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.

4 November 2017

Review: Thor: Ragnarok

(Dir: Taika Waititi, 2017)

Thor has always been the most interesting and the most fun of the characters in the Avengers universe (talking in filmic terms, obviously). The first Thor film which introduced us to this character back in 2011 was the most challenging to get right, successfully balancing how an arrogant, war-loving Norse god became humanised and a real loveable character, whilst gleefully shifting between worlds. Having a great cast of characters/actors certainly helped with striking the perfect balance of drama, action and comedy. Follow up Thor: The Dark World lost something in both story terms and general joie de vivre – it's a solid big budget superhero movie, just not as good as it's predecessor in almost every regard. Thankfully Thor: Ragnarok, the third film focused on this character, is a move back in the right direction.

The general tone is set right from the very first scene Ragnarok wants to play for laughs whilst giving us more amazing spectacle. As ever Chris Hemsworth completely embodies the Thor character, whether with long or short hair, carrying the ideal balance of heroism, egoism and humour. The script is super sharp, knowing enough and pokes just enough fun at itself. Three positive story decisions are made that really affect things here. After two films where Thor's romance with Natalie Portman's Jane has been an important side plot, this now merits just a single line of dialogue ensuring it does not get in the way of this story where it would've otherwise made things start to feel repetitive. Secondly, apart from a brief trip to Earth early on, the film takes place on Asgard and other fantastical worlds, a strength that none of the other (Earth-bound) Avengers characters can legitimately bring. Finally, and most importantly, Loki is back. Of course he is, because what would a Thor film be without him!? Tom Hiddlestone is as great as ever, forever having fun with this character, but even now still adding new nuances.


Conversely, the one decision that threatened to drag the film down was bringing in one of the weaker Avenger characters (spoiler alert, or not, as it's in their marketing for the film!). Saying this is one of the weaker characters is a controversial statement but that's simply because Hulk is usually just too one note, but somehow he works here and is both entertaining whilst offering a layer of pathos that takes time to reveal itself. Equally, we see Thor dumped on a world that had a lot of potential to be an annoying distraction, but it comes to life thanks to three characters Tessa Thompson's intriguing is she good/bad Scrapper 142, the Grandmaster who is superbly overplayed by Jeff Goldblum basically being an over-the-top Jeff Goldblum, and Korg, a CGI character comprised of rocks who is hilariously voiced in an unexpected manner by director Taika Waititi. All three are equally engaging and entertaining yet with hidden depths, proving again how good the casting is in this series.

Ragnarok also keeps things interesting with primary villain Hela, who actually offers serious threat and challenge to Thor. Cate Blanchett clearly had a hell of a lot of fun playing her and that comes across, very much to the film's benefit. Plus we finally get a female villain in one of these films! Comparatively, the devious dark elves in The Dark World were far too emotionless, showing that the threat is more intriguing when it comes from closer within. The only complaint might be the fleeting presence of the Warriors Three and a lack of Sif. It feels like Waititi had more creative freedom than Alan Taylor who directed The Dark World (it's a Marvel film so "freedom" is a relative word), as it's just that much more full of personality and charm. 

Thor: Ragnarok is a ridiculous amount of fun, yet again proving that the Marvel films focusing on a single character are just far superior to those where the priority is showing as many heroes on screen as possible. It's a positive step towards lifting the core of this series out of the rut it's become stuck in after the flaccid Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and as the audience is yet again re-introduced to Spider-Man. Where Marvel have recently been winning is with the Guardians of the Galaxy films, which Ragnarok feels closer too  it is genuinely hilarious, the action is decent as ever, there's a sense of mythos and actual character development, whilst a good amount of directorial personality bleeds through. Thankfully this is Marvel doing right by their most interesting character.

