“I’ve Seen This Raw Strength Only Once Before. It Didn’t Scare Me Enough Then, It Does Now…”
Knocking every other big-screen release of 2017 out of the park in terms of mind-melting anticipation, Disney and Lucasfilm return with the eighth direct entry into the Star Wars universe with The Last Jedi, with it being a whole two years since the revival of the franchise with the scintillating revelation which was The Force Awakens. Dispatching with J. J. Abrams for the time being, with Abrams returning to directorial duty on Episode IX after the cancellation of Colin Trevorrow’s contractual duties, Looper director Rian Johnson takes charge of a release which continues on with the many dangling plot threads left over from its’ predecessor with a returning cast featuring the likes of Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and the final on-screen performance of Carrie Fisher as the ever-majestic Princess Leia. Whereas The Force Awakens realigned the critical consensus of a universe which had been somewhat tarnished thanks to the George Lucas directed trilogy released at the turn of the century, The Last Jedi has a somewhat blank slate to go where and which way it chooses, and whilst the latest entry within the Star Wars canon doesn’t exactly hit the lofty heights of its’ predecessor, with particular and crystal clear flaws affecting the final, overall product, Johnson’s movie is a spectacle fuelled adventure thrill ride which has enough twists, turns and eye-watering action to leave even the most casual of Star Wars fans gasping for more.
With a narrative which continues the many dangling plot threads left over from The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi is primarily wrapped around the centre of an escape movie, with the hunted Rebel Alliance at front and centre of the movie’s action straight from the offset in which characters both old and new are are brought into the mould of a two and a half hour journey which moves from the darkness of space to the salt laden plains of an ice covered rebel retreat without ever really coming up to the surface for breath. With subplots which include Daisy Ridley’s Rey and her interaction with Mark Hamill’s aged and hermit-esque Luke Skywalker, the wandering temperament and conflicted heart of Adam Driver’s beefed up Kylo Ren, and John Boyega’s relationship with Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose, The Last Jedi is a film which can’t be faulted for a lack of substance and plot, but with a sagging middle act in which we see one of our heroes venture to a casino-laden planet of riches coming off as the obvious editing misstep, sometimes Johnson’s movie does begin to feel incredibly heavy, and whilst there are comedic elements aplenty throughout the course of the action, the overall tone of the movie is much more darker and melancholic that one might have expected, with the notion of death and loss not exactly hiding away akin more to the sensibility of Rogue One than any other previous release in the series so far.
With particular elements which come across somewhat baffling and jarring, including a Guardians of the Galaxy moment for Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia and a handful of wasted opportunities for particular underdeveloped characters, Johnson’s movie does ultimately make up for these missteps by being a fundamentally stunning and beautifully made movie, with cinematographer and Looper collaborator Steve Yedlin creating a wide range of jaw-dropping images and shots which made me want to stand up and applause in a manner similar to Roger Deakins’ outstanding work on Blade Runner 2049, a film which on some levels does share similarities with The Last Jedi with both movies focused primarily on their feel, look and emotive qualities above anything else, resulting in Johnson’s movie coming across as arguably the least relatable Star Wars movie to date thanks to a somewhat cold and unnerving spiritual tone. With a lightsaber battle which ranks up there with the best the series has produced thus far, a satisfying resolution for particular character arcs and an ambiguous conclusion which leads the Star Wars path onto a vast number of potential directions, The Last Jedi is a flawed but emotionally riveting and spectacular addition into the Star Wars universe, and whilst it may not be the best series offering, Johnson’s movie is undeniably the most beautifully crafted.
Overall Score: 8/10
“We Do What We Can To Endure…”
Fresh from an inevitable and well deserved Oscar win for his performance in Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea, Casey Affleck returns to the big screen alongside Carol and The Social Network star Rooney Mara in A Ghost Story, a supernatural drama written and directed by David Lowery who reunites with the duo after previously working together on the 2013 drama Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. With an eerie, off-kilter sensibility, a staggeringly ambitious ideas narrative and one of the most affecting musical accompaniments of the year in film, Lowery’s latest is unlike anything seen on-screen this year, a film which utilises the basic horror trope of a common haunted house movie but then manages to expand its’ horizons into something which resembles closer an allegorical mix of themes which evoke everything from Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life to Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival. With little dialogue and a raging art-house aesthetic, A Ghost Story is a film undoubtedly not for everyone, but for those with the patience and willingness to embrace its existence, Lowery’s movie is an exquisite work of art.
