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Movie Reviews

Mary Shelley ★★★

An examination of a highly unconventional historical figure, diminished by its conventional framework.

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Director: Haifaa Al-Mansour

Starring: Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth, Bel Powley, Stephen Dillane, Joanne Froggatt, Maisie Williams, Tom Sturridge, Ben Hardy, Ciara Charteris, Owen Richards

Released: 6th July 2018

In 1818 Mary Shelley produced one of the most influential texts in literature: Frankenstein, The Modern Prometheus. Her novel attracted a huge degree of critical attention and gained increasing cultural importance, so much so that the circumstances of its composition has achieved a kind of mythic status.

During the summer of 1816 Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin and Percy Bysshe Shelley were in Switzerland with Mary’s stepsister, Lord Byron and Dr. John Polidori. One rainy day after reading a book of ghostly tales, Byron suggested that they should try writing their own horror stories. Stimulated by her love of science and discussions she had had with Dr. Polidori, Mary began working on Frankenstein – she was nineteen years old

In their bio-pic Mary Shelley, director Haifaa al-Mansour (Wadjda, 2012) and screenwriter Emma Jensen have somewhat smoothed over Mary’s turbulent and controversial life. The film begins while the young Mary (Elle Fanning) still lives with her father, radical author turned bookseller (and writer of the Gothic novel Caleb Williams) William Godwin (Stephen Dillane), her disdainful stepmother Mary Jane Clairmont (Joanne Froggatt), and a loving stepsister, Claire (Bel Powley).

Mary’s own mother, Mary Wollstonecraft, was the firebrand writer of A Vindication for the Rights of Woman (1792) which argued that women were not inferior to men. This advocate of equal rights and free love died only days after giving birth to her daughter. A frequent visitor to her mother’s grave, Mary begins to experiment with writing and, feeling close to death and loss, she is most attracted by ghost stories.

Mary is not liked by her stepmother (who sent her own daughters away to school but refrained from giving Mary a formal education). Her father however, gives her access to his extensive library and, sensitive to the tensions at home, sends Mary off to Scotland to stay with William Baxter (Owen Richards) where she finds domestic tranquillity and congenial companionship with Baxter’s daughter Isabel (Maisie Williams).

It is also here that she first meets the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth). Once Mary is back in London, Percy again appears and becomes her father’s protégé, but he continues to focus his attention on Mary.

Percy is still only 21 but has already abandoned one wife and child. However, he has a soft way with words and his Romantic idealism appeals to Mary’s radical education so, despite these impediments, he persuades the teenage girl to run away with him, accompanied by her stepsister Claire. Mary’s actions create a painful estrangement from her father who does not approve of Percy or his designs on his young daughter.

The amorous liaison imagined by the sixteen-year-old Mary soon turns out to be much less idyllic than she had hoped. She and Percy are considered scandalous and shunned by polite society, Percy’s male friends assume that Mary is sexually available, Percy is disinherited, and serious money troubles ensue.

Inevitably, Mary soon realises that Percy’s ideas about the unconventional, liberated life that he and Mary should share are not the same as her own, and their mercurial relationship is plagued by Percy’s selfish behaviour and infidelities, followed by further declarations of love. It is most severely tested by the death of their baby daughter, only days after her birth.

A distraction from the devastation Mary feels after the death of her baby results in the infamous summer spent at Lord Byron’s chateau in Geneva. Byron (Tom Sturridge) is a wealthy, swaggering, entitled cad, who lives only for his own pleasure and the fame that the popularity of his poetry brings him. He welcomes Mary, Percy and Claire (his lover), as he declares himself bored with his current guest, Dr John Polidori (Ben Hardy), whom he insults mercilessly.

It may be hard for modern audiences to imagine, but the Romantic poets were the rock stars of their day and attracted similar adulation from young females, who were in effect, groupies, and were used in the same way. As Byron reveals in a moment of candour – intellectual, educated men like himself and Percy, hope for enough intelligence in a woman to appreciate and admire their poetry, but not enough to have ideas or opinions of her own.