29 October 2017

Review: The Snowman

(Dir: Tomas Alfredson, 2017)

The right setting can make such a difference to a film. The coldness and snow-adorned beauty of Norway (primarily Oslo and Bergen) feels an essential part of The Snowman, and not because of the significance of the titular creations. It feels all-encompassing in its starkness as you are effectively transported there, but without any of the negative aspects, as you sit cocooned (hopefully) in a warm place. The setting feels as much a character as the actors on screen. The lead is Michael Fassbender's Harry Hole, a deeply flawed detective who seemingly means to do right, but struggles following through with that intent. Fassbender is compelling to watch as ever, but it feels as if we're just skating the surface of this character without digging as deep as we could or should, which is probably only a complaint from those of us who have never read any of Jo Nesbø's books featuring him. Elsewhere, Rebecca Ferguson's Katrine has strong potential but ends up in the realm of being a little too obvious, Charlotte Gainsbourg's Rakel is curiously flawed in a way that Gainsbourg seems to play so well, and who knows what the hell Val Kilmer is doing with his character!


As with the cast, the story has a lot of potential, sometimes managing to deliver despite never feeling new or fresh. It remains an intriguing mystery to follow and is engaging up to the final denouement which comes about with a whimper, somewhat appropriately but that's equally unsatisfying. This is the conundrum with The Snowman – it's flawed and lacks originality, but it is an enjoyable film to watch mostly due to the Norwegian setting and the unrushed pace director Tomas Alfredson takes, not to mention decent cinematography and sound/music. One you get over the jarring nature of Hollywood actors playing Norwegian characters in that very country, which causes some of the cultural elements of the story to lose resonance (as with the remake of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo), it easy enough to go with it, despite it offering nothing remotely new or revelatory. Move it to more familiar settings however (ie North America), and something in the story would no doubt be lost.

20 October 2017

London Film Festival Review: You Were Never Really Here

(Dir: Lynne Ramsey, 2017)

On paper You Were Never Really Here has a hell of a lot of potential. Director Lynne Ramsey did fine work on revered previous film We Need to Talk About Kevin. The always intriguing Joaquin Phoenix plays lead character Joe. The story proffers an arthouse take on the kidnapped girl thriller, with plenty of brutal violence promised. Thus it's a shame that the reality is so unsatisfactory. This is a brutal film, but not from the violence which is mostly fleeting and shot in a suggestive manner (we see more of the after effects), rather it's a mixture of the overall tone and story. Any film about girls being kidnapped and the despicable reasons why is setting itself up to be a depressing and horrible story. So thankfully You Were Never Really Here's focus is actually Joe, but that turns out to be as much the problem.


The overall tone is a reflection of Joe's extremely damaged psyche. He's tortured by his past to the point where you wonder why he hasn't killed himself already. The film is at pains to show how fucked up he is, seemingly feeling that all he can do with his life is look after his mother and save those being made to suffer, destroying the perpetrators in the process. Even five minutes in his presence sucks all the joy of life from you, which might be testament to Phoenix's portrayal of a character seemingly so far beyond repair. A large portion of his dialogue is nearly indecipherable thanks to the way he mumbles – and since he's in almost every scene that adds to the frustration.

At this screening Ramsey briefly appeared to shyly "introduce" the film, and it was suggested there would be a Q&A afterwards. Unfortunately that didn't happen, which is a shame as it might've shed some light on why she bothered to make this film (it is an adaptation of a Jonathan Ames novel). If there is supposed to be a meaningful message it gets utterly lost in the exceptionally thick layers of darkness, depression and unclear dialogue. As a character study (which is what it essentially is) it fails by making the character so unlikable that you just wish he'd just get it over with and end it all for his own sake. The brief moments that are good are few and far between, whilst Johnny Greenwood's excellent score doesn't help lift the mood (but is objectively a great score). As everything about You Were Never Really Here is just so damn bleak and unenjoyable the point of it never emerges, making it hard to understand why it was made and why someone should put themselves through the soul-sucking journey of watching it.

14 October 2017

Review: Blade Runner 2049

(Dir: Denis Villeneuve, 2017)

Thirty five years. That's how long it's taken for a sequel to Blade Runner to arrive. A much revered sci-fi classic that's had a torrid time finding its definitive version (that would be The Final Cut released ten years ago), it was never a film that obviously demanded a sequel. Part of its appeal lies in the philosophical underpinnings and somewhat nebulous approach, not least in the mysterious way it concludes proceedings (depending on which iteration you watch). But these can equally be viewed as points of frustration for some, and finding the right story for this sequel has obviously been a vexing dilemma.

