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Spoiler warning – I have avoide any final act spoilers, but do talk about many aspects of the film in detail.  If you intend to see the film but have not as yet, I recomend you watch it before reading this.  once upon a time in hollywood poster

I was really concerned when Once Upon a Time in Hollywood was announced.  Firstly we don’t need another movie about Charles Manson, but more significantly, is Quentin Tarantino capable of the sensitivity needed to tell the story of the horrendous murder of actress Sharon Tate?  My fears were exacerbated  by the fact I didn’t particularly enjoy his last film, The Hateful Eight (2015).  Quentin Tarantino has been self indulgent ever since  Kill Bill (2003 and 2004) got so long the studio forced him to cut it in half.  Django Unchained (2012) is a good 165 minute movie that could have been a great 100 minute movie.  The Hateful Eight, just dragged!  But I am always hopeful of a return to form, after all, I love Tarantino’s first six movies (Kill Bill is officially one movie), and despite their problems Django Unchained, and The Hateful Eight had some really good moments.  It is has been suggested that his work is also hollow and shallow, and totally lacking in sensitivity.  As for lacking in sensitivity, he would probably say guilty as charged and proud of it.  Shallow, is unfounded, but they are certainly hollow, this isn’t a problem, and shouldn’t be considered a criticism.  This is partly because they are so entertaining, but mainly because it is the intention, it is part of the art, the idea of l’art pour l’art suggests true art, is free from any didactic, moral, or function.  The lack of sensitivity was a bigger hurdle to overcome knowing what happed to Sharon Tate and how it could have been depicted.  However, I had overlooked one thing: Once Upon a Time.  The title evoked the Sergio Leone Once Upon a Time movies, I had forgotten that Tarantino had started a movie Once Upon a Time, and that movie, Inglourious Basterds was revisionist at very least, bordering on a fairytale.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood, falls very much in this category, revisionist and, or fairytale, and like Quentin Tarantino’s best movies Pulp Fiction (1994) and Jackie Brown (1997), its full of characters you want to spend time with.  The film is littered with a mixture of real and fictional characters, it is told from the prospective of two of the fictional characters Rick Dalton (Leonardo DiCaprio), and Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt).  Dalton is an actor who had been the star of a TV western, until he quit to pursue a movie career, think Steve McQueen in Wanted: Dead or Alive.  Unlike McQueen who within a couple of years of leaving TV was making The Great Escape, Dalton’s career is in a slow but undoubted descent, playing villain of the week on other peoples shows.  Booth is Daltons stunt double whose work has dried up in line with Daltons.  He now works as a driver and general gofer for Dalton, who finds himself without a driving licence thanks to a string of DUI charges.  If not an alcoholic, Dalton is on his way to becoming one!  Racked with insecurity, Booth is also a crutch, the friend who will tell him how it is, but with a positive spin, an ego massage.once upon a time in hollywood dicaprio and pitt

The film is set at the turning point in cinema after the death of the Golden Age, and in the early days of New Hollywood when young filmmakers were making films like Bonnie and Clyde (1967),  The Wild Bunch, and Easy Rider (both 1969).  This is symbolised by Dalton who doesn’t know his place in the new order:  Idols like Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart are a thing of the past.  At the same time, he is too old to be a star of new Hollywood like Al Pacino (who appears in the film as Daltons new agent), and Dennis Hopper (who is referenced in the film).  He isn’t as good, or possibly just as lucky as Steve McQueen (who appears as a character played by Damian Lewis).  The actor who isn’t mentioned, is Clint Eastwood who went from the TV show Rawhide (1959–1965) to Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy of spaghetti Westerns (between 1964 and 1966).  But then neither is James Arness who was the star of Gunsmoke for twenty years but never found anything like that success on the big screen.TV Cowboys

In the film, Dalton lives next door Roman Polanski (Rafal Zawierucha), and his new wife Sharon Tate (delightfully portrayed by Margot Robbie).  This both brings the story together and gives prospective to the Daltons character.  Polanski is the hottest director in town thanks to his previous film Rosemary’s Baby (1968).  His young wife Tate, is something of an enigma, groomed as a studio ingénue, in a system that no longer existed.  Married to, and working with Polanski, what could have happened if not for her tragic death?  Polanski is largely absent from the story concentrating more on Tate as she drifts through the film, an ethereal presence in the background of the story.  It has been suggested that she doesn’t have enough lines of dialogue, but that somehow misses the point of what this story is, she is the heart of the movie, not the subject of it.  The film portrays Tate purchasing a first edition of Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles as a gift for Polanski.  A fan of Hardy’s work, she recommended the story to her husband for a movie adaptation.  Ten years later, he made the film, with Nastassja Kinski in the title role.  It was nominated for six Oscars, winning three of them.  Would this have been a project they worked on together?  once upon a time in hollywood margot robbie

