'm Thinking of Ending Things. This psychological drama film adapted and directed by Charlie Kaufman, and based on the 2016 novel of the same name by Iain Reid. Despite second thoughts about their relationship, a young woman takes a road trip with her new boyfriend to his family farm. Trapped at the farm during a snowstorm with Jake's mother and father, the young woman begins to question the nature of everything she knew or understood about her boyfriend, herself, and the world.

Described as a psychological thriller and horror fiction, Reid's debut novel was first published in 2016. The novel was selected by National Public Radio as one of the best books of 2016, was a finalist in the 2016 Shirley Jackson Award, and appeared on the 2017 Ottawa Independent Writers Frank Hegyi Award for Emerging Authors longlist. In January 2018, it was announced that Netflix would produce an adaptation of Reid's novel with Kaufman as writer and director. By mid March 2019, Jesse Plemons, Jessie Buckley, Toni Collette and David Thewlis were cast. Originally, in December 2018, Brie Larson was originally cast before being replaced by Buckley. At the same time, principal photography commenced and wrapped in late April. Filming took place in Fishkill, New York.

The film stars Plemons, Buckley, Collette and Thewlis. The cast are perfectly cast in this film. Buckley's vulnerability is stunning, and she has channelled her internal skills into a tightly controlled performance that makes the absurd completely believable and terrifying.

A spectacular film that delves into a primitive feeling more authentically than any other film. A modern classic. The film is a whirlwind of emotions, and it is the kind of psychological horror/thriller that is just grounded enough, in reality, to inspire and incite, but dark enough to deserve its own special place in the genre's history. It's a surprising, clever horror/thriller twist, even as the relationship drama it dredges up doesn't feel at all like horror/thriller. At its core, the film could have been just another horror/thriller. Refracted through Kaufman's wonderfully weird prism, it's something truly memorable. The result is a cinematic vagueness that makes the film less aesthetic yet more persuasive. This is how nightmares really look: like reality, only less so. It's a very Kaufmanesque narrative experiment, technically ingenious and sophisticated. It also looks like some lost psychological horror/thriller idea by Shirley Jackson. The latest and darkest psychological horror/thriller adapted by Kaufman, America's most - we should probably say only - intellectually provocative filmmaker. The film entertains for the most part and gives us a set of marvellous performances from this outstanding cast, even if it doesn't quite reach the near-genius of Kaufman's other works.

Simon says I'm Thinking of Ending Things receives:



Also see my review for Anomalisa.

Film Review: "The New Mutants" (2020).


"There is something new to fear" in The New Mutants. This superhero horror film directed by Josh Boone, written by Boone and Knate Lee, and based on the Marvel Comics team of the same name created by Chris Claremont and Bill Sienkiewicz. It is the thirteenth and final installment in the X-Men film series. Five teenage mutants undergo treatments at a secret institution that will cure them of their dangerous powers. However, their memories soon turn into terrifying realities as they start to question why they're being held and who's trying to destroy them.

After completing work on The Fault in Our Stars (2014), Boone created a comic book with Lee to illustrate what a potential film trilogy adapting the New Mutants comics would be like. Boone and Lee took the comic to producer Simon Kinberg who "really liked it". In May 2015, Fox hired Boone to co-write and direct the film. In March 2016, Kinberg said that, like Deadpool (2016), the film would be different from the core X-Men films and would have a young adult "vibe". In May, Kinberg stated his hope for filming to start at the beginning of 2017. In April 2017, the film entered pre-production in Boston, Massachusetts. Fox scheduled the film for an April 13, 2018 release date. Boone confirmed the film would be "a full-fledged horror movie set within the X-Men universe..." By early July, Maisie Williams, Anya Taylor-Joy, Charlie Heaton, Alice Braga, Blu Hunt, and Henry Zaga were cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced and wrapped in mid September. Filming took place in Medfield, Massachusetts. Boone and editors Matthew Dunell and Robb Sullivan delivered a cut of the film to Fox that they were happy with. Three days of additional photography were planned to complete the "YA movie" that Boone, Lee, and Fox had agreed to make. However, following the successful release of the film It (2017), Fox decided to make the film more like Boone's original vision rather than completing the version that they had been making during production. In January 2018, the film's release date was pushed back to February 22, 2019. It allowed time for the reshoots required to make the film more frightening. The additional photography was soon set for mid-2018. In March, Fox again delayed the film's release to August 2, 2019. However, following the acquisition of Fox by Disney in March 2019, the studio pushed the film's release back to April 3, 2020. Reshoots for the film ultimately did not take place as Boone found that the cast had aged too much since principal photography had taken place. In early March 2020, Boone stated that the film was complete. However, Disney removed the film from its release schedule, along with several other films due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ultimately, Disney scheduled the film for an August 28, 2020 release date.