Blade Runner 2049 is certainly more than sympathetic to its past. The production design is excellent, building on the originals iconic work. Setting the film thirty years-on allows it to feel more futuristic by today's standards, allowing us to judge it in the same way that 1982's technological predictions likely seemed new and exciting at the time. The look and feel of this new version is less groundbreaking but arguably more stunning. Every shot feels perfectly crafted and beautifully lit and it's undoubtedly eye candy of the highest order. Similarly the score  builds on Vangelis' work from the original, adding more bombast and menace, which proves more enjoyable despite being less revelatory.


Overt sympathy to the original is also a crux that let's 2049 down, notably in story and pacing terms. The original is slow, but it at least clocks-in sub two hours. If your film reaches two hours forty minutes and is for the most part interminably slow, as is the case with 2049, there's clearly a hell of a lot that needs to be trimmed. The story and it's mystery are more concerned with finding out who rather than exploring why, and really drawing out that exploration, so it feels like an overly forced way to tie it all to the original. Ryan Gosling's K should make an interesting lead (he is good as usual), but his characterisation is mostly too heavy-handed. Revealing what K is within the first ten minutes ultimately does the film no favours  of course it's done for later plot reasons, but it instantly impacts one's feelings towards the character and lacks the lighter touch applied to Harrison Ford's Deckard in the original. It is good to see Deckard again, with Ford playing the gruff latter-aged character he now frequently inhabits, but even in the limited time he's on-screen he satisfyingly peels that back. The other notable cast member is Sylvia Hoek's Luv, the steely-eyed chief antagonist, driven to do her master's bidding with forthright determination, and convincingly so.

In theory, the presence of Denis Villeneuve as director should be a strong positive, after all he is responsible for the fantastic Arrival and the very good Sicario. But if anything Blade Runner 2049 mostly harkens back to his breakthrough film Prisoners, which bears the burden of overly languid pacing. The fatal flaw here is that at times the film borders on being boring, and stunning visuals only go so far when you need to sit and be engaged for 162 minutes. A shorter, much tighter edit would've resulted in a far better film – the story is in reality very straightforward, but gets submerged in layers and layers of slow moodiness that's overly reverential to the tone of the original. And there's such a potentially fascinating universe that could be further explored rather than waiting an age for the key asset to appear. This amounts to Blade Runner 2049 being less than the sum of its parts, which is all the more frustrating when the potential for it to actually be really good is not too far from its grasp.

London Film Festival Review: The Killing of a Sacred Deer

(Dir: Yorgos Lanthimos, 2017)

If you've seen The Lobster, director Yorgos Lanthimos' previous film, then you might have some idea of what to expect from The Killing of a Sacred Deer. Or rather, you should know that your only real expectation need be to expect the unexpected. The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a little less out there conceptually, but it is a film filled with it's own strange little quirks. Colin Farrell plays cardiovascular surgeon Steven, a man with a seemingly perfect life – wife Anna (Nicole Kidman) who runs a clinic, two seemingly normal children (Raffey Cassidy and Sunny Suljic), and a big house in the suburbs. But then there's his seemingly odd relationship with teenager Martin (Barry Keoghan), who slowly infiltrates their lives with increasingly worrying consequences.


The core of the story is a well-worn idea, providing something familiar to cling too. But when you get down to the specifics everything is slightly off in a cleverly unnerving way. There are some dark ideas here, but it all works so convincingly because of the characters and how they are acted. There's a cold detachment, almost an absence of emotion. Farrell's delivery borders on stilted – the way he looks with his stylish hair, big salt and pepper beard, and seeing that he's a successful surgeon, doesn't fit with how he sounds. The dialogue at times being randomly, but intentionally, comical. You never really know where you stand with him, but as you ease into the film it seems to make some sort of sense. Kidman feels sharper and more calculated by comparison, offering a fine balance even if they initially seem a strange pairing. Whilst Keoghan, with his overt politeness and habit of practically tripping over his own words, exudes a coldness born of a sheer lack of empathy. Or maybe it's just conviction. Cassidy also proves very good by not being the character one might expect. But that's the point – all the acting is excellent in a way that doesn't conform to the stereotypes of what these characters might usually be in more conventional hands.

