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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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