Shot in the aspect ratio of 1.33:1, or in televisual and layman’s terms, 4:3, A Ghost Story follows a sheet cladded Casey Affleck who after passing away due to the events of a traffic collision, follows his unnamed wife, portrayed by Rooney Mara, throughout her life after his death, all within the confines of the dated home in which they both shared. With directory David Lowery utilising the retro and “boxiness” nature of the aspect ratio to ensure the audience understands the claustrophobic nature of the film from the point of view of Casey’s spectral presence, the film utilises endless long shots and unbroken edits for the first half of the movie, including the now infamous one-shot “pie scene” and a chilly, uncertain introduction to Affleck’s transition from life to death, and whilst at times the pace of the movie does begin to falter, the second half of the movie in which Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar seemed to be a obvious blueprint for the direction of the narrative, concludes the film in a stunning and ambitious fashion. A Ghost Story isn’t a movie which belongs on the big screen, instead, Lowery’s latest is more akin to a museum piece where examination and steadiness is key to admiring its’ beauty, and whilst the film doesn’t hold together everything it intends to accomplish within such a short amount of time, A Ghost Story is undoubtedly an unforgettable and bold moviegoing experience.
Overall Score: 8/10
“Welcome to Jumanji!”
Despite the fact that the Robin Williams starring, 1995 adventure romp Jumanji was somewhat dismissed by many critics when first released despite it being a somewhat successful item at the box office, the cult status and underground following of the movie since has subversively led to both a re-examination of its’ qualities by many and as per the norm of many cinematic releases in the current climate, a unwarranted sequel. Directed by comedy staple, Jake Kasdan and featuring a script co-written by Chris McKenna, whose previous credits include the likes of The Lego Batman Movie and Spider-Man: Homecoming, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a functional if rather predictable and laborious adventure romp which utilises the star power of its’ cast to shrug off the many, many weaknesses which encompass its’ existence, and whilst many will be swept up in the wisecracking humour and electric editing pace, Kasdan’s movie is the epitome of a release which can be crammed into the genre of “not exactly my cup of tea”.
With the titular gaming sensation transforming its’ form to keep up with the popular trends of the twenty first century, our leading four youthful heroes are sucked into the jungle of Jumanji where complete control of their gaming avatars forces them to play the game and defeat the threat of Bobby Cannavale’s power hungry, insect ridden villain. With Dwayne Johnson, Kevin Hart, Jack Black and Karen Gillan taking over for the majority of the movie therefore, the narrative mixes the absurd nature of our heroes’ surroundings with ongoing banter style comedic quips, most of which ironically do make an appearance in the film’s trailer, and although the chemistry between the leading quartet is undeniable, the film never really progresses from its’ opening gag, resulting in endless penis and body transformation jokes which do end up becoming increasingly grating amidst one of the most self-aggrandizing performances from Johnson ever in his on-screen career. With Cannavale’s pedigree as a villain well known after his turn on Boardwalk Empire, his character is ultimately completely wasted in favour of numerous CGI-ridden action, and whilst Kasdan and the crew are obviously having a superb time, the fun only resonates for a short spate of time, and for a film which runs on for two hours, well, you can do the math.
Overall Score: 4/10
“They’re Trying To Make A Hero Out Of Me…”
Whilst Peter Berg’s rather excellent Patriots Day detailed from beginning to end the events of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings with an added Mark Wahlberg, David Gordon Green’s latest, Stronger, takes a calculated and extensive look at the life of Jeff Bauman, whose life changing injuries during the bombings were subsequently the subject of a 2013 memoir written by himself and Bret Witter and now the basis of the screenplay for a movie led by the ever reliable presence of Jake Gyllenhaal as the famous and life-affirming Bostonian. Whilst Patriots Day was more focused on the action spectacle and a lightning fast editing pace, Stronger is a more low-key character piece which utilises the background of a terrifying event to understand one man’s journey through pain and suffering, and whilst Green’s latest is a picture seething with top-notch performances and likeable, empathetic characters, a bloated narrative over a needlessly extended two hour runtime does threaten to become tiresome at stages, but with Gyllenhaal on Oscar-worthy form, Stronger does manage to hold its’ own undeniably effectively.