Forgoing a traditional three act structure, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood has one prolonged act, a time jump and a montage followed by a final act.  The less you know about the final act the better, I am therefore not going to mention it further.  The montage that separates the two acts is Tarantino at his best, it is snappy and fun where it could have been clunky and distracting.  Narrated by Kurt Russell, it gives a great insight into the “spaghetti” film industry, filled with too clever for their own good in jokes.  What we see is the natural conclusion to the first act, and a perfect setup for the conclusion.  This is no surprise as one of  Tarantino signatures, and expertise is the juxtaposition of narratives.   The brilliance of the montage is how it blends a little truth, and a lot of in jokes into the fiction.Rick Dalton Movie posters (1)

Quentin Tarantino has an interesting history of shooting people in cars talking, and making it really interesting, his first two movies, Reservoir Dogs, and Pulp Fiction are full of them.  The latter even had a key scene in a restaurant where old cars had replace booths.  This isn’t anything new, he would have grown up watching movies like American Graffiti (1973), and Two-Lane Blacktop (1971), that latter making great use of the smaller Techniscope cameras to get inside the car and changing the way cars were shot.  Here we see great conversations in cars, or one particular car, Rick Dalton’s Cadillac Coupe DeVille.  We see Dalton talking to Cliff Booth, these conversations centre around Dalton’s insecurities and fears.  But we also see Booth picking up Pussycat (Margaret Qualley) a hitchhiker; their conversations are frivolous and fun in the vein of what we expect from Tarantino.  Tate however is more a mystery, we see her driving with Polanski in his old MG, and in her Porsche giving a lift to a hitchhiker.  The two journeys have destinations, the first at the Playboy Mansion, the second at valet car park.  Despite the lack of dialogue we learn so much about the character in this moment.  The hitcher and Tate embrace and wish each other luck, an instant if temporary friend.  At the Playboy Mansion, Tate is greeted by friends Mama Cass (Rachel Redleaf) and Michelle Phillips (Rebecca Rittenhouse), the trio immediately go off to dance joyously.  We learn a little more, thanks to some exposition from Steve McQueen (Damian Lewis).  That is where we start to understand, the film is Rick Dalton, and Cliff Booth’s fictional story that we follow while the real world happens around them.  They, like everyone are witnesses to history unfolding, and they are our way into this world separated from us by almost exactly fifty years.  The reason to stay with the film, is that you want to spend more time with these people.  Booth is described as a war hero, it is suggested he may have committed, and got away with a terrible crime.  He comes across as a nice guy, the type you would like to have a beer with, but there is something under the surface, is he totally zen, or is this anger management?  Is he a coiled spring waiting to explode?  As always, Tarantino writes characters better than he rights stories, this is probably why Jackie Brown, based on Elmore Leonard’s novel Rum Punch remains his most accessible film.  But, as all successful people are, he understands his limitations and works with them, sometimes embracing them.  Structure is his his friend, his collaborator. talking in cars

Like all the best Tarantino movies, Once Upon a Time is as much about look and mood as it is about story and character, and that is what he has created so well.  You believe that Rick Dalton, lives in that house, and that Tate and Polanski live next door (and he is afraid to talk to them), and that Booth lives out in the valley behind a drive-in.  The streets look like the 1960’s and look like a real world, not a set (except the E-type Jaguar, on Daltons road that never moves in six months), the people dress like they are from the 60’s not dressing up to look like the 60s’, and listen to music of the time.  Music has always been a big thing in Tarantino movies, and he is famous for his deep cuts, there is no exception here.  He wisely stayed away from The Beatles (referred to as, The White Album) and we get a perfect blend of Paul Revere & The Raiders, Bob Seger, Neil Diamond.  a lot of the songs I recognise, but don’t really know.  This vague recognition is all part of the shorthand that drags us in, as is Booth’s T-shirt bearing the logo for Champion spark plugs (I’m sure I had one when I was a kid, and expect to see people wearing them again now).  But, I suspect it goes deeper than that.  Tarantino isn’t just saying “remember the 60’s?” He is saying “this is what the 60’s were, and this is what they could have been!”. He is reminding us of the ideas and ideals of the day, and how they were lost, forgotten and destroyed, but for the smallest things, those ideals could have been realised.  And most significantly, he is telling us that we are at a similar tipping point today and asking the question, “what the fuck are you going to do about it”.  This is possibly the first time since Inglourious Basterds that he has had something to say.  Am I reading too much into this and attributing Tarantino depth that he doesn’t have?  I don’t think so.  This is a film that needs a second and a third viewing, and like Pulp Fiction, and Inglourious Basterds one that film students will be debating and deconstructing for a generation.

