Sunday, 31 December 2017

2017's Best Films (Year-End)

You've seen my worst, now prepare for the best: below are my (ever-shuffling) top twenty favourite films released in the UK in 2017, and some honourable mentions for good measure. For various reasons, these are the films that owned my heart across the calendar year, with an explanation for each provided. Be sure to send me your own year-end lists, ask question and query my choices. In the first few weeks of the year, I'll unveil my full ranking of every film I have seen; as it stands, there are 156 of the buggers but I have a number I've missed and want to include.

Honourable Mentions: Wind River, Logan, Wonder Woman, The Big Sick, God's Own Country, Logan Lucky, Spider-Man: Homecoming, The Florida Project, Brigsby Bear, It, Okja, Miss Sloane, Raw, The Party, Ingrid Goes West.

20. Stronger

A late-in-the-game addition to the year-end list, Stronger is a profound and powerful rumination on hope, recovery and strength. David Gordon Green's emotionally-charged feature-length is the second film to be released this year about the Boston Marathon Bombings but in focusing on the more personal, achingly human story, and containing two of the year's very finest performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany, Stronger rises head and shoulders above.


19. War For The Planet of the Apes

The Planet of the Apes closed out its critically-acclaimed and commerically-successful trilogy on its strongest note to date, providing a late-summer blockbuster as powerful as it is satisfying, as funny as it is devastating, as technically impressive as it is thematically potent. It is smart and cathartic in equal measures and succeeds by finding a unfortunately timely tone in its theme work and message, refusing to shy away from its bleakness. Blockbuster filmmaking at its most impressive.


18. Their Finest

Lone Scherfig's gorgeous war comedy-romance-drama may be the year's most pleasant surprise. It balances tone and genre terrifically, delivering a well-thoughtout, stirring and frequently delightful slice of cinema. Including one of the most moving sequences of the year, with the most bittersweet pay-off, Their Finest is utterly lovely filmmaking.


17. Loving Vincent

Loving Vincent is a visually groundbreaking work of art. Made up of 65,000 oil-painted frame, each crafted with love, care and skill, it frequently amazes but remains grounded to the touching true-life story about one of our greatest artists: Vincent Van Gogh, the film's undisputed muse. A tender, beautiful and captivating artist triumph that should be celebrated this upcoming award season.


16. Kingdom of Us

Both delicate and confrontational, Lucy Cohen's Kingdom of Us is a difficult but necessary watch. There's no frills or tricks to Cohen's filmmaking and she remains smartly focused on the family unit at the centre and their heartbreaking story. Like a fly-on-the-wall, this documentary rarely shies away from difficult subject matter and scenes of emotional distress - and benefits all the more because of its bravery.


15. Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures is not only the most crowd-pleasing, uplifting release of the year, but a genuinely fantastic film that deserves every inch of success. Informative and inspirational, Theodore Melfi's biopic casts new light on an important piece of US history, wonderfully captured by the terrific, dynamic ensemble: Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer and Janelle Monae all shine here in career best performances.


14. Baby Driver

Exhilarating and thrilling, Edgar Wright's Baby Driver is tight and exciting filmmaking that oozes originality and freshness. With a fantastic ensemble led by the ever-charming Ansel Elgort and super stylish production values, Baby Driver is as cool as they come, with an energy and enthusiasm that makes for an electrifying viewing experience.


13. Get Out

Jordan Peele's directorial debut is nothing short of a triumph, successfully combining the most notoriously difficult-to-merge-genres in the most satisfying horror-comedy package imaginable. Uncomfortable, smart and subversive, with razor-sharp social satire and masterful, edge-of-your-seat intensity, Get Out is as enthralling as it is eye-opening, as well-made as it is effective. Fantastic first-time filmmaking from Mr Peele and the team.

12. Manchester By The Sea

Manchester By The Sea is a subtle and devastating tale of loss, regret and humanity, telling a story of simplicity in a truly beautiful and powerful way. Thanks to a wonderful cast of actors (Casey Affleck, Michelle Williams and Lucas Hedges) and writer-director Kenneth Lonergan's terrific original screenplay, Manchester By The Sea's dialogue is stark and realistic and helps display the character's emotions in their rawest, most heart-stopping form.


11. The Killing of a Sacred Deer

The Killing of a Sacred Deer is an extreme, sadistic, brutal and unforgiving cinematic experience, clawing its way, mercilessly, under your skin. Impossible to shake, it lodges itself in your conscious for days. Yorgos Lanthimos, a writer-director at the top of his game, assembles one of the strongest ensembles of the year - Nicole Kidman, Colin Farrell and Barry Keoghan are spectacular - for his taut, characteristically heart-stopping, nerve-shredding, gut-clenching psychological-horror.


10. Moonlight

Moonlight is an impeccable film that masters almost every single element; its performances, direction, visuals, story and score are utterly mesmerising. Barry Jenkins' eventual Oscar-winner frequently impresses in its delicate exploration of sexual identity and realisation. Basking in this cinematic wonder is a debt you owe yourself.


9. Jackie

Jackie's strengths lie in the detail; the detail of a terrific production team and art department; detail in Pablo Larrain's wonderful direction and Stephane Fontaine's cinematography; and the precision in Natalie Portman's exquisite central performance, which portrays the film's themes of grief and loss on an intimate scale incredibly effectively.


