14 January 2018

Review: Molly's Game

(Dir: Aaron Sorkin, 2017)

The rags-to-riches-to-rags biopic now seems to have become a staple of Hollywood, with at least one or two of these films emerging a year. And it's become a pretty tiresome story trope despite it essentially being based on fact. But here are two ways to grab attention with a story of this nature – the lead is played by Jessica Chastain, and the film is not only written by Aaron Sorkin but it's his directorial debut. Interest is most certainly piqued. The lucky/unlucky centre of Molly's Game is Molly Bloom an ex-Winter Olympics wannabe who made herself into the poker princess of LA and New York. 


With most of these films we spend much of the time waiting for the inevitable downfall, but this point is brought to the fore as the story jumps back and forth between Molly try to convince lawyer Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to take her case, whilst telling the story of why she's come to be in his office. This is very much to the film's benefit as the scenes between Chastain and Elba are some of the most enjoyable thanks to some typically sharp Sorkin dialogue. He is frequently one of the best writers in Hollywood, albeit with a tendency to go a little overboard, but the script feels just about right here. Although the story jumps around a lot with some occasionally schizophrenic editing, it stops this story from feeling too stale and keeps things moving. This also applies to the poker scenes a lot of explanation is thrown out quickly and no doubt this might lose some of the uninitiated, but this is rarely about watching hands of poker unfold and more about an overall psychology of people who play / run games. But of course this is Chastain's show and she is excellent as ever as Bloom, always captivating to watch and only ever seeming out of place when playing her character's much younger self, proving yet again that she's one of the best actors working today. 

Although Molly's Game wins zero points for originality, it's a really well put together film that's enjoyable to watch thanks to the key players. Length is perhaps the only complaint (as per usual) and shaving a good twenty minutes off the run time would've helped immeasurably, but that's a small gripe. This is a well-worn story told interestingly with an excellent lead.

13 January 2018

Review: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

(Dir: Jake Kasdan, 2017)

Did anyone actually think we needed another Jumanji movie? Well, when it proves to be as much fun as Welcome to the Jungle, it turns out that answer is yes. Updating the concept for today's modern world – computer game over board game – makes logical sense, with the film essentially functioning as a second part where you need to know absolutely nothing about the original 1995 film. The jungle-based world of Jumanji we're thrown into provides plenty of entertaining thrills and decent set pieces, never standing still for too long, whilst the many little computer game references / quirks of the world are a neat touch that give the film a lot of personality. It's long been said how rare it is to come across a decent filmic adaptation of a computer game it's those films that play out as if they are computer games that prove most creatively successful (such as Scott Pilgrim vs the World and eXistenZ), and this is no exception.


However the primary reasons Welcome to the Jungle works as well as it does is down to the script and cast. It's genuinely laugh out loud funny most of the way through and is just sharply written, seemingly with these actors in mind. It starts with the kids who effectively embody the high school clich├ęs we've come to expect geeks, football star, hot popular girl before flipping expectations by turning them into their opposites within the game. Thus awkward geeks Spencer and Martha become an intrepid adventurer / man mountain (Alex Wolff / Dwayne Johnson) and kick-ass hottie (Morgan Turner / Karen Gillan). Whilst quarterback Fridge becomes small, scared and slow (Ser'Darius Blain / Kevin Hart) and phone addicted popular girl Bethany is superbly switched into a palaeontologist (Madison Iseman / Jack Black). They keep their teenage character traits as they learn to embrace a better facet of their personalities via these avatars. It's a family film so there's the inevitable positive message here. 

Johnson is as enjoyable as ever as he works up the courage to be brave, Gillan plays awkward attractiveness well, Hart seemingly does this outraged schtick in his sleep, but the most fun is had watching Black fully embrace playing a teenage girl trapped in a schlubby mans body whilst lost in an environment totally alien to her. He fully divorces himself from his usual annoying brand of comedy to be the highlight and provides some of the funniest moments. The important thing is that you care about these characters and how they develop. Whilst Bobby Cannavale does a decent enough job providing threat as Van Pelt, in an effectively myopic villainous role.