As mentioned at the top, I am not going to go into the final act, but have said enough to indicate that it isn’t an accurate depiction of events, it doesn’t try to be.  If you are interested in what happened, and how this was a turning point for the era and movies, listen to Karina Longworth’s amazing podcast You Must Remember This, where she dedicated a who season to the lead up, events, and aftermath.

If this is to be Quentin Tarantino’s penultimate movie (I don’t believe it is), it is truly a return to form, and an amazing springboard to his swansong.  Taken on its own merits it is a fun, and often funny film that somewhat recaptures my favourite of his films, Pulp Fiction.  It is also a fitting love letter to the Hollywood as a whole, and the birth of New Hollywood.  A director who has always had an eye on late 60’s,a and 1970’s cinema, he has finally visited, and it was a rich and rewarding trip.  The film has its issues, but they are easily forgotten simply because they are outweighed by everything else that is so good.  Not Tarantino’s masterpiece but an accomplished work and for only the second or third time in his career, he isn’t just entertaining us, he has something to say.  Thank you Quentin!

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In recent years Luc Besson has been at his best when making totally bonkers films with extraordinary vision: Angel-A (2005), The Extraordinary Adventures of Adèle Blanc-Sec (2010), Lucy (2014), and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (2017).  At the same time he has moonlighted as a writer, producer, mentor, or just contributing a story idea for other directors.   These have resulted in some excellent B pictures: Taxi, District B13, and Lockout, as well as some not so good movies/franchises: Taken, From Paris with Love, and 3 Days to Kill.

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This makes his latest film, Anna, something of a curiosity.  On one hand it is return to the world of assassins, the subject of his best films, Nikita (1990) and Léon (1994), (or at least my favourite).  Anna has a lot more in common with Nikita, taking a young girl with a drug problem and a deadbeat boyfriend and training her as a killer.  To its credit, the film skips the usual training montage, and takes Anna from recruit to deadly killer in a moment.  The downside to this is a lack of character development.  Anna is looking for a way out of her life as an assassin before it has even begun.  The use of time is problematic.   The story keeps jumping backwards and forwards as a narrative device.  This works well in some ways, but, I’m not convinced adds up; probably best not to think too much about it.  Then we have the setting.  The main part of the story is set in 1990, so we are in Atomic Blonde territory,  the last days of the Cold War, and yet the film seems to be telling a story at the height of the tensions as seen in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.  This leads to further issues of distracting technology, mobile phones, laptop computers, and USB drives appearing five, ten or even fifteen years before invented.

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The film is peppered with action set pieces all of which are well choreographed and shot, but they are interspersed with the spy stuff that is far less interesting and convincing.  This all results in the story feeling both rushed and too long.  Newcomer Sasha Luss is suitably attractive, and good in the action scenes, but doesn’t have the charisma, acting ability, or comic timing to match Charlize Theron, Scarlett Johansson, Anne Parillaud, and Jennifer Lawrence who have all played similar characters better.  Ultimately what we are left with is a film that doesn’t know if it wants to be Atomic Blonde or Red Sparrow (more the plot driven book, than its film adaptation) but ends up being an inferior retelling of Nikita. I enjoyed Anna, and would certainly watch a sequel should it be made, but will not rush to re-watch this one. 

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I loved last year’s Ready Player One.  It is a deeply flawed movie, but if you go with it, you simply don’t care about the flaws, because it’s a fun ride.  Alita: Battle Angel has that same quality.Alita Battle Angel Poster

In the year 2563, 300 years after “the fall”  earth has been devastated, the remains of the population live in a crumbling city all working for Zalem, the sky city floating above them.  Dr Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz) finds the remains of cyborg (Rosa Salazar)with the brain of a teenage-girl.  He repairs her and names her after his late daughter Alita.  As she regains fragments of memory it becomes clear that there is a lot more to Alita.Alita Battle Angel 1

Based on a Japanese cyberpunk manga series  by Yukito Kishiro from the early 90’s.  James Cameron has owned the movie rights for the best part of twenty years.  He suggested it would be his next project after the Dark Angel TV series, then again after Avatar.  After deciding to concentrate of giant Smurfs sequels he hired Robert Rodriguez as director.Alita Battle Angel 2