The film examines the discrepancy between ideals and practice when it comes to liberation and equality between the sexes. Traditional roles may oppress and frustrate women, but the supposed freedom and hedonism that Percy and Lord Byron offer to Mary and Claire prove to be only on the terms of the men themselves, and result in a different kind of burden which also brings misery and regret. The atmosphere at the chateau is further tainted by the news that Shelley’s first wife, Harriet, (Ciara Charteris) has drowned herself.

One might expect that the film would indicate how Mary was shaped by the many losses, difficulties, and disappointments of her life, but instead filmmaker Haifaa Al-Mansour tends to revel in the love story, the costumes and the poetic flights. Picturesque as the film is, Mary Shelley only scratches the surface of what must have been very intense experiences which formed an exceptional woman.

Both Elle Fanning and Douglas Booth are extremely pretty to look at in period costume, and Fanning in particular, plays her role with sensitivity, but a story as audacious, thematically complex and influential as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein deserves a more penetrating examination regarding the circumstances leading up to its origin.

As the creator of Frankenstein, Mary wasn’t even given authorial credit for what is considered the prototype for countless sci-fi and horror stories. It was assumed that Percy Shelley had written the book, since he had penned the preface. It was her influential father, William Godwin who, several years later, ensured that the book was reprinted with Mary’s name on the cover.

It seems that Al-Mansour and Jensen are at pains to highlight the sense of Mary Shelley’s modernity and offer a defence of female creativity, but the differences between male and female writing – the men are understood to be motivated by ideas, while women write about feelings – gives a simplistic view which undermines Mary’s intellectual autonomy and her abiding interest in politics and science.

Mary’s story Frankenstein thus appears to be merely a therapeutic expression of her emotional pain, but this does not do justice to the intellectual aspects of her story which concern questions regarding the moral quandaries and risks of scientific and technological innovation, the philosophical complexity of human identity and the political exploitation of a labouring class created by the industrial revolution and famine.

Mary Shelly, as an examination of a highly unconventional historical figure, is diminished by its conventional framework. The extraordinary story of how a self-educated British teen, at the beginning of the nineteenth century, had the intellect, talent, life experience and literary ambition to create one of the seminal novels in the English language, the narrative of which has generated numerous imitations and adaptations throughout the centuries, remains relatively unappreciated.

Movie Reviews

Skyscraper ★★★★

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Released: 12th July 2018

Directed By: Rawson Marshall Thurber

Starring: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell

Reviewed By: Van Connor

Be honest. Sooner or later, you knew The Rock was going to make Die Hard. It was inevitable. As he ascends higher and higher thought the upper echelons of the – increasingly spartan – Hollywood star system, this was always going to be coming. The only question really, was going to be whether or not it was going to be either any good, or even welcome in a world in which even a bonafide Die Hardsequel now typically ranks among the worst of whichever year it’s released in.

Alas, Dwayne Johnson is no Bruce Willis, and that quality control barrier could not be any clearer as Die Hard meets The Towering Inferno – with a dash of The Fugitive – for Skyscraper. Rawson Marshall Thurber’s adrenaline-fuelled ride takes DJ to China as amputee and former FBI tactical agent Will Sawyer, an American tasked with signing off on the security of The Pearl – the tallest building in the world. When terrorists seize The Pearl, however, Sawyer finds himself the subject of a Chinese manhunt and forced to find a way back into the building in order to save his wife and children from not only the terrorists seeking to fulfil their own agenda, but also to the out-of-control blaze that threatens to consume them all.

Johnson’s played in the sort of arena on more than a few occasions now, with Skyscraper arguably skewing closest to San Andreas as regards the sort of tone and polished spectacle you’re in for. There are some offhand nods to more classical genre archetypes – hell, it makes more Die Hard references than Jake Peralta – and there’s the requisite degree of fistbumping and utilisation of the term “brother”, but those still unsure of what to expect can rest easy on the promise of what’s essentially an Irwin Allen movie with a Neal Moritz sensibility. It ain’t clever, it doesn’t want to be, it just wants you to sit on the edge of your seat and then cheer afterwards. Which you will. A lot.

