27 February 2018

Review: All the Money in the World

(Dir: Ridley Scott, 2017)

There's a line uttered halfway through All the Money in the World by the mercurial J.P. Getty (Christopher Plummer): "Priceless? I deplore that word. Dirty and old? I have no problem." In some ways that gets to the core of this character/man, as everything is to be bought and nothing is out of reach, with his whole life defined by the power presented to him by his ever-growing mountains of money. Now just imagine, in light of what we all now know, how that line would have sounded coming out of Kevin Spacey's mouth. Yes, it's impossible not to address the elephants in the room. As a comparison it would be fascinating to watch the original cut with Spacey playing the billionaire, especially as Plummer is so damn good at exuding a callous ruthlessness. The original trailer treated Spacey as the big reveal – the real reason you're going to want to watch this but his heavily made-up and prostheticised appearance felt jarring in these brief snippets, suggesting this might be bordering on characature. It's unlikely we'll ever know if they made the right creative decision (this being different to the right thing to do morally or what's best for business), as the Spacey iteration suggested a domineering and larger-than-life version, rather than Plummer's more isolationist and almost mythical character. Perhaps being able to see a finished cut of the film let him work out how to make the character work even better?

Which leads us to elephant number two: $1.5 million. Not the ransom demanded for J. Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer), but Mark Whalberg's fee for reshooting some of his scenes as Fletcher Chase in light of the Spacey/Plummer switch. Scott Mendelson at Forbes wrote a prescient article about this controversy of Michelle Williams' payment for reshoots being just $1,000 (read it here). It feels like it needs reiterating here since it highlights the deeper issue going unreported due to the sensationalism of the numbers: the lack of quality, lead roles available to female actors today. Williams, playing Gail Harris, is the lead in the film, and she likely accepted expenses only to ensure the film got released since it's important for roles like this to get as much exposure as possible. Plus she is excellent here. This is a reasonably big film by her standards, but typically in bigger films she (and most other female actors) would be cast as the love interest / wife (cough The Greatest Showman). Whalberg on the other hand is one of the world's biggest film stars and for him this is smaller than all his most recent work, a prestige picture in which his character is third most important. So why shouldn't he, like everyone else involved, try and get paid properly for this extra work? The studio could've said no to his monetary demands, but since his character interacts with JP Getty more than any other his involvement in the reshoots was essential, thus he had nothing to lose by asking. Williams had as much right to make similar monetary demands, but no doubt knew that doing so could have a negative impact on her career, limiting her potential to be considered for the smaller number of quality, visible, female roles. They all have a right to be paid fairly for this extra work, especially when it came about so suddenly, so this shouldn't necessarily be an indictment on Whalberg, it's an indictment on an industry that values its female actors far less, not just monetarily but in it's reluctance to cast them in leading roles, especially in the high profile films that proliferate our screens weekly. It should also be noted that director Ridley Scott allegedly worked on the reshoots for expenses only too.

So now we've addressed the two huge elephants rather unsubtly sitting in the corner, what of the film itself? It is a thoroughly engaging thriller that benefits from it's seventies setting and how it (mostly) jumps between Italy and Getty's staid, hollow palace of wealth in the English countryside. Scott creates an almost dreamlike world something about the way it's lit and shot feels almost hyper-real, but that helps tease some tension out especially when you're not familiar with the actual events. But this is essentially a two-hander, a game of chess between Gail and Getty himself. A mother prepared to do anything for her son who doesn't care about the money, versus the curmudgeonly patriarch who cares more about the name and reputation he's carefully crafted, the power from owning things and his prospect of getting a tax write-off. And it works because both Williams and Plummer are excellent, inhabiting their characters so effectively. The rest of the supporting cast do a fine job but they are merely window dressing.

At the end of the day All the Money In the World is a decent film that will, unfairly, be remembered for it's controversies. More written about than seen. But it features a couple of excellent performances and an interesting dive into the psychology of someone wealthy beyond compare, which retains an abhorrent fascination that makes some sort of sense by the end.

