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Sunday, 31 December 2017

Last Flag Flying



"If you're there for your brothers, that's all that really matters."


When you get down to it, I think human interaction is at the core of any Richard Linklater film. Now I understand that you could argue that human interaction is at the core of almost any movie, but it’s specifically Linklater who seems to construct almost every aspect of his movie in the way the characters speak, act and even refuse to speak/act around one another. It’s hardly a surprise that so many actors are eager to work with him, like the supremely talented trio at the heart of Linklater’s latest film, ‘Last Flag Flying’.

Thirty years after serving together in the Vietnam War, Doc Shepherd (Steve Carell), Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburne) reunite for a different type of mission: to bury Doc’s son, a young Marine killed in Iraq. Forgoing burial at Arlington National Cemetery, the three friends take the casket on a trip up the coast to New Hampshire. Along the way, the three men find themselves reminiscing and coming to terms with the shared memories of a war that continues to shape their lives.

There are few filmmakers who have as deep a compassion for the characters they write than Richard Linklater, which evident from the very first scene of ‘Last Flag Flying’. The scene depicts two old friends reuniting in a shady bar, with a long standing respect and admiration for one another which is laced throughout the scene. But what’s also evident from this opening scene is that both of these men are dealing with their own trauma in their own way. It’s all conveyed through the way the actors present themselves, because much like Doc’s old comrades that help support him through this moment, Linklater knows the best time to just stop and listen.

This is a great achievement considering how ‘Last Flag Flying’ could have easily descended into melodrama or superficiality. Although at times it does fall a little too close to that territory, it uses sublime patience and nuance at exactly the right moments where a lesser film would feel the need to spell it out for the audience. So much emphasis is placed on the way the characters reminisce and share their lives since the war. What they choose to tell the others and wait until later to reveal. There’s a structure and development to their interaction that says more about their personalities than some contrived backstory ever could.

Not only that, but as ever with Linklater, the way they interact is through dialogue that feels both natural and engaging. It has a particular rhythm to it that entices us to listen but is also instantly recognizable and relatable as being between friends reuniting. There’s the obligatory catching up and awkward pauses at the start, but as they familiarize themselves with each other’s company they soon settle back into a camaraderie that conveys a sense of shared experience. This effect is done brilliantly through both the screenplay and the actors performances.

Sat the end of the day, despite the strong dialogue, I do think what makes ‘Last Flag Flying’ hit home are the strong performances from its three principle players. It goes without saying that Steve Carell has reason to be particularly downbeat of the three. Everything about Carell’s performance from the way he hold himself and the subtle ways he shifts in character whenever the subject of his son is brought up. He’s clearly carrying a great deal of pain but doing his best to remain reserved and strong. When he does finally let the emotions pour out it’s a cathartic experience due to the power of his outburst, but also how well it contrasts with the restraint he had shown prior.

One thing I haven’t mentioned is that ‘Last Flag Flying’ is an unofficial sequel to the Hal Ashby film ‘The Last Detail’ which starred Jack Nicholson. Though Linklater has changed the character names, Cranston is clearly an embodiment of Nicholson and it shows. He has the same pulsating energy and erratic tendencies, and like Nicholson he uses them expertly to convey a great deal about the character. He’s not constantly wired but he does use his levels of energy to display different emotions in a way that feels true to his established character. Better yet is that Cranston never comes across as imitating Nicholson, he’s a real embodiment of what the actor brought to the character in the first film and adapts it to the context of this one. Laurence Fishburne is also excellent, having the psychical stance of a reserved religious man, but loosing none of the passion from his younger days. That passion only becomes more evident as the film progresses and he spends more time with the friends of his youth, making his slow transition very fulfilling.

The film does make some missteps though. It can’t help but feel a little manipulative and contrived at certain times. Particular when the score tries to wean more emotion out of the audience because not only does it feel unearned, but it also undercuts the more honest current that the movie had first established. There’s also a number of moments of tone deftness where the film tries to add a sense of humour, which works sometimes but at others dissipates the drama that had been so expertly built up. It does such a good job at relying on its cast for most of its runtime, so I ask why it doesn’t trust them near the end.

Carried by a strong cast and only occasionally descending into melodrama, ‘Last Flag Flying’ is a gratifying and humane drama.

Result: 7/10    

Saturday, 30 December 2017

The Worst Movies of 2017


It’s that time of year again! Time to reflect on the fact because I still haven’t seen every movie I wanted to before making my top ten best of the year list (guys, seriously just have a wide release for ‘Phantom Thread’ and ‘Shape of Water’ already!) so instead I decide to end the year with a selection of the very worst 2017 had to offer. While I think there were more outstanding films in 2017 than there were last year, there were also more awful movies as well. That being said, at least this year the awful movies were interestingly terrible rather than the plethora of “meh” that dominated last year. So at the very least I have something to say about these disasters.

As per usual I have plenty of honourable mentions outside of the main top ten. Starting things off I have to mention ‘The Mummy’, the first and last instalment of the Dark Universe franchise, so it’s good thing they didn’t put any branding for said franchise in the midst of it like maybe in the opening logo of the movie because that would be REALLY EMBARESSING. Evidently director Alex Kutzman looked at the way everyone hated the sequel pandering, unresolved plotlines and gratuitous unfulfilled promises in his script for ‘The Amazing Spider-Man 2’ and thought “I should do all of that again”. Seriously, how can someone be so blind to their past mistakes?

Pirates of the Caribbean: What One Are We On Now?’ was also a predictably awful mess. I suppose unlike the previous Pirate sequels this one was more depressing than frustrating given that everyone other than the filmmakers seem to know that the franchise is long past its prime. ‘Snatched’ was an awful comedy but then again it did star Amy Schumer so I suppose I only have myself to blame for expecting anything else. ‘The Circle’ felt like someone was half paying attention to an episode of ‘Black Mirror’ (in related news Season 4 is amazing, at least I’ve recommended something good in this list) and swapped out any hint of intrigue or drama for the most generic and non-threatening message about technology you could imagine. Broadcasting yourself day in day out isn’t a great idea? Well no shit movie, thanks for telling me that.