The plot is thin, predictable and filled with every cliché you can imagine, and the exposition is clunky.  These things really don’t matter, how much plot do you need in an action film? For predicable and clichéd, you could read satisfying.  A certain amount of exposition is needed, and it is kept to a minimum here, in fact there are lots of things we are not told.  This I expect is a combination of things the filmmakers don’t deem important, and those they are saving for future instalments.  With roots in genre movies, Robert Rodriguez knows all about shorthand, he makes great use of hit here with costume.  You can track Alita’s accelerated character arc by her wardrobe.  The same can be said of the villains, without giving anything away, you instantly know who to trust and who not too.  This helps things zip along at a great pace.  It’s when the pace drops that the film loses its way, particular in the middle section, but don’t the action soon picks up again.Alita Battle Angel 3

The film looks spectacular as you would expect, but that isn’t enough on its own, the largely animated characters are believable and believable within the narrative.   Alita’s oversized manga eyes are far less problamatic than I expected, although I’m sure they have been toned down since the first teaser last year.  A perfect blend of childish innocence and near fetishized ability, Alita is endearing where she could have been problematic.  This is in no small part due to Rosa Salazar’s excellent motion capture performance.  The success of her performance is vital, if you don’t warm to the character you won’t like the film.Alita Battle Angel 4

The end of the film is something of a risk, leaving the narrative unfinished without an actual cliff-hanger.  If the film performs well enough to earn a sequel, or franchise this choice will look inspired.  If it is Alita’s only outing, it may feel a little unfinished. Alita Battle Angel 5

A perfect example of this type of film, if you go into it with the right mindset, you will love it.  If you use a critical eye and look for the problems, you will find them.  Just go with it!

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This is my first post for over five years under the DVD Gems tag.  With DVD rental being a thing of the past, I really should rename it!  Whatever I call it, this truly is a hidden gem worth talking about.  I vaguely remember hearing mixed to positive reviews for The Domestics earlier in the year, but couldn’t find it screening anywhere.  Hindered by a terrible title (it needs explaining to the audience, and the explanation isn’t very good), it looked set to disappear into obscurity, until it recently cropped up on Netflix. The Domestics poster

After most of the population has been wiped-out by chemical weapons, gangs take over and kill anyone who isn’t part of their faction.  Amongst this a couple with a failing marriage decide to make the 200 mile trip from relatively safety in the Midwest, to her parents in a suburb of Milwaukee. the domestics kate bosworth

The world building is subtly brilliant; with little explanation of what has happened other than a brief voiceover we discover the environment and its inhabitants as we go along.   The gangs he meet along the way include: Nailers (cary large axes), Spikes (wear helmets with face masks and spikes), Plowboys (patrol the highways and dabble in kidnapping and sex trafficking), Gamblers (wear animal heads, and leave decisions to chance), Cherries (woman only, described as man haters), Sheets (wear white sheets over their heads).  The domestics are the ordinary people, not affiliated to the gangs, and trying to cling on to a normal life as it was in the old world.  This setting is closer to the original Mad Max (1979) or The Rover (2014) than the better know warrior of the wasteland from the Mad Max sequels. But all this feels like an allegory for the current socio political mess we are in now. the domestics gangs

The setting and the subtext give the film depth, but the script is to be hailed too.  The story evolves and gets better as it goes on, this is impressive as it is the first feature for writer director Mike P. Nelson.  While there are no major surprises, it doesn’t always play out as you would expect.  There are moments of tension and horror, and the film often has a horror tinged look to it, no great surprise as cinematographer Maxime Alexandre has mainly worked in horror, making his début with  Haute tension (2003).  This all gives the film some jeopardy, some stakes, we are never sure if our protagonists are going to make it or not.  It also comes in a perfect B-movie 95 Minutes ensuring a lack of flab in the plot.  the domestics

The casting is good with a mixture of vaguely recognisable TV actors and Kate Bosworth, certainly her best part in years.  Bosworth has never found her niche in the movie world, after her teen movie breakthrough; Blue Crush she flirted with both indie: The Rules of Attraction, and A list movies: Superman Returns.  Here she is perfectly cast, she starts out looking like a supporting role to the character of her husband, Mark (Tyler Hoechlin) but gradually develops into the leading character.  Along the way, they meet various people, some clearly can’t be trusted, others you aren’t sure about, they include; Nathan Wood (Lance Reddick) and his family who are trying to live their own version of the domestic lifestyle.  And Betsy (Sonoya Mizuno) as a Cherry whose intentions aren’t always clear. the domestics Sonoya Mizuno

A low budget often shows in the action scenes, here, it’s a benefit, they are well choreographed and shot and the lack of budget gives a senses of intimacy and realism you don’t get in a lot of blockbusters.  It does lack the grittiness of Mad Max, and the despair of The Road, but has a lighter tone that is very darkly satirical and sometimes humorous, there is also a glimmer of optimism and hope!