Neve Campbell brings an impressive amount to what’s an already impressively sketched out female supporting character in Sawyer’s wife (take notes, Bedelia – that’s how you handle hostage takers), and Pablo Schreiber (Orange is the New Black) continues to make for an engaging added value element. Roland Møller, meanwhile, makes for a decent enough villain, but lacks the charisma needed to really sell the ludicrously named Kores Botha as much of an evil mastermind. Sure, he was never going to rival Hans Gruber on the scale of action movie villains, but Botha’s so thinly devised as a villain that he’s not up to the grade of Tommy Lee Jones’ Under Siege villain either. And that’s a real detriment when your action hero lead is someone as genuinely charismatic as Dwayne Johnson. Both Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Joe Manganiello took the wrong Rock movie, would be a decent takeaway.

In lieu of a captivating villain, Thurber nonetheless ensures value for money is had with a barrage of spectacle-fuelled set-pieces the likes of which will have you squirming in your seat biting your fist for dear life – IMAX could well inspire a sense of vertigo with this one. It’s a glossy-looking actioner – thanks to some smooth production design and slick visuals from cinematographer and Mission: Impossible alum Robert Elswit – and fight choreographer Allan Poppleton goes above and beyond to stage Johnson’s antics not as the all-powerful action commando, but a credible fighter dwarfed by the spectacle of what’s up against him.

It’s a good time for all. Sure, it’s in no way destined to become an enduring classic of the action genre – though, the spoilerific marketing campaign does well and truly show off what will become one of this summer’s more memorable movie moments – but it’s Die Hard on fire. With The Rock. In 2018. And if there’s an easier sell for a good time at the movies than that, it just means Dwayne Johnson has another movie out. In which case, still see Skyscraper first.

 

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Featured Review

Mission Impossible: Fallout ★★★★★

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Released: 25th July 2018

Directed By: Christopher McQuarrie

Starring: Tom Cruise, Rebecca Ferguson, Henry Cavill, Michelle Monaghan, Simon Pegg, Ving Rhames, Sean Harris, Angela Bassett

Reviewed By: Darryl Griffiths

‘What the hell is he doing!? I find it best not to look.’

Rebecca Ferguson. You’re certainly not alone in questioning the thought process of a man seemingly gunning to be ‘The Greatest Stuntman’. Another one Mr Cruise? I imagine his reply is Never Enough. Never. Never.

22 years and six instalments in. Facing stiff competition from Bond, Bourne and a plethora of comicbook darlings along the way. This particular Tom has continued to be a marvel, risking life and limb to give us the adrenaline-pumping thrills we crave, admirably relying on old-school practicality instead of the obligatory CGI bombast we modern cinemagoers have grown accustomed to.

Previous instalment ‘Rogue Nation’ boasted an elegant operatic set-piece in Vienna, with returning (a first for the series) director Christopher McQuarrie masterfully pulling the strings in the background. Well imagine ‘Mission Impossible: Fallout’ as a grandiose death-defying symphony, that could easily leave you breathless in the front row, never mind the upper tiers of this cinematic arena.

Whilst consistent in its entertainment value. It could be argued these films haven’t dug deep enough into the psyche of IMF’s main man. McQuarrie is quick to remedy this right from the outset as a pulsating plutonium power struggle ensues, with Ethan Hunt (Cruise) still reeling from his encounters with Solomon Lane (Sean Harris), the latter a mere pawn now in the eyes of a terrorist organisation called the Apostles.

Trust in Ethan’s methods diminishing with the addition of CIA superior Erica Sloane (Angela Bassett) who compares him to a scalpel, she introduces a ‘hammer’ to the situation in the form of August Walker (Henry Cavill), who is tasked with assisting Hunt and his usual suspects Benji (Simon Pegg) and Luther (Ving Rhames) in preventing further global atrocities. Interrogation? Not for this Man Of Steel.