Introducing the troubled, up and down relationship between Gyllenhaal’s Jeff Bauman and Orphan Black star Tatiana Maslany’s Erin Hursley from the outset, the movie swiftly moves onto the events of the bombing without ever specifically focusing on its’ reasoning or motive and instead directly leads the narrative from the point of view of Bauman who throughout the course of the movie recounts flashbacks of the event, with each progressively getting more detailed and bloody as the film trickles through his long-standing recovery in both a physical and mental capacity. With Gyllenhaal using the character of Bauman as a vessel for his already well established acting chops, utilising the direction of Green to balance moments of emotion fuelled drama with low-key physical movements and reactions, Stronger does have a variety of Oscar baity speeches which in other hands would possibly have derailed the movie’s ultimate goal, but with impressive supporting performances from the likes of Maslany and Miranda Richardson, who although in her portrayal of the expletive ridden, Bostonian parent figure did bring to mind the brilliance of Melissa Leo in The Fighter, Green’s movie is a straightforward character piece, but with such an interesting character at its’ centre, Stronger is more then fulfilling, if slightly forgettable.
Overall Score: 7/10
“You Can’t Blend In When You Were Born To Stand Out…”
Based upon R.J. Palacio’s 2012 novel of the same name, Wonder tells the tale of Jacob Tremblay’s August “Auggie” Pullman and his battle with Treacher Collins syndrome as he attempts to manage his way through school and a coming of age lifestyle after years of homeschooling designed to prevent him from facing the potential fear of inevitable youth misunderstanding when it comes to his condition. Supported by the beach burnt Owen Wilson and Julia Roberts as Auggie’s father and mother tag team, and directed by Stephen Chbosky, whose previous credits include The Perks of Being a Wallflower and the lead writer’s gig for this year’s adaptation of Beauty and the Beast, Wonder is a solid by-the-numbers tale of acceptance and individual strength which although features an important fundamental message regarding acceptance and the impact of schoolground bullying, does become increasingly tiresome and overly manipulative in its’ emotional bulldozing as it passively lingers on to a conclusion which does manage to seal the deal to some extent and leave its’ audience with an undeniable smile.
Where Lenny Abrahamson’s Room introduced the world to the enviable talents of young Jacob Tremblay, Wonder solidifies once again that a huge future awaits for an actor who although throughout the film is covered in prosthetics akin to John Hurt in David Lynch’s heartbreaker, The Elephant Man, manages to encompass Auggie’s spectral of emotions to such an extent that the audience can’t help from getting on board and totally support the film’s leading character as he makes his journey through the trials and tribulations of a diverse and sometimes ignorant collection of fellow schoolmates. Whilst Wonder does attempt to balance the heavy dose of Auggie’s characterisation with his fellow family and friends, with the movie sometimes wandering off on tangents to do such via Tarantino-esque title cards, such diversions do come across as somewhat pointless, particularly when regarding the film’s overplayed two hour runtime, and with overly saccharin scenes of animal deaths and endless crying montages, the sentimental value of the narrative does become pretty irksome at times, but with Tremblay stealing the show and even Wilson and Roberts having a fair share of effective quick comedic quips as the relatable parents, Wonder is sometimes preachy but undeniably good hearted.
Overall Score: 6/10
“Just Because You Want It Doesn’t Mean It Can Happen…”
Whilst aware of the infamous nature of Tommy Wiseau’s 2003 independent drama, The Room, a movie widely quoted as the worst cinematic release of all time, I confess to not ever finding the time to sit down and embrace it aside from skimming across YouTube videos and university students screaming “hey, watch this movie, it’s so bad”, of which I inevitably and quickly chose not to listen to. Based upon Greg Sestero’s 2013 autobiographical book “The Disaster Artist”, a first hand account of Sestero’s involvement in The Room’s troubled production and his relationship with Wiseau, James Franco directs and stars in a dramatic adaptation of the source material with Franco himself starring as Wiseau and brother Dave Franco as Sestero. Whilst Franco-led comedies in the past have somewhat failed to ignite my comical ways, the same cannot be said for The Disaster Artist, a sharp and hysterically funny look into one of the more subversive and mysterious characters to originate in the world of filmmaking since the turn of the twentieth century, and a film which on the one hand shares admiration and on the other pokes holes into the darker side of a man whose name is slowly becoming a cine-literate household commodity.