8. Hacksaw Ridge

Hacksaw Ridge is a powerful, emotionally-charged and surprisingly hopeful feature-length that examines the full horror of war on both an intimate and wide scale - all topped off with a mesmerising performance from Andrew Garfield, who continues to assert himself as one of our very strongest talents.


7. A Ghost Story

A Ghost Story is a mesmerising experience and a hypnotising exploration of love, loss, life, time and humanity; a story of great simplicity that considers themes of great complexity and detail. Visually spellbinding and thematically profound, David Lowery's direction is elegant and sophisticated, heighten by two terrific performances from Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara, and Daniel Hart's extraordinary score.


6. Paddington 2

Our world does not deserve a film as warm, optimistic and utterly lovely as Paddington 2 but it definitely needs one - it will make you laugh, cry and strive to be a better human. Lovingly-made and packed with so much heart and soul, it is the rare example of a sequel that improves upon the original. Nothing short of a triumph, Paddington 2 uses its increased production budget and the talented team at its disposal to craft a film of genuine optimism and hope for the world to learn from.


5. Call Me By Your Name

Call Me By Your name truly took my breath away, achieving - if not exceeding - the hype that preceded it. It is a sensually indulgent, heart-pounding and sun-kissed future classic, exquisitely exploring the plethora of gorgeous themes through a fantastic adapted screenplay, delivered by a handful of faultless performances - Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg and particularly Timothee Chalamet impress - and helmed by a masterful, confident director. Call Me By Your Name is a triumph, plain and simple and one of the most touching films I have ever - and probably will ever - experience.


4. A Monster Calls

A Monster Calls is an accomplished, sophisticated and masterful coming-of-age dark fantasy drama that succeeds in so many ways. Emotionally-complex and driven by themes of loss, unconditional love and growth, it is delivered by a radiant cast of incredible talent both in front of and behind the camera, who capture the beauty of a powerful story unbelievably effectively, A Monster Calls is not one to miss. The whole thing is really rather exquisite, heartfelt, heartbreaking and life-affirming.


3. mother!

mother! is physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting, even before it reaches its insane crescendo, where everything and the (unbraced) bathroom sink is thrown at the wall. A cinematic experience of previously unmeasured proportions, mother! is a raw and visceral escapade, sadistic in the most artistically-rewarding sense - a complete assault on every major sense in your body. Jennifer Lawrence amazes and Darren Aronofsky shocks.

A film about art and nature and creation; of destruction; a story about rage and wrath; one of love and loss and death and murder; of darkness - completely blackness. A film unlike any other, a truly unique experience. mother! will claw at you furiously, through its slow start and balls-to-the-wall finale to its greater meaning and deeper reflections on life, on the world, on religion and on rebirth. mother! isn't for everyone but by god you should submit and find out. I left mother! slightly shaking, struggling to breathe and completely enthralled and in awe. Isn't that what art is for?


2. Dunkirk

Dunkirk in a nerve-shattering, unrelenting and intense cinematic experience of the highest, most sophisticated level. Without question, Nolan's picture is a sheer masterclass in atmosphere and tension, crafted by a brilliant mind and executed phenomenally. Of course, and completely unsurprisingly, Nolan is at the very epicentre of the film's success, writing and directing the piece in a way very few could even comprehend, nevermind actually effectuate.

The man's imagination and creation is an endless source of my inspiration and admiration; on screen, he produces visually captivating and impressive images, bolstered by his ability to maintain the inbuilt tension from first beat to last; off screen, and with a pen in his hand, he constructs an excellent script that expertly weaves the unconventional tryptic narrative and timelines masterfully. With Dunkirk's brutality comes a beauty and with its complexity comes an understanding, resulting in a cinematic experience so considered, visceral and expertly rendered that it will be remembered for years to come.


1. La La Land

No one can ever take away the previously-unparalleled levels of pure joy, immense happiness and endless inspiration La La Land so lovingly instals within me. It makes my heart soar in a way no film has ever made it soar before; it reminds me that dreaming is important, and valid, and important. It sparked a light inside of me that led to many new opportunities and no matter how much anyone tries to take that away - 'it's overrated!', 'you over-hyped it', 'how can you love a film that much' - they never, ever will.

Quality and colour ooze from this picture with such an infectious, delightful, wondrous energy, all under the impeccable control of Damien Chazelle, whose clear passion carefully crafts this terrific world that we become so absorbed in. We are utter transfixed in his stunning, stunning world because of his amazing efforts and the sensational performances at the heart of this film, alongside the glamorous and exuberant production values, impressive score and soundtrack and iconic sequences that will be remembered for years to come. Picking a favourite is near impossible but the final act's Epilogue is the greatest seven-to-eight minutes captured in film. No hyperbole, just truth here, kids.

 La La Land is an absolutely transcendental, extraordinary, mesmerising watch and - although tinged with a little sadness - lifts you higher and higher with a euphoric non-stop singing, dancing and acting masterclass led by the phenomenal pairing of Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling and married together by Damien Chazelle's sensational direction. One day I will get to thank Mr. Chazelle for this film, which has truly changed my life for the better. 2017, you did good on the film front - but this was La La Land's year and nothing was ever going to top it.