There were also a big number of movies that were bad by virtue of how dumb they were. If someone had been in a coma for the past fifteen years and the first movie they saw upon awakening was ‘xXx: Return of Xander Cage’, they would be forgiven for thinking that cinema and society as a whole had made absolutely no progress whatsoever in that time frame. Mind you, that’s still more progress than ‘Geostorm’ and ‘Happy Death Day’ could even dream of making. Then there’s ‘Jigsaw’. Obscure fact; that was a movie released earlier this year.

I also feel like ‘Justice League’ deserves a mention. Maybe it’s an easy target at this point but it was honestly quite sad to see Warner Bros clearly so desperate to make ends meet on their superhero project that they essentially edited two entirely different films together, twice. ‘Bright’ was also something I wouldn’t want to inflict upon myself again, as was ‘Woodshock’. Finally we have ‘All Eyez on Me’, ‘Blind’, and ‘Unforgettable’, all of which were what I can only assume were Lifetime original movies that accidentally got a cinema release.


Biggest Disappointment – The Snowman

Though there were plenty of contenders for this spot including ‘The Bad Batch’, ‘Song to Song’, ‘Suburbicon’, and ‘Downsizing’. But nothing beats the colossal let down that was ‘The Snowman’. A cast and director this talented should not, even on their worst day, be capable of delivering a film as awful as this, and yet here it is to prove me wrong. It’s thriller than lacks any sense of tension, development or intrigue. The characters are as stale and underwritten as the central mystery, which is almost incoherent due to how the film has obviously been hacked to death in the editing room. There really isn’t any redeeming quality to it and I can’t for the life of me imagine why anyone would want to revisit it.


10: The Only Living Boy in New York

I had hoped that Mark Webb’s return to indie roots might yield some positive results after his disastrous turn at helming the ‘Amazing Spider-Man’ franchise, but somehow he managed to create something even worse than that. Whether it’s aiming to be a quirky take on romance of just a male fantasy, there’s nothing entertaining to be found in this movie. The characters are so shallow and unlikable that I defy anyone to genuinely care for the outcome of the events surrounding them. The plot doesn’t contain an ounce of anything that I would describe as intriguing or surprising. There’s no hint of visual flair to be found in the film. I saw just a few months ago but I’m struggling to remember anything about it.


9: Flatliners

That being said, when it comes to boring, nothing beats the remake of the 1990 science fiction film about a group of medical students try to stop their hearts for as long as possible before reviving themselves. As a horror movie it lacks any sense of fear, dread or anything even remotely interesting. It squanders a talented cast and interesting premise in favour of partaking in the most mind numbing horror clichés you can imagine. It falls flat on almost every conceivable level, mentioning a vague philosophical theme every now and then only to completely ignore it in favour of more stupidity.


8: Resident Evil: The Final Chapter

The only saving grace of this movie is that it’s title may actually be accurate, in which case we can be thankful that this is the final instalment of this franchise. I can’t get over how horrifically edited and directed this film is. There’s almost no cohesion to the way each shot leads into the next and some seem so quick that I swear they only used half a frame of footage to fill. The colour palette is a flat shade of nothingness and the CGI is an ugly mess that looks as if it was composited with a copy and paste programme. There’s one scene in particular, in which Mila Jovovich falls down an air vent and the way it’s filmed leads to belie that director Paul WS Anderson’s method of shooting was to throw the camera down the vent and just use the raw footage of that in the final product.


7: The Book of Henry

Some movies just have creative decisions that are so baffling I almost want to recommend them, just to experience the insanity first hand. This year, that movie is ‘The Boom of Henry’, Colin Treverrow’s …something. In all seriousness I do have an inkling of what Treverrow was trying to accomplish. I think he wanted to both pay homage and deconstruct the children’s adventure films of the 1980s, movies that placed young characters in scenarios that would be ridiculously implausible in any realm of reality. The problem is that Treverrow is so tone deaf that his creative decisions feel more like sincere attempts at drama rather than knowing winks, and his flat visual style, simplistic characters and muddled screenplay don’t help either.


6: Death Note

I’ll give Adam Winguard’s ‘Death Note’ this, I heard enough people hating on it while expressing love for the anime it was based on that I decided to check out the source material. The end result is that I hate this film even more for the disservice it does. I understand that adaptations have to be different, but those creative differences have to make sense. Thinking you can improve the original ‘Death Note’ by adding a cheesy 80s soundtrack, contrived teenage drama and ‘Final Destination’ style deaths shows a colossal misunderstanding of why your source works to say the least. It doesn’t work as an adaptation nor does it work as a standalone project with its total lack of atmosphere, terrible editing and characters so idiotic that they would be dead by the end of the first episode of the anime.


5: Rings

I think a lot of people have forgotten about ‘Rings’ this year, and I can’t say I blame them as it’s a human tendency to block out major trauma. It swaps the genuine terror and dread of Gore Verbinski’s ‘The Ring’ for cheap jump scares and a convoluted origin story that no one ever asked for. The characters are utterly flat and lifeless, as is the visual style of the movie. But what might be worst of all is the sheer desperation the filmmakers have to convince the audience they’re watching something scare. From the awful quick edits to the laughably terrible sound effects, ‘Rings’ isn’t even worth the effort to complain about it.


4: Transformers: The Last Knight

A story that’s derivative of its predecessors, characters that are completely unengaging as well as idiotic in their actions, a narrative that is nonsensical filled with too many plot holes to count, editing that seems content to only ever show you a single angle of a fight sequence in close-up rather than change its visual style at any moment, action scenes that are bland and unimaginative, blatantly plagiarising an element that you would find in any successful blockbuster of the past few years from  that visual cues of ‘Star Wars’ to car chases from ‘Fast and Furious’, failing at technical aspects that you would think are listed as one of the most fundamental basics of filmmaking. All this and more, and it’s not even the worst of the franchise.


3: Fifty Shades Darker

Though it’s a terrible film, I can at least understand the bare curiosity that drew audiences to see ’50 Shades of Grey’. But for the life of me I can’t comprehend what compelled anyone to see the sequel. An abomination of cheap tactics that throws so many subplots at the audience in the span of such a short runtime it verges on parody (there’s a whole helicopter crash in this movie that’s instigates, occurs and resolves itself in the space of ten minutes). I also defy anyone to find a romantic couple who share less chemistry than Blank Slate #1 and Blank Slate #2 (I’m inclined to think that they have names but I’m sure that’s just my memory serving me wrong), if anything they looked like they hated every minute of it. Well at least someone knows how I felt.


