Fantana’s Film Roundup – December 2017

And so 2017 comes to an end. Look out for the annual Top Tens shortly, the newest of which, detailing my favourite TV shows of the year, has already dropped. For now, however, there was still some cinema to wring out of the year before it ended, and more than a few Christmas ‘classics’ rammed down my throat… courtesy of the wife!

Elf (2003)

A tale of two halves. The first is a quite stupid and hilarious adventure as Ferrell’s ‘elf’, Buddy, learns of his true lineage and journeys to Manhattan to find his real father. Classic fish-out-of-water comedy, this, reminiscent of the 80s in such a good way. The second is a hum-drum affair as lessons are learned, villains come good and the serious stuff is addressed. Unfortunately Elf really drags in the third act as a result of this and doesn’t really recover, fizzling out with sentiment. Still it’s acted well and does well to capture the spirit of Christmas while delivering lots of laughs.

7

 

6 Days (2017)

Documenting the SAS raid on the Iranian Embassy, taken hostage by gunmen in 1980, this was the first tactical strike of its kind at the time. Equal parts political thriller and military procedural, it is more interesting to watch the facts of this incident unfold and how certain decisions were made, than it is to see the action itself executed. Performances are competent but nothing to write home about, script is competent, action is competent… it’s all very competent. But it doesn’t get me jumping out of my seat, it doesn’t lock me in. It’s no surprise then that this was picked up by Netflix – perfect fodder for them; unchallenging yet bearable.

6

 

Detroit (2017)

Having watched this at a time when the Daniel Shaver shooting was very prominent in the media, this was made all the more prevalent and powerful. Of course both incidents are vastly different, however they have commonality in shining ever more light on the criticism of law enforcement in the US, which continues to divide opinion. Came away from this feeling very empty indeed, but if that is testament to how effective the storytelling and subject matter on hand here are, then it can only be a compliment. John Boyega channels his inner Denzel to full effect but to single him out would do the rest of the cast a disservice, every player on hand here is on top form, from the venomous stupidity and downright ignorance of Will Poulter and his fellow cops, to the sheer embodiment of the terrorised played out by Anthony Mackie, Algee Smith and Hannah Murray to name but a few. This is engrossing watching that manages to enrage and thrill at the same time. Harrowing stuff.

8

 

Love Actually (2003)

We were fortunate enough to see this accompanied by a live orchestra and what a difference that makes. As a film, Love Actually is okay. There is no time taken to develop any of the various vignettes enclosed within its limited runtime so all we are privy to are the key features of each plot thread, the film operating more as a comedy than a drama of any real heft. Once you’re past that and aware of how it’s going to come at you, it’s well-acted and sharply written and moves by at a brisk pace, all very positive things. When you add the texture of a live orchestra to the mix, the whole experience is elevated to a new level, promoting awareness of a score I never knew was so good. This now has me itching to experience a few more in the same way. Jurassic Park, Back to the Future or Baby Driver please…?

7.5

Blade of the Immortal

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

Touted as the best and most fun Marvel movie yet, I’d say the masses get this one half right. Guardians of the Galaxy still holds the crown and Avengers an able deputy, but Thor is certainly up there and the fun factor is by and large the reason for this. This is rife with Taika Waititi’s brand of comedy and he even manages to steal the show as rock man, Korg, but make no mistake, everyone gets in on the act, not least of whom Thor and Hulk, whose chemistry is on par with the cast of Guardians. At times Waititi’s inexperience in blockbusters shows, the editing is a little sloppy here and there, and fight choreography could have been captured a little better in places, but what he lacks in this area, he more than makes up for in humour and creativity. If the future of the MCU, post-Infinity Gauntlet, lies in their more cosmic properties, this should no longer be viewed as a worry.

8

 

Blade of the Immortal (2017)

To mark his 100th directorial outing, Takashi Miike has translated this classic Dark Horse graphic novel to the screen, condensing a much broader narrative into two and a bit hours of blood-spattered, shogun-era action. Having read only the first few chapters of the epic source material I did recognise some faithfulness and lauded it for the supernatural edges Miike gives the characters at times, creating an attractive visual style. The third act also entices as it echoes 13 Assassins, albeit to lesser extent and effect. Surprisingly less gory than I expected from Miike, but all in all quite enjoyable and should satisfy action fans.