There's nothing especially unique about Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle, but it fully embraces it's concept with two goals in mind be very funny whilst being thrillingly entertaining. And it totally delivers on both fronts. Completely unexpectedly this turned out to be some of the most fun to be had in the cinema last year.

31 December 2017

Favourite 10 Films of 2017

And that was 2017. Let's keep it simple this time... can't say it was the most fantastic year for film (again). As with last year I very quickly compiled a list of five favourites, but struggled to find five more I was comfortable defining as "favourite", hence dividing the list into stand-outs and honourable mentions.

This year I have abandoned the requirement that these films were released in the UK in 2017 to allow one particular film to feature it's one of the very best films I saw all year and has just come out in North America, with a UK release slated for February 2018. Nearly three months after watching it I'm even more convinced that excluding it would have left a massive hole in this list, hence the changing rules.

As ever, all films I watched this year can be seen here in the order viewed  https://letterboxd.com/davidhunt14/list/2017-films-watched/  and because numbers are fun, numerically it looks like:
 
121 - total films watched (+7% YOY)
44 - films watched at the cinema (-17% YOY)
48 - films released in 2017 watched
6 - films to be released in the UK in 2018 watched
0 - films watched more than once in 2017


So here's the list... each section is alphabetical, and as ever, favourite does not mean "best" – this is a subjective list of what I liked the most.



THE STAND-OUTS:

The Killing of a Sacred Deer
 

The genius of The Killing of a Sacred Deer is how slightly off-kilter everything is. Yorgos Lanthimos' previous film The Lobster went for the out-and-out weird approach, but here it's a normal seeming world where something about these characters doesn't sit quite right. Be that Colin Farrell's surgeon, his wife (Nicole Kidman), daughter (Raffey Cassidy) or the strange relationship he has with the unnerving Barry Keoghan – it takes some time to work out where you stand with them. There's an absurd quality, a nervous humour and a savage ruthlessness that makes a strange sense as it crescendos in a breathlessly jarring manner. It feels like nothing else out there this year and is likely a divisive film, but the creativity from Lanthimos and fellow writer Efthymis Filippou is superb, firmly keeping the viewer on edge.
[Read full review]
 

Personal Shopper


An incredibly slight film, Personal Shopper is a subtle ghost story imbued with a quiet sense of mystery. There are two seemingly contradictory story elements at play Kristen Stewart's day job in Paris as a personal shopper to a supermodel, and her abilities as a medium. The former aspect turns out to provide a rather fascinating world for this character to inhabit, whilst the supernatural elements are almost entirely kept low key. Stewart is a delight to watch, not giving too much away beyond a sense of frustration and loneliness. A certain plotting direction and story-telling device threatens to derail the film halfway through, yet turns out to be quite effective. This is a mood piece that caught me off guard, and if pushed would be the film I'd call my favourite of 2017.
[Read full review]
 

The Shape of Water


The reason that this year's list excludes the usual UK release date requirement... Guillermo del Toro's name means a high level of quality, even if his recent films have not been end-of-year list worthy, but The Shape of Water is something special. On paper one might expect the standard creature feature, and of course that's executed to his usual high standard, but it's the writing, characters and little details that elevate it so. Sally Hawkins is superb as a mute cleaner, putting in an expressively physical performance that instantly wins you over. The rest of the core cast are also great (Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg and Michael Shannon). The set design is stunning with a beautifully realised, idealised 1960's, whilst the throwback to classic musicals and other subtle touches just elevate it further. This is exactly how you'd want del Toro to make a love story and it's a fantastic slice of pure cinema.
[Read full review]


Thor: Ragnarok


Every year there's a film inevitably dubbed 'most fun had in the cinema'. This year that accolade falls to Thor: Ragnarok. It's not that this occurrence was unexpected look at the last two Thor films it's more that in recent years Marvel has not been doing itself any favours (Guardians of the Galaxy aside). The crux here is that Thor: Ragnarok is genuinely hilarious and full of surprising moments, whilst for two hours this is a self-contained story with only the merest references to the "bigger picture". Director Taika Waititi was the perfect choice, imbuing the film with genuine personality, and from the first scene right until the end it's thrillingly entertaining, reminding us why Thor is the most enjoyable character in this universe.
[Read full review]