2: The Bye Bye Man

There’s no avoiding it. It’s terrible, terrible in ways you won’t even comprehend. The level of incompetence within ‘The Bye Bya Man’ almost defies belief.  Even the most basic components of filmmaking, such as lighting, camera angles, staging and location all seem so horribly off. There seems to be no limit to its incompetence as it seeps into every solitary aspect of the film and all of this is simply on a technical level. When you take into account how pitifully uneventful the film is, with each boring section only punctuated by the occasional outburst of bloodless violence it becomes even worse. From a quality standpoint ‘The Bye Bye Man’ is the worst film of the year, but it’s not as loathsome as my choice for the top spot.


1: The Emoji Movie

I don’t think anything cinema has ever produced comes close to the cynicism, laziness and contempt for your own audience than ‘The Emoji Movie’. Maybe that’s an exaggeration but the fact is that this is not a film. It’s a commercial that likes to think of itself as a movie. When brand recognition is your main priority in a movie, to an extent that you actively boast about how little you care for plot, character, humour, tone, quality of animation or anything remotely connected to the artistry of cinema, you get this. It’s bad enough that it’s an advert trying to cash in on trends, but what makes it worse is that the film is populated with the trends a studio executive thought was popular three years ago (and if an executive thinks they’re popular then they’re already three additional years out of date anyway) so by now that they’re eye-roll inducing just by mention. It’s an anti-comedy, an anti-movie. Something so devoid of any attempt at artistic merit or worthwhile filmmaking that it would be more enjoyably if you view it as a tragedy.

I, Tonya



"America, they want someone to love. But they also want someone to hate."


As a director, Craig Gillespie has a knack for making movies that are way better than they have any right to be. One wouldn’t think you could make a comedy about Ryan Gosling’s relationship with an anatomically correct doll, or craft a good horror remake, or do a biopic on Tonya Harding that doesn’t feel exploitative or manipulative. Well to prove that the former two are in fact possible Gillespie gave us ‘Lars and the Real Girl’ and then the ridiculously entertaining 2011 ‘Fright Night’. So does ‘I, Tonya’ surprise us again?

 Based on true events, I, Tonya is a retelling of key moments in the career of American figure skater, Tonya Harding (Margot Robbie), and particularly the 1994 scandal surrounding an attack on fellow Olympic competitor Nancy Kerrigan as well as her tumultuous relationship with her husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan).

It’s rare for a biopic to show its subject in an entirely new light. To take its subject and cast them in a new light by either lifting the lid on what happened behind the scenes, taking more time to show that subject as a person rather than an event, or in the case of ‘I, Tonya’ place that subject within the context that created them. ‘I, Tonya’ doesn’t try to vindicate or justify the events of the 1994 Olympics, but it does ask us to acknowledge the environment that Tonya Harding emerged from and how she ended up with her lot in life.

Despite the fact that all of this sounds terribly depressing, ‘I, Tonya’ does have a certain dark comedic flair to it. There’s a definite air of tragicomic absurdity to the whole event and though there’s a twinge of sadness in proceedings as well, none of it feels out of balance or exploitative. As I said before, the movie wants to scrutinise Harding’s environment just as much as her, so it becomes a commentary on classicism, abuse and injustice just as much as it is about the actual event itself. It actually utilises the “true story” formula very well as even if you’re not familiar with the details of Harding’s scandal, there’s a definite inevitability and rising sense of dread from watching her get beaten down by the system around her time and time again.

It’s also very commendable that Gillespie could make you root for someone who you know is going to be involved in an atrocious scandal. It would be easy to paint Harding the character as a generic unhinges public figure, but her actions in retaliation to the world around her feel motivated and almost cathartic. The story frames her as it would any tragic protagonist, sympathetic up the point where they go too far and becoming empathetic in the process. When Harding is working on a smaller scale of insulting the classist judges and skating committees, it’s hard not to feel gratified in some small way as she puts her foot down.

Not only does the script know how to handle this balance of character, but so does Margot Robbie who gives a fantastic performance in the lead role. Ever since her breakout role in ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’ Robbie hasn’t managed to secure a role that feels like it’s fulfilling her potential. Obviously that’s not to say she’s bad in those roles, in fact she is often the best part of whatever film she is in. But there’s a sense that the role isn’t written to be as great as she is/can be. However, with Harding Robbie is able to really showcase her raw talent. Her performance is fragmented and vulnerable but never outright hysterical due to the determination and gall she injects into Harding’s personality. She clearly fights her own battles and wants to make an impression, which makes her abuse and belittlement all the more heart-breaking.

The supporting cast are also on top form. Sebastian Stan manages to become despicably loathsome as Harding’s abusive husband. There’s an aggression to him that looks as if it is on the verge of boiling over in every scene. Stan makes it clear that the inner rage is constantly being contained and even when it does raise its head it comes more as a calculated move rather than a sheer explosion. It’s frightening to say the least, but not nearly as frightening as Allison Janney as Harding’s mother. A cold and clinical figure who pushed and abused Harding as a child to fulfil what she saw as being best for her. There’s a sickening logic to it all that only makes it more unnerving.

But the masterstroke of ‘I, Tonya’ might be the way in which it turns the attention to the viewer. While it was the skating world that showed bias against Harding for her working class background, it was the sports and tabloid media who painted her as a “white trash” figure before, during and after the scandal. Then above that, there’s the public who laughed along with the joke that when viewed in context was the culmination of a life’s worth of abuse. Now, I wasn’t alive to witness this as it unfolded so I can’t vouch over how accurate this social portrayal is. But it makes for one hell of a compelling narrative.

‘I, Tonya’ is a darkly satirical and deeply tragic biopic that is sure to subvert the expectations of most audience members looking for confirmation of what they think they know.

Result: 8/10

Friday, 29 December 2017

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri



"All this anger, it just begets greater anger."


Martin McDonagh may only have a two feature films to his name, but he’s managed to make a huge impact in the short time he’s been working in the film industry, cementing himself as one of the finest writers and directors working today. ‘In Bruges’ showcased McDonagh’s brilliant blend of comedy and tragedy, and then ‘Seven Psychopaths’ cemented it. It goes without saying that I’m excited to see his latest feature.