Saturday, 30 December 2017

2017's Worst Films (Year-End)

Without question, 2017 has been a fantastic year at the cinema and we'll be celebrating the cream of the crop in the coming days - but for now, let's look back at the clangers. The abominations, the catastrophes, the inexplicably horrendous feature-lengths to disgrace our screens in the past twelve months and remind us that we are indeed living in a world where Donald Trump is President of the United States.

The following ten films - all released this year in the United Kingdom - and the dishonourable runners-up all made me weep for the art form to varying degrees. Be sure to share your own lists, ask questions and prepare for my top twenty favourite films heading your way in the coming days.

Dishonourable Mentions: Sing, Illumination's terribly dull and uninspired animation; Netflix's 'all questions, no answers' The Discovery; Ben Affleck's commercial and critical bomb, Live By Night; the franchise-starter that never was, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword; and the 'so bad they dumped it on Netflix' The Circle.

Without further ado, the worst films to be released this year are...

10. Kidnap

Halle Berry's continually-shelved-but-eventually-dumped-on-Netflix action-thriller is so haphazardly constructed and poorly written that it would have probably been kinder - for both the audience and the cast and crew - to let it die on a production company's shelf somewhere far away from the public's consumption. Berry's screechy efforts isn't the worst thing about it: the script and editing are so much worse. It's pulpy action might do it for some but the more you try and think about this film, the more difficult it is to defend it.

9. The Space Between Us

You might not see The Space Between Us on many year-end list - because no one bothered to see it. Terribly manipulative and generating a silly number of eye-rolls, the Young Adult sci-fi romance starts out solidly but quickly descends into absurd, laughable chaos. Wooden dialogue, some awful performances and cliches incorporated by the bucketload weigh the whole thing down and so The Space Between Us is defined by its shoddiness and flimsiness.

8. The Love Witch

Make a case for The Love Witch and I'll grant it to you. I can fully understand why someone would adore this hyper-stylised and immensely detailed exploration of the femme-fatale and visual homage to 60s horror and technicolour  - but I could not warm to it myself. Anna Biller's daring project is a clear labour of love but the respect I have towards it (and her as a film-maker), has no correlation with my enjoyment in the end product, a film I found closer to a parody than Biller probably intended.

7. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Across 110 cold, long minutes, Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk never finds a confident footing and its noble intentions are ultimately drowned out in Ang Lee's plodding and misguided exploration of war's ever-lasting impact. The visual innovation is misplaced here, existing in a film where the difficult subject of war is only second-fiddle to 'the highest ever frame rate in a movie ever!!!'.  Cliched, sluggish and forceful in its emotion, this is one Halftime spectacle you'll want to miss.

6. The Void

Another horror homage misfire on the list, Steven Kostanski and Jeremy Gillespie's Lovecraftian effort is too wacky and unrestrained for its limited production budget to handle. It will no doubt thrill genre fans but for everyone else, it is a flat and surprisingly lifeless experience. It runs out of breath early into its 90 minute runtime and never recovers: the following onslaught of gruesome violence, shoddy effects and confused character work and performances mean that the increasingly-stupid, momentum-murdering final act grinds to a horrendous, year-end-worst-list halt.

5. The Bad Batch

Pompous, pretentious and self-indulgent, the Vice-produced The Bad Batch strains so desperately to be cool and edgy, but like a parent dabbing at their kid's school disco, it so spectacularly fails. Painfully dull and completely void of emotion, Ana Lily Amirpour's first English-language feature-length chips away at your attention span so obnoxiously that 119 minutes feels like a lifetime. The character's motives are as barren as the landscape they play out against, and their evolution is next to non-existent. A horribly tepid and soulless piece of cinema.

4. The Emoji Movie

It's very easy to laugh at The Emoji Movie, Sony Pictures' crticially-slaughtered animation that hired Patrick Stewart as a talking turd emoji - but it's a little more sinister than that. With demeaning life lessons and themes, shameless product-placement and the persistent reminder that everyone involved in this animated catastrophe thought with their wallets over their morals, The Emoji Movie is a disaster, and the worst kid-targeted animation in a pretty dreadful year for the genre.

3. Gold

Ever since The Wolf of Wall Street in 2013, Hollywood has appeared hell-bent on sustaining the 'Horrible American Men Doing Detestable Things For Money, Fame and Power' sub-genre. Gold, starring Matthew McConaughey, is one of two films this year to enter that sub-genre and very easily the worst - but American Made wasn't all that great either. How bad is Gold though? I found happiness walking back out on to the rainy, gloomy and wet streets of Birmingham. 

Vapid and uninspired, this spiritless shell of a film demonstrates everything wrong with Oscar bait, with one-dimensional performances, terrible structure and pacing and inept storytelling. Gold is awful, worthless cinema and almost as bad as 2015's The Big Short.

2. Geostorm

Dean Devlin's Geostorm represents blockbuster film-making at its most incompetent; this horrendous example of a director out of his depth endured reshoots and post-production totalling tens of millions. But shockingly, THIS is the best version of the film they could find amidst the chaos of a first-time director helming a potential franchise-launching, seven-digit-figure production.

For the extrotionate cost of $120 million, Warner Bros handed Dean Devlin his own a film and he gifted them with one of the year's biggest bombs. A 'dead behind the eyes' ensemble cast, some of the most woeful special effects found in the 21st century and the most absurd storyline that could ever be created play-out in this cinematic catastrophe, a film that could have been perfectly frothy fun but is instead the poorest excuse of a major studio blockbuster you could dream of. So terribly stitched together and dramatically deficient, Geostorm commits every film-making sin in the book and crushes your film-loving soul in the process.