13 February 2018

Review: The Cloverfield Paradox

(Dir: Julius Onah, 2018)

Cast your mind back ten years. That was when it emerged out of nowhere and took us by surprise. There had been that nameless, mysterious teaser trailer which decapitated the Statue of Liberty and referenced JJ Abrams. There was little to no information online beyond the cryptic, and eventually a name that told you absolutely nothing. I was fortunate enough to be invited to the multimedia screening in the sorely missed Empire Leicester Square screen 1 (the best in central London and perfect screen for this film). No-one there really knew what to expect. Eighty-five minutes later, after emerging from the sensory assault on-screen, the adrenaline was coursing through the body and the mind was buzzing with excitement. The thrill felt whilst first watching Cloverfield a decade ago is still firmly embedded in my memory  how few of the eight hundred plus films I've since seen at the cinema can I actually say that about?

Since then it has remained something of an enigma. Credit is due for not just rushing into creating more of the same, but it seems to have gone too far the other direction with a tenuous approach to keeping the name alive. 10 Cloverfield Lane is a decent little thriller but you'd never know it was supposed to be any relation to the first film without that name, which if anything proves more of a hindrance. And it's the same issue with The Cloverfield Paradox there amounts to a few minutes which directly thrust it into this world, but beyond that this could be any independent story in which we need to save our planet. It doesn't help that we've jumped an indeterminate amount of time forward to follow an international team of scientists two years into conducting dangerous energy experiments in space. What has actually happened in the numerous years between destruction arriving and what we're now seeing? There's an interesting bridging story to tell, and if the "second film" does actually answer some or most of this it was done in such a subtle way that only the most ardent fans will have latched onto the details. 

There's potential for The Cloverfield Paradox to be a really interesting film, but tonally it's all over the place. At times it hints at wanting to be like Event Horizon yet it's flirtations with horror amount to nothing. The mystery and thriller elements feel half-baked, and there's not enough action or convincing drama to satisfy. Frustratingly there are some good ideas here such as the actual paradox concept, the introduction of Elizabeth Debicki's character and the lighter touches from Chris O'Dowd (the latter of which would sit better in a different film). Then there's the Earth-bound scenes which feel unnecessarily tacked on, existing solely as a way to tie it into the Cloverfield series – something the film was never originally conceived as being part of. And it shows. Thus we have an averagely entertaining film that would've been greatly improved by either going full bore into sequel territory, or by ditching the half-assed attempts to tie into an existing series and refining it's ideas under the original God Particle title. The only winner here is Paramount who wisely abandoned plans for a cinema release and instead sold the film to Netflix for an alleged $50m. Quite why Netflix paid that much for this film without obtaining rights to the Cloverfield name will remain the most intriguing mystery associated with The Cloverfield Paradox.

4 February 2018

Review: The Post

(Dir: Steven Spielberg, 2017)

The Post is a predictably reliable film. Steven Spielberg directing. Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks as the leads. A real life story that proved an important moment in history. These guys can sleepwalk through a film of this nature and you know it'll be high quality, regardless of it not being close to the best films of their respective careers. There's nothing to fault with the acting here and it's particularly enjoyable seeing familiar faces such as Matthew Rhys and Bob Odenkirk dig into interesting roles – in many ways it's their presence, and the whole supporting cast, that actually lifts the film. The moments of argument and debate over whether they should or shouldn't publish the famed Pentagon Papers are where the film really comes alive.

Thanks to the current political "situation" in the US The Post was rushed into and through production – a clear case of trying to be relevant with an eye on marketability – but that arguably feels a little too detrimental to the film. Watching it without making parallels to the present day is impossible and somewhat distracting. The positive sense of achievement you get from the actions of the staff of the Washington Post in 1971 feel hollow knowing that in 2018 the press are facing an even more alarming problem. And it's not as if a Spielberg drama is actually going to inspire much positive action. If The Post had been released two or three years earlier we would've all breathed a sigh of relief over how far we'd come. But now it's films such as Oliver Stone's Snowden, with the same core theme of disgust at the government and a belief that the public should know, that feel more relevant.

The Post is the sort of drama that Spielberg makes so well, with both Hanks and Streep fitting perfectly into roles of the type they usually inhabit. In other words you know this is a high quality drama even if it's not the best work by any of the parties involved. Just try not to feel too deflated as it reminds you how bad things are today.

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 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] 


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.


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.