7

 

Neo Tokyo (1987)

Showcasing three of my favourite japanimators of all time, the vignettes enwrapped here unfortunately make for disappointing viewing. All the characteristics of the individuals’ visual style are present and correct, however the ideas are too conceptual and not well-rounded enough to make for particularly engrossing viewing.

5

 

Jeepers Creepers 3 (2017)

Victor Salva returns to complete his trilogy… he needn’t have bothered. Years ago I read the original screenplay for Jeepers Creepers: Cathedral. Salva’s initial vision was to set the third instalment two decades after the events of the second film and recall Trish Jenner from the first movie, implementing her young son as the next victim of the Creeper, all the while being protected by a small militia hell bent on hunting the creature down and bringing it to an end. There were a couple of sub plots that would link in but all in all it sounded a bit creepy, a bit action-packed and a hell of a lot better than the second one. Instead what we have is the cheapest looking piece of trash, it’s incredible to think the movies are related! Honestly I’d be surprised if this cost half a million. Sharknado has better effects and when the director can’t even afford to film a real car crash, you know you’re in trouble. Dreadful. Salva has clearly been impacted by past personal events that have made his career nigh on untenable, yet he has still plugged away to get this bookend to his trilogy (although unfathomably it is set between the 1st and 2nd films!). If this creature franchise is to be rescued, it will need to be done by other hands.

1

 

Dave Made a Maze (2017)

A group of friends gather at Dave’s apartment and venture into the cardboard maze he has built and within which he has become trapped. Nope, that’s it. Bizarre doesn’t come close to explaining this fantasy/comedy, but that is not to say it ain’t good fun and rather original. Budgetary restrictions are obvious but this only seems to allow the filmmakers’ creativity to thrive. Certainly one to watch in a good mood, lest ye just not get it.

6

Dave Made a Maze

State of Grace (1990)

Classic of the Month Terry Noonan (Sean Penn) returns to Hell’s Kitchen, NYC after a ten year absence, immediately rekindling old friendships and liaisons and falling in with old best friend, Jackie (Gary Oldman), now tied up in the Irish Mob. What follows is an engaging, energetic and massively overlooked treat from the ‘90s many don’t even seem to know exists. Watching this I was reminded by tonal peers such as Donnie Brasco, the Departed and Boondock Saints, only to remind myself State of Grace was here first! Support is provided by Robin Wright, Ed Harris and John C. Reilly, all of whom are on top form; the cinematography is gorgeous throughout, simultaneously making New York familiar and alien, echoing Terry’s perception admirably. Action-wise, it’s surprisingly sparse, but when the bullets do fly, we feel every one of their impact. When the ending comes it is abrupt and personally I would have preferred more resolution in parts, but that’s a minor quibble in an otherwise brilliant piece of under-the-radar neo noir. I love finding surprise little gems like this – it’s just a shame it doesn’t happen often enough. Seek this one out and enjoy.

8

 

Darkland (2017)

When his brother is beaten to death, heart surgeon Zaid struggles to move past it, knowing full well the types of friends his sibling kept and wracked by his own guilt. Slowly he transitions from upstanding surgeon to masked vigilante, honing his body and combat prowess to exact vengeance. This is a good solid action/drama in a similar gritty, urban vein to the likes of Harry Brown. There aren’t any real surprises and credibility comes into question now and again, but this is decent watching and a nice-looking thriller.

6.5

 

Beach Rats (2017)

Told in hyper-realistic ‘shaky-cam’ style, Eliza Hittman’s drama centres on a young man struggling with sexual identity in the greater Brooklyn area, juggling an oppressive home life, the pressure of heterosexual peers, a potential new girlfriend, and the older men he meets online. Harris Dickinson is clearly a talent to watch but Beach Rats’ BPM never threatens to reach a trot, never mind a canter. Slow and ponderous and never truly decides what it wants to be, a bit like its central character.