War for the Planet of the Apes



It should've been expected that War for the Planet of the Apes would be rather good, despite a sense of fatigue from an over-arching story that seems drawn out, and off-putting all-action-all-the-time trailers. But this clearly worked to hide the fact that there are no true human leads this time, something hugely beneficial to the film. The apes are so incredibly realised, and we have of course come to know them now, that this works fantastically well leaving us with minimal dialogue and sign-language. Whilst for maximum verboseness we have Woody Harrelson's bad guy General acting as a fine counterpoint. Again director Matt Reeves tells a fascinating story and stages excellent action sequences, whilst always keeping the pulsing heart of the story alive. Some brave creative decisions really paid off here.
[Read full review] 


THE HONOURABLE MENTIONS: 

A Ghost Story



If Personal Shopper could be described as a supernatural mood piece, A Ghost Story takes that definition to new heights. This is a film that throws story-telling conventions out of the window and is shot in an unconventional format that adds a weird intimacy. It is an aching meditation on loss and the metaphysical, and not the scary type of story the poster suggests. We follow a ghost (Casey Affleck) unable to leave the house he shared with his wife (Rooney Mara) something that seems set for eternity. It's all quietly affecting and is resolutely arthouse in its slow approach, feeling unlike anything else you might have seen before.
[Read full review]


Hacksaw Ridge



Hacksaw Ridge works thanks to two different elements. Andrew Garfield's conscientious objector is a very likable character, full of a determination in his beliefs and an all round positivity about life. But this is a film that thrusts this character into the all-out horrors of war, something it lingers on in graphic detail as limbs fly, hammering home the futile brutality. That this is based on a true story seems incredible, and it is truly rousing once it reaches the true celebration of the human spirit. Say what you will about Mel Gibson but he is a decent director, albeit one with a predilection for on-screen violence, and that's no different here as he creates a very good war film that tells a genuinely interesting story, allowing us to see a very different perspective on World War Two.


La La Land


What hasn't already been said, positive or negative, about La La Land? It nearly got forgotten for consideration on this list thanks to being fortunate enough to have seen it in October 2016 at the London Film Festival. It's a musical that works by being a little rough around the edges rather than the perfectly slick production we're so used too seeing neither Emma Stone nor Ryan Gosling are perfect singers and that's for the best. It's a love letter to Hollywood, as so many of these films are, whilst being an effectively doomed love story. The music is great, the songs work, and it has clearly been made with so much passion by writer/director Damien Chazelle. It's pretty difficult not to get whisked away by its charms.


Logan



Thank you Deadpool. Prior to that film making a load of money last year, if you wanted an adult-skewing superhero film you had to look to Watchmen, Kick-Ass or the low-budget Defendor and Super. Fox clearly thought it a good idea to try appealing to adults again and who better to use than Wolverine. If you think about it, this is a character whose adamantium claws should inflict visceral amounts of bloody damage, whilst his foul-temper should translate to a fouler mouth. As enjoyable as Hugh Jackman's portrayal has always been, he no longer feels neutered here. Logan uses all this to its advantage, telling a darker than usual dystopian story, with satisfyingly adult elements such as Professor X's mental degeneration. And turning it into a road movie unconfined by what we've previously seen in the X-Men universe helps it immeasurably. This is not a traditional superhero movie, and sure there are elements that could've been done better, but it's refreshing to see a character we know so well portrayed in a manner that finally felt appropriate.


Spider-Man Homecoming


I had no interest in watching Spider-Man Homecoming so it feels odd that it's on this list. It reeked of desperation from Marvel as they finally got the filmic rights back and had to rush something out the sixth Spider-Man film in fifteen years / the third actor playing Peter Parker in that time / Tom Holland's utterly unimpactful introduction in Captain America: Civil War / the need to over emphasise Tony Stark's presence in the trailers. Ok, I was wrong... we all know Marvel's individual character films are best. Homecoming differs satisfyingly from the previous films, is much funnier than expected, doesn't over-blow the action, and doesn't even have that much Tony Stark so it's fun when he does show up since it lacks most of the Avengers baggage. Whilst Michael Keaton is a highly effective villain by being "real" rather than a crazed, weird megalomaniac something unusually restrained in this universe. And Tom Holland really does a great job as the character. Call me all-round pleasantly surprised.