Tsunami? Earthquake? Planes falling from the sky? I'd take any of them over experiencing this sorry excuse of a film Warner Bros pedalled out in October again.  It is your moral duty as an upstanding citizen of this fine world to prevent those you know and love from subjecting themselves to the abysmal, mind-numbing and soul-destroying Geostorm.

1. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul

Just how awful is Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Long Haul? So bad that I sat feeling sorry for anyone or anything that was name checked or referenced in this soft reboot. Like, the Spice Girls weren't even in this film and they no longer exist as a group but I felt terrible for their unknowing souls as Wannabe was mimed in the most cringe-inducing carpool karaoke moment to ever exist. I honestly cannot listen to that song anymore.

Just for some context, this was playing locally and out of the goodness of my heart - and because I wanted to pad by Rotten Tomatoes-certified critic page out (which you can see here) - I signed up to review this for Film Inquiry, a website I'd recently been hired for and wanted to impress with my commitment. Now, should I be asked to review anything similar, I would tender my resignation. I used my Limitless card to get in to this film for free but I still felt robbed. 

The Long Haul is detestable, embarrassing and if anyone involved in the production of this film works another day, they should count their lucky stars. It's utterly awful and not only because I'm no longer the film's target audience; it is patronisingly stupid, painfully unfunny in every sense of the word and lacks all creativity, originality and effort. Every line is spoken with forced enthusiasm; every piece of dialogue is cringeworthy, eye-roll-inducing or another joke about a flying turd. It's irritatingly repetitive and without a single qualifying factor. I literally didn't know whether to cry or scream my whole way through it but god knows I ran quicker than I have ever run before for the door as soon as the credits started to roll.

Not only one the worst film of the year, but one of the very worst films I have ever, ever endured.

Friday, 22 December 2017

The Disaster Artist (2017) (Review)

They're three types of people who will watch The Disaster Artist; those who have seen The Room and love it; those who have seen The Room and loathed it; and those who are yet to experience The Room. After watching it recently in preparation for this film, I very securely inhabit that middle category. It's horrific. Abysmal, even. Easily one of the worst films I've ever seen and I don't buy into the 'so-bad-it's-good' labelling. I hate it. I loathe it. But in prepping my year-end list and to keep up-to-date with the increasingly heated, difficult-to-call Oscar race, I thought I'd give it a chance. It couldn't be worse, right?

The Disaster Artist is based on the memoir released by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell, subtitled 'My Life inside The Room, the Greatest Bad Film Ever Made'. As the title suggests, it focused on what many consider the very worst film made and the man behind it - Tommy Wiseau. A man who remains an utter enigma - no one knows how old he is, how his seemingly bottomless source of income is generated and from what corner of the world he comes from - Wiseau's mysteriousness only adds to the intrigue of The Disaster Artist and while it doesn't deliver answers to these bigger questions, it certainly provides context. The passion project assembles a star-studded cast, reuniting James and Dave Franco with Seth Rogen, alongside the likes of Zac Efron, Josh Hutcherson and Alison Brie.

In short, The Disaster Artist is just fine for someone without an unyielding love for the 2003 disaster-piece. There is a great deal of fun to be had and the committed performances from the game cast ensure that, at the very least, you have a sporadic amount of fun with it. No matter your relationship with the Wiseau directed, produced, financed and starring abomination, you can have a good time.

The Franco Brothers are the stand-outs in a largely good cast. James truly loses himself as Wiseau, capturing his spirit, intricacies and behaviour pretty damn faultlessly. Mastering his idiosyncrasies perfectly, it is a crowning achievement that should keep him in the Best Actor award-season race until the very end. Perhaps it is the fact that James and Tommy share a strikingly similar path to fame - neither are taken seriously, they are both 'artistically troubled' and have, rightly or wrongly, become the butt of some joke or another - but the older Franco brother really gets to grips with the character and delivers a truly impressive performance than embodies Mr. Wiseau fantastically.

Dave Franco may not be showered in as much glory as his brother for his role but he is probably the film's MVP. He bears so much of the emotional weight and truly carries the film when the narrative has trouble finding its way. He's engaging, magnetic and charming, an antidote to moments where Tommy himself may become alienating or unlikeable, managing a tight balance on the back of his aplomb performance. In a film that otherwise lacks it, subtly is key to his performance and he excels because of the control and poise demonstrated.

James Franco takes the directorial reigns too, juggling both roles effectively. There's a clear technical accomplishment in the scene recreations at the tail end; whether these scenes are totally necessary is another question altogether but they are fun nonetheless. He possesses a clear fondness for the source material but with it comes a constant tussle between presenting it as a homage or a parody; it's difficult to point-point what they are trying to do with it, floundering while they look for a resolute purpose, rhythm and balance. While The Disaster Artist is frequently entertaining, its existence outside of funny people saying funny things while exploring an unfunny film and hoping for an Oscar or two, is bizarre.

Scott Neustadter and Michael Weber's screenplay is undoubtedly fun, brimming with detailed flourishes destined to be lapped up by the disaster-pieces' ardent supporters - but the film never fully commits to them. It tries to be wider and broader in its scope and you can see it trying to break out beyond that niche market and demographic, but it's not always successful. It doesn't have all that much to say: it does provide insight and documents the troubled production but it is always hints at being something more than it actually has the answers for. While it gives fans of The Room everything they could possibly desire, it feels pointless in the grand scheme of things. In fact - and this is an analogy I use probably too frequently - it's like an SNL skit stretched to feature-length runtime.

