“He’s Happy To See Me. Every Time. Everyday Now, I Can Either Save Him Or Let Him Die…”
With 2015’s Crimson Peak in retrospect coming over as somewhat of a major disappointment, Spanish director, Guillermo del Toro, returns this week with the Academy Award nominated, The Shape of Water, a fantastical romantic drama featuring the likes of Sally Hawkins (Paddington 2), Michael Shannon (12 Strong), and long term del Toro collaborator, Doug Jones (Hellboy) on staggering form and a release which poses as the director’s best work since the masterful Pan’s Labyrinth back in 2006. Built around a somewhat overly simplistic narrative with heavy influences of B-Movie cinema and underlying themes of Cold War paranoia, The Shape of Water, in fairy-tale like fashion, explores the radiant relationship between the charming mute figure of Sally Hawkins’ Elisa Esposito and Doug Jones’ remarkable, amphibian human hybrid who is captured by the US Government and kept in solitude at a high-security research facility under the watchful eye of Michael Shannon’s vulgar Colonel Richard Strickland. With a blend of romance, fantasy and at times, exploitation violence, The Shape of Water is a stereotypical del Toro release through and through and with flashes of remarkable brilliance and a Sally Hawkins on fine, fine form, the Spanish director’s latest is unlike anything you’ll see throughout the remainder of this calendar year.
With a loving sense of cinematic tradition and a wild, twisting tornado sensibility which navigates the movie through a wide range of differing genres, The Shape of Water is a beautifully old-fashioned work of film, one with a larger than life digital print clouded with dark colours of emerald green and cold war inspired muskiness, and a film which utilises the widescreen format to staggering degree, resulting in the film, as a work of pure spectacle, simply gorgeous to breathe in and admire for its’ detailing and slimy creature feature makeup and effects. Although The Shape of Water may not be as rewarding as del Toro’s previous endeavours as an overall body of work, the feature is one which instead arguably boasts his most humanist cinematic venture to date, with the leading relationship between human and inhuman marvellously envisioned thanks to character building set pieces which are as eye-wateringly romantic as they are naturally subversive in nature and with the film’s leading character having to rely on the usage of sign language due to her incapability to convey her emotions through speech, Sally Hawkins is truly spectacular, a performance both powerful and understated in equal measure and one which may indeed tip the boat for upcoming Oscar success. Whilst the movie’s quest for award supremacy in each of its’ respective nominated categories is admirable and actually quite brave considering the fundamental strangeness of the tale at the heart of it, the most obvious case would be for The Shape of Water being the movie which hands del Toro his long-awaited directing Oscar after being wrongly acquitted of it back in 2006, and whilst when up against the likes of Dunkirk and Phantom Thread the film does seem lesser in its’ successes in comparison, del Toro’s latest is still a wonderful and endlessly romantic drama of monstrous creativity which demands to be admired on the biggest screen possible.
Overall Score: 8/10
“No One’s Ever Believed It’s Possible To Live As You Do…”
Whilst Andy Serkis is the type of Hollywood star who can rarely do wrong in my own humble and completely correct opinion, his directorial debut in the form of Breathe puts aside the man we have come to know and love as Gollum, Caesar and that one armed chap from the MCU with a movie which is as far away from mystical beings and superhuman heroes as one could possibly get, with Serkis’ debut focusing on the true story of Robin and Diana Cavendish and their lifelong battle with the former’s fight with permanent paralysis after being stricken with polio. Whilst the film features a likeable leading duo in the form of Andrew Garfield and The Crown star, Claire Foy, Breathe is unfortunately a hard task of a movie, one which takes both too long to begin and an eternity to end in the space of a two hour runtime which utilises a narrative which really doesn’t have enough to say at all in order to keep its’ audience entertained throughout, and whilst there is real heart at the centre of the film’s production, Serkis’s movie is the type of movie which more often begins to grind the mind rather than warming the heart.
With an opening title which not only sets the pacing for the movie but evoked the workings of classic movies in a similar ilk to Sofia Coppola’s beautifully crafted title card in The Beguiled earlier this year, Breathe begins by handing the audience the movie’s leading relationship pretty quickly but without any real meaningful sense of substance, a decision which becomes much stranger as the film heads into a final act which easily could have been condensed into losing at least twenty minutes, twenty minutes which instead could have been spent on an opening act which focused more on the development of the meeting between Robin and Diana rather than just passing it off and expecting the audience to generate empathy from out of completely nowhere. Because of this decision, the opening act ultimately feels rushed whilst the concluding act features more endings than The Return of the King, and whilst I can enjoy saccharin sweetness when done effectively, Breathe is the type of movie which feels it necessary to flog the sympathy doll as much as possible without any of it really working. Sorry Mr. Serkis, we’re off to a rocky start.