The actors have a strong script to work from  it's dark, funny and frequently slightly absurdist. Visually the film is well shot, mostly clean and clinical, with the camera frequently making you feel like you're an awkward observer of something you shouldn't see. And the score wrenches every last ounce of drama from its portentous strings, at times seeming over-the-top but proving enjoyable in how it occasionally jars whilst enhancing what we see on screen. The Killing of a Sacred Deer revels in it's own slightly perverse reality  one that has no real regard for the standard conventions of a story of this nature, seemingly finding joy in keeping the viewer just slightly off-balance whilst ratcheting up the intensity. It is really rather good.

London Film Festival Review: The Shape of Water

(Dir: Guillermo del Toro, 2017)

You can usually rely on Guillermo del Toro. His latest foray into the fantastical, The Shape of Water, is the perfect example of what he does best. He is the master of melding the otherworldly into the environment we inhabit, suggesting there's something hiding beyond the veneer of the reality we know. And he creates richly enticing worlds with strong, interesting characters.

The Shape of Water is driven by Sally Hawkins' soulful performance as Eliza, a mute cleaner working in a government facility who finds herself drawn to a nameless creature shackled up for study. She is incredibly expressive, portraying so much through limited signing and a physicality that many actor's might struggle with. There's a love of grand old Hollywood song and dance, with something always playing in the background of her home life that seems to infuse further into her personality the happier she becomes.

Her neighbour and friend Giles (Richard Jenkins) is a strong influence on her in this regard. His character is intriguing, seemingly a little left behind by time and nervous about how he can be himself in public. Jenkins is a character actor who pops up in a lot of supporting roles but this might be one of his best. As chief antagonist Strickland, Michael Shannon is well beyond the point of being typecast as the overtly intense bad guy he plays so well. He has enough quirks to avoid feeling too clichéd here, seeming to slip into this time period with a natural ease. And lest we forget the fine comic relief offered by Octavia Spencer as Eliza's colleague, who's always concerned about her but there to help.


The setting is key to the film and an important part of what makes it so effective. We're in mid-sixties America and presented with an almost idealised version of how it used to be  this is "the American dream" come to life, but with occasional cracks revealing the reality. The paranoia of the time seeps into overarching motivations, with the fear of Russia and the space race adding an intriguing angle. Recreating this era allows for some beautiful production design, from striking colour palettes to classic vehicles to the archaic technology. Thus the fascination with old school song and dance neatly fits, creating an enjoyable extra dimension.

Regular del Toro collaborator Doug Jones is back as the creature of Eliza's fascination. Through Jones' chameleon-like ability to become something hitherto unseen he adds a subtle personality to the creature, and as ever so much of the believability comes through the way he moves, stunning make-up and use of practical effects. This creature is not named beyond being called "the asset", with just a limited amount of information given on what it actually is – that's absolutely for the best, creating a necessary sense of mystery. The film is not about understanding it, it's about how it changes the life of Eliza as she connects with another lost soul. It's a love story in the way that one can imagine del Toro would make one, and it's really very effective.

The Shape of Water is del Toro back at his best. The focus is squarely on the characters which ensures this doesn't turn into a creature feature, and it's shot through with a gleeful joy that's nicely balanced by a subtle undercurrent of threat. So much rests on Hawkins' shoulders and she is excellent, proving again that when written well, characters who can't or won't speak can be some of the most powerful. This is cinema at its most enticing.

London Film Festival Review: The Endless

(Dir: Justin Benson & Aaron Moorhead, 2017)

The Endless is the type of low-budget, indie sci-fi that comes from a place of passion. That much was self-evident with Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead's previous film, the very good Spring, which played with genre conventions, had it's own style and voice, but was most notably full of heart. The Endless certainly feels cut from the same cloth, even if the core idea is not quite as appealing (a subjective viewpoint) and it doesn't have the same heart. This is a curious exploration of family – where does one feel at home and most comfortable, even if that location is not perceived to be the most ideal, and how does one connect and communicate with their siblings, or rather how they don't.