The Disaster Artist made me loathe The Room more than I thought possible, but it did make me all the more intrigued in Wiseau and his cinematic catastrophe. Franco builds an undeniably well-made, entertaining film - but it doesn't provide me with enough new information, and it plays out from a somewhat uninspired angle. Dave and James Franco are phenomenal here and it really wouldn't work without their performances - but it seems split between homage and parody and doesn't truly develop a rhythm. The Disaster Artist didn't tear me apart with either love or hate resulting in a somewhat enjoyable but unnecessary chapter.


Summary: The Disaster Artist might not exactly get 'hai marks' from me (because my hatred for The Room runs so deep), but it is a frequently entertaining, terrifically-acted and well-made film that you can still enjoy (if not fully appreciate) without a connection to Wiseau's disasterpiece. 

Monday, 18 December 2017

Stronger (2017) (Review)

Stronger is the second of two films to be released this year that centres around the Boston Marathon Bombings of 2013; Peter Berg's Patriots Day focused on the bombing and the subsequent manhunt for the culprits, a striking look at the investigation and a community rising in defiance; David Gordon Green's Stronger on the other hand takes a far quieter, more intimate approach. It explores the story of Jeff Bauman, who had one of the bombs explode at his feet, which resulted in an amputation that would change his life forever.

As Jeff (Jake Gyllenhaal) waits for his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Erin Hurley (Tatiana Maslany), at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon, his world crumbles when a planted bomb exploded at his feet. Despite two leg amputation, he helps investigators catch those responsible with pertinent information - but despite the terrorists' death, his fight for recovery is only just beginning, having to adapt to the situation and help a community heal. Miranda Richardson stars as Jeff's mother while Clancy Brown plays his father.

Stronger is an intimate rumination on journey and recovery, a glance at a schismatic event on a personal level with award-worthy performances from Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany. Having both already proven that they are among the greatest artists working in Hollywood today (Gyllenhaal through his various acclaimed feature-lengths including Nocturnal Animals, Prisoners and Brokeback Mountain, and Maslany throughout her Emmy-winning and multi-faceted work on BBC America's Orphan Black), they deliver two of the finest performances of the year.

Gyllenhaal balances what could have been a flashy, technology-enhanced performance by completely absorbing himself into the role, with utterly tremendous effect. He becomes Bauman with such delicacy and detail, poignantly exploring his physicality and mentality during his troubling times, while rarely shying away from his flaws. While the film does turn him into a Stars-And-Stripes hero of sorts, it considers his reluctancy in becoming a figure of the Boston Strong movement profoundly, all thanks to Gyllnehaal's well-rendered, surprisingly subtle performance. He truly is one of Hollywood's greatest: let's get him a Best Actor nomination, Hollywood.

Maslany, an absolute favourite of mine (my adoration for the clone show with which she broke out with knows no bounds), makes the small-to-big screen transition with a rich role packed with emotion and poise. She may not appear on screen as much as Gyllenhaal does, operating more in a supporting capacity than expected, but she makes just as strong an impact. Contending not only with Jeff's disability but dealing with her own emotions, the layered and complex character is so powerfully enlivened by Maslany's Erin and she becomes a sturdy anchor for the audience to connect with, encouraged by such a generous performance. She's certainly in Jeff's shadow but her character arc is just as important and so excellently realised. Let's get her a Best (Supporting) Actress nomination, Hollywood. She's one of your greatest.

Providing these talented actors with the potential to go far is John Pollono, whose strong screenplay is adapted from Bauman and Bret Witter's novel, Stronger. Employing surprisingly few cliches and instead rooted in fact, Pollono earns every tear shed by his audience. What could have been sentimental is instead potent and pragmatic; where it could have taken the easy way out, it spends time ensuring the characters are complex and their behaviours are believable, shying away from the Hollywood biopic tropes and dramatisations. Immensely satisfying in its innermost reflection on the events and its admirable ability to defy cynical expectations, Stronger's adapted screenplay is a minor triumph. You can see what attracted such a high-calibre cast.

David Gordon Green allows for a great deal of breathing space in this film. The camera often lingers for prolonged periods of time and, in the wrong hands, may result in an overdrawn piece; but Green allows these extra few, quiet, seconds to truly count, speaking volumes in their powerful ability to view these characters as humanly and realistically as possible. When Jeff lies naked, almost lifelessly, under the running shower, we gain a stronger understanding of his fragile mindset than can be offered in words; as Erin's bottom lip quivers as she watches the bomb explode, we can see the thoughts racing through her mind; when they spend a moment away from it all on a rooftop, him resting on her, their relationship becomes even clearer - one of nurture and compassion.

It's Green's confidence to allow these moments to play out, where so much of the film's power lies, that makes him the perfect fit for this film. The direction is strong if uncomplicated, with tight pacing and speed. As mentioned, while it could be considered slow, there's more than enough substance - particularly in the smaller moments - to justify the 119 minute runtime. He places such focus on Jeff and the relationships around him so that we feel truly inhabit his world; we are with him for every step of his journey. Stronger's emotion is enhanced further by Michael Brook's soul-stirring score. Gentle but moving, it is brimming with poignancy, powerfully engaging and effective.