Overall Score: 4/10
“Can You Imagine A World In Which We End Up Together…?”
Of the many cinematic releases within the Judd Apatow staple, there really isn’t many which I could regard as down and out, truly effective comedies, due in part to my tin-eared response to most examples of American-laden comedies, including the likes of Anchorman and Trainwreck, films which may have garnered an array of positive responses from many on release, but to me, just didn’t work on any level from which I can regard as comedic gold. With the release of The Big Sick however, a loose adaptation of the true-life events of leading star Kumail Nanjiani and co-writer Emily V. Gordon, such a film delightfully breaks the mould of mediocrity, taking a humane and totally believable leading narrative and having the extra boost of a perfectly formed cast to reinforce it and create a consistently funny drama which ranks up there with the best comedy films to be released in recent memory, whilst simultaneously proving that with a decent script and filmmakers who understand the effect of comedic timing, not all American comedies can be utter trash.
Although The Big Sick adheres to the boy-meets-girl formula of practically every romantic comedy since the dawn of time, the added depths given to the relationship between leading couple Kumail Nanjiani and Zoe Kazan, with the former’s religious traditions and the latter’s narrative hanging medical issues the stand-out elements of the story, forms a charming bond between the two in which the audience only wants to see flourish and prosper come the end of the drama, and with added support from the likes of Ray Romano and Holly Hunter, the movie manages to succeed on all fronts as both a romantic drama and a rib-tingling comedy. At the core of the real reason on why the movie really works, is the dedication to the believability of the players involved and each of their separate trials and tribulations, and whilst recent supposed comedies such as Snatched and The House believe comedy is warranted through vulgarity and petulant, adolescent nonsense, thank the baby Jesus for a movie like The Big Sick, a overtly impressive comedy which undoubtedly belongs up there with the best comedies to travel overseas in flippin’ years.
Overall Score: 8/10
“Everyone Wants Me To Change And Now You Too…”
Aided by a successful long-term collaboration with Woody Allen and a recurring starring role within Coppola’s Godfather trilogy, Diane Keaton remains one of the most iconic actresses to cross the barrier between the 20th and 21st century, and whilst the spotlight hasn’t entirely shone on the Californian star within recent years, Hampstead offers the opportunity for Keaton to show whether or not she still has the acting pedigree she once had when working back in the day alongside a rafter of incredibly talented and inspirational filmmakers. In the opposite chair, the contemporary icon of Ireland which is Brendan Gleeson graces the big screen once again with perhaps the most impressive beard he has grown to date, portraying a character within a narrative which bases itself upon the life of Harry Hallowes, a rough sleeping Londoner who after a rafter of legal battles managed to become the owner of land worth a breezy couple of million. Directed by Joel Hopkins, Hampstead is a remarkably safe, nuts and bolts romantic drama, one which although brought me within an inch of falling into a sleep induced coma, when up against the likes of Transformers this week, is really quite harmless.
Whilst Keaton is a shadow of her former acting self, taking a plain sailing approach to a character who chops and changes her decision making whenever the narrative direction tells her to do so, Gleeson is as charming and watchable as ever, using his gruff, edgy demeanour to some form of effect, even if the character development doesn’t really offer him or the audience up much more than an on-the-face-of-it kind of approach. Aside from the film’s two leading stars, Hampstead suffers rather woefully from an excruciating array of secondary characters, with Jason Watkins and Lesley Manville being the leading lights of utter tedium, with the former’s eerie, pestering nature being a complete hindrance on any sort of likeability whilst the latter suffering from what can only be regarded as being the type of toffee-nosed, greenhouse loving, cat hating, right-wing bastard which I tend to completely disagree with from the outset. Aside from such matters, Hampstead is similar to the likes of the Moody Blues or say the last remaining rich tea in the biscuit tin, with it not really causing much damage at all but not likely to spring to the forefront of many people’s minds at any time soon.