The story is set in a cult that appears more mysterious than insidious, and seemingly lacking a strident personality pulling the strings adds to the curiosity of why they actually exist. Part of the fun is working out what is going on and it provides an interesting explanation for a frequently assumed cultist practice. Such comments are best kept oblique as there's no fun having the film spoilt. There are ideas here rather than repeating tiredly worn story conventions, and that really helps make a film of this nature alluring. 

Visually it's obvious that Benson & Moorhead are working to get everything out of their meagre budget, and they take on the lead roles themselves – neither are outstanding but both are fine as brothers returning to a place they can't let go of. Crafting films at this level is a labour of love and they are also responsible for writing, cinematography and general production. Their characters are not always the easiest to empathise with, thus it feels as if it lacks quite the same amount of heart that makes Spring so good. The Endless is an enjoyable little puzzle of a film that doesn't always hit, but has enough in the way of ambition and ideas to be worth your time.

6 October 2017

Review: Last Action Hero

(Dir: John McTiernan, 1993)

Hollywood loves a film that acts as a love letter to what it does, that exalts its power of creativity and imagination, romanticises the very act of creation, and just makes it feel good about itself. This is especially true when it harkens back to an era long past, or the so called golden age of cinema, where silent films and subsequently musicals were the endemic ways of telling stories in their time. Last Action Hero fits this mold, but it's subject of reverence is the not so humble action movie and their totemic heroes such as Arnold Schwarzenegger. Not a genre one would expect to inspire such a misty-eyed take on the power and magic of film.

Last Action Hero is essentially a mega-budget version of Woody Allen's great The Purple Rose of Cairo. The chief protagonists in both films use cinema as a means to escape the dissatisfactions of their daily lives, but ultimately with very different consequences. Austin O'Brien's Danny is searching for a father figure, which he thinks he's found the most idealised version of in the fictional Jack Slater (Schwarzenegger). And via a little bit of cinematic magic he is transported through the screen into the fantastical world of the latest Hollywood blockbuster, Jack Slater IV, where he works out what it actually means to have a real life, whilst having a hell of a lot of fun on the way.


The film within a film construct works superbly with this genre, giving it license to go ever more over-the-top – action scenes don't have to make logical sense or adhere to physics, heroes will always scrape by just fine, and guns never run out of ammo. We the audience are being presented with the most idealised version of a cinematic world and it's supposed to be ridiculous and fun. The fact this works so effectively is thanks to the fantastic script, co-written by Shane Black and David Arnott. It's full of humour whilst sending up plenty of cinematic tropes (everyone is beautiful, 555-area codes, Danny's realisation that he's the comedy sidekick) and occasionally getting meta on the audience (the police station, Stallone's "best role to date"). This is Easter-egg heaven for the movie fan and sees a plethora of great cameos.

The other highlight is Charles Dance as chief villain Benedict. The cliché of the archetypal British bad guy is superbly played on as he constantly corrects the poor use of English by his mobster boss (Anthony Quinn), and his quirk of having an interchangeable selection of glass eyes adds some personality. But where this character (literally) really comes to life is when he crosses the threshold into the "real" world, and suddenly works out that the rules have changed and they might actually benefit him for once. There's also a fantastic moment where he just briefly breaks the fourth wall to address the audience, suggesting it could be our screen he'll emerge through next.


As Danny and Jack come back to the real world it's enjoyable watching Jack struggle with the new rules and his actual identity, plus his sense of awe at experiencing things that exist outside of his scripted life. But as the climax builds it loses its way a touch. Pulling us out of a sun-bathed, idealised Los Angeles back into the grim and wet real life of New York is too jarring. Whilst the setting of the final showdown takes the meta thing a touch too far, losing some of its charm in the process. But that's a minor quibble because everything else is just so much damn fun.