After months have passed without a culprit in her daughter's murder case, Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand) makes a bold move, painting three signs leading into her town with a controversial message directed at William Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), the town's revered chief of police. When his second-in-command, Officer Dixon (Sam Rockwell) an immature mother's boy with a penchant for violence gets involved, the battle is only exacerbated.

I should start by saying that I loved both of McDonagh’s, previous films. So don’t think that when I call ‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ his masterpiece that I mean it lightly. This is a movie that managed a juggling act so intricate and masterful that it almost defies belief. The idea that a film can be this funny yet this deep, so violent yet so poetic and so cathartic yet ambiguous in just the right ways, it’s something I haven’t seen any film in recent memory achieve to such a great extent.

There’s an unpredictability to McDonagh’s writing that never fails to intrigue an audience. But that unpredictability doesn’t come from simply shocking his audience, or even subverting expectations. It comes from subtly re-writing the basic structure of how movies are supposed to unfold. Character arcs, narrative points, thematic development, on a subconscious level we all expect these elements of a movie to reveal themselves in a certain way. The ways of presenting them become convention due to how well they work, and diverging from those basic rules of writing often results in an ineffective script. But McDonagh somehow defies those conventions whilst still endowing his story with a sense of structure, progression and catharsis.

I think one of the ways that McDonagh manages to achieve this is through the depth he endows to each character. None of the characters within the movie are painted in a simplistic light, they all have complex arcs that develop in a way that’s both surprising but almost inevitable. Each character is memorable but also grounded, and it’s through that combination that McDonagh ensures that every character decision and action is as surprising as it is understandable. Any of the character arcs within the movie are stunning on their own, but when woven together in such an intricate way it makes for an utterly satisfying experience. To see these characters that you thought you knew suddenly interacting with one another in ways you never expected is so gratifying, and because it’s done so subtly there’s a sense of completion to accompany it.

The thing is, having characters randomly bump into one another wouldn’t be a fulfilling viewing experience. But when the characters are so clearly drawn as they are in ‘Three Billboards’, and you as a viewer feel so endeared to them in light of their flaws, when they do change you feel as if you’ve changed with them. Each character possesses their own flaws and it’s those flaws that drive them. Whether it be prejudice, depression or grief, everyone in ‘Three Billboards’ has something that is both holding them back as well as pushing them to act.

But it’s one thing to write this complex of a script, but it worth little if the actors were not capable to convey that complexity. Fortunately that is not the case with ‘Three Billboards’ as every performance is simply phenomenal. There isn’t a single performance in the movie that fails to inject a great level of humanity into these characters that could so easily have become caricatures. Frances McDormand expresses anger throughout the movie, but also has a level of vulnerability that becomes more apparent as the movie unfolds. She’s principled and obvious has a righteous cause, but as the situation she instigates spirals out of control her exact relationship to those principles reveals itself and it’s both heart-breaking and beautiful in its empathy. Woody Harrelson shines as Chief Willoughby, also striking a great balance between determination and vulnerability. He also expresses a great deal of humour that not only serves to be entertaining but helps ender you to Willoughby as a character.

But I think the best performance in the movie is Sam Rockwell as Dixon. To spoil anything about the way his character progresses would be a travesty, but I can say it’s my favourite arc in a movie filled with them. Rockwell executes so perfectly in his performance, never forgetting to acknowledge the anger and prejudice his character carries. But also not painting him as one note for his actions, which is what makes his subsequent arc feel believable and endearing.

It would be easy to overlook McDonagh’s direction in favour of his amazing screenplay, but he handles the film very well from the director’s chair as well. His understated handling of violence, drama and humour is what helps tie the contrasting tones together. He never overemphasises anything on a visual level and therefore nothing seems out of place or contrived. The only flashy piece of direction is an amazing long take sequence that you might not even notice on first viewing. Or maybe that’s me just looking for an excuse to rush out and see this movie again.

Films like ‘Three Billboards’ are why I love movies, a rollercoaster of emotional depth and complex writing that has the potential to be a future classic.

Result: 10/10

The Greatest Showman



"No one ever made a difference by being like everyone else."


Are musicals making a comeback? I understand that they’re not at the abundance at which they once were, but I feel like the movie musical has regained a certain level or marketability in the wake of a certain film released in 2016. It seems that musical numbers aren’t just regarded as an obligatory part of a Disney, they can be pushed as part of a film’s main appeal. Or at least, one hit song from the film can be pushed at the main appeal in the hopes that everyone will remember it come awards season.

When PT Banum (Hugh Jackman) is fired from his job as a lowly clerk, he tries to find new ventures to support his wife (Michelle Williams) and family. Gathering an assortment of outcasts and roadside attractions, he forms a circus to draw in crowds. Having started from nothing Barnum created a spectacle that would garner worldwide attention and form the origins of show business as we know it.

There’s artistic liberties, then there’s bending the truth, then there’s ‘The Greatest Showman’. Opinions aside, there isn’t really much debate over the idea that PT Barnum was actually a con-artist who exploited his acts as often as he manipulated audiences into seeing them. Put it this way, a man who has reverence for his audience and performers doesn’t coin the phrase “there’s a sucker born every minute”. None of this is to say that there shouldn’t be a movie about him (in fact a more true to life retelling would probably be infinitely more interesting than this movie), but to paint him as the hero of a rags to riches tale that championed the downtrodden is a little inaccurate to say the least.

But ethics aside, ‘The Greatest Showman’ still doesn’t redeem itself by way of virtue. Looking at this purely as a cinematic musical, it still falls a little flat. It attempt to tell a grandiose story of inspiration but never endears us to the main characters beyond the most manipulative and cheap tactics. The characters are presented to us but we never get any insight into their motives or any development that feels earned. The characters change but there’s no nuance to that progression and worse still is that each of those arcs are the most generic schmaltz you can imagine. They seem to change when the script demands them to rather than in a way that feels natural to the flow of the narrative.

None of this is to say that ‘The Greatest Showman’ isn’t uplifting at times, in fact it’s not the predictability of the movie that drags it down but rather its repetitiveness. The movie is the directorial debut of Michael Gracey and it shows. The song sequences, while impressive in their choreography and production design, don’t really have any visual dynamic to them. They’re all filmed with sweeping camera movements that showcase the better aspects of the film’s production, but inevitably feel flat and awkward when they drag on at the same angle and in the same style for a few too many minutes.