28 December 2017

Review: Free Fire

(Dir: Ben Wheatley, 2016)

Finally, director Ben Wheatley has made a film that's not awful. His film's have always had potential, and he has a decent eye that delivers something interesting visually, but his sheer inability to tell a story makes watching his work an intensely frustrating experience. Free Fire had the alarm bells ringing (yet again). In anyone else's hands the simple plot of a warehouse-set arms deal gone wrong that quickly devolves into a shoot-out lasting most of the film's duration would sound like fun. But with this being a Wheatley film the realistic expectation was for him to fuck it all up and make a deathly boring but good-looking film. Alas it's actually entertaining and mostly works!


Two reasons why it works – the seventies setting adds some neat touches like the clothing, music and lack of modern technology which helps the plot. But most importantly, the casting. On one side it's the Northern Irish headed by Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley, on the other it's crazed South African Sharlto Copley. And the middle-men for the deal are Brie Larson and Armie Hammer. All commit to their parts convincingly, with little individual rivalries coming to the fore which make it a touch more interesting, allowing the script to take on an acerbic tone. There's a very solid build up and mounting tension as to what's going to set everything off, and when it gets going most of the action is fun and not too ridiculous (it's impossible to escape some ridiculousness when an hour of your film is just people shooting at each other). One might liken this to a war film, with two sides dug-in and fighting each other over the middle ground. There's a sense of fun here and it's that, if anything, which we've never seen in Wheatley's films before – there's no current of darkness running beneath it all. By keeping things pacy and casting well, Free Fire is an enjoyably light ninety minute diversion that doesn't outstay it's welcome.

27 December 2017

Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

(Dir: Rian Johnson, 2017)

We're now nine (live-action) films into the Star Wars saga and it's become impossible not to wonder what the point is – at two thirds of the the way through this third trilogy it's very much same shit, different year. There's always another evil space wizard with an endless army who wants to control the Empire, there's resistance fighters and the same characters we can never seem to shake. Sure it's hard not to be entertained, but it's the same story done to death now, with new films arriving too frequently. And so The Last Jedi picks up where The Force Awakens left off and suffers from similar storytelling woes. For a two and a half hour film the Rebellion spend most of it in a story-bound stasis, whilst Rey's time with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is a combination of boring and laughable. After a whole film building up to his return, Skywalker's presence is incredibly anti-climatic as he's just so damn irritating now. Daisy Ridley still feels hideously miscast as Rey, only improving in the latter part of the film or whenever she is interacting with Adam Driver's Kylo Ren that is when the screen comes alive.


Driver seemed a contentious casting choice last time round, as a solid villain was ruined by seeing what/who was underneath the helmet. But by being less hidden here he gets a chance to shine and really add something to this character. Whilst John Bodega's Finn otherwise gets to have a bit more fun (again) with the more enjoyable side plot. Essentially this all still amounts to a huge so what it's no better and it's no worse than The Force Awakens. Director Rian Johnson delivers some awesome visuals whilst also managing to make certain elements extremely hokey. And the less said about that utterly stupid jump the shark moment the better. Having rewatched The Force Awakens a couple of days prior it's clear the only element that makes that film work is the entertaining return of Han Solo. Comparatively Luke Skywalker here offers zero charm and would've been better left out and just mythologised. The Last Jedi offers nothing different to either that film or last year's Rogue One, thus it's just another slice of solid entertainment that you wish would actually try and do something different, just once, please.

12 December 2017

Review: Song to Song

(Dir: Terrence Malick, 2017)

Terrence Malick has one of the most unique styles and voices in cinema, something you either have the patience for or you don't. Since 2011's mostly incredible The Tree of Life – a film almost unlike anything else out there  he's pushed this singular vision through three further films, the latest being Song to Song. He's a director who eschews the traditional forms of storytelling that we're so used to. There's no formal script, just an overarching story that utilises a lot of improvisation to get where it's going, and a reliance on wistful voiceovers to dig deeper into a character's thoughts and their soul. A preoccupation with shared moments forces a sense of intimacy between characters, and he's most concerned with the weighty themes of love, faith, our connection to nature and the core tenets of the human condition. The editing, cinematography and musical choices are always something to behold.