Overall Score: 4/10
“No Rules, No Punishments And No More Secrets…”
As proven by the release of Park Chan-Wook’s marvellous mystery thriller The Handmaiden and the return of Paul Verhoeven with Elle, the genre of erotica within contemporary cinema is still well and truly kicking, with each of these respective releases using elements of romance and explicit sexual imagery to a degree which is both interesting and original but more importantly used to a degree which makes sense within the overall narrative of the movie. In the case of the first Fifty Shades movie only two years previous, the fundamental issue was that not only the script unbelievably cliched and cringey, it was also so agonisingly dull, with the infamous tales of sexual naughtiness which was rife within the E. L. James novels not exactly transposing onto the big screen and coming off as something worth the time. Inevitably, with the ridiculous amount of money in which Fifty Shades of Grey managed to take, a sequel was never in doubt, but with a director as noteworthy as Glengarry Glen Ross director James Foley in charge, could Fifty Shades Darker be a sequel which surpasses its’ awfully defunct predecessor?
In a sentence; not really, with Fifty Shades Darker annoyingly continuing the utter dullness and dreariness which encompassed the original, whilst its’ snigger-inducing narrative and awful dialogue proves to its’ respective audiences that nothing at all was learnt from the criticism of first film except for going along with the notion that the cheap, uninteresting sex scenes are obviously only there as the true appeal of a movie which attempts to hammer in some sort of story around it in order for it to be considered something resembling a film. As for the movie’s other issues, the drama within the story is entirely anti-climactic, the romance is wooden and ridiculously unbelievable and with a supporting cast which includes Rita Ora and a cheque-swiping Kim Basinger, Fifty Shades Darker really doesn’t have much going for it except for arguably a much better leading performance from Jamie Dornan whose portrayal of the highly intense and weirdly paranoid billionaire playboy is at least not entirely woeful in the grander scheme of things. With one more Shades film in the pipeline, the time can not come soon enough to end the raspberry jam of erotica once and for all.
Overall Score: 3/10
“You’re An Exception. The Rules Don’t Apply To You…”
Whilst Warren Beatty might be best known in contemporary media circles as being lead conspirator in the Best Picture fiasco at this year’s Academy Award’s ceremony, a recent high-profile cock-up more commonly known as “La La-Gate”, the attention comes in a somewhat suspiciously well timed manner considering the release of Rules Don’t Apply this week, a picture directed, produced, written by and of course, starring the cinematic legend, who takes the leading mantle as infamous businessman Howard Hughes within the setting of 1950’s Hollywood, supported by a simply enormous cast featuring the likes of Hail! Caesar star Alden Ehrenreich, Lily Collins, Matthew Broderick, Annette Bening, Alec Baldwin and the always superb, Ed Harris. With a cast as vast as this, Rules Don’t Apply is the type of movie you would think on the surface is one which everyone in the current cinematic world seemed to aching to be involved in, particularly with the reputation of Beatty at the helm, yet the finished picture is one of entirely mixed fortunes, one which suffers from a non-existent narrative and some misjudged moments of self-indulgence amidst some basic film-making errors which makes you wonder whether the real Warren Beatty should most definitely stand up.
Of the good things within Rules Don’t Apply, the leading trio of Beatty, Ehrenreich and Collins each give respectable performances amidst a screenplay which doesn’t really offer much chance to break new ground, with Beatty really hitting the zany mark in his depiction of Howard Hughes, taking cues from DiCaprio in The Aviator when needed but strictly focusing on the wilder side of the infamous billionaire, whilst Ehrenreich continues to impress every time I see him perform on screen, gearing him up for inevitable higher levels of stardom come next year’s Han Solo spin-off release. Star of the picture however is Lily Collins as the doe-eyed and wondrous Marla Mabrey, the keen and confident Virginian rookie who although is trying sometime in terms of awkward character quips and decision making, is a real find and completely holds her own against the likes of Beatty in a leading role. As for the not-so good elements of the film, Beatty treats the film as a personal blueprint for himself to engage in exceptional levels of excess, an understandable element when considering the character in which he is portraying, yet the sight of an aged Hollywood legend feeling up an intoxicated young star really didn’t sit well on a personal level whilst some fundamental film-making traits are completely disregarded, with endless questionable edits and narrative trails which simply go nowhere. resulting in a movie which ultimately is a complete drag to sit through and when you consider the talent at hand behind it, Rules Don’t Apply can only be regarded as a monumental disappointment.