The story and sequences are derivative of one another and the narrative seems to take several detours only to end up at the exact same conclusion as they would if they had cut out entire sequences. The golden rule of musicals is as follows, if a music number isn’t advancing the plot or characters then it shouldn’t be there. The songs that work best within ‘The Greatest Showman’ are the ones that do just that, but a frustrating amount of them feel as if they’re added purely to stall for time. You could remove most of the songs in this film and the plot would play out in the same way. What makes it worse is that a few of those songs not only serve the exact same purpose, but are executed in the exact same style. There are three songs between Hugh Jackman and Zac Efron that involve the former throwing props to the latter to prove a point.

I can at least praise the performances within ‘The Greatest Showman’ because while the actors could use more to work with on a dramatic front, there work is what makes it seem serviceable at best. During the musical numbers their talents really shine. Jackman makes for a charismatic leading man that captures the idea that Barnum could easily enchant his audiences with his sheer showmanship. Efron and Zenendaya share enough on screen chemisty that their romantic subplot feels at least believable if not highly formulaic (I’m fairly convinced they would have included a “running to the airport to declare love” scene if they hadn’t remembered the period the movie is supposed to take place in at the last minute). And Michelle Williams is…there, kind of. Yeah they really wasted her talent.

 Predictable and disingenuous, ‘The Greatest Showman’ is a decent spectacle but an empty one at that.

Result: 5/10

 

Thursday, 28 December 2017

Lady Bird


"Lady Bird always says she lives on the wrong side of the tracks, which I thought was a metaphor. But there are actual train tracks."


There’s a common belief that you can tell when a film comes from authentic, personal experience. That’s not to say every filmmaker has to have experienced the exact thing they’re depicting, but quite often when you look at a debut from a writer/director, they’re rooted in what’s personal to that filmmaker and it’s obvious when it’s done right. You get an affinity for details and a love of the smaller aspects of the movie rather than any grandiose ambitions. This bring us to the directorial debut of Greta Gerwig, a coming of age tale called ‘Lady Bird’.

 Christine “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) is a strong willed teenager undergoing her final year in a Catholic high school. As she prepares to leave home she tries to navigate her turbulent relationship with her family, particularly her equally strong willed mother, dilemmas in dealing with her friends and the minefield that is any semblance of a romantic life.

Empathy is an essential ingredient to any coming of age story. You have to feel empathy for your characters at this crossroad of their life, because any personal problems those characters have has to feel important to the audience. I don’t care if some random teenage girl is having issues getting a boyfriend, but when I watch ‘Lady Bird’ both I and its title character understand that it’s vital to find one before the year is over. Although, what I just described is an oversimplification. You see, a fatal mistake of any coming of age story is to paint its characters in broad strokes. To see them not as human beings but to portray them as crude stereotypes that only exist for comedic value. There aren’t any characters like that in Greta Gerwig’s film.

I can safely say that is what I found to be most profound about the movie. The way Gerwig instills such a deep understanding of each and every character, they all have some degree of nuance to how they act and a certain complexity over how they operate. None of them are one note figures, to a point where even the least likable characters in the movie are understandable or serve the greater point of the movie.  Everyone has their own fleshed out identity, and in a movie in which the main theme is the protagonist forging her own identity, that is very significant. By the time Christine has come to terms with who she is by the end of the movie it feels cathartic because we’ve seen that identity take shape and be influenced by the distinct personalities around it.

I can’t even describe how utterly relatable ‘Lady Bird’ was to me. There are so many minute details in how the characters act around each other that reminded me of my own time in school, how I interacted with my parents when I was at that point in my life and my own emotional state. But of course, it’s not specific to me, nor Gerwig, nor anyone in particular. The film captures this universal feeling of independence and the conflict that comes with it. There’s a need and desire to go out into the world but also a deep affection for your home and the places that have made you who you are.

A part of the film that really helped immerse me in the mind-set of these characters were the performances. They are simply phenomenal across the board. That’s not to say you should go into ‘Lady Bird’ expecting a plethora of powerhouse moments and super dramatic scenes because there aren’t. In fact the film as a whole rarely contains a moment that would play for an Oscar nomination reel. There’s no exceptional even that makes Christine or anyone else in her life particularly unfortunate. In fact the film doesn’t have a plot as much as it just observes a year of Christine’s life. There are arcs and themes to tie together, but all in all there’s a wonderful free flowing nature to the narrative.

But going back to the performances, none of the actors ever failed to break the illusion that they were the characters of the story. I saw them all exclusively as the people they were portraying, and never thought of them as actors. Ronan herself utterly embodies the character of Christine in ever singular aspect of her performance. From her flawless accent to her physicality and the tiny details of how she interacts with any figure of authority. Laurie Metcalf’s performance is probably best described by the film itself, when Christine’s mother is called “scary but also somehow warm at the same time”. Lucas Hedges and Timothee Chalament both have memorable turns, as does Tracy Letts as Christine’s father who has his own private battles. The only genuine flaw I can find in ‘Lady Bird’ is that one of the subplots felt a little clichéd. Even then it’s not one I’d call insufferable because the execution doesn’t feel clichéd at all in how it employs more subtle methods of conveying it. It’s just that the story itself is easy to predict. Outside of that, I’ve got nothing else.

Empathetic to a great degree and relatable by no end, ‘Lady Bird’ is a coming of age story that balances humour and heartbreak better than most movies this year.

Result/ 9/10

Wonderstruck



"This is a story about what makes us different, and about having the courage to find the place where we belong."


2017 has featured a lot of wonder, literally in fact, especially in its movies. First we had the blockbuster smash ‘Wonder Woman’ followed by a biopic about the creation of that character entitled ‘Professor Marsden and the Wonder Woman’. Then there was also the Jacob Tremblay star vehicle simply titled ‘Wonder’, and the latest Woody Allen film ‘Wonder Wheel’. Not, to finish it all off is Todd Haynes’ ‘Wonderstruck’, a movie with high ambition on a storytelling and technical level.