Though confident performances were given by the cast, they never really generated any sympathy for their characters.

The film offers an imaginative and perfectly competent entry for a franchise already starting to succumb to franchise fatigue.

Simon says The New Mutants receives:



Also see my reviews for The Fault in Our Stars and Deadpool 2.

Tuesday, 1 September 2020

Film Review: "Tenet" (2020).


"Time Runs Out" in Tenet. This spy film written and directed by Christopher Nolan. Armed with only one word, Tenet, and fighting for the survival of the entire world, a Protagonist journeys through a twilight world of international espionage on a mission that will unfold in something beyond real time.

Over twenty years, Nolan conceived the ideas for the film, but remarked "I've been working on this iteration of the script for about six or seven years". In March 2019, John David Washington, Robert Pattinson, and Elizabeth Debicki were cast. By late May, Kenneth Branagh, Dimple Kapadia, Michael Caine, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Clémence Poésy, Himesh Patel, Martin Donovan, and Mélanie Laurent rounded out the film's cast. Nolan chose Washington for his performance in BlacKkKlansman (2018). There was much secrecy surrounding the project before its release. Nolan chose Pattinson after seeing his performances in Good Time (2017) and The Lost City of Z (2016). When casting for the female lead, Nolan nearly passed on Debicki because he thought that she was an American after seeing her in Widows (2018). So when Thomas suggested the actress, she had to inform him that she wasn't American. Kapadia's screen test was put together by director Homi Adajania while working on his 2020 film Angrezi Medium. Washington, Pattinson and Debicki were only allowed to read the script once, in a locked room at Warner Bros. studios. It took Washington around five hours to finish reading it because he kept flipping back and forth "in pure amazement." Branagh revealed that he read the script more times than anything he had ever worked on. He compared navigating through the script to doing the Times' crossword puzzle every single day. Caine wasn't even allowed to read the entire script; he was only given his scenes to read before shooting. Prior to the film's release, Caine told press that he had no idea what the movie was about, despite being a close friend and a frequent collaborator of Nolan. 

At the same time, with a budget of $205 million, principal photography commenced and wrapped in early November. Filming took place in Denmark, Estonia, India, Italy, Norway, the United Kingdom, and United States under the working title Merry Go Round. The film was shot on IMAX and 70mm film with Panavision lenses. Custom equipment and lenses were made for the film, that allowed IMAX cameras to be used more heavily. For instance, a custom camera head was built for the film, that would fit within a car and let an IMAX camera be turned around 360 degrees. Lenses were also constructed that would allow the filmmakers to shoot in lower-light situations, something that is traditionally limited when shooting with IMAX cameras. Nolan is a huge fan of the James Bond movies, and that love of the spy genre flows through the film. However, Nolan tried his best not to watch any movies that may overtly influence him while working on the film - this was the longest period of time the director had ever gone in his life without watching a Bond film. This is because he wanted to work from a memory and a feeling of that genre; he wasn't trying to do his own version of a James Bond movie, but was instead attempting to create the excitement that many people felt watching the Bond films when they were kids. One of director Nolan's filmmaking traditions is to gather his cast and crew together before production begins and screen movies that served as inspiration to the project they're working on together. For this film, however, Nolan intentionally broke his longstanding tradition and didn't host any screenings. He wanted the cast and crew to work from a feeling and memory of the spy genre (including the James Bond films), as opposed to trying to recreate them. Special effects supervisor Scott R. Fisher watched World War II movies and documentaries to find reference points for realism. 