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Lisbeth Salander is hired by a computer programmer to steel his own program from the American government as he fears the power it gives.  This sets in motion a chain of events that are uncomfortably close to home for Salander. The Girl in the Spider's Web poster

First, a little background; This is the fifth time Lisbeth Salander has made it to the big screen, originally, Noomi Rapace appeared in adaptations of all three of Stieg Larsson’s novels (all 2009 – also shown in Sweden as a six part, nine hour, TV miniseries in 2010).  Then Rooney Mara took the part in David Fincher’s adaptation of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011).  Both versions of the first book were excellent, parts two and three, while still good, lost their way a little, as did their source material.  Author, Stieg Larsson died in 2004 before the publication and immense success of the Millennium trilogy.  Following this success, David Lagercrantz (whose previous books include a biography of Zlatan Ibrahimović) was commissioned to write a new trilogy, the first of these, The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Lisbeth Salander

So this brings us up to date, and asks the question, is it any good?  The simple answer, yes, not bad.  “A New Dragon Tattoo Story” as it is being marketed in some territories lives or dies on the casting, the filmmakers gave themselves a head start by casting Claire Foy who is nothing short of fantastic.  Not exactly the character of the original trilogy, even a little more human and dare I say it warm than the previous incarnations, she is still recognisable as Salander in both look and temperament.  The rest of the casting is a little distracting, while Sverrir Gudnason as Mikael Blomkvist and Vicky Krieps as Erika Berger are both very good in their respective roles, they are ten to fifteen years too young to play them.  Camilla Salander (Sylvia Hoeks) is described in the books as being incredibly beautiful is buried under a tone of hair and makeup.The Girl in the Spider's Web

The plot is total nonsense, but does its job in that it gives an environment for the characters to shine.  A little like The Fast and Furious franchise has morphed into Mission: Impossible, Lisbeth Salander has become equal parts Robert McCall, Simon Templar, James Bond and Jack Reacher, except, she’s a girl! Once you accept this, you can enjoy it for what it is, or should I say what it has become, a dumb, but fun thriller.  The story diverges a lot from the plot of the book on which it is based, this isn’t a bad thing as the book was flawed and served Blomkvist better than Salander.claire foy lisbeth salander

The film looks fantastic, the photography is stunning, this is nothing new for the franchise; except unlike the previous versions, it is the interiors, urban and industrial landscapes that shine, not the snow-covered vista’s.  This comes as no surprise as Pedro Luque has a background in horror movies. it is helped by great production design.  The direction from Fede Alvarez is relatively taught with just a little sag in the second act.  Like his cinematographer Alvarez also has background in horror, it therefore comes as a surprise that he is better at the action set pieces than the tension.The Girl in the Spider's Web

I don’t expect to see this on any best of lists at the end of the year, but I also don’t think anyone should be bored by it.  I hope it does well enough to get a sequel for two reasons; the second book, The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye is a better story, and more importantly, I want to see more of Claire Foy as Lisbeth Salander!

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I first came across Guillermo del Toro in 1997 when I rented Mimic on Video (I didn’t see Cronos until some years later on TV). I have since seen every one of his movies in the cinema on their original release. Mimic is an enjoyable genre movie.   It doesn’t do anything outstanding but it does it with a style that made del Toro a director to look out for.  Four years later came the stunning ghost story The Devil’s Backbone.  This was closely followed in 2002 by Blade II.  A big fan of the original Blade, I was curious what a sequel would be like.  With a bigger scope and a more in-depth story it is better than the first film.  This is where I first saw a lot of the themes that have become the mainstay for del Toro stories; themes that were explored further in Hellboy and (2004) and his masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth (2006).  My favourite film of the year and possibly the decade.  While I have enjoyed all his films that have followed, none have quite hit the highs of Pan’s Labyrinth until now! Pans labyrinth

Its traditional to start a review, if that is what this is, with a brief synopsis.  Rather than agonising over how much plot to give away in a carefully worded description, I have lifted this from IMDB “At a top secret research facility in the 1960s, a lonely janitor forms a unique relationship with an amphibious creature that is being held in captivity.”  This is as much as you want to know going in, I would certainly avoid any trailers as they give the whole story away. The Shape of Water PosterThe key to the brilliance of the movie is the central performance by Sally Hawkins as Elisa Esposito.  The part is largely without speech, but she expresses so much without words.  This isn’t achieved with a silent movie style over exaggerated performance; this is naturalistic, subtle and beautiful.  Without this central performance, the romance that is at the heart of the story would not be believable, but more importantly, we as audiences would not care about it. The Shape of Water