The film interlaces two stories set fifty years apart, switching frequently between them. Each tells the story of a child's quest. In 1927, Rose runs away from her father's New Jersey home to find her mother/idol, the actress Lillian Mayhew (Julianne Moore). In 1977, recently orphaned Ben runs away from his Minnesota home in search of his father.

Todd Haynes is one of the most distinct auteurs working in cinema today. The richness of his visuals, the boldness of his storytelling and the consistently amazing performances he manages to wring from his actors makes for an amazing filmography. With masterworks like ‘Far From Heaven’, ‘I’m Not There’ and ‘Carol’ to his name I was very excited to see what he would bring forth with ‘Wonderstruck’. Sadly though it makes for a disappointing product because what it succeeds at on a technical level, it falls almost completely flat on the level of storytelling.

It’s mind numbingly frustrating to say the least, because if I were to judge ‘Wonderstruck’ purely on its direction, cinematography and music score then this would be a glowing review. I cannot stress enough how beautifully designed the set pieces of this movie are. The production design is fantastic, fully immersing the viewer into the eras in which the film’s story takes place. Each location has a genuine tactile feel to it that makes it come across as a lived in location, but still manages to be visually interesting and well composed as it does so.

Like any Todd Haynes film, ‘Wonderstruck’ is also visually rich to say the least. Cinematographer Edward Lachman did a fantastic job of populating every frame with rich textures and gorgeous lighting. Not only that, but the way the film uses visuals to tell half of its story and the fact that I never felt lost as to what was going on in a scene is a testament to how clear and concise those visuals conveyed the story. It sounds like a basic trick but to sustain so much of your runtime on visual storytelling is no small feat, yet ‘Wonderstruck’ executes that masterfully. The film’s musical score by Carter Burwell was also brilliant.

I just wish I had a reason to care about any of these pretty visuals or rich images. The story itself never grabbed me or made me feel invested within what was going on. From a storytelling perspective it seems to confuse misdirection for mystery as it leads the audience on a detour in order to get to a conclusion we all knew was inevitable. It’s just difficult to feel the significance of anything going on when the movie has never given me a reason to care for what is taking place. If anything, when paired up against these phenomenal technical elements the story only seems worse for it.

The visuals and music are so grandiose that they feel misused against a story that in comparison feels so inconsequential. It’s a case of major tonal unbalance, with the movie’s technical aspects being in conflict with its thematic elements. It comes across as if the film is trying to insist upon its own importance, and then as the third act rolls around things only get worse as it attempts to elicit emotions that, for me at least, were never there to begin with. It doesn’t help that the film mostly relies on child performances that, while not being terrible, didn’t endear me to the characters and make me believe in them as real human beings either.

It’s clear that the movie wants its conclusion to feel weighted and gratifying, but with no discernible reason to care for what was taking place it started to come across as manipulative. I’m sure that for those who are invested in the story, the ending would play out very well, but for myself I could only see the mechanics of how ‘Wonderstruck’ was trying to orchestrate an emotional reaction out of the viewer. There’s no nuance to the way the story is told, no meaning bestowed upon the events other than what the film itself keeps insisting is important without letting it grow naturally from the audience, and no level of empathy towards anything that is transpiring.

Pretentious at self-important sometimes, while being uneventful and simplistic at others, ‘Wonderstruck’ represents a waste of some amazing technical aspects.

Result: 5/10

Wednesday, 27 December 2017

Downsizing



"Sometimes you think we're in the normal world, then something happens and you realise we're not."


When one really considers the films of Alexander Payne, none of them have actually been about their basic premise, or rather they are only about their premise when described on the most surface level description. ‘Sideways’ is about so much more than wine tasting, ‘Election’ has little to do with high school and ‘The Descendants’ goes far beyond the premise of a man whose wife was cheating on him. So, however interesting the premise of ‘Downsizing’ looks, it’s very likely to have almost nothing to do with the main movie.

When scientists discover how to shrink humans to five inches tall as a solution to overpopulation, Paul (Matt Damon) and his wife Audrey (Kristen Wiig) decide to abandon their stressed lives in order to get small and move to a new downsized community a choice that triggers life-changing adventures.

So it should come as no surprise that ‘Downsizing’ is concerned with commenting upon our own society while examining it through the lens of this unique science fiction premise, in fact you’d have to be a pretty incompetent storyteller to look at a premise like this and not see it as an excuse to do just that. The movie almost cements that right away as its plot focusses on the fact that the whole shrinking idea, though meant to benefit the future of humanity as a whole, is being used as a means for personal gain by almost everyone who sings up for it. Even our everyman protagonist Paul is motivated to take the plunge not out of some need to save the planet, but the knowledge that shrinking his assets will make him significantly richer.

So there’s the flaws of human nature, comfortable middle class backgrounds and literal miniaturised culture on display. If you were asked to come up with a set of concepts and themes for Alexander Payne to work with then you can’t do much better. Except it turns out that you can because depite aiming for several lofty themes and biting social satire, ‘Downsizing’ is a bitter disappointment from Payne, whose usual sharpness and nuance has been replaced by a meandering plot and allegories so unsubtle they might as well have called the movie “It’s about us, pay attention.”

Normally I can at least praise movies like ‘Downsizing’ for having ambition. But the route it undertakes is so simple minded and predictable that the movie can’t help but feel utterly generic. Putting aside the fact that every narrative beat in the movie is easy to spot from the outset, the whole angle ‘Downsizing’ takes with its commentary is completely devoid of any original ideas. All of this means that it comes as little surprise to discover that ‘Downsizing’ was originally conceived back in 2004 and written over the next few years. Its social message feels both clichéd and tired in the modern cinematic landscape.

I think even Payne himself knows this as, contrary to what I said at the start of this review, ‘Downsizing’ seems far more interested in its basic premise than the themes raised by it. The best part of the film is the attention given to the details that craft out this miniature world. Payne strikes a good balance of comedy that is highly entertaining and left me excited over where the plot would go from here. The problem is that from there it sort of jogs in place. The narrative feels repetitive and the characters don’t develop in a way that feels fulfilling at all. Damon’s character does undergo an arc of sorts but it never felt earned or even that interesting given that it’s a story we have seen many times before.