6

 

Star Wars Episode VIII: the Last Jedi (2017)

There’s been a lot said about this one and I have to say I probably fall on the less favourable side of the fence as far as reception goes. Without going into specifics and spoilers, it just feels a little late in the day (film 8 of 9) to be integrating new features to the saga, such as jedi skills, character beats and inconsistencies in behaviour and plain old logic. It’s also pretty underhanded to discard or ignore the questions and that were asked in the previous film. Last Jedi certainly looks the part, some of the effects and landscapes are stunning, none more so than the opening skirmish, but the annoying thing is that the movie piques way too soon and never reproduces the excitement of the first act. Waaaaay too many holes in a wafer-thin plot, not the least of which is, for a film named ‘The Last Jedi’…. I counted at least five by the end!

7

 

Battle of the Sexes (2017)

A great true story and a magnetic cast, however as magnetic as they are, the film infrequently fails to grip. Distractions come too easy when this is on, so on that note it sits somewhere between above average and “yeah, it’s alright”. Emma Stone merits the awards buzz, but there really should be more to a film than this.

6.5

Darkland

Bright (2017)

The idea of this is far better than the execution. A modern world but with a history akin to Lord of the Rings, where fantastic creatures and races have been with us all along, is a decent concept (thought of this myself about 15 years ago!) but requires a hell of a budget. And that is the main problem here; despite this being Netflix’s most expensive production at $90m, it is a severe hindrance when a third of your budget is going on the salaries of your two leads. As a result the execution is underwhelming. We get a superfluous scene with a fairy (the money of which could have gone ANYWHERE else!), a two second shot of a centaur, and a miniscule silhouette of a single dragon swooping across the sky… not since Reign of Fire have I been this underwhelmed by a dragon. One need only look as far as an episode of Game of Thrones to see what could be done with a similar budget. No ogres as bouncers, no trolls at the 7eleven, not even a dwarf! The narrative itself was okay, very David Ayer, I got into it, but also very samey, which is another Ayer characteristic. Each set looked the same as the last, decrepit building after decrepit building. The ante needed upped throughout and the backdrop needed freshening up with it. Good to know that a sequel has been green lit as I’m keen to know more about this world, but word of advice to Netflix would be to ditch Smith and let Edgerton lead, then use the money you’ve saved to make this world feel a bit more fantastic and creative.

6.5

 

Creep 2 (2017)

After the mild surprise that was the first movie, the prospect of a sequel didn’t unnerve me with excitement, but having garnered some favourable reviews I decided to give this about as much attention as the first one merited. In the end it was about as enjoyable, with the second film challenging Mark Duplass’s titular maniac with a filmmaker who is not unnerved by his particular brand of creepiness. The script is quite tight and Duplass watchable, but first-person POV/found footage horrors can only ever go so far and this doesn’t quite go the distance.

6

 

Justice League (2017)

“Who are you? The lasso of Hestia compels you to tell the truth. Who are you?”

And with that most ham-fisted of reminders, the Justice League sets the expectation that this will be a script to test even the most accepting of patience. A script that reads as ii it were written by a fifteen year old fanboy. SO much exposition. SO much hand-holding. And it’s a slight shame for those thespians who were given these words with which to play; even Day Lewis’ skills can only go so far with material as trite as this. A script that is painful to listen to at times and even worse to watch.

Next up are the visuals. Almost every scene CG’d to within an inch of its life and, oh look, another DC third act showdown set against a CG background that would embarrass the Phantom Menace. Even Wonder Woman fell foul to this, Warner Bros. Please stop!

Unfortunately it is now too far gone for the DCEU to rescue itself. Because it did not do the easy and sensible thing and take a leaf out of the MCU’s book and lay some gad-damned groundwork! If they had they might not have needed up with this jarring, disjointed, charisma-less, misfit-laden universe that will now – unfortunately for us all – never stop.

One point for the Gotham set design. Another for the Aquaman-Lasso-of-Hestia scene; the only genuine laugh in the whole thing, despite the Flash’s best efforts. The rest is 100% hogwash. The only mercy is that this waste of my time, at the courtesy of DC, wasn’t three hours long.