Overall Score: 4/10
“Think Of The One Thing That You’ve Always Wanted. See It In Your Mind’s Eye And Feel It In Your Heart…”
As per the norm of a well-spent 1990’s childhood, Disney movies were indeed the go-to method of escapism for a younger version of myself in which films like The Lion King and Fantasia were at the forefront of what was all and sacred in the world at that specific moment in time, and whilst the original 1991 animated Disney classic adaptation of Jeanne-Marie Leprince de Beaumont’s famous fairy tale wasn’t exactly the top of my list of favourite animations as a young child, Beauty and the Beast has always been arguably one of the most iconic Disney movies to have ever been released, due mainly to the even more iconic soundtrack which even to this day is immediately quotable and enviously recognisable. Following on from the one-two success of both 2015’s Cinderella and Jon Favreau’s adaptation of The Jungle Book, this year’s Disney remake is indeed the famous tale of beauty and beast, this time portrayed by Emma Watson and Legion’s Dan Stevens respectively whilst being helmed by director Bill Condon whose previous directorial credits include the good, (Mr. Holmes) the bad, (Candyman 2) and the ugly (Twilight: Breaking Dawn), and whilst this latest version of the classic tale shines brightly in a wide range of different areas, the lack of originality and complete absence of threat reduce it to a movie which is solid but not exactly spectacular.
Whilst last year’s The Jungle Book was a movie which although was aware of the classic songs which encompassed the original Disney classic animation, it too was a film which instead of just rehashing them into a live-action scenario, developed and alternated them enough to both seem wholly organic yet still held a warm sense of appeal for those who loved the original so dearly. With Beauty and the Beast however, Condon’s decision to simply cordon the classic songs into his own adaptation does ultimately seem a slight cop out alongside a narrative which note-for-note follows the blueprint of the 1991 animation without ever having the nerve to swerve off-course and offer something utterly different. In the leading role of Belle, Emma Watson does ultimately seem the correct choice for the part, with her innocent and natural beaming sense of joy the epitome of a Disney princess’s genetic makeup yet the real fun of the movie is to be had with Luke Evan’s Gaston, the egotistic and arrogant killer who makes it his life’s duty to take Belle’s hand in marriage. Whilst the cast is impressive and the effects are magical in places, this adaptation of the famous tale is indeed beaming with beauty but ultimately lacking in substantial bite.
Overall Score: 6/10
“I’m Letting Life Hit Me Until It Gets Tired. Then I’ll Hit Back. It’s a Classic Rope-a-Dope…”
The return of director Damien Chazelle this week brings with it a wide range of reasons to rejoice, no more so than remembering just how superb the masterpiece that was Whiplash back in 2015, a film which had the brilliant recognition of landing top of the list for best movies in its’ respective year at Black Ribbon alongside a couple of Academy Awards including a Best Supporting gong for J. K. Simmons who reunites with Chazelle in his latest cinematic venture, La La Land. Going by trailers and other in-your-face modes of advertisement alone, the hype surrounding Chazelle’s latest was unbelievably rapturous to say the least with calls for a shed-load of awards to be swiftly thrown in its’ general direction amongst unanimous rave reviews which concluded with parades of full marks for execution. Where Whiplash was essentially a war movie disguised in the body of a jazz-based drama, La La Land is a full-blown romantic musical, one which is soaked in a wondrously upbeat sense of joy and a rare case of a film which not only lives up to the hype surrounding it but surpasses it two-fold, resulting in an unforgettable cinematic journey which accumulates in you leaving the cinema with a spring in your step, singing and humming the beautiful soundtrack alongside a willingness to see it again as quickly as possible.
Following the intertwining lives of Emma Stone’s ambitious actress Mia and the jazz-infused figure of Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian, La La Land succumbs to the age-old tale of classic musicals by focusing primarily on a relationship gelled together by ambition and dreams, beginning with the first moments in which our leading lovers embrace and eventually concluding in a manner both heartbreaking yet entirely fulfilling. Intertwining the narrative throughout the film are the beautifully written and deliciously choreographed musical routines which although are not as explosive and extravagant as classical cinematic scenes of similar ilk, manage to perfectly suit the overall tone of the movie, with “Mia & Sebastian’s Theme” being the standout track of the soundtrack, a melodic piano piece which accompanies the narrative of their relationship from its’ inception until the end. With Stone arguably stealing the show as the doe-eyed barista, eager to hit the big time in Hollywood, Gosling’s confident yet understated sense of swagger results in a central relationship which oozes chemistry, helped extensively from the pair’s past work in films such as Crazy, Stupid, Love, resulting in a pair of leading characters in which you totally believe in from beginning to end.