It’s because of this thin writing that ‘Downsizing’ manages to waste its stellar cast. With no discernible characteristics other than “the guy you feel sorry for” and no fulfilling arc, Damon’s performance boils down to merely reacting to things around him. Other actors in the film like Christoph Waltz and Kristen Wiig are at least entertaining to watch, but there characters are almost deliberately one note. This would be fine if our lead was engaging, but he isn’t so I continually found myself looking for any other character I could at least empathise with only to be disappointed. The only one that comes close is that of Hong Chau but even then her character feels like more of a social point or narrative placement than an actual character, and that’s overlooking the stereotypical nature of both the character and Chau’s portrayal of her.

‘Downsizing’ is a disappointment on two levels. The first is that such an interesting premise feels utterly wasted here as it descends into obvious social metaphors, clichéd storylines and paper thin characters. The second is that it feels as if Alexander Payne has put aside what would usually be a fascinating character piece in favour of world building and jokes that quite honestly played better when cut in the trailer.

‘Downsizing’ is a social satire that lacks any sharpness, nuance or innovation.

Result: 3/10

Tuesday, 26 December 2017

BPM (Beats Per Minute)



"We're here to talk AIDS prevention as the government won't."


More recently I’m making an effort to not look into the movies that play at festivals earlier in the year. When I see the list of competition entries for something like Cannes I tend to mark them down as a reminder to check them out when I get the chance but to no look too deeply into them because quite often it’s these kind of movies that are the most surprising in their content and presentation. With all that being said, I managed to tick another movie off my list from this year’s Cannes Film Festival.

Much like the rest of the world in the 1990s, Paris is undergoing a crisis in the form of the AIDS epidemic, both due to the disease and the public reaction. Nathan is a young man who joins an AIDS activist group. As he attends the weekly meetings, he learns that some members prefer a more radical approach to their protests.

Another thing that often happens with festival films is that they’ll be spectacular in one regard but flawed in another. That’s the situation I find myself in with ‘BPM’. When Robin Campillo’s film is at its best it’s an inspirational, intimate and innovative piece of cinematic brilliance. But then at other moments it, not bad per say, but just sort of forgetful. It’s easy to get caught up on those moments that really excel, but as a whole the film has some issues that prevent it from being a great movie in its own right.

At 140 minutes ‘BPM’ is a long film and often feels that way. The plot meanders around with various scenes and subplots that don’t seem to bear that much relevance on the main story or the development of the characters. Speaking of which, the characters themselves don’t have a great deal of depth to them, or at least not enough so that I felt invested in their dynamic or development. The screenplay does a decent job of distinguishing them with differing characteristics, none of which felt clichéd. But these personalities don’t feel like fully fleshed out characters that evolve or progress because the script doesn’t dig any deeper.

That being said, the cast all do a good job in bringing to life a group of people in a way that feels true to life. Rather than resorting to contrived melodrama, both the script and the actors take a more nuanced and realistic approach. The movie also does an excellent job of setting an environment. From the opening shots, the era of Paris in which ‘BPM’ takes place feels like its own character. A melting pot of culture that is caught at a crossroads of social unease. There’s a clear energy to the way Campillo frames the city, as if you’re there experiencing it all first hand.

What you may find most surprising about ‘BPM’ is how well it strikes a varied tone. It incorporates humour and a degree of romance throughout, even in some of its most dramatic moments. Rather than having these moments of humour weigh down the movie it actually seeks to be a welcome improvement, partly because of how perfectly in tune with the film overall. But also due to how despite being based on true events I don’t think it thoroughly earned the drama it was trying to convey anyway, so the idea of making the movie even heavier in tone would have dragged it down.  

The movie is at its best when dealing with the more intimate moments. Dialogue between a few characters is made to be incredibly engaging under Campillo’s unique way of directing conversations, love scenes strike a balance of tone that’s rare to see and there’s a wonderfully uplifting and inspirational through line to the movie. The movie understands in these scenes that it’s the dynamic between its characters that keep the audience invested and only places them in a larger context when necessary. But as I said earlier, it’s a shame the movie doesn’t develop these characters to a degree where I continued to empathise with them throughout.

Though the tone is brilliant, what really stops ‘BPM’ from becoming great is the pacing. At 140 minutes it’s a long movie, but from where I was sitting it really did not feel as if it needed to be that long. The plot felt repetitive at certain moments to a point where every other scene felt almost redundant given that it was essentially rephrasing something we had already witnessed. Either plot points, or character moments or thematic suggestions were all constantly recurring. That’s fine if you want to repeat a specific point, but with ‘BPM’ these moments of repetition started to spoil the film’s pace as it failed to cover as much ground as its runtime would justify.

Brilliant at times throughout but weighed down overall by some poor pacing and a lack of depth, ‘BPM’ falls a little short but is still passable.

Result: 6/10

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle


"You're all here for a reason. You should be thinking about who you are and who you want to be."


Rebooting a movie like ‘Jumanji’ gives me hope that Hollywood might just have started to see sense when it comes to remakes/reboot. With all respect to the late and great Robin Williams, 1995’s ‘Jumanji’ is no classic, being a fun kid’s film at best. If anything, like a lot of kid’s films from the 1990s, pondering over the possible existential dilemmas of the plot is more fun than the actual film itself. Basically, it’s a movie that leaves room for improvement and adaptation, so a remake might not be the worst idea ever.


Four high school kids discover an old video game console and are drawn into the game's jungle setting, literally becoming the adult avatars they chose, Smolder Bravestone (Dwayne Johnson), Ruby Roundhouse (Karen Gillian), Professor Sheldon Oberon (Jack Black) and Franklin Finbar (Kevin Hart). To beat the game and return to the real world, they embark on a dangerous adventure.


First and foremost, has there ever been a more appropriate name for a character played by The Rock than Smolder Bravestone? That’s obviously a rhetorical question because there the answer is clearly no. There never has been and quite frankly I don’t think humanity will ever reach this height again. With that conclusively proves I find myself well and truly surprised at just how entertaining ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’ is. Not only do I think it’s an improvement over the original, but it’s a genuinely fun action adventure comedy.


I think without question, the strongest aspect of the movie has to be its cast. I regret to say that Kevin Hart remains locked into his usual tropes when it comes to his performance, but his co-stars are all having great fun in how they play against type. Being a modern teenage girl trapped in the body of a middle aged man opens a lot of opportunities for comedy, and Jack Black takes as many of those opportunities as he can to great effect. Karen Gillian also does very well at playing a character who is clearly loving every minute of being the badass action heroine.