For the film's score, Zimmer turned Nolan down for the first time in over a decade due to scheduling conflicts with scoring his longtime passion project Dune (2020). He was replaced by newcomer Ludwig Göransson, who had recently won an Oscar for his work on Black Panther (2018). Zimmer is friends with Göransson and had suggested him to Nolan. Göransson was about to begin orchestral sessions for the film's score when the United States shut down to stop the spread of the coronavirus. As a result, the soundtrack was completed by putting together individual recordings of the musicians in their homes. Warner Bros. Pictures originally scheduled Tenet for a July 17, 2020 release in IMAX, 35 mm, and 70 mm film. However, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it was first delayed to July 31, and subsequently August 12. After being held up indefinitely, Warner Bros. arranged the film to be released internationally on August 26 in seventy countries, including Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, South Korea, Russia, and the United Kingdom. It will then move to select cities in the United States on September 3, gradually expanding in the ensuing weeks. Although many film productions were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, Nolan was able to complete post-production in more or less the same way he normally would. A rough cut of the film was finished before the lockdown came into place, and further editing was completed in Nolan's edit suit in his Los Angeles home, where he's worked on his films since The Dark Knight (2008). It also helped that, though based in California, Nolan has used visual effects house Double Negative London for years and therefore is used to corresponding remotely.

Washington confidently embodied The Protagonist while Pattinson has all the fun in the best action sequence. It is Debicki's performance that does the emotional heavy lifting. Branagh is his usual terrific self. He is the Sir Laurence Olivier of this generation.

A smart summer thriller filled with visionary set pieces, grand imagery and exciting twists, but its lack of a straightforward and emotional center keeps it just short of greatness. However, it is a different kind of espionage thriller that is hard to imagine it coming from any filmmaker other than Nolan.

Simon says Tenet receives:



Also, see my review for Dunkirk.

Sunday, 9 August 2020

Film Review: "Peninsula" ("반도") (2020).


"Four years after Train to Busan" comes Peninsula (반도). This South Korean action horror film directed by Yeon Sang-ho and written by Yeon and Park Joo-Suk. It is a standalone sequel to Train to Busan (부산행) (2016). Four years after South Korea’s total decimation in Train to Busan comes the next nail-biting second chapter in this post-apocalyptic world. Jung-seok, a soldier who previously escaped the diseased wasteland, relives the horror when assigned to a covert operation with two simple objectives: retrieve and survive. When his team unexpectedly stumbles upon survivors, their lives will depend on whether the best - or worst - of human nature prevails in the direst of circumstances.

Immediately after the success of Train to Busan, an animated prequel, Seoul Station, also directed by Yeon, was released and a follow-up film was announced. Yeon has stated that, "Peninsula is not a sequel to Train to Busan because it's not a continuation of the story, but it happens in the same universe." The film was selected to be shown at the 2020 Cannes Film Festival, however, the festival was eventually cancelled due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

The film stars Gang Dong-won, Lee Jung-hyun, Lee Re, Kwon Hae-hyo, Kim Min-jae and Koo Kyo-hwan. Though not as strong as the previous cast, the cast here also come to realize that selfish short-sighted attention is inherently inhuman. Metaphorically, it's what separates us from the zombies. During the harrowing ordeal, you're hunkered down with a likable group of survivors who jump resourcefully from one trap to the next, with the real monsters being the executive types.