Intertwining plot threads left dangling by its predecessors to layer its absorbing narrative, with Michelle Monaghan’s love interest Julia a notable inclusion. McQuarrie truly allows the audience to become emotionally attached to these characters this time around beyond the wisecracks and gadgetry, which only serves to fuel the tension and raise the stakes of its balletic action choreography. Playing a lead protagonist who can easily be perceived to be indestructible up to now. The moral angst that engulfs Cruise’s Hunt is refreshing, as his unwavering loyalty to his fellow field agents is deemed a weakness in achieving their intended objective.

Only for this aspect to be amplified by the compelling complexity of Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust who returns with her own agenda, remaining appreciative of Hunt’s relentless nature to complete a mission by any means necessary, with one particular Paris stand-off utterly engrossing. Whilst Sean Harris’ Solomon Lane continues to favour chilling prose, it’s a joy to finally see Henry Cavill utilised in a blockbuster effectively as August Walker, a bruising no-nonsense adversary whose reloading arms prove a worthy match for Hunt.

Yet for all its superior characterisation. Mission Impossible would amount to little without its enthralling stunts, with the film gleefully  looking to out-do the previous set-piece throughout its running time, only to succeed in jaw-dropping style. From heart-stopping halo jumps at 25,000 feet to a heady helicopter chase that made me audibly gasp at its sheer audacity, McQuarrie’s dizzying camerawork and respectful capture of its sleek locations as we witness Cruise’s crazy antics close-up, is as pure as popcorn cinema gets.

‘Fallout? With this franchise? I suspect that thought will self-destruct in five seconds once you clap eyes on this outing. An astonishing genre offering in its own right, in a series that continues to evolve in exhilarating fashion.

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Movie Reviews

First Reformed ★★★★★

Consider the bar raised…

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Director: Paul Schrader

Stars: Ethan Hawke, Amanda Seyfried, Cedric the Entertainer

Released: 13th July 2018 (UK)

First Reformed has been dubbed as Paul Schrader’s triumphant return to cinema. Widely praised by critics and audiences, it finally hits UK cinemas. What is First Reformed all about you ask? Reverend Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke) is a solitary parish priest at a small church in upstate New York. Now more of a tourist attraction catering to a dwindling congregation, it has long been eclipsed by its nearby parent church. When a pregnant parishioner (Amanda Seyfried) asks Reverend Toller to counsel her husband, Toller is plunged into his own tormented past and finds himself questioning his own future and where redemption might lie. With the pressure on him beginning to grow, he must do everything he can to stop events spiralling out of control.

Alienation, social decay makes First Reformed one of the most powerful self portraits in cinema. First Reformed tackles current event topics like the environment, organised religion, politics, and alcoholism as a backdrop for Reverend Toller’s  journey through despair. Hawke’s Toller establishes the key theme early in the film: we’re told that we must hold onto both despair and hope simultaneously. Toller’s efforts to live this self-contradicting life, leads him down a path of madness.We discover that existential crises and sincere Christianity make quite the self destructive couple. Toller finds he must reject the shiny glossy presentation of modern contemporary Christianity, and discover his own self belief and re-build his faith within himself. The careful logic of it draws us in; it’s difficult to see where Toller and society goes wrong.

Paul Scharder’s visuals are utterly striking, each shot is rich with balance, depth and artful symmetry; despite the fact that the film is presented in an unusual aspect ratio of 1.37: 1, it pulls its viewers in with nonstop beautiful photography, mostly high-contrast shots with a muted colour palette.The story is spiritual as you would expect but it’s surprisingly political. The pace of the film is steady and switches seamlessly between snapshots and long takes. The scoring slowly builds its ominous tone, every element of First Reformed is built with intention that serves its sobering themes.

Ethan Hawke has delivered the performance of his career as Toller. This performance is truly next-level from him, and I cannot describe enough to you about how captivating it is to watch Hawke. He is spectacular in this, and an early front runner for award season. First Reformed is quietly intense, disturbingly real with a memorable ending. Paul Schrader carefully tackles controversial topics, especially with handling the concept of Christianity. The movie is neither preachy or anti-Christian in its delivery, but rather shows religion for what it is: a reasonable release for sadness and guilt, but also a burden. First Reformed is without a doubt one of 2018’s finest films.

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