But it has to be said that it’s Dwayne Johnson who steals the show. Johnson has a knack for being the best part of almost any movie he is in through perpetually exuding charisma. But in ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’ he not only stands out as the usual action hero we’re used to, but he gets to spend the first half of the movie playing someone who is terrified of his surroundings. Not only is it hilarious to watch him reacting to everything in a way that so heavily contrasts with his tough guy physique, but it also gives the actor a solid arc to work with in which he has to put aside his fear.


The cast also share a really good dynamic, which is down to both the time they spend on screen and the time during which we see their real life teenage selves interact. By establishing a clear personality and dynamic between the four teenagers before they enter the game, it gives the main cast some good characterisations to work with and further develop. It’s hilarious to watch that dynamic be subverted as each teenager finds themselves out of their comfort zone, quite literally.


I don’t think it will come as a surprise to anyone that the plot of ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’ is fairly standard. It’s decent enough and is well paced, but is also very clearly an excuse to move the characters from one action sequence to another. That being said though, isn’t the average video game plot also just a means to get the player from one playable sequence to the next? So does that make the plot weirdly meta in a certain sense? Whether you think the film is that self aware or not, the narrative does exactly what it needs to do and nothing more.


The action sequences themselves are also inventive enough. Though director Jake Kasdan doesn’t frame his action scenes with a great deal of flair, they’re clear enough to be engaging. He keeps the tone light and perpetually moves with a consistent visual style. There are quite a few poorly composited CGI and green screen shots, especially towards the third act climax (because that seems to be the fashion with movies nowadays) but they don’t sink the action. It also doesn’t help that the third act tries to add some narrative weight to proceedings but at this point in the movie I honestly didn’t care. The plot and conflict had been generic to this point so suddenly placing emphasis on the seriousness of the plot is a weak attempt to make me feel more invested. But when all is said and done, the fact that this movie entertained me to the degree it did is a welcome surprise.


‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’ may have its flaws, but thanks to a good cast performance it’s so much more entertaining than it had any right to be.


Result: 6/10

Saturday, 23 December 2017

Bright



"All of the races are different, but just cos they're different doesn't mean anybody's better or worse than anyone."


Like any major studio, Netflix have done a good deal this year to branch out. They spent a lot of 2017 trying to weigh in as an artistically droven studio that helped distribute the films of gifted auteur directors like Bong Joon Ho and Noah Baumbach, as well as signing up to release the upcoming projects of Martin Scorsese and Alex Garland. But also like any major studio, there’s a cruel irony in that their most popular movie is likely to be their worst, a point proven by ‘Bright’.

In an alternate present where humans and fantasy creatures have co-existed since the beginning of time, human LAPD officer Daryl Ward (Will Smith) and Orc rookie officer Nick Jakoby (Joel Edgerton) embark on a routine neighbourhood night patrol and discover a powerful ancient artefact that was thought to be destroyed. They soon encounter a darkness that will ultimately alter the future and their world as they know it.

The general premise of ‘Bright’ might make it sound like a distant relation to ‘Men in Black’ (and not just for Will Smith), a police force existing in the realm of the supernatural, pairing two contrasting characters together, even with the same ancient artefact McGuffin. Like any bad movie that’s similar to another one you love, the most you can give to the bad film is that it makes you appreciate the similar movie that you love even more for all that it does right. The world of ‘Men in Black’ may be comedic, but it also felt real and tactile, with rules that were stressed for their importance just as much for their comedic value. It was also all explained to the audience in a way that felt natural to the plot, none of which applies to ‘Bright’.

As a screenwriter, I often find that Max Landis puts more weight into ideas than characters. I don’t doubt that he gives some of the best pitches for a movie in Hollywood, but therein is part of the reason. They are movies that are easy to sell on concept alone, so as a result never seem to develop beyond that initial concept. There’s nothing within the narrative or characters of ‘Bright’ that justifies its central concept. In other words, you could copy and paste the overall plot of this onto any buddy cop movie with some minor tweaks, and you’d have the same movie save for the small surface details. The only benefit of this fantasy world are some painfully obvious social metaphors that quite frankly were better explored earlier this year in the ‘Tales From the Citadel’ episode of ‘Rick and Morty’.

But as well as never applying its central premise to any unique degree, ‘Bright’ also fails in being a socially relevant film as it’s social concept holds a higher status within the movie than anything else. It seems so concerned with projecting this idea of it being a nuanced social commentary that it forgets to work as a compelling film in of itself. That’s an issue that also falls to director David Ayer, whose direction never alludes to a world larger than what we’re being presented with, even though the entire narrative hinges on the idea that we do. At no point does this feel like a world in which we become used to, or spend adequate time in to care about.

The only thing that’s flatter than the world in which ‘Bright’ takes place are the characters that inhabit it. The McGuffin driven narrative leaves little room to explore these characters, creating a buddy cop formula that ultimately fails to even establish or distinguish its main characters. It’s a shame given that both Will Smith and Joel Edgerton seem more than capable of bringing two likable characters to life, ones that would have a good dynamic at that. But much like the movie around them, the script is more concerned with having the characters represent a social metaphor or just spout exposition.

I never thought I would have to call a movie like ‘Bright’ pretentious, but that is exactly the word I’d use to describe it. The movie wants to endow itself with social relevance before it’s even earned the right to be considered as such. It makes not only for a movie that feels tired and predictable, but one that is so tonally confused and I have to say, pretty boring. When it’s not hiding behind it’s obvious metaphors it’s bogging the audience down by explaining its convoluted and nonsensical mythology. Rather than disperse this information throughout the movie, it’s all pushed towards the first act, a time when we should be connecting with the characters so that we’re invested in their actions later on.

It really is a shame because when ‘Bright’ gets to it’s bigger set pieces it’s not half bad. Though it is still over the top farce trying to masquerade as self serious drama, it’s still engaging and decently directed. But at the end of the day I simply don’t care, not about the world, nor the characters, or anything really.

‘Bright’ is a convoluted and self-important bore, a movie that tries to accomplish step 476 before getting past step 1.

Result: 2/10