After an hour and a half of delicate consideration and growing tension between Jeff and Erin, their frustrations and anger explode as they finally reach a breaking point in their relationship. Captured in the most heart-wrenching, devastating scene of the year, Gyllenhaal and Maslany provide what can only be described as a sheer masterclass in their craft, the truest testament of their talent. Emotionally-charged and throughly earned, the impact of the life-shattering event is most hard-hitting here and, as the film has provided these scenes so sparingly, it is so sharply felt. You'll be hard pressed to watch the scene fade through tearless eyes and Stronger earns each and every drop. Heartwarming and heartbreaking in equal measures, Stronger bears the weight of its fact-based story and quietly, powerfully and profoundly leaves its mark.


Summary: Profound, powerful and touching, Stronger is a triumph, all the more effective for its quiet, personal exploration of journey and recovery. The intimate focus on a wider, life-shattering event is refreshing, and elevated to extraordinary heights by Jake Gyllenhaal and Tatiana Maslany, who deliver two of the year's finest performances. 

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Better Watch Out (2017) (Review)

Better watch out, better not cry, the festive films are coming to town! A Bad Moms Christmas and Daddy's Home 2 have the comedy side of the coin covered this year and while the festive horror sub-genre has dwindled in popularity over time, Better Watch Out is set to deck the halls with blood and fear this holiday season.

17 year-old Ashley (Olivia DeJonge) comes to babysit 12 year-old Luke Lerner (Levi Miller) while his parents attend a Christmas function, one last time before she leaves the area. After Luke tries to seduce her and begins acting erratically, Ashley becomes increasingly concerned with his odd behaviour - but her night only gets worse when armed, masked men enter the home and she must fight to keep both of them alive. Ed Oxenbould, Aleks Mikic and Dacre Montgomery co-star in Chris Peckover's first major feature-length which is adapted from Zack Kahn's story and co-written by the pair.

'Better Watch Out' borrows its title from the popular Christmas song 'Santa Claus is Coming To Town' but it inadvertently acts as a warning to consumers approaching the film's theatrical trailer: Better Watch Out (For That Spoiler-Packed Trailer) may have been a more appropriate title. Having avoided the marketing myself (beyond some striking posters), the film's major rug-from-under-feet moment landed with mighty force and jaw-dropping effect, but I would have been unimpressed having witnessed the trailer stuffing in every spoiler under the sun before seeing the feature-length itself. Better Watch Out may be the year's biggest culprit in spoiler-heavy marketing and I stress the importance of avoiding it. Even just generally though, this film is best enjoyed blind, so do proceed with caution.

With that polite notice out of the way, we can delve in to how giddy and enjoyable Peckover's Yuletide-themed horror is. It's an 89 minute blast of adrenaline and tension and excitement, beginning somewhat predictably before throwing twists and turns of all varieties at the audience. Peckover and Zahn's screenplay has no problem throwing red herrings into the mix that may appear frustrating in the moment, but clarity emerges upon reflection and the film's true meaning develops as we descend into chaos. Rather witty if slightly clumsy at times, the dialogue is solid but hardly the most important element here, signalling advancement in the plot but sometimes holding it back with heavy-handed explanations and jarring characterisation. Its exploration of thematic content is thankfully more secure, considering toxic masculinity, twisted youth and - in a way - media desensitisation effectively. It's certainly smarter than it may seem on the surface, packed with exciting flourishes and detail.

Peckover's direction has a sheen to it, with some pockets of genuinely fantastic film-making evident. He enhances the all-important tension terrifically, dialling it up notch by notch and crafting a delightfully-twisted atmosphere, heightened further by Brian Cachia's effective soundtrack. Alongside some effectively awkward comedy and some flat-out scary moments (although the jump scares get a little too regular in the first act), Better Watch Out is a potent blend of genres and tones, presented to us in a tight, sparkly package. The decorations are expertly emphasised by Carl Robertson's cinematography which creates a stark contrast when the blood splatters come thick and fast, truly soiling the meaning of Christmas.

Uniformly solid across the board, the performances are efficient and well-handled, notably stable as we travel through the varying tones and genres. Our leads shine especially bright, with both Olivia DeJonge and Levi Miller impressing as the babysitter and babysit-ee. DeJonge is poised and controlled as Ashley, but allows her fear to seep in as the threat looms larger. It's a well-calibrated performance - she's likeable but flawed - and you find yourself rooting for her throughout. Miller is tremendous (if let down slightly by lengthy, unneeded dialogue) providing a biting, disconcerting turn as the lovestruck Luke. He handles the character whiplash efficiently and looks set to go far as one of Hollywood's best breakout actors. Ed Oxenbould, Aleks Mikic and Dacre Montgomery are fine in a supporting capacity, bolstering an ensemble packed with career-boosting turns.

If you've managed to avoid the marketing for Better Watch Out, you have a real treat in store; while you might still have a good time having seen the spoiler-filled trailers, the frothy enjoyment will probably be diluted and the thrill of the chase less effective. Certainly one of the best festive-horrors and Christmas-themed films of the year, Better Watch Out will have you on the edge of your seat throughout the delirious twists and shocking turns. Complete with fantastic performances, strong direction and aesthetic, as well as a decent script and refreshing Christmas-angle, Better Watch Out is a terrific blood-covered, yuletide corker that will paint Home Alone in a whole new light.