With Franco’s portrayal of Wiseau being introduced in a barmy expose of talentless squander, the narrative primarily follows Dave Franco’s Greg Sestero as he begins to pull back the layers of the mysterious Wiseau after blindly following him to Los Angeles in order to fill the craving of success and stardom in the cut throat world of Hollywood. Bringing into conversation questions regarding Wiseau’s background, age and financial caterings, Franco’s portrayal of Wiseau is indeed one of riveting success, a performance which captures both the comedic traits of the character with a numerous amount of zippy, laugh-out-loud quips, as well as the more subversive, darker means and ways of a person whose societal skills and understanding of basic human conditioning is frankly rather non-existent. With the main comedic bulk of the movie focusing completely on the creation of Wiseau’s dramatic project to an alarming top-notch and uncanny degree, The Disaster Artist is an entertaining blend of comedy gold and character examination, and with a person as inevitably ambiguous as Tommy Wiseau at front and centre of the project, there is no reason to suggest why The Disaster Artist might prove to be the ticket to the Oscars Wiseau always dreamed of after all.
Overall Score: 8/10
“I’m Done Talking, Let’s Play…”
Fresh from her Oscar win in 2017’s best film so far in the form of Damien Chazelle’s La La Land, Emma Stone leads Battle of the Sexes, the latest from Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, and a film which focuses on the titular infamous tennis match in 1973 between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs which ultimately lit the touchpaper for King’s advocacy for feminism and LGBT rights within twentieth century America. With Steve Carell co-starring as Riggs and the likes of Andrea Riseborough, Sarah Silverman and Bill Pullman all making an appearance, the husband and wife directorial pair’s return is one of rousing success, a brilliantly acted docu-drama with a hell of a lot to say, and whilst the film sometimes doesn’t quite succeed in cracking open effectively all the notions evident on display, Battle of the Sexes is admirable in its’ attempt to raise the same questions which were raised forty four years ago but are unfortunately still increasingly evident even today.
With Stone continuing to prove why she is arguably the most in-demand talent within Hollywood at this moment in time with yet another brilliantly nuanced performance as Billie Jean King, the film’s strongest narrative thread is undeniably the relationship between her character and Andrea Riseborough’s stylist love interest, Marilyn, a partnership which not only holds the most substance between any of the leading cast in the movie, but thanks to effective dialogue and intensely invasive camera shots is so authentic in its’ design, the movie could have been good enough simply focusing on this particular plot thread alone. With a grainy, stylised 1970’s aesthetic and a jukebox soundtrack accompanying the story, Battle of the Sexes is undeniably a crowd-pleasing ace, and with a final act which although is undeniably inevitable in regards to its’ outcome, still manages to be rousingly intense, Faris and Dayton’s movie is ironically one of the more timely releases in a year rife with discussions regarding women’s liberation and the effect of feminism. Long may it continue.
Overall Score: 8/10
“This Year It’s No More Back And Forth At Christmas. It’s A Together Christmas..!”
With 2015’s Daddy’s Home being one of the few cinematic releases which managed to simply pass me by without me having the chance, time or perhaps the need to catch up and review it, the release of it’s inevitable sequel after the comedy hit became Will Ferrell’s highest grossing live action film to date brings with it a sense of heavy duty dread, particularly when reminiscing the more contemporary Ferrell releases such as The House and Zoolander 2, and whilst it requires quite an extensive amount in the American comedy genre to actually impress me, who would have thought that a Christmas themed sequel to a film which never really was asking for a continuation in the first place was actually somewhat quite good fun? With Mel Gibson and John Lithgow added to the cast as the fathers of Mark Wahlberg’s Dusty and Ferrell’s Brad respectively, Daddy’s Home 2 is a surprisingly sharp and witty sequel which although suffers from a overly formulaic plot, some interesting narrative swings and a completely saccharin sweet ending which nearly resulted in me chucking up into the nearest popcorn box, is throwaway comedy trash of the cheesiest order which just happens to be quite enjoyable.
With a script which ironically mirrors the Bad Moms Christmas approach by utilising the added input of an older generation to the plot and therefore the inclusion of much more acting talent, the inclusion of both Gibson and Lithgow does strangely work, with the latter using all his musky, outdated charm and guile to interfere with the family arrangements, and the latter’s penchant for cringe-laden conversations and weirdly intimate family relations managing to balance the widely cliched characterisation of pretty much everyone from child to elder. With rib-tickling set pieces managing to win me over from the start and Wahlberg being undeniably the star of the show, Daddy’s Home 2 does falter in an over-reliance on weak slapstick more times than necessary, whilst the inclusion of a strangely ill-judged gun scene is somewhat muddled in its’ execution, particularly when contemplating recent events in the US. Daddy’s Home 2 isn’t perfect, but nobody heading in was expecting It’s A Wonderful Life, and whilst some may feel the need to slate it’s cocksure and rather unsteady cinematic existence, it really isn’t worth getting angry about, and with that particular mindset in check, Ferrell’s latest is just plain dumb fun.
