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Archive for the ‘Film Reviews’ Category

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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America is the home of the high-school movie, it’s a genre that doesn’t work in Britain and Ireland, except when it works, it really works.  I have been lucky enough to catch a preview of Sing Street a couple of weeks before its general release.Sing-Street_poster

The downturn in the Irish economy in the mid 80’s hits a middle class family.  In a bid to save money, teenager Connor’s (excellent newcomer Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) dysfunctional parents (played by Aidan Gillen from Game of Thrones and Maria Doyle Kennedy from The Commitments and Orphan Black) move him from a fee paying school to a church run state comprehensive.  Connor quickly finds new direction as he forms a band.  His actions aren’t inspired by fame and fortune or even to escape his current existence, he does it for the noblest of reasons, to impress an unobtainable older girl (Lucy Boynton).Ferdia Walsh-Peelo sing street

Writer director John Carney has made his name in music based movies with Once (2007) and Begin Again (2013).  With more plot and a difficult to master teenage story, Sing Street is possibly his most ambitious film to date.   He pulls it off in the same way as he has before, he has crafted a film that is held together by great performances.  His young cast are largely unknown and are awkwardly realistic.  The music is also essential to the formula, mixing 80’s tunes with the bands original songs that perfectly imitate the era.  Never afraid to throw comedy and emotional moments in, it is probably Carney’s funniest film.  The music and the band are essential to the plot, but ultimately it isn’t about music, it is about people and about families.  It’s this grounding that makes it so  relatable.Lucy-Boynton-Sing-Street

There is nothing especially new or original about the film, in fact it ticks just about every cliché box, some of them twice over.  This really doesn’t matter, they beats of the movie may be clichéd but they are staples of the genre, signposts to viewers who are literate the genre.  The film isn’t afraid to remind us that it is borrowing from an American genre as characters in the film talk about the dance scene from Back to the Future.  But it is also grounded in its Irish setting, It shares very few plot points with The Commitments but we are still reminded of it from time to time in the actions and interactions of the characters.

Another fun and charming film from John Carney.

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“I pushed my soul in a deep dark hole and then I followed it in

I watched myself crawling out as I was a-crawling in

I got up so tight I couldn’t unwind

I saw so much I broke my mind”

Mickey Newbury

As I walked out of Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice I sent a tweet renaming the movie Yawn Of Justice Review.  This was a little unkind as the film isn’t truly boring, it was just disappointing. When I heard that director Zack Snyder was inspired by Frank Miller’s seminal graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns I had a glimmer of hope.  The last time a director took inspiration from a Frank Miller Batman novel it was Christopher Nolan and Batman: Year One became Batman Begins.  So what went wrong?batman vs superman

Zack Snyder is something of an easy target for criticism, but I have never felt like an apologist when defending his work.  Despite my love for the original I liked his remake of Dawn of the Dead(2004); 300 (2006) was dumb camp fun with a great cast (and referred to by tour guides  when I went to Athens last year); Watchmen (2009) is a monumental and underrated adaptation of what is probably the best graphic novel ever.  Sucker Punch (2011) has its problems book looks amazing and really isn’t as bad as you have been told; Man of Steel (2013) is far from perfect especially the Transformers style finale, but, the build up and character development is really good.  Henry Cavill and Amy Adams where perfect casting.  So I ask the question again: So what went wrong?batman vs superman batman

Before I get to that, what did he get right?  Ben Affleck could be a great Batman.  I have long thought Michael Keaton should reprise his Batman for The Dark Knight Returns (with the right director even George Clooney could get away with it), Affleck plays the older jaded and on edge Batman to perfection, this truly is a performance that needs a better film.  The same is true of Jeremy Irons as Alfred, he deserves his own film.  Henry Cavill is still a decent Superman, but given that this is supposed to be a superman movie he isn’t given much to do.  Holly Hunter is excellent in a small part, and Gal Gadot seems okay in what we have seen of her.  So for a third and final time, went wrong? For a start Jesse Eisenberg.  Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor is annoying at best, I would go as far as saying he is as bad, and as annoying as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Uma Thurman in Batman & Robin or Tommy Lee Jones and Jim Carrey in Batman Forever.  He hight of got away with his performance if they were remaking the 60’s TV show, but only just.  I can only imagine Zack Snyder’s direction when something like this:batman vs superman wonder woman

Zack “do you remember when you played Mark Zuckerberg”

Jesse “Yeah”

Zack “I want you to do the same”

Jesse “Ok, I can do that”

Zack “Not exactly the same, do the Zuckerberg thing, times ten, imagine you are on crack, and be so annoying even your mother hates you”

Jesse “you mean like this?”

Zack “yes, but more zany and crazy” batman vs superman lex luthor

For all Eisenberg’s zaniness the film totally lacks fun or humour.  There is one funny moment in the entire film, unfortunately, when it came I had already seen it a dozen times in the trailer.   But the problems go beyond the lack of humour, the film is simply dour and uninteresting.  The plot is thin but overly complicated and constantly explained to the audience.  The mass destruction in the final act is no worse than what we have seen from Marvel (I include X-Men as well as MCU) in recent years, but at least they have a little fun along the way, and they have with Ant-Man (2015) and Deadpool (2016) proved that a lower  scale final act can work.  Worse than that, the final act is disjointed from the narrative that leads up to it.  We have to wait an eternity for the Batman v Superman that the title promises.  When we get there the set up and the conclusion are contrived beyond belief.  I could except that Luthor’s plan makes no sense, that it doesn’t fit with the narrative and that it is poorly executed, but to have all three issues are unforgivable.  I saw the movie in 2D, but understand there is a 3D version too.  Allowing for the light loss of 3D viewers must have missed half the movie in the gloom.  Again Dawn of Justice may not be the best title, The Dark Night Before Justice may be more appropriate.  Batman movies should be dark and gloomy and the washed-out colour works, but Superman should be bright and technicolor.  To serve both characters in one movie was always going to be tough, but they failed on both counts.  Even Zack Snyder’s biggest critics must admit that he has a visual flair and style, however, in this film it works against him.  The best visual scenes are all dream sequences, this could have worked well, but they are too long and distract from the plot rather than enhancing it.  Even the conclusion is pointless as we all know that by the time The Justice League Part One arrives in 2017 there will be a happy twist to the unfortunate event at the end of this movie.batman vs superman superman

There is some truth to the suggestion that Marvel earned the right to make the Avengers with the foundation of Iron Man and Thor, that they learned their lessons from two Hulk movies,  and that DC jumped right into the Justice League without that foundation.  But the problems go deeper than that.  Dawn of Justice opens with the events of Man of Steel, shown from the point of view of Bruce Wayne as the city is destroyed around him.  This would appear to be an acknowledgement of what they dis wrong first time around.  It isn’t, it is just a pre-cusser to more destruction.  Christopher Nolan’s name appears proudly on the movies credits, but his fingerprints are nowhere to be seen in the movie.  The film lacks the weight and scale of The Dark Knight, replacing them with CGI and gloom.  Batman & Robin was by far the weakest Batman film, but in a way it was a noble failure, I think I know what Joel Schumacher was trying to do; create a Batman that combines the dark edge of Tim Burton’s movies with the fun camp of the 60’s TV show and the bombast of the comics.  He failed in just about every aspect and I hate the film, but he tried.   Zack Snyder on the other hand got so much right but ultimately failed having created a disappointing film, a film that incites emotions of indifference and apathy.  A disappointing film is far worse than a bad one.  I only hope Suicide Squad, due out later this year has the same fun and humour that Marvel demonstrated in Ant-Man, Deadpool and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) and sets a new direction for DC movies.

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