Summary: Better Watch Out is a fantastic, blood-covered yuletide screamer that infuses various genres and tones terrifically into the sharp and witty screenplay. Olivia DeJonge and Levi Miller impress as leads and Chris Peckover's direction is solid - but be sure to avoid all trailers, or the delightfully-twisted surprise will be ruined.

Thursday, 7 December 2017

Wonder (2017) (Review)

Wonder has no qualms about tugging forcefully on your heartstrings, aiming to melt your nervous system down into a puddle of emotion numerous times throughout its 113 minute runtime. An American drama adapted, co-written and directed by Stephen Chbosky, Wonder looks set to be the designated year-end weepie that warms your heart when the weather outside chills. Starring Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson and Jacob Tremblay, all of whom have experienced their fair share of cinematic whiffs in the last 18 months, is Wonder as remarkable as its title suggests?

Ostracised due to his physical appearance caused by a rare facial deformity, Auggie Pullman (Tremblay) conceals himself under an astronaut helmet and dreams of outer space. Protected by his family - Isabel (Roberts), Nate (Wilson) and Via (Izabela Vidovic) - he must learn to fend for himself   against bullies and embrace his difference when he finally starts school in the fifth-grade.

Chbosky, responsible for one of my all-time favourites in Perks of Being Nath A Wallflower, follows-up that coming-of-age story with Wonder, a, erm, coming-of-age story. While his latest effort may not be as impressive as that 2012 release, Wonder is a well-intentioned, kind-natured slice of uplifting cinema the world really seems to need at the moment. Exploring kindness, friendship, understanding and how each of us are fighting our own worthy battles, integrity runs through the very veins of this film.

Co-written with Jack Thorne and Steve Conrad, based on the best-selling novel by R.J. Palacio, Wonder is no doubt manipulative in its emotion. Subtle doesn’t enter its vocabulary. There are scenes with the sole aim of making you shed several tears and it always strives to out-emotion itself, gently pulverising its audience until they are left an emotional, blubbering wreck by the time the credits rolled. Its constant determination and out-pouring of emotion is a little too much for me in all honesty, to the point where I felt the film struggled to breathe thematically, scuffling to really make the most out of its subject matter. I'm almost certainly in the minority with that mindset but it didn't quite fall into place for me.

Benefiting no-one is the clunky one-liners that the writers roll out every other scene or so. It's sentimental almost to a fault, laying on the sweetness thick through some forced, heavy-handed dialogue that held it - nay, me, rather - back. Everything's design to wring the most amount of emotional intensity out of it; you can almost see the checklist in hand, with the writers wading through the conventions and formulas needed to deliver the most poignant, unfortunately sanitised, occasionally one-note exploration of tweens and genes.

Furthermore, Wonder lands one character development (regression?) so misjudged and extreme that everything that follows regarding the character's arc irritated me deeply, despite a fine performance from the person in question. There's no coming back from a statement as severe as the one this character drops, but they are later forgiven; while characteristic of the film and one of its most important messages, I couldn't forgive so easily. It frustrated me to no end and could have easily been averted, with a number of options that would have been more suited to the actual character.


While my issues with Wonder prevented it from becoming anything more than 'good', it is difficult to really take major offence with a film as warm, considerate and hopeful as it is. It continually strives to paint a hopeful, optimistic picture while reminding us that our flaws and personal battles are just as important. It has a number of fantastic performances; Tremblay (his best since his break-out in Room), Roberts and Wilson each provide one of their strongest turns in recent years and - along with the impressive, future star Vidovic - conjuring a believable family dynamic that helps sell the film and its poignant moments. You believe in this family unit and see glimpses of your own in them, from the inter-relationships and conversations between various members. A lot is demanded to convince you of the emotion so crucial to the story and the cast succeed in conveying it effectively.

Noah Jupe, following strong performances in Suburbicon and The Night Manager, is terrific once again here, illustrating his talent with a more subtle performance that many younger ones may struggle to balance. I cheered when Millie Davis, of Orphan Black fame, appeared and she's strong here, delivering a sparky performance as Summer. There's some forced, awkward performances elsewhere from the younger cast but nothing too difficult to endure. On the whole, the ensemble is solid and help alleviate some of the writing issues.

Wonder's structure infuses the film with some energy. Breaking it down into sections to explore each of the characters' story in more detail, it allows a change in perception that the film benefits from, unshackling itself from the otherwise formulaic approach. While this can be frustrating when some stories are left unanswered and narrative threads are left hanging, the adjustment in pace when the tone often remains static, is a welcome change and relief.

Chbosky's direction doesn't feature the cinematic sheen or timeless quality of Wallflower but does contain some lovely flourishes and great storytelling devices: it explores Auggie's fantasy world - one that has become a safe haven for him and his family - well, complete with space travel and Star Wars characters. Visually rosy, its bright and airy aesthetics are a perfect match for the tone and themes that pervade throughout Wonder. Marcelo Zarvos' soundtrack does help develop this emotion and lightness well too.