Writing a day after the conclusion of the annual Golden Globes awards, it comes at no surprise to see Chazelle’s latest completely sweep the board in a record-breaking bout, with awards for each of the top-billed trio a fitting reward for a movie which in a time of trials and tribulations in terms of the overall world view, reminds you how cinema can allow for a route of escapism in troubled times, particularly a movie as heartwarming as La La Land. If Whiplash was Chazelle’s angry awakening to Hollywood, then La La Land is a commemorative ode to its’ otherworldly appeal, one which embraces the notion of the American dream and a destination where many journey to reach their goals of fame and fortune. In the case of La La Land, Chazelle has found his Citizen Kane, his Singing in the Rain, and after its’ inevitable forthcoming award success, the cinematic spectrum will most certainly become his oyster and as an avid fan, I cannot wait to see what happens next.
Overall Score: 10/10
“There’s A Reason We Woke Up Early…”
If ever were a movie to put off its’ audience by sheer propaganda-esque exploitation, then Passengers is it, a movie advertised within the inch of its’ life within every single cinema screening over the past four months or so, and a movie which seems to be once again a case of revealing too much to be a true success as a two-hour spectacle instead of a two-minute preview. With two of most bankable acting talents at the moment leading the way in the form of Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, Passengers, directed by Morten Tyldum of The Imitation Game alongside a story by Prometheus and Doctor Strange screenwriter Jon Spaihts, is a traditionally cheesy sci-fi romance, one which gains kudos for attempting to subvert its’ narrative giveaways within its’ trailers with a nice juicy twist to get the film going, but ultimately succumbs to its’ fundamental 12A-ness and becomes yet another flashy yet forgettable piece of cinema.
Following in the footsteps of Allied recently, a similarly forgettable tale which just happened to feature top-end A-List actors, Passengers suffers primarily from a saccharin-sweet filled narrative at its’ core, one which above all, results in the concluding act of the movie being one hard not to shout “Cheese!” at, with a cliched resuscitation scene being the heart of such of a problem. Whilst Lawrence and Pratt have some decent on-screen chemistry, the absurdness of their celebrity appearance throughout the movie (Not one pixel of make-up is out of place) creates a difficulty in taking in the apparent science fiction notions the film attempts to lay on its’ audience, with obvious nods to Interstellar, Alien, Solaris, Moon and even The Shining putting the film in danger of being just a reel of scenes from better and more memorable productions. Whilst there are a wide range of issues with Passengers, the inherent friendliness makes it somewhat suitable for this particular period of the year, yet its’ plain-sailing approach sadly just won’t make it past the month as something memorable, a shame when considering the talent on display. Also, what was the point of hiring Andy Garcia? HE DOES NOTHING. Merry Christmas.
Overall Score: 5/10
“No Man Is Free Who Is Not Master of Themselves…”
Carrying on in the footsteps of Allied, A United Kingdom, the third feature film from Amma Asante after A Way of Life and the heavily costumed drama, Belle, is another example of a film endangered by the severity of its’ plot leakage within its’ trailer, a trailer which not only has circulated the cinematic spectrum for months now, but is indeed another case study in how revealing too much just isn’t worthwhile to the overall enjoyment of the film as a whole. Within the two-plus minutes of the trailer for A United Kingdom, the film’s narrative is not only explained two-fold, albeit a formality of any teaser for an upcoming movie nowadays, but shows all of the film’s highlights, highlights which when seen in the extended and fulsome picture just begs the question whether it was worth extending that 120 seconds into just under 120 minutes. Thankfully for A United Kingdom, the film ultimately does manage to pull through this fundamental issue and becomes a sweetly smart romantic drama, led primarily by the enormous acting talent of David Oyelowo who attempts to swerve the film away from near over-sentimentality and sort of succeeds amongst a string of two-dimensional portraits of characters that surround him.
Amongst the positives within Assante’s latest, Oyelowo is undoubtedly the stand out performer, taking one tear-inducing scene in particular in his stride and giving the sort of performance similar to the much lauded and critically praised one in Selma. With Oyelowo in the driving seat, Pike is strangely underused in some way, resorting to the archetypal stranded mother character without having much chance to stand up and take control aside from a short scene in which we are meant to believe a quick detour to help out the locals completely wins over the puzzled masses. Although the film does begin in a rather hokey fashion, as soon as it departs into Botswana, the narrative does pick up and takes a satisfying dramatic turn, mixing in social issues, politics and romance, accumulating in a film which is strongest when it explores the overarching issues rather than the romance entwined within it, resulting in a somewhat messy outcome, but one which was enjoyable for the most part with Oyelowo’s performance one of the main reasons to seek it out.