The concept of Last Action Hero might not be anything new, but it's satisfyingly pitched with the perfect amount of fun and knowing humour that ensures it is thoroughly entertaining. Schwarzenegger does a great job sending-up both himself and the archetypal character he plays, whilst O'Brien's wide-eyed wonder and general enthusiasm helps carry us through. Maybe it's hazy memory but it feels like this was an underappreciated film at the time, perhaps because audiences just wanted the straight-up action film that Arnie was still churning out? Certainly with time (and this reviewers age) a lot of the jokes and references have become even more noticeable and appreciated. Twenty-four years down the line it's still worth watching.

3 October 2017

Review: Miss Sloane

(Dir: John Madden, 2016)

Miss Sloane effectively manages to do three things: i) further hammer home the ridiculousness of political systems where politicians only really care about keeping their small semblance of power, ii) remind us how America's fervent worship of guns seems so utterly insane to outsiders, iii) prove (yet again) just how damn good Jessica Chastain is. This film is really all about Chastain. Too frequently she is in a decent role that's not the primary focus of the film, but she always manages to stand out as a highlight. As the titular Elizabeth Sloane she is front and centre here, with the film completely hanging on her performance. She is driven to the point that nothing else matters in her life but winning. This makes her a character who is potentially difficult to engage or sympathise with, but Chastain ensures she's compelling to watch as we can't help but side with her, and slowly we scratch away at the surface of that icy cold exterior. Her ways may seem objectionable at times but really she just knows how to play the system better than most, and let's be honest, it's really the system that's screwed.


On the basis of the story having conflict, and thus painting one side as the enemy to be bested, its politics veer toward the argument for greater gun control. But that all feels rather secondary as the real driver of the story is the Miss Sloane character, meaning almost any politicised area would have sufficed as a sandbox for her insatiable need to win. The supporting cast do a fine job, notably Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mark Strong, with the former having an interesting character with a lot of depth to explore. However a lot of the story is actually pretty mundane, and it certainly goes on for too long, but the pay-off is superbly executed and very satisfying, if a little too delayed. 

As a political drama Miss Sloane is nothing special despite the positives of a film daring to touch the gun debate. Ultimately this is Chastain's film, providing a great role for her as she brings every scene she's in to life – making her the main reason to watch.

1 October 2017

Review: Live By Night

(Dir: Ben Affleck, 2016)

Live By Night is an interesting film that never feels like it's living up to its potential. As an adaptation of a novel perhaps the fault lies with the source material, but having never read it it's hard to know. As we've seen elsewhere, the Prohibition influenced 1920's is rife for intriguing stories – all gangsters, tommy guns and loose morals. What Live By Night does differently is supplant the majority of the film from the chill of Boston to the glowing, sweaty climes of Florida, throwing Cuban gangsters into the mix of Irish and Italian mobsters. They are potentially more fascinating yet too thinly sketched out there's clearly a lot more to Zoe Saldana's Graciela for example (and her brother Esteban (Miguel Pimental)), who retains a strength throughout despite being all too quickly relegated to love interest with a conscious.


The focus lies with Ben Affleck's Joe Coughlin whose character is too broadly presented. He is strongly driven by his 'no masters' ethos and a burning desire for revenge, all the while exhibiting a ruthless business acumen and an over-powering sense of altruism. He's a gangster who has to do bad things when required but doesn't feel good about it, meaning Affleck presents his character as the most idealised example of what a gangster should be, and it never sits quite right. Nonetheless Affleck is enjoyable to watch and his easy charm and somewhat old school movie star quality sit well with the film's period. The setting adds some warmth to proceedings and makes a nice change, but certain sub plots, such as Sam Shepherd's police chief and his daughter Elle Fanning, probably worked better more fleshed out on page. The film seems to lack a sense of flow, effectively jumping from one small plot development to the next, as if there are just too many story beats that it must fit in. And the less said about Affleck spending the last few minutes channelling his time with Terrence Malick the better!

There's certainly some enjoyment to be had from Live By Night. Within it there is an interesting story, and it's great to look at thanks to excellent production design and some well staged shoot-outs and car chases. You just can't help but think that had it pared down the story a little, and done more with Zoe Saldana's character, it could've been so much better.