The brilliance of the film goes far beyond the central plot and the main characters: Richard Jenkins plays a neighbour and friend who has his own story, with his own triumphs and failures as well as being key to the central plot.  We get a glimpse of the home life of co-worker Zelda (Ocatavia Spencer).  Then we have Michael Shannon’s character he is essentially the films villain, but he truly believes he is a patriot and the hero.   All these things hold a mirror up to society, how we live and what we believe, not the society of its early 60’s setting, this is a movie for today, a movie for today.  A time of Brexit Britain, Trumps America and tensions between the two Korean states. The-Shape-of-Water-Michael-Shannon-Strickland

The film looks amazing.  Many of the visual effects are real, in camera and not digital.  The production design is stunning, not exactly German Expressionism, but certainly a couple of degrees of real world.  There is so much going on and there are some truly tense scenes, but the film drifts along telling its story with pace and a truly gentle touch.  The themes and metaphors are clear to see but not rammed down our throats.  Del Toro trusts that his audiences with enough intelligence to make their own mind up about what they are seeing as he did with The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth.  This all helps make the film totally engrossing, the time absolutely flies by; I was amazed to learn it was just over two hours long, when the credits rolled I would have guessed closer to 90 minutes. Octavia_Spencer_in_The_Shape_of_Water

Nominated for a well-deserved 13 Oscars.  It’s hard to say how many it will win; given the other films nominated, I would probably only give it three or four: Best Achievement in Directing, Best Motion Picture of the Year, Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role for Sally Hawkins, and Best Achievement in Production Design.  It is credited as a 2017 film, had it been released last year it would have topped my list of favourite films for the year. 

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three billboards outside ebbing missouri posterTen years ago playwright Martin McDonagh turned his hand to screenwriting and directing with In Bruges.  A bold and memorable début that blends very dark humour with even darker drama.  Following a “difficult second album”, Seven Psychopaths (2012) he is back with what is by far his best movie to date: Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.

Several months after the brutal death of her daughter a grieving mother rents three billboards and posts a message challenging the chief of police to solve the crime. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri

The first thing you will notice about the film is the fantastic cast led by Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson who are all on something approaching career best form, but the real star is the script.  The dialogue is nothing short of hilarious, but the drama is dark, far darker than In Bruges.  The story doesn’t always go in where you will expect it to, and the characters don’t always act as they would in many other films.  It helps that the characters are not simply good or bad, heroes and villains, they are fully drawn and realised, three dimensional people.  People who make poor decisions and do stupid things.  But they are also people capable of change, and not in a “Hollywood Character Arc” sort of way. THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE OF EBBING, MISSOURI

All this is topped off by a fantastic score by Coen Brothers regular Carter Burwell and a few well placed songs, most notably Joan Baez’s cover of The Band’s The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.  It is a handsomely shot and edited film without being flash or showy.

Expect it to be in contention for Oscars: It is probably a front runner for Best Picture and best actress, but also deserves recognition for screenplay and both the supporting actors with Rockwell edging Harrelson.

The darkest, but also the funniest dram I have seen in a very long time is quite probably the masterpiece from a supremely talented director who has found his stride.  I am looking forward to see what he comes up with next.   

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is set for general release in the UK on 12th January 2018

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I read an article about Molly Bloom a couple of years ago when her book Molly’s Game was first released.  A truly interesting story, I would have been keen to see a film based on it; but then things got interesting, it was announced that it was to be Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut. Molly's Game poster

After a freak accident caused the end of her dreams of becoming an Olympic Skier, Molly Bloom decided to take a year out somewhere warm.  Finding herself working in LA as a PA.  Her boss orders her to help run his poker game that features a few celebrities.  Before long, thanks to intellect, drive and organisation she took over the game and transformed it from a relatively friendly high stakes game into the biggest game in town.  Things go really well, until they don’t.     molly's game jessica chastain

It has been reported the real life game featured A list Hollywood stats, hedge fund managers, politicians and wealthy businessmen.  The names have been changed to protect the (not so) innocent.  Even West Hollywood’s infamous Viper Room (the venue for the original game) has been rebranded for the movie.  This anonymity becomes a far more important element of the story later on.  The most notable of the players known as Player X (Michael Cera) is portrayed as a grade one asshole, he clearly based on a real Hollywood star, do your own research if you are interested in finding out who he is, it isn’t difficult. molly's game michael cera