The film doesn't blaze any new trails, but it transcends the tricks and tropes of a genre that so often feels it has nothing more to offer. This South Korean thrill-ride doesn't quite feels as fresh -- not because it doesn't do anything new, but because it doesn't greases the wheels of the old machine, and delivers an unending series of emotional-less gut-punches at a tedious pace. In visual terms, the film is mesmerising. The actual horror scenes are not overly gory, and the chase scenes are excellently choreographed and filled with pure adrenaline, however, it leaves you waiting for the film to be over and leave with a tired yawn. The bad stuff can be ignored and the good stuff, if there is any, is good enough. The terror is nuanced and visceral enough, a gut reaction to the scale and speed of the attacks on screen. There is much to enjoy here, but is there ever really any justification for a two-hour long zombie movie? The film argues not. However, the amount of energy that director Yeon Sang-ho is able to infuse into the film is a welcome change from the stop and go nature of recent entries in the genre. Part horror and part satire, this is an exceptional movie that drags you screaming along at bullet-train speed. Extraordinary tension is counterbalanced with eerie calm, as survivors embark and disembark in quiet fear.

Simon says Peninsula (반도) receives:



Also, see my review for Train to Busan (부산행).

Tuesday, 4 August 2020

Film Review: "Where'd You Go, Bernadette" (2019).


"Bernadette Fox has it all. A loving husband, and a brilliant daughter. But the one thing missing, is her." This is Where'd You Go, Bernadette. This mystery comedy-drama film directed by Richard Linklater, adapted by Linklater, Holly Gent, and Vince Palmo, and based on the novel of the same name by Maria Semple. Based on the runaway bestseller, this inspiring comedy centres on Bernadette Fox, a loving mom who becomes compelled to reconnect with her creative passions after years of sacrificing herself for her family. Bernadette's leap of faith takes her on an epic adventure that jump-starts her life and leads to her triumphant rediscovery.

In January 2013, Annapurna Pictures and Color Force acquired the film rights to Semple's novel, with Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber to pen the adaptation. In February 2015, Linklater was announced to direct the adaptation. Linklater was attracted to the story because of the strong mother/daughter relationship, he being the father of three daughters and brother of two older sisters. In April 2016, It was announced that Linklater, Holly Palmo and Vince Palmo had taken over writing duties from Neustadter and Weber. By early July 2017, Billy Crudup, Emma Nelson, Kristen Wiig, Judy Greer, Laurence Fishburne, James Urbaniak, Troian Bellisario, Steve Zahn, and Megan Mullally. At the same time, principal photography commenced, and took place in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania; Seattle, Washington; British Columbia, Canada; and Greenland. While on location in Greenland, the production was hampered by a hurricane that lasted for thirty-six hours. Rather than wait it out, the crew went ahead and filmed the hurricane and included it in the final cut.

The film stars Blanchett, Crudup, Nelson, Wiig, Greer, Fishburne, Urbaniak, Bellisario, Zahn, and Mullally. It's a spell-binding display of wonderful acting with what looks like occasional skilled improvisation. Linklater allows Blanchett and the cast to give performances of a richness and depth that you won't find in their more obviously crowd-pleasing movies. 

Where'd You Go, Bernadette balances raw drama against refreshing moments of humor in an impeccably cast film that wrestles with questions of patriotism, family, and grief. It's good fun and has a warm heart, but there's nothing of real substance on offer in the film. Blanchett is still immensely watchable, however, in one of his best film roles to date. Linklater can't protect them from all the script's potholes, including sentiment, contrivance and a galling mixed-message ending. But spending time in the company of Blanchett and cast? That truly is a pleasure. It is an uneven film, that succeeds best when it focuses on the spiritual journey of its protagonist. The film may feel like it is meandering at times, but once it gets to its destination it leaves you with a powerful final punch. The film may not be completely smart and challenging, but it contains great performances and writing that may tug hard at the heart. It's gently and marvellously unpacked for our viewing pleasure. It's as funny as it is moving.

Simon says Where'd You Go, Bernadette receives:



Also, see my review for Last Flag Flying.