Song to Song doesn't deviate from this template, it just exists in a different environment than Malick's previous films. Centered around the music scene in Austin, Texas, this is a doomed love story where BV (Ryan Gosling) falls for damaged Faye (Rooney Mara), whilst wayward producer Cook (Michael Fassbender) is both a friend and a thorn in their sides. More than ably supporting are Natalie Portman and Cate Blanchett. This proves a more engaging story than previous film Knight of Cups, where a lonely actor played by Christian Bale is caught in an existential quagmire in LA, and offers more variety than meditation on marriage To the Wonder. There's a playfulness that feels natural in this setting and the cast slot into their roles just right, most notably Mara who is as excellent as ever, perfectly embodying a character torn by love, her impulses, and what she rightly or wrongly feels she deserves.

As ever Malick has cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki on board, who is one of the best shooting today, meaning a constantly fluid camera that dances with the characters and creates an intimacy, whilst highlighting a world of little details that most films would ignore as story and time won't allow it. This is all shot on differing formats and is, as ever, a Herculean feat of editing. Music is a constant in Malick's films, usually consisting of highly evocative and superbly chosen classical snippets (there's never really a score as such), but Song to Song demands something different, so we get a plethora of pieces representing the music scenes these characters inhabit. All of this adds up to Song To Song being Malick's best film since The Tree of Life – but his films only truly work when you feel some sort of connection with them, and this one is no different, making this an extremely subjective opinion. It's an enticing world to be lost in for two hours if you let the film wash over you and you just go with it.

11 November 2017

Review: Murder on the Orient Express

(Dir: Kenneth Branagh, 2017)

When re-adapting an iconic mystery / whodunnit such as Murder on the Orient Express, the viewer will most likely fall into one of two camps: a) they know who the culprit is and why they've done what they've done, or at least have enough of a memory of who but without the specifics, or b) they simply have no clue. It feels fortunate to fall into the latter camp despite having seen the 1974 adaptation of this story a very long time ago. Crucially this may very well have a bearing on how one feels about this new 2017 adaptation from Kenneth Branagh, who also stars as the "greatest detective of all time", Hercule Poirot.


As the story is pre-ordained, there are two key components that this version needed to get right, which it does the casting and the production design. Once we're through with a little scene setting in Jerusalem and Istanbul, we're on the train and that's where we remain. And it's beautifully realised: opulent, of the era and full of lovely little design flourishes. It provides an ideal setting mixing its grandeur with a sense of claustrophobia as the camera tracks through it, alongside it and above the cabins. Equally impressive are the mountainous, snow-covered wilds it wends its way through, with a sense of icy isolation quietly adding to the tension. Amidst this an excellent cast is assembled, full of recognisable faces who all do a fine job, playing up the sense of frustration that comes from being trapped on a train, especially when there's a killer at large. None really stand out more than any other, which is perfectly fine for an ensemble cast, with the exception of our lead Poirot himself. Branagh is clearly having a lot of fun in this role with his quirks, extravagant moustache and exasperation at how a crime to solve always manages to find him. How true this portrayal is to that of the original written character someone else will have to tell you, but after ten minutes or so you ease into and enjoy his company, especially as you get used to the French accent that's being put on.

The story takes its time to reveal the truth, but there is a lot to unravel. For those not in the know this is (just about) fine, but likely drags for those already with the answer. It is a touch on the slow side, but as ever the lead seems to need to reach a point of despair at never finding the resolution before something finally clicks, which without this could've sped things up a touch. There's nothing revelatory about this new adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express – it's a decent mystery played out with a fine cast in a superb setting. It's not as if it was needed, but there's something enjoyable about revisiting classic stories, especially when this has been left in its original setting and not been transposed to present day. Branagh is both a good director and actor which ensures a level of quality here, providing a film that offers a decent slice of escapism and mystery.