As you would expect in a movie written by Aaron Sorkin, the dialogue is intelligent, snappy and extremely fast paced.  It is an absolute joy to hear it spoken by supremely talented actors Jessica Chastain in the title role as Molly Bloom, Idris Elba as her lawyer Charlie Jaffey and Kevin Costner in a small but memorable part as her farther Larry Bloom.  What I didn’t expect was the structure.  Told with that rarest of things, a voiceover that works.  at first the flashbacks seemed a little disjointed, as the film found its feet at became clear that it was telling a story at three different points in time, not just flashbacks.  This was easy to follow and well balanced, as a viewer, I never wanted to be in a different part of the story. MOLLY'S GAME

I was amazed to learn that it clocks in at 2 hours 20, it felt more like 100 minutes.  With the dialogue coming at million miles an hour it packs a lot in this time.  The best of the story comes with the interactions between Chastain and Elba.  Elba even gets the obligatory grandstand Lawyers speech, this is far measured than you would expect, but no less satisfying.  It is helps that it is shot with a reasonable amount of visual flair without being overly showy.  Aaron Sorkin’s script is based on Bloom’s book so is understandably sympathetic to her.  It is also a product of its time; wrapped before the recent scandals, there is little mention of the players attitude towards women, something Bloom has mentioned in the past.  It does however have an interesting and not particularly favourable comment on how the American justice system works.

Not without problems, but all things considered a classy and impressive film elevated by fantastic dialogue and brilliant acting.  It is also great fun to watch, with some great comic moments.  On the evidence of this I am keen to see what Aaron Sorkin comes up with next and hope it is also in the director’s chair. 

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“My daddy was the family bassman

My mamma was an engineer

And I was born one dark gray morn

With music coming in my ears

In my ears”

Baby Driver Poster

Back in the mid 90’s I was a student of film, obsessed with every new idea whilst simultaneously being immersed in the movies of the past.  Just to confuse matters I also had one eye looking to the east; I was discovering films from both Europe and Asia in depth for the first time.  It was at this time that I first saw Quentin Tarantino’s first two movies Reservoir Dogs (a couple of years after its original release) and Pulp Fiction (on opening night).  As with many other people at the time I couldn’t decide if I should marvel at the originality or recoil at the plagiarism of Tarantino.  I soon came to realise what Tarantino was doing wasn’t plagiarism, it wasn’t even homage, it went so much deeper than that!  Quentin Tarantino was, and hopefully still is a sponge sucking up all that he comes into contact with; but when you squeeze that sponge, you don’t get what went in, you don’t even get a mixture of what went in, you get the best bits of what went in coloured by Tarantino’s own vision.  Why am I saying this? Because this week I have seen Baby Driver, written and directed by Edgar Wright, the British director I can’t help comparing to Tarantino. 

Yet to be released in the UK or USA, Baby Driver currently has a Rotten Tomatoes approval rating of 100% based with an average rating of 8.5/10; to put it another way, its bloody good!  Is it Edgar Wright’s best film?  That is too subjective to answer, it is certainly his most accomplished, and I think it is my favourite.  For the uninitiated, here is the obligatory synopsis:

baby driver Ansel Elgort

Baby (Ansel Elgort) has been a getaway driver since before he was old enough to drive.  Following a childhood accident we learn about as the narrative unfolds, Baby suffers from tinnitus.  To drown out the hum of his condition he listens to music on his IPod (other fruit and none fruit based devices are available).  Anything beyond this would be a spoiler, the trailer already gives too much away.

Kevin Spacey Baby Driver

What is so good about what on the surface is a genre movie with a thin plot? The answer to that is both obvious and strangely intangible.  The largely recognisable cast (Ansel Elgort, Jon Hamm, Eiza González, Lily James, Kevin Spacey, Jon Bernthal and Jamie Foxx) are all fantastic, particularly a surprisingly understated Kevin Spacey.   His performance is as measured and deadpan as when he appeared in the David Mamet penned Glengarry Glen Ross a quarter of a century ago.  Elgort is a revelation displaying both more subtlety and likeability than in his more teen friendly movies.  Hamm and Foxx are clearly having the most fun with the most character roles.  But the brilliance goes so far beyond just the performances.  The characters anchor the movie but the sublime script keeps the movie ticking along perfectly keeping the audience in the palm of its metaphorical hand.  I wouldn’t go as far as calling the trailer bait and switch, but it is as wonderfully misleading as you would expect in a few subtle ways.