Overall Score: 6/10
“Hashtag: I Am Ingrid…”
In a week in which every single cinema in the county has been asked to cram its’ screens with the toxic waste of Justice League, thank the heavens for a film in the ilk of Ingrid Goes West, an interesting, blackly comic contemporary stalker drama with a cracking lead performance from Legion star, Aubrey Plaza as the titular social media obsessed Ingrid Thorburn. Directed and written by big time debutant Matt Spicer, the movie depicts an Instagram fixated dreamer who relocates to Los Angeles after the death of her mother in order to seek out Elizabeth Olsen’s social media star, Taylor Sloane and become part of her excessively independent lifestyle which she shares with Wyatt Russell’s hipster husband, Ezra. Beginning with an opening act which straight away highlights the aggressive nature of Ingrid’s obsession and to what end she may go to in order to combat her rage and discomfort at being isolated in a world riddled with people’s wishes to be noticed, Ingrid Goes West goes on to explore the contemporary issue of social media excess and the notion of a life based solely around the viewing of society through a small shiny screen.
With Black Mirror vibes aplenty and the likes of Single White Female a sure inspiration, with a name drop in the narrative necessary to cement such, Spicer’s sure footed direction allows the movie’s key players to bring all round top notch performances, from O’Shea Jackson Jr’s Batman obsessed screenwriter to Billy Magnussen’s hateful steroid fueled junkie, all of whom acting as catnip for Plaza’s character’s downfall into complete and utter obsession with a character who is the epitome of everything wrong with society’s quest for avocado on toast and early twentieth century sociological literature. Whilst Spicer’s movie does involve elements of jet-black comedy and ironic societal comments, most of Ingrid Goes West’s healthy ninety minute runtime is played particularly straight faced, accumulating in a concluding act which although is admiral in what it’s attempting to say, doesn’t exactly pay off, but with a brilliantly kooky and unpredictable leading performance from Audrey Plaza, Ingrid Goes West is a highly enjoyable ideas laden social drama which reminds that you don’t always need a big budget to win an audience around.
Overall Score: 7/10
“These Animals Took Everything From Us…”
Forged around a screenplay devised by the talented minds of Joel and Ethan Coen, who for less aware cinephiles like myself have previous writing and directorial credits on films including Fargo, The Big Lebowski and No Country for Old Men, Suburbicon, the latest directorial release from George Clooney, on paper, is the type of all star release which almost seems too big to fail, with the likes of Matt Damon, Julianne Moore and Oscar Isaac all arriving to the heed of Mr. Clooney’s wishes, and whilst Clooney’s directorial career hasn’t exactly matched the worldwide success of his acting back catalogue, Suburbicon has without doubt all the right ingredients to allow the American to finally earn credence as a director in his own right. With the off-kilter zaniness and black comedic ripeness of the Coen’s writings evident throughout and some committed performances from the film’s leads, Clooney’s latest is a mixed bag of a movie, one which channels previous Coen scripts to an almost uncanny degree but more interestingly, a movie which suffers from a dwindling sense of having too much to say without ever having any real sense of substance or depth to pull it off.
Set in the heart of the titular, fictional white-picket fenced, idyllic neighbourhood of Suburbicon, Clooney’s movie focuses on the Fargo-esque narrative of Matt Damon’s Gardner Lodge and the events surrounding him regarding the death of his wife, his suspicious son and the presence of his dead wife’s twin sister, Julianne Moore’s Margaret. Pulling on notions which lightly touch on themes of racism, class wars and the American dream, Clooney’s movie is almost an idiot’s guide to the workings of the Coen brothers, utilising the murderous, black hole comedy of their best work but primarily evoking Fargo and its’ brilliant television spin-off series, and whilst there are interesting ideas at work within the movie, the handling of the transition from paper to screen seems to have been somewhat lost in translation, with the movie not really sure whether it wants to focus on societal commentary or a straight forward shocker comedy, resulting in a jarring collection of scenes which don’t entirely work, primarily a plot thread regarding a racist coo after the all-white population of the area is threatened by the arrival of an African-American family. With that in mind, when the movie does focus on the underlying narrative of betrayal and murder and the interactions between Damon, Moore, Jupe and the drastically underused Oscar Isaac, Suburbicon is enjoyable, but for a movie with this many superstars, Clooney’s movie is the type where much more should have been expected.