Critiquing a film like Wonder is difficult: it is so well-intentioned and there is a fair bit to like about it, lifted by some fantastic performances and a skilled director - but its flaws are glaring at times and the screenplay in all its floweriness is constructed solely to wring every tear out of its audience. Because I could sense how hard it was working to do that, the power and potency was somewhat  diluted for me, as it willingly ticked off conventions and coming-of-age tropes. Generally speaking though, Wonder is a gentle, spirited and kind film concerned with uplifting themes and messages. Make no mistake, it will certainly warm your heart this winter even when I found myself resisting.


Summary: Wonder is flawed, twee and manipulative in its emotion; but it is undeniably kind-hearted and well-intentioned, making for a solid, uplifting piece of cinema designed to warm your heart and fill you with joy.

Saturday, 2 December 2017

Battle of the Sexes (2017) (Review)

The 1973 tennis match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs has gone down in history for a number of reasons: not only did it turn the tide for the role of women in sport (particularly tennis), it became the United States' most watched tennis match of all-time - a record it reportedly still holds today. Now, almost 45 years after King's lucrative, boundary-busting victory, Emma Stone and Steve Carell star in film adaptation of that record-breaking meeting between the women's number one and the self-appointed male chauvinist.

When a forthcoming tournament reveals the female winner takes just one-eighth of the men's prize despite equal ticket sales, Billie Jean King (Stone) leads a boycott and begins her own tennis tour with a group of talented female tennis players. Meanwhile, the ageing Bobby Riggs (Carell) taunts them by claiming their inferiority and challenges any woman who will take him on in a winner-takes-all match. When King finally accepts the offer, both her professional and personal life are at stake.

Battle of the Sexes is a crowd-pleasing, shamelessly 'Hollywood' adaptation of the 'Battle of the Sexes'; it's a fluffy piece of popcorn cinema that definitely has its merit, even though it struggles to live up to its potential. In a similar vein to the Oscar-nominated Hidden Figures - if not quite as satisfying or remarkable - it looks back on groundbreaking events of our past but extracts timely themes of inequality and injustice, unfortunately still relevant in society today.

Simon Beaufoy's screenplay may make broad artistic strokes and re-adjust King's journey for maximum emotion, but he develops the themes carefully and considerately, sensitively exploring King's sexuality but never making it the sole focus of the film. He makes the 1973 exhibition the film's joyous culmination, documenting both Riggs and King's journey in the lead up to the event -  but it only really steps into gear during the film's second half, lacking much of a spark outside the central performances in that first stretch.

And those two performance are truly wonderful, with Emma Stone the film's absolute calling card. Channeling King's no-nonesense attitude fabulously, complete with her sharp wit and dry sense of humour, Stone is the film's crowning achievement and elevates an almost middle-of-the-road biopic to great heights. Both fierce and subtle, her turn may not take her all the way this Oscar season like her performance in La La Land did, but her name certainly deserves to be milling around until the very end of that race.

Steve Carell is fantastic as Mr. Bobby Riggs: he plays the self-proclaimed male chauvinist pig with glee, obnoxiously taunting with cries of superiority without becoming wholly detestable. Like it or not, his character works the room well and Carrell is the perfect fit for the role. Of the supporting cast, a game Sarah Silverman impresses and constantly threatens to steal the film as the founder of World Tennis; and Bill Pullman is appropriately infuriating as Jack Kramer, reminiscent of his role in Torchwood: Miracle Day, wilfully making you squirm with each foul comment. It's packed with a number of fine performances (including Elisabeth Shue, Andrea Riseborough and Alan Cumming) but outside Stone and Carell, Silverman and Pullman are the real standouts.

Dual directors Johnathan Dayton and Valerie Faris do a solid job dramatising the true-life event, with the titular match particularly impressive in scope and energy. While there's a slight disconnect between the two halves - as if the film was literally cut down the middle and each director assembled their own movie - it's generally well-held together with a strong visual and a number of gorgeous shots running through it. Cinematographer Linus Sandgren works wonders in conveying the era: you really do feel transported back to the 70s and living through the build-up to the match, rather than simply watching a movie made to look like the early 70s. It's well-costumed and decorated with strong set pieces, capturing the spirit and weight of the situation and atmosphere fantastically.

Battle of the Sexes is well-scored by Nicholas Britell, who enhances the emotion superbly; it excels in the tender moments between King and Marilyn Barnett, conveying their love in a sensual, touching way. Lavender Oil and First Kiss are the score's particularly strong moments, emphasising the genuine emotion and their connection and chemistry well. Furthermore, Britell's soundtrack elevates the match sequences terrifically, sprinkling an intensity, energy and excitement throughout these final scenes, making the culmination of the Battle of the Sexes all the more satisfying.

Battle of the Sexes isn't quite the total victory I hoped for - like Bille Jean King herself in the concluding match, it struggles to get going to begin with and, while impressive, can't quite muster the brilliance many hoped. But as it heads into the second half, it find the energy and excitement to elevate it to crowd-pleasing, fist-pumping heights. Emma Stone and Steve Carell are sensational in the leading roles and explore the screenplay's set of timely themes effectively, helmed by two confident directors who manage to overcome the occasionally lacklustre pacing that holds the first half back somewhat. An impressive, crowd-pleasing biopic that, while not quite as show-stopping as hoped, is nonetheless inspiring and potent relief in these dark and challenging times.


Summary: Battle of the Sexes is by no means a grand slam but it's timely, gorgeous, emotionally engaging and well-acted, with a fantastic double serving of Emma Stone and Steve Carell in career-high performances.