Baby Driver

The aforementioned references to other movies are exactly subtle, but they aren’t heavy-handed either.   I can see Smokey and the Bandit (1977), The Driver (1978), The Blues Brothers (1980), Point Break (1991) and Heat (1995).  There is probably also a bit of Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Drive (2011),not to mention Monsters, Inc. (2001) that is both seen and referenced. I haven’t even mentioned the music yet.  Edgar Wright has described writing a scene for every song used, a feat he really has accomplished.  It’s so easy slip a few classic tracks into a movie, Baby Driver does so much more than that.  The music choices aren’t always obvious, but they are always perfect, and perfectly fit the movie.  There are little moments of brilliance including scenes cut to the rhythm of the song, or rewinding a song to time with the robbery.  There are also moments we hear from Baby’s point of view with the drone of tinnitus.

Ansel Elgort;Lily James

This is Baby’s story so we only get as glimpse or a mention of the other characters when they are not interacting with Baby.  This works well for the film as a whole but does leave Lily James’ Debora a little thinly drawn.  This is a filmmaking choice rather than a mistake.  It actually works to the benefit of the other characters, namely; Doc (Kevin Spacey), Buddy and Darling (Jon Hamm and Eiza González) who we don’t always know what to expect from them.  The Atlanta setting is also key, set in LA, Chicago or Boston it would be a different film (It couldn’t be set in New York traffic) it also gives us marvellous southern accents and evokes the outlaw spirit of films from the 70’s and 80’s.

Fun, funny and charming, Baby Drive manages to be both original and familiar a totally joyous  experience and the perfect antidote to the soulless blockbusters and heavy counterprogramming of the summer.   

 

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It is traditional to start a review with a brief synopsis of the movie.  However with this film the story unfolds in such a way that it is best not to know.  This makes it a little hard to review the film, for that reason I will keep my comments to what you can see in the trailer.  Having said that, it would be preferable if you can avoid the trailer.  Based on a novel by M.R. Carey about a dystopian future.  Concentrating on a small group Helen Justineau (Gemma Arterton) a teacher, Melanie (Sennia Nanua) one of her pupils, Dr. Caroline Caldwell (Glenn Close) a single minded research scientist and Sgt. Eddie Parks (Paddy Considine) a soldier.  The group are central within a zombie outbreak.the-girl-with-all-the-gifts-film-poster

The strength of the film is its multifaceted nature, the surface and the layers are equally as important and interesting.  With a young adult slant the film, or to be precise, its adult characters have a certain fear, mistrust and lack of understanding of the teenage protagonists, this is a universal fear of the next generation.  The next layer is a more general but also overt analogy for the state of mistrust and fear in the world as w whole.  All this would be powerless if the film on the surface wasn’t so good.  On the surface, it is a modern zombie movie given focus and originality by its low budget and a new twist.  There is an air of Greek mythology within the narrative that is nicely mirrored in the stories told in the film.the-girl-with-all-the-gifts

As much as many people try and avoid the zombie debate, it is not only hard to avoid but actually an interesting question.  In 2002 Danny Boyle introduced us to the infected in 28 Days later.  Two years later Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004) gave George A. Romero style zombies a new turn of pace.  Where these creatures zombies?  Who cares, they are as different from Romero’s zombies as they were from the zombies of classic movies like White Zombie and I Walked with a Zombie.  Simply, if you want to call them zombies, do, if you don’t, don’t.the-girl-with-all-the-gifts

Referred to as “hungries”, as with other infected, the zombie-like antagonists are both villains and victims.  This makes our heroes, both heroes and villains, or more to the point there are no heroes or villains, themes previously the reserve of Guillermo del Toro.  I have not led the book, but am led to believe the race of the two main characters Justineau and Melanie have been switched, while it would be easy of accusing the producers off whitewashing to cast Gemma Arterton, there is a bigger impact.  Arterton’s character is a more passive protagonist with Sennia Nanua’s Melanie being the actual main character, indeed the title character.  I don’t know if the filmmakers were looking for a black girl or simply cast the best child actor they could find.  Either way, Nanua is excellent providing both the heart and the narrative of the film, in her we may be seeing the birth of a new star.  The rest of the cast are also brilliant with nuanced performances form Arterton, Close and Considine.the-girl-with-all-the-gifts-sennia-nanua

On a side note a lot of the film was shot in my home town of Birmingham, a relatively new experience as England’s second city has never had a film industry.  I look forward to seeing more recognisable places, but also hope they become less distracting as they become more common.

Making the most of its small budget The Girl with All the Gifts is a handsome and interesting film that contains moments of both tension and excitement.  Elevated from what could have been a direct to DVD or VOD movie by both casting and originality.   With just enough exposition to keep the story going, the subtext asks more questions than it answers leaving the viewer with lots to think about. 

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