2

 

The Foreigner (2017)

Wow, this one flew under the radar. What an unexpected treat – and that’s coming from someone who doesn’t rate Jackie Chan at all. This had a very well-balanced mix of tragedy, thrills, action, and political/crime drama as Chan’s bereaved father sets out to invoke justice upon the IRA bombers who killed his daughter, quietly at first but then with a bit more force. The action is used sparingly and when it hits, it barely resembles the style Chan is known for, possibly owing to director Martin Campbell, who previously brought us Casino Royale and the soon-to-be-reviewed-‘90s- classic No Escape. Characters and backstories all felt well-rounded and the Foreigner does well to prove just how important a factor that is; had this not been the case, this would have been a very flighty, paper-thin action/drama with little impetus and little bite. As it stands, the likes of Orla Brady, Michael McElhatton (Roose Bolton, mofos!), Charlie Murphy and Rory Fleck Byrne ensure the cast is rich and add levels to a very watchable Netflix sleeper.

8

The Florida Project

Nails (2017)

After becoming paralysed in an accident, Shauna Macdonald is consigned to a private and dilapidating hospital where she discovers terrible atrocities have taken place and, thanks to a supernatural force, are about to begin again. Nails offers nothing new or ground breaking. The story is familiar and the scares over-reliant on loud noises to bolster them. But the acting is solid throughout, including an unexpected turn from comedian Ross Noble, and the creature is undoubtedly a creepy-looking bastard, and that’s half the battle. There are far worse horrors out there and, at 80 minutes, is a bit of a breeze.

6

 

Lady Bird (2017)

It ain’t hard to see why Lady Bird has stirred up so much awards buzz. Saoirse Ronan does a hell of a job and is really making a mark as one to watch. So too, Laurie Metcalfe, and the relationship these characters share is written very well. But there is nothing new in this eccentric teen drama; like many of its peers it fails to truly pique at any point, ultimately taking us on the same journey as many lesser known teen dramedies of the last few years, meandering to the same resultant message.

7

 

The Florida Project (2017)

Not to sound disappointed but I really thought this would be so much more. The trailer does a great job of distilling the emotions of this horribly realistic tale of childhood and poverty beyond the glittering boundaries of Disneyland. In the same way a sauce’s flavour would be maximised by reduction, so too does the trailer amplify the impact of seeing the magnetic Brooklynn Prince bounce from adventure to adventure, all the while oblivious to the very real desperation her single mother negotiates from day to day. Stretching this out over the two hour runtime seems to lessen the effect somewhat, and in receiving this protracted view of Bria Vinaite’s angry and immature mother figure in full flow, my sympathy was only able to go so far. By the end I felt as though the best possible outcome had been served, heart-breaking as it can be. Despite these negatives, this is certainly my favourite of the rest of the awards darlings, Billboards not withstanding (see below).

7

 

The Disaster Artist (2017)

Chronicling the friendship between Greg Sestero and the eccentric Tommy Wiseau as they embark upon the making of the worst film in history, and subsequent cult classic, the Room, it’s always going to be fun to get an insight into how the movie came together, how certain scenes became what they are, and how Wiseau was perceived by his peers throughout the experience. None of it surprises, but it is damn entertaining to see. James Franco impresses as he captures Wiseau to a T and surprises are to be had in the surprisingly real mystery of who Wiseau is. Both comedy and drama elements are solid, making this a much worthier watch than enduring the object of its affection… much easier catching the highlights throughout the credits.

7

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

Top of the Class

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017)

After In Bruges I was very excited to see what Martin McDonagh would do next. Seven Psychopaths followed, which although okay, did see a premature dip on his CV, but boy has he pulled it back with Bilboards. Yet again he juggles powerful emotional beats with comedic moments as black as pitch, at the same time channelling an eccentricity akin to Fargo. Perhaps the latter is only implied due to the presence of Frances McDormand, but probably not. McDormand should be in line for another awards round-up as a mother seeking justice by hook or by crook, targeting the police chief of her titular town for the stagnancy of a case that has torn her family apart. Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson are also standout as parts of the police force under scrutiny, and the support from Lucas Hedges, Peter Dinklage, Abbie Cornish, Caleb Landry Jones and a scene-stealing Samara Weaving – to name but a few – are all very much on point, creating a rich depth of character and a very interesting world in which very dark things reside and happen. The laughs do a great job of leveeing the darkness but the tone rarely steps out of the shadows. The result is a fine thing.

8.5

 

On the Horizon: Thelma, the Keeper of Lost Causes, Coraline, the Age of Shadows, the One I Love, City of God, Sorcerer, In this Corner of the World, Brigsby Bear…

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